By Gabrielle. Uterus print by Mathilde Cinq Mars.
I read an essay, called Monstrous Births, over the weekend and can’t stop thinking about it. The author, Sarah Blackwood, talks about the history of child birth and how it has often been moralized — like Eve being cursed and told that childbirth would be difficult because of her actions. Ms. Blackwood compares that with the modern ways we moralize birth — putting pressure on women to have a natural birth or even talking about birth as an empowering act. The author then describes the births of her own 2 children, which were very difficult, and suggests that maybe we should think of birth as an amoral (not immoral, but amoral) action instead of a moral one.
The essay really resonated with me. Unlike the author, I’ve experienced child birth six different times, and yet all of them fell in the “typical birth experience” range and didn’t require much intervention. For me the resonation came from the description of birth as amoral. I totally related to that idea, though I’ve never thought to use that word.
Child birth didn’t feel empowering to me. It didn’t feel un-empowering either. Instead it felt to me mostly like a biological process — a difficult one, but one that my body was designed to go through. I didn’t necessarily feel pride at what my body did because I didn’t feel like I could even take credit for it. (In fact, if I did take credit for it, then would that mean that women who couldn’t experience the relatively easy kind of births I had should feel the opposite of pride? Shame or guilt?) I remember thinking that in theory even if I had been passed out, my body could have birthed the baby. So why would I be proud of something that could happen when I wasn’t even aware of it?
Now I say all that, but I completely understand that other women experience birth, and think about birth, very differently than I did. I don’t doubt for a minute that there are women who feel very empowered by birth. I don’t doubt this, because I know many of these women and absolutely trust the experiences they’ve had. I simply think this is one of those cases where people are different and experience things in different ways. And of course, we all use different narratives to help our brains understand the world.
In the essay, the author mentions that sometimes we dismiss the hardships of childbirth and say something like, “Well, as long as the baby is healthy.” But she suggests that is actually a really misogynistic thing to say. I’d never thought of it that way, but I see her point. Why would the baby always have more value than the woman giving birth (especially considering some of the women giving birth are practically children themselves)?
What about you? How do you feel about thinking of birth as an amoral action, as more of a biological process than a moral one? Did you feel empowered by birth? Did you feel pressured to have a certain kind of birth (natural, home, water, epidural)? Or certain kind of birth experience (empowering, spiritual, wholesome, calm, dramatic)? For anyone who is expecting at the moment, are you looking forward to the birth experience, or dreading it? If you get a chance to read the essay, I would love to discuss this topic with you.
P.S. — I’m well aware that talking about child birth can bring out the judgey-ness in anyone. So I ask you now to please refrain from telling someone else how they should experience birth. Instead, feel free to share your own experiences and how you think about them.
54 thoughts on “The Monstrous Act of Birth”
Without having time to think too deeply about this yet, I have to say that I did feel proud of myself after my two natural births. Yet I have never thought of anyone with any other experience/method as of less worth than me or that they should have less pride; I think it’s kind of like accomplishing an act of personal endurance – ie. running a mile longer than you have previously. I also think there are a lot of things we are proud of that our children do that are amoral (ie. walking, talking, pooping) and that some people can’t do – I think its normal to be proud of things our bodies can do (even if they’re almost completely unavoidable). Also, I think being proud of having grown and birthed a child (not necessarily proud of how or when or why) is a good way for many women to have body positivity with the sags and wrinkles and stripes we all get afterwards. Is it possible to be proud of yourself for something and not look down on someone else who did things in the opposite way? I think so.
Empowering is exactly how I’d describe both of my births. Until giving birth to my son 4 years ago, I’d never felt so in tune with my body and so powerful physically. Both my births were pretty quick (under 6 hours active labor), no drugs or other medical intervention, and with my husband-coach by my side. But I know that, like the author’s, my experience is different than many women’s. And I recognize that historically, birth and women’s medicine in general has been the province of men, who tended to not focus on the woman rather than the end result (the baby). From that perspective, giving birth was taking a really big step toward claiming my body for myself, though — it did what it was designed to do and it did it magnificently. I would never dream of dictate to other women about what they should/shouldn’t do in terms of their own pregnancy, labor and birth. I’m of the school, “good for her, not for me.”
