Empowerment seems to be everywhere these days. Everything from mascara to chocolate to yoga classes seems to come with a large dose of empowerment on the side and this is especially true when it comes to anything connected with birth. Every book, every class and every podcast claim to help you become empowered. Empowerment sells, but do we really understand what it means?

Brace yourself for this, I’m about to say something shocking. As a doula and a birth educator I am not interested in empowering women (gasp)!

Hang on a minute, let me explain….

The modern concept of empowerment appears, to me, to be profoundly passive. To empower a birthing woman is to give her authority and control over her care. To disempower her, is to take this control away.  When I asked a group of women what made them feel empowered or disempowered most of them could only talk about the actions of others. They talked about what their care providers did to empower them or, perhaps, to disempower them. This is problematic because we can’t control what other people do or say. We can only control what we do and say. So, in order to turn this idea of empowerment on its head we need to talk about power, not as something which is conferred on women, but as something which is exercised by them. Power is not possessed by individuals. It can’t be given or taken away. Instead, think of it as something that you can use. When you understand how these dynamics work you don’t need anyone else to ‘empower’ you. Instead of becoming empowered you become powerful!

When I was a little kid, The Wizard of Oz was one of my favourite movies and I think the story has a lot to teach us about power. When Dorothy lands in Oz, all she wants to do is get back home but she doesn’t know how. She thinks that she needs the Wizard of Oz to grant her wish so she sets off to find him and persuade him to help her. Along the way she meets others who also think they need something from the wizard and they support and help each other along the way. Of course, it turns out that despite putting on an excellent show of being terrifying and mighty, the wizard is just a very ordinary middle-aged man who cannot give them anything that they didn’t already have. It turns out that Dorothy already had the power to get home all along. All she needed to do was click the heels of her beautiful ruby slippers and say the magic words…

So how does this little story help you as you embark on your own journey through the British maternity care system? Your ruby slippers are the laws that protect you and allow you to make choices regarding where, how and with whom you give birth; in particular, articles 3 & 8 of the human rights act. These laws mean that your care providers have a legal obligation to respect and support the choices that you make wherever possible, even if they go against medical advice. You can choose to accept or decline any medical intervention offered to you, you can choose to give birth at home or in a midwife led unit or in a consultant led unit. You can choose to use a pool, or gas and air or an epidural or demand to be left alone so that you can get yourself into a zen-like state of calm. You can have a caesarean if you want one. Obviously, there are factors influencing our choices over which we have no control. Birth can be unpredictable and sometimes we find ourselves in situations which mean you choose a different path to the one you originally wanted. In these situations, your care provider has a duty to ensure that you understand the risks and benefits of all your options by giving objective, evidence-based information on which you can base that decision. It is still your decision though.

As you journey along the yellow brick road of maternity care, meeting care professionals along the way, I hope that you will come across one of the many Glindas; good witches, who respect and understand your ruby slippers. You might also, however, come across a witch of the west who tries to prise them off your feet. Just like in the movie, they cannot be taken away. Similarly, you may come across an egotistical wizard who tries to convince you that they are the one with the power to either grant or deny your requests. It’s all smoke and mirrors. You don’t have to negotiate or persuade him to give you what you want. You can have it despite the wizard not because of him. It might be that the witch and the wizard don’t really understand those slippers themselves. They might genuinely believe that they are the ones with the power and not you. They may have convinced many other women that came before you of this. Women who, through no fault of their own, didn’t know about their magic slippers. However, as more and more women learn how to wield them, so they will come to understand where the real power lies.

“You have no power here. Be gone, before somebody drops a house on you too”

You may also come across a clever scarecrow, a brave lion and a caring tin man. These are the organisations and the people from whom you can draw support and information from along the way; organisations like Birthrights, AIMS or the Positive Birth Movement and people like your local doulas, antenatal teachers and birth activists. They can help you understand how those ruby slippers work and figure out the magic words you need to say.

“You’ve always had the power my dear. You just had to learn it for yourself”

So, for all the women out there who are ‘not in Kansas anymore’ and trying to figure out their way home I would suggest that you listen carefully to the words of Glinda the good witch.

“Home is knowing. Knowing your mind, knowing your heart, knowing your courage”

Seek out knowledge of the journey before you. Surround yourself with Glindas and scarecrows and tin men and lions to help protect you from the flying monkeys. Learn everything you can from them so that you understand your options, feel confident in your choices and have the courage to roar if you need to. Don’t believe those who would tell you that you have no choice.

“You are capable of more than you know”