Birth is the ultimate female issue as birth fundamentally cannot be experienced by cis men. But why is it a feminist issue, and is this even applicable in our western medicalised society?
When you think of modern birth you think of how lucky we are to have such incredible medical resources at our disposal, saving the lives of mothers and babies every day. And you would be right to think we are lucky. I myself and many others that have had caesareans, assisted births and medication which make everyone safer, are indeed lucky and we are extra thankful in the UK where this is all free!!
However this is just one part of the story. When you start to look into development of medicalised birth throughout history you can begin to see a pattern forming. A pattern which shows a web of medical studies, statistics, hospital practises, doctor preference and you see the birthing woman less and less behind this web.
We are now lucky enough to have a great deal of evidence to suggest women have better birth outcomes when they are less assisted.
Now I am not a conspiracy theorist (sorry all those lovers of conspiracy), I do not think that the male doctor is trying to be all powerful in the birth process of women, I believe this is just like all things historical. The long entangled intertwining of medical advancement, obstetric fashion and all the small circumstances which lay the path of fortune, which has landed us where we are today.
This led up to the point during the 70s where amazing inspirational women such as Janet Balaskas started to shift the tide of fortune towards the birthing woman. Showing that if a women is able to move about during labour and birth actively it is not just a more pleasant experience for the woman herself but actually assists in the labour. We are now lucky enough to have a great deal of evidence to suggest women have better birth outcomes when they are less assisted. In the UK there has been a recent shift to make it easier for women who would like to birth at home, and a ot of hospitals are building new maternity wards which are homely, with water pools and midwifes specially trained in hypnobirthing and aromatherapy.
The fight against the unfair judgement of mothers.
So we’ve won the battle, right? Why is birthing still a feminist issue when surely there must be no more need for it with all we have now. However, although we have progressed, I do believe there still is a huge issue surrounding mothers and the battle is still being fought. The fight against the unfair judgement of mothers.
Here are two judgements mothers as a whole or individuals can (and do) experience:
‘How could she opt for a caesarean? Doesn’t she know the risks to her baby? Does she not know about macrobiome? She’s just taking the easy route out. If you want it to be easy don’t have children. She’s just too posh to push.’
‘How could she want a natural birth? There is no medal for not having an epidural. She’s just making it harder for herself. You’re silly to trust your body and not the doctors. You’re endangering your child by not wanting monitoring and just having midwife led care. She just wants to be a martyr’
The judgement that is hidden only just below the surface of this argument is that if a woman’s birthing choice is her taking her own feelings and instincts into account then this is a selfish act and that of a selfish person. This affects women on both ends of the judgement scale. Those who are considered ‘too posh to push’ or ‘natural birth hippies’
This is not purely a birth issue but an issue that effects motherhood in its entirety . How many mothers are branded selfish for their choices: breastfeeders ‘You’re doing that for your comfort not the baby’, for formula feeders ‘You’re just using formula because it’s easier’, for stay at home mothers ‘You’ll make him a mothers boy’, for working mothers ‘A child should always be with its mother’.
To judge a woman as selfish in her choices supports a system that tells women they are not allowed trial of labour or a caesarean, presents facts in a skewed way just to obtain consent, and dismisses the of choices made on birth plans.
While motherhood would benefit generally from the dropping of judgement for feeding and working arrangements, this view when taken to judge a woman’s choices are especially harmful during birth as this is a vulnerable time for a women when she can be enhanced or diminished by the support she receives. Women can make their own mind up about how they feed and work within the privacy of their own home – taking or leaving advice. When you are pregnant you are part of a system that most do not opt out of so it is very important how this system views and treats them.
If you judge a woman’s motivation as selfish than you will be less inclined to honour her choices. To judge a woman as selfish in her choices supports a system that tells women they are not allowed trial of labour or a caesarean, presents facts in a skewed way just to obtain consent, and dismisses the of choices made on birth plans.
It is never selfish for a woman to put her own needs in the forefront. To have those needs fulfilled is the difference between her surviving and drowning on her motherhood journey. You need to survive both physically and mentally to be a good parent. The fact that this even needs to be written is why birth and especially birth choice, real birth choice without judgement and emotion blackmail, is a feminist issue.