I had a vaginal delivery with my first, but my three following were c-sections not by my choice. I have had several people give me condolences for having a c-section. It bothers me that they would do this, a birth is a birth no matter how the baby arrives. I didn’t feel proud of myself for birthing my babies, but I was in awe of how my body changed after the birth from one day to the next. Birth stories are fascinating to me because it is a natural process our bodies are designed for, everyone has such a different tale to tell.
I never really felt like childbirth was empowering. In fact, I felt like I had very little power during the birth–my body did what my body did. But I didn’t really feel disempowered, either. Childbirth did feel transformative, though. I don’t think my mind and body has gone through so many changes in such a short period of time as it did during the five or so hours of childbirth. And trying to figure out where my body ended and my baby’s began was a strange puzzle that I’m still trying to figure out nine years after the birth of my first!
I agree with you, I felt like I had very little power and my body did what it wanted to do. That being said, I had 2 very short, natural labors/births!
I felt both awed and empowered by the births of my three children. I have never felt “judgy” about the decisions other mothers make. (In terms of drugs or no drugs.) I was blessed with very fast deliveries, and though I would have liked an epidural for the last birth, it was too late to have one.
I was never an athlete, and I was honestly amazed by what my body was able to achieve. I still remember each birth vividly (over 20 years ago), and I would say I felt it was, in fact, a spiritual experience.
Seven years ago I sat by my beloved Dad’s bedside as he was dying. The final hours were much longer than the doctor had predicted, and we spent many hours saying goodbye and letting him know that it was okay to let go. I felt in some ways that we were urging him toward a release. When he finally took his last breath, I felt that I had been through something as spiritual and enormous as the births of my children.
My first was a stubborn breech baby who would not slip so I had to have a scheduled C-section since there were no other options in my area at the time. I did not feel empowered and I felt like I had missed out on the labor experience though I did believe I had birthed my baby even if I didn’t push him out myself.
We were both healthy but I was sad about it. I pursued a VBAC with my second and was happy baby cooperated. I am now an ICAN leader and no matter what kind of birth moms in our local group hope for, I wish them an educated and empowered birth. I don’t think empowerment is under the definition of moral or amoral. A woman can feel empowered and still have a boring birth, a traumatic one, or a bad one. And I don’t think an empowered birth throws any shade over any other woman’s experience or tells someone who doesn’t birth a child that she is not empowered. Birth is not the only way a woman can feel empowered.
I also think women don’t have to leave birth empowered if it isn’t a goal of theirs. But I know too many, even just through ICAN who felt less than human, instead of simply human, during their birth experiences or tecoveries.
I keep commenting. When folks say that they wish and empowered birth experience for themselves or for others I don’t think it means that you will be filled with extra power and leave stronger than ever. Because even the definition of empowered doesn’t mean to heap on extra, it just means to be given authority. So it sounds like you’re both experiences and the authors, different as they were, did not make either of you feel like power was stripped from you. Maybe I am assuming but it sounds like you both came in with the power to birth and you we’re allowed to keep
I love your comments. I really like “it means to be given authority”. I had two empowered births, one which was a natural homebirth and one which was a C-section. In both, I walked away empowered because I was treated as empowered and I had a part to play in the outcome by choices that I made along the way. That isn’t always the case, and that I was very lucky. My caregiver both times were such elegant people that disempowering me by choices that they made and words that they chose only affected me positively.
There was something really wonderful for me in feeling 100% mammal!
The totally earthy experiences were beautifully fulfilling and still miraculous!
*phone posted early*
the power you entered the room owning already. But for those who feel they had that authority pulled away then it makes sense that they would wish an empowered birth for others.
