Engaging with the 'modern birth story' in pregnancy: A hermeneutic phenomenological study of women's experiences across two generations

Kay, Lesley (2016) Engaging with the 'modern birth story' in pregnancy: A hermeneutic phenomenological study of women's experiences across two generations. (PhD thesis), University of Central Lancashire, .


This in-depth qualitative study considered how women from two different generations came to understand birth in the context of their own experience but also in the milieu of other women’s stories. For the purposes of this thesis the birth story (described as the ‘modern birth story’) encompassed personal oral stories as well as media and other representations of contemporary childbirth, all of which had the potential to elicit emotional responses and generate meaning in the interlocutor. The research utilised a hermeneutic phenomenological approach underpinned by the philosophies of Heidegger and Gadamer. This methodology allowed the significance of the experience of engaging with stories to be grasped, and in-depth insights into the meanings and lived experience for women of the phenomenon to be made. Twenty participants were purposively selected, recruited and interviewed. In phase one ten women who were expecting their first baby in 2013 were recruited in order to explore how they understood birth prior to the event and in the light of other women’s stories. Birth stories were revealed as one of many ‘voices’ offering ‘advice’ to women about birth. The women also talked about classes they had attended, books they had read, websites and online forums they had accessed, as well as television programmes and films they had watched. The conversations with the first cohort of women led to further questions about whether the information gleaned from media and virtual birth story mediums creates meaningful knowledge about birth for women. The second phase evolved from this thinking. In phase two interviews with an older cohort of women (who were pregnant in the 1970s –1980s) were undertaken to determine whether women from a different era were more able to translate knowledge into meaning. This was based on the belief that, for this generation of women, stories were mediated by personal contact and not though virtual technologies as in the previous generation of women. Phenomenological conversations with the participants took place in the iterative circle of reading, writing and thinking. This revealed the experience of ‘being-in-the-world’ of birth for the two generations of women and the way of communicating within that world. From a Heideggerian perspective, the birth story was constructed through ‘idle talk’ (the taken for granted assumptions of how things are which come into being through language) and took place across a variety of media accessed by women, as well as through face to face conversations. Five central and interrelated interpretive findings emerged. Firstly the stories the women engaged with, had a significant role to play in their understanding and expectations of birth. The ‘norm’ as portrayed in the stories circulating in 2013, for instance, was one which perpetuated what one participant described as the ‘drama of birth’. Secondly, the modern ‘landscape’ of birth (populated with many media representations) created and perpetuated fear of childbirth for many of the women. The stories shared were lacking in detail about women’s lives, and did not necessarily help them to become ‘knowers’ and gain wisdom about birthing. Thirdly, the women birthing in the present day were overloaded with information amassed in an attempt to manage their anxieties about birth as well as to fit the role of the informed patient, and demonstrate their competency as mothers. Fourthly the cultural and spiritual significance of birth was not shared in the circulating stories in either generation. Finally, some of the birthing women felt secure in the ‘system’ of birth as constructed, portrayed and sustained in the stories widely circulated. The data revealed that the lifeworld of birth being sustained in stories (for both generations) was one of product and process, concentrating on the stages and progression of labour and the birth of a healthy baby as the only significant outcome. Taken as a whole this thesis revealed that the information gleaned from birth stories did not in fact create meaningful knowledge and understanding about birth for these women. The study is unique in that no other published research has explicitly identified the premise of the ‘modern birth story’ or the notion of ‘idle talk’ in relation to childbirth. Further no other study has considered the phenomenon of engaging with these types of stories whilst pregnant. This study reveals how engaging with the ‘modern birth story’ and the ‘idle talk’ of birth may influence women’s expectations and consequent experience of birth.

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