Teens and childbirth – why birth education needs to start in school.

“Miss, Miss! Is it true that you need to get your vagina sewn up after you give birth?”

“So what hurts more? Getting kicked in the nuts or giving birth?”

So, apart from wincing just a little bit at being called “Miss”, these were not questions I was used to getting in my Lamaze childbirth classes. That’s probably because the people asking them were Year 11 high school students.

Last week, I had the incredible opportunity to talk with a group of students at a local Melbourne high school about pregnancy and childbirth. Accompanying me was a community educator from the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) to talk to the students about breastfeeding.

In advance of our visit, I wanted the students to spend a bit of time thinking about various aspects of pregnancy and birth, and sent them some questions via the school nurse, who had organised the visit.

I wanted to know;

  1. What do you know about your own birth? Talk to your mum, dad or another family member about your birth and write down your birth story.
  2. When you think about the word “birth”, what comes to mind? What words, images and feelings does “birth” elicit for you?
  3. Are you aware of any interesting cultural or religious traditions around birth in your culture? If you are not sure, ask your family.
  4. What is the single, biggest question that you have about pregnancy or childbirth?

The nurse emailed me their answers before our visit and to be honest, some of them were bloody hilarious. But behind their crude, typical adolescent responses was a far more interesting story. What was abundantly clear to me was that these young people knew little to nothing of the normal functions of pregnancy and birth. Already, at this young age – years before most of them will even be thinking of having a child – they have already been thoroughly conditioned by mainstream and social media.

I’ve tried to find some research that has specifically looked at teens’ perceptions of pregnancy and birth, but all that researchers seem to be concerned with are studies related to teen pregnancy. My session with the students had nothing to do with sex education – I am happy to leave that to their parents. What I wanted to communicate to them was the message than pregnancy is a normal, natural life event and that giving birth is not the horror movie image that they have firmly set in their mind.

By Keith Parker (Flickr: The Booze Cruise) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

For the young women in the class particularly, I had another motivation; to instil in them a belief that their bodies are amazing and that they know how to grow and birth a baby. Body image, as we know is something that most females universally struggle with (myself included). What some people might not realise is quite how early that toxic self-loathing takes hold. Ponder the following rather terrifying statistics* I came across;

Percent of girls in 1st through 3rd grade who want to be thinner – 42%

Percent of 15-17 year old girls who want to change at least one aspect of their physical appearance – 90%

Percent of women who say the images of women in the media makes them feel insecure – 80%

Percent of all women who are unhappy with their bodies and resort to dieting – 91%

So I guess it’s not surprising that when I asked the students “when you think about the word birth, what comes to mind?” I had a number of girls yell out words like; “agonising”, “excruciating”, “screaming”, “blood”and “pain”…

When I asked, “so where do you think your ideas about birth come from?” they replied…

…Wait for it

One Born Every Minute

(Shoot me now – please)

So between the fantasyland that is Instagram, the sexting, Snapchat porn and One Born Every Minute – is it any wonder that the average teen has no fucking clue when it comes to what their bodies are actually designed for?

I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent for a second, but stay with me okay?

Let’s talk about pubes. Or rather – the lack thereof.

Research suggests that pubic hair removal is increasingly the norm in Australia, especially over the past 20 years, with 60% of young Australian women removing some pubic hair and 48% removing all of it. As a result, there is a not insignificant percentage of the male population that has never seen any pubic hair on a woman. When men were asked how they preferred their partner’s pubic hair in a recent study by the Journal of Sexual Medicine, 60% of them answered “hair free.”

So why have I taken you on this tangent? Because it is agonisingly clear to me that we have got to correct this absurd distortion of the female body. The fetishizing, the obsession with the so-called “perfect body”. The belief that somehow a hair-free pre-pubescent vulva is preferable to one that is covered in pubic hair. That your vagina won’t rip apart when your baby is born and that breasts first and foremost are for feeding babies, not just for sexual titillation (excuse the pun).

My experience with the students was enlightening, at times disturbing but also inspiring. There was one young woman who was focused and engaged from the outset. She was unusually well-informed and asked some fantastic and intelligent questions. At one point I said to her, “you’re going to be a midwife one day!”

Her eyes lit up and her smile stretched from ear to ear. “That’s what I want to be! I am going to be a midwife!”

So all is not going to hell in a handbag it seems. There is hope. This experience has left me feeling more than ever that birth education must start years before people decide to have a baby. Parents need to talk to their children from a young age about their bodies. Teach your kids the proper name for each body part. None of this “pee pee” “hoo hoo” and “v-jay jay” bullshit. Let them see women breastfeeding their babies – show them that this is how babies are fed.

My experience has also taught me that I absolutely love working with young people. I love their humour, their honesty, their enthusiasm and their willingness to learn something new. I have a new mission and it’s to bring birth education to more schools. I really believe that if we can positively impact young men and women before they’ve been completely brainwashed, we can also positively impact birth outcomes in this country. Healthy minds and healthy bodies equals healthy mums and healthy babies.

And please, whatever you do, don’t let One Born Every Minute be the first impression that your children have of childbirth.

Tanya Strusberg is the founder of birthwell birthright. She is a Melbourne-based Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, doula and a Fellow of the Association of Certified Childbirth Educators (FACCE). She is a passionate advocate for women’s maternity care and her articles have appeared in The Journal of Perinatal Education, Australian Midwifery News, Science & Sensibility, Interaction – the journal of the Childbirth and Parenting Educators Association of Australia (CAPEA), International Doula, Empowering Birth Magazine and Rockstar Birth Magazine. Through her internationally-accredited Lamaze Educator Training program, she is very excited to be training a new generation of Australian Lamaze educators. Last, but absolutely not least, she is also the mum of two beautiful children, her son Liev and daughter Amalia.

*Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, PBS, National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (February 2017)