I have two biological children, and one who was adopted. With my two bios, I felt proud that I had sacrificed my energy, my pride in being able to eat or drink what I wanted, and many other things to grow these two children. The birth didn’t necessarily bring pride, but the sacrifices I made to get them here and healthy did. In fact, the first was a c-section after she was stuck and hadn’t moved down in 23 hours of labor, and the second was a c-section after an attempted VBAC that ended in severe uterine tearing. Not my plan, but not the end of the world.
After a grueling international, special needs adoption with the third, there was no birth, but walking out the door of the orphanage with my baby in my arms was more pride than I have ever felt. I worked for that baby.
I loved this comment.
This is making me tear up. What a beautiful comment.
I can relate to most of what you say, Gabrielle. I guess I did and do feel some pride over my two birth experiences, only in so far as it was a hard thing to do and I can reflect on moments where I know I chose to push harder… but it is similar to like, feeling pride for running a hard race… It isnt really that I did something “better” than anyone else, but that I did something hard for me… in full awareness that it could have gone completely differently, outside of my control. Know what I mean?
I had an interesting experience recently that relates to the authors point about “it only matters that that baby is healthy” comments. After having had my son four years ago I was participating in a discussion on a Facebook board, really not trying to be inflammatory or judgy at all, and I made some comment to that effect. Somehow three years later someone replied and I guess some setting had changed and I got the reply, so I went to the thread and there were a whoooooole bunch of angry replies that I missed at the time. A number of women really schooled me, for dangerously downplaying the health and experiences and of women. I think they were absolutely right… I felt so sorry, and looking back I kinda couldn’t believe I would have said something like that… I’ve thought about it a lot. I was a new mom, pretty uncomfortable with motherhood, and I think I made the comment thinking it was the “right” thing to say… like it would be selfish to say anything else. But that is so problematic, and I think it’s the same influences that prevented me from seeking care for issues with my body post childbirth. These days I’m doing all kinds of pelvic floor therapy after the birth of my second child, but I know those issues were there after my first too, just, no one said anything and I felt like I should just be so grateful that my baby was healthy and ok fine my body was different but I should just grow up and stop thinking about myself. Sigh. So wrong! Our bodies matter, too! Definitely some entrenched misogyny happening there.
I have often wondered if I can use the term “gave birth” about myself since both my children were C-sections. It feels false somehow. My children were removed from me, but that’s not quite as poetic, is it?
I also have trouble with “as long as the baby’s alright”. I had a uterine rupture during my second delivery. My daughter didn’t have oxygen for 18 minutes before being resuscitated. Her brain was injured. Having to make all those phone calls was a low-point in my life. “We had the baby. There were complications.” “but she’s going to be alright, isn’t she?” I’ll never forget how many times I had to say “We don’t know.” She is 20 now, and has severe Cerebral Palsy. She is in wonderful health and is a happy kid, most days. I don’t think many people think she’s “alright”. I think she’s amazing and I’m blessed to have her. She’s “alright” with me!
Thank you! I was just thinking that “as long as the baby is alright” is not only misogynistic, but also ableist. I had three wonderful birth experiences, but my third child is not “alright” in the sense that people mean when they say that. Does that mean her birth was less wonderful, beautiful, spiritual, transformative, empowering, or whatever that any other birth? Or that her live is less important than the lives of those who are “alright”?
I don’t know that birth itself had any moral value attached to it for me. I did feel proud of growing babies – my husband and I had struggled to conceive initially – but it was a sort of a leveling pride that made me feel a familial connection to all people everywhere (if that even makes sense). Humankind continues! The scene shifts/new players enter! Etc.
I also admit, while I did not find my own birthing morally charged, I think of my eight-months-pregnant great-grandmother enduring steerage on a ship out of Le Havre. I think of my sister who gives birth almost effortlessly and on her own schedule! I think of the millions (billions?) of women throughout time who have delivered babies in all sorts of circumstances, and had all sorts of expectations and emotions and end results of birth – and I do find THAT empowering. I think of all the millions (billions?) of women throughout time who have raised babies they did not birth – and I do think the sisterhood is powerful. Those are the ideas and examples and actions that feel moral to me.
