Before I got pregnant, I realized there were generally two ways birth was depicted by movies, friends and family.
Either women were decked out in flowers and pink, smiling proudly or smugly, in love with their belly, or, they were flat on their backs, legs pressed open, exposed, screaming in horror, with a male OB and several nurses all looking at her vagina and ignoring her. Now, I know I can’t be the only woman in the world who sees the Madonna/Whore Complex in all of that.
The view is almost never from the mother’s POV, and she is usually portrayed as horrified, and the experience as scary. It also honestly all looks super rapey. And it turns out, giving birth on your back with your knees at your ears is meant to be kind of sexualized and humiliating. It’s certainly not what’s best for you. It goes against all scientific evidence of what makes a birth easier to birth on your back. It closes your pelvis up to 30%. It makes it harder for the baby to come out. But – and this is why it’s still the position of choice for most OBs – it makes for an easier, up close view for the OB and easier for them to do an episiotomy, or pull or use forceps or whatever non-evidence-based tool of choice they choose. And I say if they choose, because while as pregnant people we technically have the right to choose whether or not we get an episiotomy – it’s really hard to fight one off if you don’t see it happening. And if you’re lying on your back with a huge belly in front of you – most the time, you can’t see it happening. And not uncommonly, OBs and nurses just won’t tell you. They’ll just help themselves to that life-changing incision. My theory is that is actually why it’s their favorite posiiton – it pretty much ensures patient compliance, just like being fully under anasthesia, when some physicians go ahead and help themselves to pelvic exams. You know, what we call rape whenever it’s outside of birth.
But I digress.
It never occurred to me until after I gave birth the first time that these two perceptions of pregnancy and birth are a man’s point of view. So it kind of makes sense in a way that that’s the way they’ve marketed birth to us. And make no mistake, men have digested their views of birth and marketed back to us their projections. And that’s why my stomach hurts a little when I watch pregnancy commercials. In no way have I ever identified with that strange woman. For me, that’s not what pregnancy feels like at all. I’m waiting for the camera to cut to a woman in sweats, swaying next to the toilet with vomit in her hair and her eyes so very far away with fifteen minutes left to get to work. I mean, where are those first three months even captured in our culture?
I think many men see birth as scary and out of control. But that doesn’t mean we have to internalize their misunderstanding and fear.
It’s hard for them to understand what a woman is thinking and feeling during the experience. There’s not a whole lot a mom can say. (And when we do, I’m sorry but, who is actually listening?)
This is how it’s portrayed in movies. The woman is treated as an object to be protected, the baby extracted. There often isn’t a smidgen of power, amazement or wonder. At least not from the mother. Usually the OB and doctor look pretty proud, though.
Yes, birth can be scary – especially if its led by an OB who doesn’t offer much in explanation of what’s happening to your body (or what they’re doing to your body). But it can also be extremely powerful – one of the biggest achievements in life, even.
Before I became a mother, that belief would seem sexist to me – that birthing or becoming a mother could be one of the greatest experiences in life. But that right there, is where sexism had entered me; unaware, I had internalized it.
Instead of recognizing that motherhood is valuable, I think a lot of Americans interpret feminism as women being most worthy the more we are like men. And if that isn’t misogyny right there, then I might as well quit now.
There is power in being a woman. It’s okay that women are different than men (or that men are different than women, if we can recognize that men aren’t the “base model” of humans).
It’s amazing that we can give birth. For the first time in my life, pregnant, I saw birth for what it is – an honor, a privilege. Not a curse, as I was taught in religion, in my family, school and from friends.
Birth is an incredible experience, a life journey on its own and a rite of passage. If allowed to unfold with respect and safety, it can be extremely powerful and positive, and give a woman confidence in motherhood to raise her children as if they are actually her children.
But in the US, and in many countries, sadly, it is treated with terror and disrespect and women’s fears and finances are taken advantage of. Women are stripped of their dignity and kicked out of hospitals with a newborn, their faith in others and most of all, themselves, shattered. Certainly not improved. This is how children in this country come into the world in America, and other countries. What a scary, messed up world.
Before I went into labor, I wanted to be empowered by birth, not left feeling as if I needed someone to help me out of a scary situation. I had multiple conversations with my doula about it. Unfortunately, my first birth was the opposite of empowering. After I had my second child, I really felt my first experience had been the opposite of birth.
