Born On The Road
Giving birth on the road may seem to be a daunting prospect. But why should it be? Debbie Shaw outlines some problems faced by mothers living an unconventional lifestyle and argues that travellers are in an ideal position to reclaim child birth.
Squall 10, Summer 1995, pg. 25.
Tarot was born on site at the Molesworth festival in Cambridgeshire while his mother, Lyn, took a break from serving food to festival-goers from her mobile cafe. His birth was planned for the Silvermoon festival in Cumberland but he failed to make an appearance so Lyn drove through the night to reach Molesworth, expecting any minute to go into labour.
“We notified the local hospital and arranged that, when I needed the midwife, someone would go and tell the police at the gate and they would call her and conduct her onto the site. At about 5 o’clock on the Sunday I began to feel a bit uncomfortable so I thought I’d have a lie down for an hour or so. Ten minutes later, I called to my friend, ‘This baby is coming - right now’. It was only when it was all over that somebody remembered to call the midwife.”
Lyn is a grandmother with seven children, the last three of which were bom on the road. While all of her children were bom easily and with the minimum of medical intervention, she warns that a happy birth depends very much on the mother being in control of her situation. “It’s wrong to move a mum about when she’s about to deliver or if she’s just delivered. It’s always stressful. Stress at that particular time, when you’re getting the breast feeding together and everything, is not a good idea.”
The birth on a site near Bristol in 1989, when the arrival of a midwife pushed the number of vehicles over the Public Order Act limit and precipitated an eviction, is now part of traveller folklore. It serves to illustrate the callous disregard with which travelling mothers are treated.
Charlotte is very pregnant. She had hoped to still be living at Claremont Road when her baby was born but has been moved on twice since then. She has opted for a hospital birth but has had trouble finding one that would take her. “Nowhere would take me because I was NFA (no fixed abode) and in the end I had to give a false address.” And, with the threat of eviction hanging over the site where she is currently living, she is scared that she and her baby will be homeless by the time she leaves hospital.
The organisation Safe Childbirth for Travellers monitors cases such as Charlotte’s and attempts to intervene in evictions where mothers are involved. Their spokeswoman, Frieda Schicker, stresses that the powers granted by the CJA are discretionary and that the DOE guidelines for local authorities recommend that the presence of pregnant women and newly-born children should be taken into account before an eviction proceeds.
Home Office guidelines for the police, however, are less clear and this is one of the issues on which Frieda is campaigning for change. She is concerned that evictions which take place where a mother is due to give birth, or a newly-bom baby is present, should not go unrecorded and is currently preparing a new information pack, detailing inappropriate uses of the CJA under these circumstances. As she says: “If we get details we can use them. We try to help in individual evictions but, ultimately, the more cases we have on record then the higher the chance of engaging the interest of the press and politicians.”
The case of Tracy Wales, recently reported in the national press, is a small but significant victory. With the help of the Public Law Project, another campaigning group, Tracy and the other mothers on a site won the right to stay, using DoE guidelines as leverage. Frieda recommends engaging the support of midwives, doctors, health visitors and local social services departments. The Health Visitors Association recently passed a resolution to support her campaign and individual midwives have also pledged their support.
But, the fact remains that healthcare professionals only get involved when a woman is in a position to have her pregnancy monitored on a regular basis, or where she is in one place long enough to take advantage of post-natal care. As Charlotte’s case proves, ante-natal clinics generally require a permanent address and a referral from a GP. Frieda cites the horrifying case of a woman who was turned away from a hospital when she was in labour because she had no referring letter. She was forced to give birth in the accident and emergency unit of another hospital which had no trained obstetric staff available.
In theory, no hospital should turn away a person who is need of care but, in practice, as more NHS hospitals become self-governing trusts, it is only in their interests to treat people who bring them a guarantee of health authority money. In other words, unless you are registered with a GP you are a low to nil priority. The implicit message here is that, if you don’t conform to the dominant lifestyle, then you have no right to expect access to healthcare services. Frieda has recorded the case of an Irish Traveller who was actually sent a bill for maternity care from the hospital where she gave birth.
Germaine Greer pointed out, in her book Sex and Destiny: “The logistics of delivery of health services force the continuation and intensification of the trend to manage births in the atmosphere of crisis and disease.” In other words, what many tribal and nomadic cultures see as a natural event to be celebrated by the whole community, Western societies see as a medical problem to be dealt with in private. Traveller mothers are in a position to challenge these assumptions.
Lyn, as well as other experienced mothers I spoke to, stressed the importance of not seeing childbirth as an illness. “You need to have a plan. Decide what sort of birth you want to have. Don’t let other people make your decisions for you.” The consensus was, if a mother is fit and healthy and knows what to expect, very little can get in the way of her having a happy and successful birth under any circumstances. These were the suggestions:
- Know your rights. By law, a midwife must be called to a birth but it is not compulsory for a doctor to attend. Equally, a midwife cannot refuse to attend you, even if you decide to give birth in a bender halfway up a Welsh mountain.
- Gather information about any aspect of your pregnancy or birth that you are not sure about so you are equipped to make sensible and rational decisions.
- Have an advocate - your partner or a friend - who can make your wishes known to healthcare professionals, leaving you free to concentrate on actually having the baby.
- If you do attend ante-natal clinics, ask for your record card and keep it with you.
- If you do decide to give birth in your home, remember that you need space (the midwife will have to do some nifty manoeuvring), plenty of hot water and reliable lighting.
- Get a birthing pack together, including everything that you are going to need when the time comes. Most midwives are happy to give you a list and some are prepared to lave a pack of sterile instrument with you.
Although many hospitals are staffed by people who look down their noses at anyone who doesn’t live in a suburban semi, some have been enlightened enough to allow travellers to park-up in their car park for the duration of the birth and until the mother feels happy to move on. If an eviction is imminent, this may be a viable solution, but it is better to be armed with as much information as possible to contest the eviction. Prior to the CJA, Safe Childbirth for Travellers successfully contested an eviction in North London where a woman was due to give birth, during which time the sale of the land fell through and the travellers were allowed to stay.
When Sex and Destiny was first published, the press reacted with horror to Germaine Greer’s suggestion that “The extended family …. offer(s) a sense and a context to mothering which two-bedroomed villas in the suburbs do not”. Children brought up on the road have the advantage of a ready-made extended family. As one traveller mother pointed out: “I have hundreds of children.”
Safe Childbirth for Travellers can be contacted at 6 Westgate Street, Hackney, London E8 3RM. Tel: 0181 533 2002. Frieda would like to hear from anyone who has suffered an eviction before, during, or shortly after childbirth. Identities will be protected.
The Women’s Environmental Network give out information on environmentally safe products for babies (the new ‘leak-proof’ disposable nappies can endanger the health of dogs). They can be contacted at Aberdeen Studios, 22 Highbury Grove, London N5 2EA. Tel: 0171 354 8823.
Guideline 13 of the circular published jointly by The Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office, 23rd November, 1994 reads: Local authorities should also bear in mind that families camped unlawfully on land may need or may be receiving assistance from local health or welfare services. When they have decided to proceed with an eviction, they should liaise with the relevant statutory agencies, particularly where pregnant women or newly-born children are involved, to ensure that those agencies are not prevented from fulfilling their obligations towards those persons.
Going Round In Circulars - The lip-service and reality of site provision, prejudice and planning. Jim Carey reports on the affect on travellers of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act - Squall 10, Summer 1995.
Travellers, Friends and Families - Friends, Families and Travellers Support Group view the future, by Steve Staines - Squall 7, Summer 1994.