Sometimes I feel like people (women especially?) concentrate too much on one day – the birth, the wedding – when those are just *one day* out of so many. And there are so many other days that are more important, but perhaps get no notice at the time, or an anniversary in their name. I think it’s those days and days and days afterward of work and love and joy and patience and not throttling your loved one (!) that are the ones that are the most important. Cuz no one gets to choose an epidural on the millionth night with no sleep. And you don’t get a set of silver candlesticks for the day that you say just the right thing to your kid or spouse. On whole, I agree with the author about birth being amoral. The more pressure placed one day (marriage, birth, New Years Eve) the more easily it will fall short.
(That being said, I LOVE reading people’s birth stories because every single experience is different and interesting! )
I was proud of my decision to have a baby on my own, to go ahead and quit waiting for to find the perfect guy first, than actually birthing the kid. The former was all mine, the latter – the second that kid started the process of being born – that was all her. I just went along for the ride.
I love this comment. I have often been curious (as a mother who did not give birth) why so many couples/women prepare (seemingly) endlessly for birth, which will last less than a day in most cases, and little (if at all) for parenthood, which will hopefully last the rest of their lives. The equation with the wedding is an interesting one. The marriage vs. the wedding. Which is truly more important for us?
I love this comment so much! I remember sitting in my birthing class – which took place over 4 consecutive weeks – thinking, I’ll have amazing nurses to coach me through birth. What do I do when I take the baby home?! And my “baby care” class was 4 hours and barely scratched the surface of what I should do.
This is exactly how I’ve felt about marriage and childbirth. There is outsize focus on this one day (a wedding or a birth) when it’s all the rest of the days that make a marriage and a life.
As for my birth, I felt some pressure (self-imposed) to have a natural birth, which I didn’t achieve. I felt bad about that initially, but then realizing that raising my daughter was the real point of having a baby gave me a different perspective on it. Now it’s just the way it worked out.
I didn’t feel particularly empowered during the birth itself – more like my body was doing something automatic and I was along for the ride. However, I do feel pride that I grew an entire human being in my body and were it not for me, there wouldn’t be a her. :)
I had a hard time agreeing with the article because I felt like the author did exactly what she argued against. She asserts that “Childbirth is not empowering. It’s grisly, frightening, and astonishing stuff.” In my experience, births are really different among women (and even by the same women) and some are not frightening or grisly; some are empowering. Of course, some are not empowering and anyway, some people just don’t identify with the word empowering in any situations. I do agree that labelling births as good or bad is overly simplistic, trite, and certainly judgmental. I just didn’t agree with the author’s labels.
My birth experiences? First birth: 30 hours total and I got an epidural after 20 because I was tired, not very dilated, and wanted a rest. I felt like I was managing the pain OK, but was exhausted; it ended with vacuum extraction to avoid a c-section and a baby boy! Second birth: harder to tell when to start counting, but 16 hours from water breaking and no drugs. I felt like I was in true labor for about 8 of those hours. Amazingly painful at the end, but I don’t think I was in strong pain until maybe the last hour. I didn’t have time to consider an epidural with this one because our daughter was born about 30 minutes after we arrived at the hospital. Both times my water broke, so I wasn’t checked until pretty late in the process (and never knew how dilated I was to give a sense of time left). In short, my two births were really different and I felt very strong after both of them. With the first, it felt like a test of my endurance because even after getting the epidural it was still very tiring (I pushed for a long time). With the first I was amazed that doing various visualizations actually helped me through the contractions (in the birthing class visualizations had seemed too woo-woo). With the second I actually remember feeling pissed at the end that I alone had to birth this baby (my husband and friend couldn’t actually do it for me!), but that anger fueled some sort of resolve to get this thing done. Comparing the two, I was struck by how different they were, how different my pain levels were, how differently they progressed (amount of time, pain, and even time in the hospital). However, on the whole, I preferred the one with the shorter birth without an epidural because I could immediately get up and walk around and had no catheter (but I know that some women wouldn’t necessarily value those things). Do I feel badly about the vacuum extraction with my son? No; I felt supported by my midwife and understood the choices before me. I knew the OBGYN who would do the procedure was experienced and that it would be less invasive and safe for my baby. My own different experiences made me realize how some people really don’t feel much pain and some people feel like they are going to die, so how do you judge those two experiences with the same criteria? I mean, are you more brave without an epidural when you didn’t need one?