I wanted to birth, as in the verb.
How our mainstream culture sees birth – a woman as innocent, naive even, and then “needing to be delivered” – bothered me.
These dehumanizing views come up in other places, too – like right out of nurses’ mouths.
During the hospital tour in my seventh month of pregnancy, one of the nurses showed the group us first time moms a birthing room , the birthing ball, forceps and vacuum. She told us that one doctor liked to do episiotomies (even though research and evidence shows that regular use of episiotomies does not improve outcomes, and that they actually do more harm than good when used regularly).
I said, “But of course the doctor asks first, before they cut, right?”
The nurse smirked at me. “You won’t care by then,” she said. “Becoming a mother and laboring, you lose all dignity.” She laughed, and carried on with her presentation.
But her comment made me feel ill.
They expect that I will lose all dignity? What kind of care was I going to receive here? What kind of misogynistic view of birth was that? And what kind of L&D nurse thinks that’s funny?
As I would find out, I could expect to receive un-compassionate, abusive care. The kind of treatment that felt like somehow I had time-traveled back into Biblical days, when people believed whole-heartedly and literally that childbirth was meant to be a punishment. (Update: I’ve since found out that this interpretation of the Bible is incorrect and that when it was translated, the idea of childbirth as punishment was misled and an inaccurate representation of the text. So interesting.)
With every nurse visit, I felt this underlying attitude, an under current in every interaction. The nurses touched me and talked to me as if I had done something wrong. As if I deserved to be in pain. As if they were saying, “You got pregnant. This is what you deserve. This is a mother’s burden. This is the club.”
It disgusted me. And it wasn’t true, or justified. It was sick and misogynistic.
What had I done to deserve this kind of treatment? I remember thinking. What have any of us done?
It was internalized misogyny at its worst, in the flesh. It was illuminated through nurses laughing outside my room’s curtain about forgetting for over a half an hour after I’d called to remind them to give me pain meds at the six-hour mark the day after my csection. Through the way they roughly handled me when pulling me to sit and nurse my baby. The way they talked to me like I was maybe ten years old, and perhaps that I had gotten pregnant on accident, without knowing how it happened. There were sardonic smiles, too, like they enjoyed it. I’d entered into their club, where women are abused, and if you dare talk about it, you’re seen as weak by other women. As ungrateful, because after all your baby is alive, and apparently it doesn’t matter if women are abused. I didn’t want to be a part of it.
Before going into labor, I mentally prepared myself. I stopped reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting on page two, the tone ridiculously condescending. I stopped reading all the traditional books about birth.
Instead, I read Ina May. I read non-traumatic birth stories – stories where there wasn’t any obstetric abuse or violence. These were terms that I didn’t know at the time, but I knew when their interference and violence were absent. I knew things were better. It didn’t mean that the births weren’t challenging, or painful. Many were. But there wasn’t abuse. There wasn’t shame, humiliation, suffering. There was strength in birth. Like running an intimate marathon.
I watched YouTube homebirths. They were amazing. Some of the women looked like what they were going through was very hard, even very painful. But it looked bearable. And then it was over. The baby came out and there was unparalleled wonder and joy. I don’t see this in hospital birth videos.
In hospital birth videos I watched, there was a sense of terror on the woman’s part, a sense of annoyance on the medical staff’s part, and when the baby comes out, the woman looks relieved that it’s over and the medical staff looks proud. The mother doesn’t look proud. The credit for this miracle is given to the medical staff, who stood there and caught the baby after the woman grew the baby, birthed the baby and will now nurse and raise the baby.
This is so backwards and pretty much sums up the culture of Obstetrics. They steal the pregnant woman’s moment of triumph and sometimes abuse her all the way there.
It matters when a woman can stand up after a birth and feel that she gave birth to her child. That she brought her child into the world. Not that her child was delivered for her. I’m not saying all births should be unassisted, but only assisted, not controlled or managed as Obstetrics teaches.
Before I was pregnant I was unable to put into words what’s at stake to be taken away at birth. It’s full of doors to be opened, trails to be run. It’s a journey. And when it is taken, you can feel the absence like a hole that can never fully heal.
If women are to tell our stories of birth from our points of view, we can see all that there is to gain from birth, and all that we stand to lose.