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. The view was never from the mother’s POV, and she was usually portrayed as horrified, the experience scary.
It never occurred to me until after I gave birth that these two perceptions of pregnancy and birth are a man’s point of view.
I think many men see birth as scary and out of control. It’s hard for them to understand what a woman is thinking and feeling during the experience.
This is how it’s portrayed in movies. The woman is treated as a thing to be protected, the baby extracted. There often isn’t a whisper of empowerment, amazement, wonder.
But these things are what birth also is, and I don’t think it even occurs to most men.
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. But it can also be extremely empowering – 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. Anything feminine seen as amazing or fulfilling, was sexist, I was somehow taught. Feminism had twisted in a weird way, away from femininity. In the 1980s through the early 2000s feminism was about how to be more like men. But there is power in being a woman. It’s okay that women are different than men, 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 at all. Birth is an incredible experience, a life journey on its own and a rite of passage. On some level, if allowed with respect and safety, it can be empowering, and give a woman confidence in motherhood. 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. What a scary, warped place.
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 wanted to birth, as in the verb.
The juxtaposition of both these images – a woman innocent, naive even, and then “needing to be delivered” – bothered me.
The images came up in other places, too, right out of nurses’ mouths.
During the hospital tour in my seventh month of pregnancy, one of the nurses showed us 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 do not improve outcomes, and 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.
Wait, what? They expect that I will lose all dignity? What kind of care was I going to receive here?
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. 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 sexist.
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 joking outside my room’s curtain about forgetting for over a half an hour to give me pain meds 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 welcoming me to this trauma club. The club where women are abuse, and if you dare talk about it, you’re seen as weak by other women. As ungrateful. I didn’t want to be a part of it.
But none of these views would come from an empowered woman.
Before going into labor, I mentally prepared myself. I stopped reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting, the tone striking me as condescending, as if I knew nothing about life. I stopped reading all the traditional books about birth. Instead, I read Ina May. I read non-traumatic birth stories. By that I mean that I read 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 and 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 those there is 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 grateful that is over, and the medical staff looks proud. The mother does not look proud. The credit for this miracle is given to the medical staff.
Does this matter?
I think it does.
I think it matters a lot that 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.
It’s perhaps a little thing. Something I would have never noticed before I was pregnant, or if I noticed it, I was unable to put it into words, what is at stake to be taken away at birth. It’s full of doors to be opened, trails to be run. It’s a journey. But 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.