I think that birth became a medical event to be managed in standard ways that work for health care practitioners and health insurance. In this situation, women were told what to do without full information about what the possibilities are. I went into both births with an idea of what I thought would be ideal and with information about what interventions would be performed if needed. I do have a notion of what an ideal birth is, but I know that people and situations are different. Thank goodness we have the emergency c section option. However, I do feel judgment about elective c sections.
I absolutely love ” actually remember feeling pissed at the end that I alone had to birth this baby (my husband and friend couldn’t actually do it for me!).” I had a few moments thinking the same thing!
I found the article really fascinating. And I really love to hear other people’s birth stories! I know that I have felt as though maybe others were judging me, when in all reality, probably no one is, at least no one that knows the whole story of each of my four births. But I still don’t think women should fear the fear of being judged. But more importantly, I wish that women could feel and be more in charge of their pre-natal, birth, and post-natal care. After four births, I still feel uncomfortable raising certain concerns to my OB/GYN or family prac. doctor because I think they will just brush them off (I’ll get more into this in a bit). I wish women didn’t feel like any of their body or medical care might be disregarded simply because they are women.
I’ve had four babies, and each birth was quite different. With my first, looking back, I was soooo naive and I wasn’t in control of what was happening, I certainly didn’t feel like I was the one in power. I went in when my water broke and took the last available bed in that hospital. My OB/GYN didn’t come until I had been there for about 18 hours. He prescribed pitocin over the phone without even consulting me, and I simply didn’t know any better to feel like I could question it; I didn’t really feel like I was allowed to. I didn’t progress at all for 16 hours. He told me over the phone that he thought I neeeded a c-section, without ever physically seeing me! When he finally arrived 2 hours later, a nurse removing my catheter before going into the OR checked me, and found that I was fully dilated. I pushed for two hours, finally delivering with the help of forceps since my baby was asynclitic (head to the side).
Baby #2 was thankfully with a different physician, different hospital, and was altogether a much better experience. I went into labor on my own, but she was asynclitic as well and only came out with the use of the vacuum. This was by far my favorite birth, if that is even possible.
Baby #3, I had to be induced after two weeks of intermittent labor because the baby was not properly positioned on my cervix. After pushing for two hours, he never moved far enough to fix his asynclitic head (seeing a pattern here?) because he was so huge (over 11 lbs). He was delivered via c-section. Thankfully, healing from that for me was very textbook, even if it wasn’t fun. Both my husband and I agree that were so thankful for c-sections, otherwise I would most likely be dead from being unable to birth him vaginally. But that’s kind of an unsettling thought.
With baby #4, I worked very hard to avoid having another huge baby (thanks to a diagnosis o f gestational diabetes), but the whole pregnancy I was torn between the fear of VBAC and the fear of another c-section. It was crazy. I knew I should want a VBAC. That a vaginal birth should be preferable to a c-section. But all of my births were so exhausting (each had me pushing for over two hours, and never able to do it fully on my own). I was also so afraid he’d be asynclitic again, which made me wonder if it was me, my body making that happen. I even asked my doctors and they all agreed it was possible, but then brushed it aside. The whole time I wondered, can’t we do an ultrasound or something to see if I’ve got a funny shaped pelvis that makes all my babies impossible to birth? Because that would settle the question of to VBAC or not to VBAC. Long story only slightly shorter, I pushed fearfully for almost 3 hours, and thus probably not the most effective pushing, only to end up with another asynclictic baby that was too big to push far enough down and so I ended up with a repeat c-section.
