In honour of International Women's Day on Monday 8th March, we've invited author, journalist and founder of the global Positive Birth Movement, Milli Hill to the blog to discuss her most recent book, Give Birth Like A Feminist.
If you want to hear more from Milli Hill, she will be answering your questions on Monday 8th March. Join the Instagram Live at @JoJoBebeBumps
1. What inspired you to become an author on women’s health and childbirth?
Feminism, really! And just a series of strokes of luck as sometimes happens in life. I had always had a passion for writing, and when my second child was a baby, I started a blog, which became quite successful, called The Mule.
I covered all sorts of topics related to my life at that time, birth being one of them. I gained confidence as a writer and pitched an article to the Telegraph about the demise of Independent Midwives, which got commissioned. This was then read by a wonderful editor who asked me to write about Kate Middleton’s pregnancy for a magazine called Best. That article then went viral and led to me being given a weekly column for Best, which I wrote for over two years, on all topics related to pregnancy, birth and parenting.
It then became the next obvious step to write a book – and this eventually became the Positive Birth Book. And I think what made me able to keep writing so much about birth was the sense of injustice I felt when I saw how many women were coming through birth feeling traumatised. I just felt like this couldn’t be right, that something needed to be done about it. Unfortunately, that’s still the case, and it still keeps driving me today.
2. You achieved great success with the Positive Birth Book, and the global Positive Birth Movement. What made you decide to take your advocacy for women even further with Give Birth Like a Feminist?
My own first pregnancy and birth definitely got me thinking about the imbalance of power in birth and how this is an area of women’s lives that feminism seems to have neglected. As I’ve said, that was what drove my passion, right from the start, to write about this issue. So, after the success of the Positive Birth Book, I floated the idea of a book about birth as a feminist issue with a literary agent. I didn’t think she would like the idea, but she did, and two major publishers did too, leading to me writing Give Birth like a Feminist for one of them, Harper Collins.
It was a dream come true for me to write that book and to do so for such a prestigious publisher just made it even better. Since publication, I’ve had hundreds of messages from women saying it has really transformed the way they have thought about birth, and even made a difference to the choices they have made, or the attitude they have taken within their care, which really is wonderful.
3. What does being a feminist mean to you?
I thought long and hard about this when writing Give Birth like a Feminist, and in the end boiled it down to, ‘noticing when women are getting a raw deal, and taking action’.
4. What’s the most important message you hope readers take away from your book?
That women matter.
We have this phrase ‘a healthy baby is all that matters’ and women get told it, either in their pregnancy if they are getting a bit too ‘animated’ about their birth choices, or after they have had a traumatic birth, and they try to talk about it. It’s always well-meaning, but at the end of the day, it carries the message that the woman, how she feels, her body, her emotions, what she wanted or didn’t want etc., all of those things aren’t really important. And yet we know that women remember the day they have their babies for the rest of their lives.
So – we need to take ‘healthy baby’ from ‘pinnacle of expectations’ and demote it to ‘baseline expectation’. Other things matter too and it’s not selfish for women to want those things. Just like you can have bad sex, and it’s still sex, and it can still make a baby, but it’s perfectly reasonable to want to have good or even amazing sex. Women matter!
5. Do you think the #MeToo movement has had a big impact on women’s experience in the labour ward? Which areas do you still think have a lot to improve on?
I think #metoo has touched on the birth experience, but there is a lot of work still to do. I have started the hashtag #metoointhebirthroom to try to highlight that the labour ward is still a place where women are infantilised, where the power dynamic is weighted against them, and where their body boundaries are often violated, and to encourage people to make the connection between this and the #metoo movement.
There is a lack of empathy which underpins all of it. Many of the #metoo stories were of situations where the man was not pausing to think, ‘How is this landing with her? What is it like to be her in this situation? How would I feel if this happened to me?’ etc. This is empathy. And there is a huge lack of it in maternity too. There have even been campaigns where doctors have put their feet in stirrups, for example, for this exact reason, to try to get a sense of what it might be like for the woman. But it amazes me that this is needed? Why is there not more empathy without having to go to these slightly ridiculous lengths? Probably because, socially and culturally, we are not in the habit of asking, “What is this like for her?”. This is what we need to improve. Start caring about the woman’s experience and wondering what she might want or need in labour and birth.
6. How do you juggle motherhood and writing/ campaigning?
Very badly! In particular, with the lockdowns over the past year, I’ve found it almost impossible to juggle effectively. Even just the juggle of three different aged children to ‘home school’ has been absolutely impossible to do effectively.
But in general I think what motherhood has taught me is that, if you chip away at a task slowly, eventually it gets done. Before children, you might think, “this weekend I am going to redecorate the bathroom / sort out my sock drawer / write 15 job applications...’ And then you would set to on Saturday morning and by Sunday night you would have completed the task, along with built-in tea breaks and plenty of thinking time etc.! Once you have kids, life is just not like that any more. You don’t have any nice clear stretches of time to accomplish things and instead you have to take a ‘slow drip’ approach.
So I guess I just do things little by little. A book is only 8 chapters. A chapter is only ten thousand words. Ten thousand words is only ten newspaper articles. Etc. So just break everything down and squeeze it in, in between all the demands of kids. Also, I don’t really bother with much housework! I’d rather have published books than an immaculate house.
7. What are your biggest hopes for your daughters? What’s the one thing you want to teach them about life as a woman?
So many things! Obviously, as I’ve just said, not wasting your time on hoovering and ironing is a key message I hope they are absorbing! But when I think about what I really want, for all my children (I have two girls and a boy), it kind of boils down to good mental health, good physical health, and a sense of fulfilment in life from whatever they choose to do – it’s that simple really. I don’t really mind if they live off grid in a van or become a wealthy entrepreneur or find the cure for cancer, as long as they feel truly fulfilled and happy!
But for my daughters, I guess I hope that they feel that being a woman really is a great thing, a great gift. Feminism does, quite rightly, put a lot of emphasis on the disadvantages that come with being female, and there are certainly still a lot of battles to be won. But I have also found that being female is a really incredible experience, and some of the uniquely female things that go along with it, such as pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and motherhood, have been some of the most powerful and transformative times of my life.
I would never want my daughters to think that these things were the ‘be all and end all’ of being a woman, or even that they were a necessary part of life as a woman. But they are certainly some of the things that makes being female special. So I hope that my daughters grow up feeling that being female can be a very rich and powerful experience, no matter what life choices they eventually make.
8. Which other issues do you hope to shine a light on in the future?
I have a book for pre-teen girls about periods, coming out in May 2021, which I’m very excited about. I’ve long thought that there are some big issues in how young people, particularly girls, are taught about their bodies, their sexuality, their anatomy, their periods, and of course childbirth! It’s all kept very clinical, ‘you will bleed, these are the products you can use’ etc. My book aims to inspire young girls with period positivity – not to gloss over the tougher parts of periods, but to at least inspire them to feel excited about this phase of their lives and to develop a sense of wonder at the science involved in menstruation! And who knows where this book will lead me next?
Like many people, this year of the global pandemic has given me pause for thought, a chance to assess priorities and focus on some of the forgotten basics. I think like everyone I now need a bit of time (assuming we are over the worst of it), to breathe out, recover, and think about what to do next. All I can say for sure is that it will involve writing!