That Post on Natural Childbirth

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Graciously cross-posted here courtesy of Rachel. Originally appeared on The Feminist Agenda.


Apparently this one has been coming for awhile, so here it is.

I realize some of the things I say here may piss some people off, so I’m going to attempt to tread lightly while speaking some truth. So let’s start with some procedural comments and disclaimers.

I am not a fan of extreme positions in general. First of all, I think that extreme positions are often the result of intellectual laziness or kneejerk reactions or a lack of the nuance and subtlety that’s required to get a grasp on the complicated, fluid reality of human experience. I think that staking out and defending extreme positions requires us to over generalize and try to tell metanarratives that silence real voices and delegitimize real lived experiences. And finally, insisting that we are always and everywhere required to choose between extreme positions, besides being logically fallacious, often ends up being a silencing technique that stifles constructive dialogue.

So nothing I have to say on the tricky topic of childbirth is going to be coming from any of the extreme positions. This means that nothing I have to say on the topic is some cleverly disguised way to say something like this “natural childbirth is the only good way to give birth and if you don’t have natural childbirth then you are lazy/a coward/a tool of the patriarchy/a bad mom.” If you suspect that I’m saying something like this, you might go back and carefully reread the section that seemed problematic to you. If it still seems like I’m saying that, then go ahead and send some hatemail.

Second, most of what I have to say about childbirth is not about mothers personally, but about the cultural system in which they are carrying and birthing and mothering their children. It is entirely possible to critique a system without by extension condemning the people who are functioning within that system through no fault of their own. I can note, for example, that a particular company has a very corrupt corporate culture without indicting the moral sensibility or behavior of each and every employee of that company. The same thing is true of a cultural critique. I assume that all of us live and develop within a cultural framework that shapes who we are and how we perceive things and what choices we make in profound and subtle ways. This doesn’t mean I think that all women are unthinking automatons who are helplessly blown about by the prevailing cultural winds. But I also reject the opposite notion that a person can be entirely independent and throw off all the influences of the culture in which they are embedded and make choices that are entirely unconstrained by their cultural framework. As usual, I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle of these extremes.


There’s a disturbing trend in feminist discourse that goes something like this:

  • x (for example childbirth, breastfeeding, having a career or being a stay at home mom) is drawn to our attention as a locus of patriarchal control
  • advocacy work is done to fight off the patriarchal control and encourage practices that are thought to be better/healthier for women
  • the advocacy groups go a bit too far in their encouragement of the better/healthier practices and women begin to feel that their choices are now being curtailed in the opposite direction
  • a backlash ensues in which we seem to feel that we have to deny the often well-documented and undeniable benefits of this thing the advocacy groups are fighting for.

Hence you see feminists denying that breastmilk is nutritionally better than formula, or that births with fewer medical interventions are, generally speaking, safer for mothers and babies. And this puts us in a really strange and irrational position, because we’re having to deny facts that are well-established through mountains of research. So this whole thing is troubling to me, because this version of feminism requires women to behave in an irrational way, which simply confirms one of the most misogynistic assumptions our culture makes about women. Talk about playing into your opponents hands.

Beyond the strategic issue this raises, there’s the fact that this pattern of discourse keeps us running on the hamster wheel of finger pointing and in-fighting. And the tragedy is that this prevents us from having the conversations we really should be having about the systemic forces that make it so hard to maintain our physical autonomy and make truly free well-informed choices. The day that a woman choosing natural childbirth receives the same amount of physical, social, and personal support as a woman going the medicalized route is the day when we can start talking about free choices. The day when women are really given the whole truth about the risks involved with various medical interventions and aren’t bullied and hurried and eye-rolled into conforming to whatever the medical professionals they’re working with want for their birth experience is the day when we can start talking about free choices. And the day when real support and encouragement and birth assistance is available to women of all socioeconomic backgrounds is the day when we can start talking about free choices.

I’ve been told that by merely noting that natural childbirth was an empowering experience for me I’m oppressing women for whom natural childbirth was not an option. And I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit, and that silences me and delegitimizes my experience. I don’t have to deny that natural childbirth was the best option for me and my baby in order to make it OK that you couldn’t or didn’t want to go that route. That’s just not how it works.

While I was pregnant I did a ton of research and read piles of scientific studies and books that traced the history of childbirth and documents that argued for and against our current model of hyper-medicalized childbirth. I read the statistics about your chances of having a c-section if you go the epidural-pitocin route. I read about our high c-section rates and the accompanying high rate of maternal mortality and the host of other negative consequences that follow from unnecessary c-sections. I read about the physiological processes that occur naturally within a mother’s body during childbirth that benefit both mother and baby, and how these processes are interrupted or derailed by medical interventions, including epidurals. I also read about how these processes have been denigrated and dismissed by the patriarchal medical establishment that tends to believe that there’s nothing that occurs naturally that can’t be synthetically duplicated. (Ironically, after reading this I was actually told by a nurse “oh honey, pitocin is just the same as oxytocin.” Ha! The timing was deliciously ironic.) I processed all of this and talked it over with friends and my partner and decided that I was going to try to do it naturally.

My decision was based on the fact that, all other things being equal, natural childbirth is healthier for the mother and the baby than any of the other options. This is a non-normative, purely descriptive, well-documented fact. This doesn’t mean every single woman who decides to have a baby should be able to do it naturally and is a failure if she doesn’t. This doesn’t mean that women who decide to have medical interventions are bad moms. It just means that if you are fully informed and willing and able and supported in your choice, it’s the best way to go if maximizing the health of you and your baby is your goal.

And for me, personally, taking the natural route was also a defiant act of standing up to the bullying and the smirking and the micromanaging and the distrust of women’s bodies that’s so prevalent in the medical industry. It was me saying “Fuck you and your patriarchal fucking attitude toward my body and my mental toughness and my instinctive knowledge of how to birth my own fucking baby.” And I took on natural childbirth, which was tough and painful and stressful and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I fucking kicked its ass, and it was an incredibly empowering experience. Because what I learned was not that natural childbirth isn’t that hard or painful, but that I was stronger than I had ever had a chance to discover before. I’ve broken bones and torn ligaments and had concussions and root canals and dislocated joints before. I’ve played through the pain and run half marathons and climbed mountains and flipped a car at 50 mph. But this was entirely different, and required a different kind of physical strength and mental grit. But if I’m not allowed to say this, because somehow my experience of childbirth means that you have to feel guilty or deficient concerning your childbirth experience, how does that help us as a group?

I realize that not all women experience childbirth the way I did, and I realize that not all women approach childbirth with the kind of resources and physical health and support that I had. But my point is that silencing people when they talk about the flaws of our overly-medicalized, patriarchal approach to childbirth or about their personal experience of natural childbirth is not the answer. By merely mentioning that I experienced natural childbirth or that I am aware of the benefits of it, I am not committing myself to a hardline approach in which everyone has to have natural childbirth or they’re a bad mom. There is middle ground here, and knee-jerk reactions do nothing to further the dialogue and improve the conditions of real women. And denying the empirical facts concerning childbirth and breastfeeding just makes us seem silly and irrational. Instead, we should acknowledge the facts and do what we can to make systemic changes so that these choices are viable options and women are truly supported in the whole range of choices they might make.


Jill Recommends More Rachel:

Rachel goes on about mothering and childbirth and breastfeeding and supported choices again (May 5, 2010)

Maternal mortality rate soars, obese mothers blamed (February 3, 2010)

Scripts vs. Choices (August 31, 2009)

The Colonization of the MomWorld (May 15, 2009)

The Social Construction of Gender (April 22,2009)