Birth is an event in a woman’s life. One that is intimate, personal, biological and emotional. It’s not just about the baby. Birth is a transitional moment which changes her life.
I do not say ‘It is not JUST about the baby’ lightly.
Do I even need to say that of course it matters if the baby is healthy? Does every birth plan need to have written on it ‘I want an upright birth but if it’s a matter of life and death then of course I want intervention’? Do I even need that disclaimer? No mother says ‘I want a natural birth even if it results in harm to my baby’. This mother does not exist! If she did she would need some specialised help, so is quite outside this argument.
I think we still view mothers (women with children or pregnant mothers) as creatures who should be selfless, put others needs before their own and put their own requirements aside for their child.
Most women do this naturally even from the time they are pregnant – stopping drinking, eating certain food and abstinence from many other activities which provide the mother with enjoyment. Then continuing through birth, holding their darling child, the loved up oxytocin fuelled newborn stage, through to all the willing sacrifices mothers make to keep their children fed, warm and loved, to the best of her ability. And this is great. This is what makes us mothers. Our ability to nurture, to sacrifice without it feeling sacrificial. That natural selflessness which a mother has is a wonderful thing.
It shouldn’t even need to be written that for a mother to look after a child, her basic needs (and preferably her complex needs) should be met. If you die of thirst because you never drink than that’s not good for your baby. If you feel so lonely and isolated that you feel you could scream that’s not good for your baby either. There is always a balance. The baby’s needs come first as they are so vulnerable, but it is a swinging needle – where once baby is happy, mother should be fulfilled too. You need to nurture yourself and have support and company so you can nurture your children. It takes a mother to raise a child and a village to support her (I say mother throughout but really I mean primary carer also – a dad, grandmother, foster carer or other loving caring figure – the statement still stands). They will raise the baby, child, young person, but they need that village’s help, that support, to allow them the stamina it takes to parent.
Trusting that she knows her body and her instincts, and providing education which helps her in this pursuit.
The needs of a pregnant mother as an individual needs to be taken into account as much as statistics. Statistics although useful in so many ways, are a really detrimental way to look at birth if it is the only angle birth is viewed at. Birth is made up of what is right for that particular body and that particular mind. We can look at what has been right for other women in similar circumstances but can we really use this as our only basis upon which to impose choices and scare tactics to coerce women into interventions that they may not want. We must also take into account how a woman feels about her individual birth, her individual circumstances (not just those of her group) and how you can make what she wants as safe as possible. Trusting that she knows her body and her instincts, and providing education which helps her in this pursuit.
When we get rid of this ideal of motherhood, when we put to rest this ever sacrificing martyr.
To dismiss a woman’s experience as selfish is to do a disservice to that experience. If you ignore a mothers needs during the vulnerable and monumental time of birth (after all this isn’t just any day in her life but the long awaited day she meets her child) then you put her at risk of PND or even PTSD. We rightly honour the solider who was knocked out by a roadside bomb and took a long time to recover and we offer help with his or her mental rehabilitation. We should also honour the experience of a mother who has survived with a thriving child but who is so unhappy that she had all her control taken away, causing her to feel violated. A mother who fears she doesn’t even have the choice of having more children because of the trauma she has suffered. It is not selfish. Is this not a similar human suffering? It is no more selfish than the solider who is numb to love his/her partner due to trauma as a mother is trying to learning to love her child despite hers. Their suffering can be paralleled and they both need to be helped and nurtured. A bad birth experience can take a mental toll as much as an attack can.
By bad I don’t mean if birth ended in caesarean. It’s all about how the mother feels about her own experience, how much control she had and how much her options and emotional needs have been met as well as her physiological ones, which is the real triumph of good maternity care.
By honouring a woman’s choice, body and emotions as her own and as fundamental to the birth process you are able to put a different spin on those wanting to provide and improve care. You are able to change the educational system so women are informed. You are able to ensure the system is flexible and as individual as possible when providing care.
When we get rid of this ideal of motherhood, when we put to rest this ever sacrificing martyr and are left with the informed supported mother who is able to trust her body, then feminism will have fulfilled its role, until then we will keep fighting for it.