childbirth is natural / childbirth is danger danger!! or perhaps: if you’re a woman you suck

Newborn Nels

I totally had this baby to make you all happy, and it didn't even work!

A recent slight disintegration of discussion at a feminist blog I generally enjoy underscores the facts:

Women get it coming and going regarding childbirth and children. Just: constantly. And from the most elaborate and varied angles.  It’s almost breathtaking.

Just a primer in case you’re completely clueless: women are put down if they don’t want children or feel ambivalent on the subject. Childfree women (or childless women, or if someone can find a term that doesn’t offend those with kids or without, let me know) are harangued pretty regularly – when will you have kids? What? You don’t want to? Why not? What’s wrong with you? Oh you poor (unnatural, frigid, spiritually-devoid) thing.  If you don’t have kids you don’t have a life.  Tsk tsk.

Women who do want children but can’t make it happen – their bodies don’t provide the technology, they don’t feel they could support a child, they don’t have the support they require, there are physical or mental or chemical or financial barriers?  These women are constantly marginalized from the smallest throw-out sentences in children’s books (“A womb is a special place inside a woman where babies grow” purrs a very well-meaning, liberal-sentiment children’s book) to the glowing pictures of women-in-hospital, life fulfilled, yay baby!  Birth is talked about as “natural” – yet in the fervor to reclaim and rescue America’s abysmal birth culture these discussions can further alienate and hurt those who don’t have a “natural” or complication-free experience.  Infertility is somehow still a woman’s “fault” or failure; at best there is an insensitivity about the whole business.  “Just adopt!” chirps the seriously problematic hand-wave (socioeconomic class fail, to start) so many pipe up with when a woman has a problem breeding the more typical way. To my own consternation I hear women chirping proudly how easily they get pregnant, it happened at the drop of a hat, blah blah, with no regard to the woman standing next to them whose eyes fill with tears at hearing such oblivious enthusiasm.

Women who want children and then have them?  Here’s where we get right up close to the subject of birth where misogyny really ramps up.  You see garden-variety and boring misogyny when birth is discussed in any detail: accounts of orgasmic birth* (best-case, awesome birth scenario) and birth rape** (a very bad-case scenario) vilified, pooh-pooh’d, or ridiculed.  It would be boring and played-out if I didn’t regularly see how much these dismissals hurt actual women, their children, their partners, their families.

I’m one of the last category mentioned above – a woman who wanted, then had children – and I could wax eloquently on how that opens a whole shit-storm of criticism.  You birth the baby in the hospital or with drugs?  You’re a sell-out, a wimp, a failure, either a privileged prima donna or a sad statistic.  This goes double (or triple) if you have a C-section or if you (gasp!) formula-feed your child.  Women are cut open and subjected to the complications of heavy-duty abdominal surgery (the current C-section rate in this country is on the rise and at about 30 percent; some states have a 38% rate) and then the women themselves are made to feel like failures.

Have a baby at home (on purpose)?  You are an irresponsible, silly, vain (or ignorant) hippie.  [raises hand]

And for mothers, this is just what you’ll get five minutes after breeding the little person(s).  I haven’t got into the de-statusing and wage gaps and judgment (work outside the home or not? You’ll get it either way) and picking-at for childcare and schooling and career choice that await women in all walks of life.

Not everyone wants to admit this, but babies and childbirth are kind of everyone’s business – yes, men too. And yet your “everyday man” and fathers are, of course, mostly exempted from the vicious part of these conversations. While (white) men are still the primary women’s health policy makers, the OBs (who generally assist in most births in this country), the law- and policy-makers in this country, and even though they are often in positions that direct quite a bit about how pregnancy, labor and delivery goes down for many American women, they do not suffer the consequences and recrimination for birth outcomes nor passionate discussions about integrating family life with paid work. In the trenches, where women hurt the most, some of their bodies savaged or messed with and their life choices – to breed or not to breed, and how things play out when living their lives – sneered at, their emotions on edge and their sufferings and triumphs diminished or laughed at.  Too few men take these issues up as the human rights concerns they are.  Women are shunned and blamed for their suffering, if not additionally accused of Ruining America for being not-mothers or not-good-enough mothers or over-involved mothers.

I have no easy answers.  Yet probably Step One would be to give more credence to women and their lived experiences.  If a woman says she doesn’t want to have a child, please do not second-guess nor pity her, and please take away from this Actual Real Woman a commitment to stop assuming all women want babies, babies, piles of babies.  If the statistics show a wage gap and a lack of fair housework distribution between heterosexually-paired partners, respect that as a reality that involves, you know, actual people, and is a further testimony to our culture’s continued inequalities which yes, we should be working to fix.  If a woman speaks up about her birth or birth culture in this country, please take this as seriously as a discussion on your pet social justice topic, because reproductive rights and experiences fall under human rights issues that are happening to, again, real people.  Allow the many suffering women and babies and the statistics in America’s poor birth climate some consideration.  If you can’t or won’t do much about it, at least respect those who are fighting the good fight.  Because there are good reasons to fight it.

Step Two might be to stop attacking individual women for their choices or their life circumstances.  Just because you are personally squeamish about the phrase “orgasmic birth” does not give you the right to mock the real, actual women who find the subject important.  Just because you breastfed and stayed home to take care of your children does not give you the right to weigh in on the love, hard work, and commitment of any particular woman who did not (in this example) breastfeed or stay home.  Remember, we don’t pick on dads for this stuff, which is a red-flag for sexism at best.

And finally – again, just for starters – we all need to listen and believe.  Because something about the anti-women sentiments that rear up in these conversations remind me of a phrase I hear oft-repeated in school and childcare environments, a phrase I have never liked: “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit”.  Our cultural history has been one of silencing women, calling their concerns about housework or babies or jobs with or without kids silly, allowing their bodies to pay the price for being female.  You don’t have to understand it all (indeed, even highly-involved activists are continually learning), but belittling the conversation?  Uh, no.

Because: “If you don’t find time to change the world, then you’re busy keeping it the way it is.” (unattributed)

Mentioned/Further Reading:

“Non-Medical Reasons for a Rise in Caesarian Sections” at Sociological Images

* Several accounts of orgasmic birth at unassistedchildbirth.com

** Birth rape: “More Than a Traumatic Birth” at truebirth.com

A review of Heather Has Two Mommies at Raising my Boychick

“Maternal Death in the United States: A Problem Solved or a Problem Ignored?”, 3 part article by Ina May Gaskin

VBACtivism at the Feminist Breeder