(Gosh this is getting long, but clearly I need to vent this out somewhere). In the end I’m so thankful for each of my children, and for the things I’ve learned from each of their births. Unfortunately, my body has seen serious trauma now, namely my core and pelvic floor. I have diastasis recti and a weak pelvic floor (hello peeing my pants when jogging to catch a green crosswalk), but this is self diagnosed because no doctor has have checked me. I feel like in America we treat birth like a medical event, and then forget the aftermath. I have mentioned this to my doctors, but again it is brushed off as just the natural result of childbirth. If an athlete complained of the same thing, they’d be sent to a physical therapists. But somehow women are expected to be okay with wetting themselves after mild exertion?! *I shall now step down from my soapbox*
Please go see a pelvic floor physical therapist! You deserve it!
This is a super fascinating question, “Is birth amoral?” I have given birth to five children and each pregnancy/birth was its own unique experience with different circumstances. But, the common thread between each pregnancy and birth was sacrifice. Many of the things we might pursue involve sacrifice but pregnancy and birth inherently require a sacrifice for another human being. So in that sense, I think birth is highly moral.
On the other hand, pregnancy and birth were a lot like riding a roller coaster for me where the only decision I made was to get on the ride in the first place (and pregnancy and birth were a helluva ride for me!). Once the decision to try for pregnancy was made, I felt like had little control over what my body was doing. So there is a bit of a disconnect in my mind between that initial choice to have a baby and the final outcome (birth) where nothing seemed under my control. And, how can something be moral when no choice is involved?
I realize this leads to a bigger discussion about sex, reproductive rights, etc, and I don’t want to get into that. I will say, though, that the question of whether or not something is moral seems to have a lot to do with whether or not a choice can be made.
I never felt empowered, nor unempowered by the birth of my daughter. Both baby and I did our job and she came out healthy and I didn’t get permanently injured or die. I did have laughing gas and an epidural but no big deal. It was a positive experience but nothing I think about day to day… I’ve got bigger things to think about!!
I feel the same, Robin!
Hi Robin and Amy, I have had the same experience as well (3 vaginal births, all with an epidural). Childbrith, to me, was a biological process that women have gone through since the beginning of time (albeit I had far more comforts and support than most), and I rarely if ever think about it. That said, I also enjoy reading/hearing others’ stories and appreciate that it is a much bigger deal/life changing for some. Just not for me.
I think too many biological aspects of our lives have a moral component – quite apart from childbirth, mental disorders also have this moral value assigned to them, that can make it difficult to get help or to take medication.
This ties in nicely with another article I just read about how we view parenting as moral, and how that compels us to judge mothers more harshly when accidents occur or mistakes are made.
I agree that birth should be viewed as amoral. I have been very lucky to have pretty much perfect vaginal deliveries so far, but I’ve always felt the way you describe Gabby – somewhat disconnected from it, like I couldn’t really take credit for anything that happened because so much of it seemed completely out of my control. And I completely agree about the “as long as the baby’s healthy” comment. We (as a society) need to value women more.
What an interesting discussion. I think I agree that birth should be amoral. I also felt along for the ride during labor. I felt like I somehow “failed” my first birth because I ended up getting an epidural even though it was definitely a success (my son came out, we both survived and thrived). After my second child was born, I had the realization that there is no success or failure to this process because it is purely biological and every birth is different. I liked what my midwife said to me during my first labor when I told her that I just didn’t see how “this” (i.e., vaginal child birth) was going to work. She said: oh it works, trust me, it definitely works. :)
Really interesting essay, for sure. I found a lot to think about, a lot of points I found myself nodding at (the divisive notion of there being a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to give birth), and ideas or experiences I didn’t necessarily share (the grisly and traumatic birth experience). I completely agree that judgement about birth needs to stop–there is no right or wrong way to give birth, and women should not feel ashamed for their experience or their feelings about it.
My own births were fairly nondescript. My first lasted about 17 hours, with 13 of those being unmedicated. I asked for the epidural when I realized even if I was fully dilated I had zero energy left for pushing. I don’t regret any bit of my experience, although could have done without the tearing (ouch). My second was only about 7 hours, and umedicated. I made the decision to try to go without an epidural mainly to see if I could do it (but was totally open to assistance if I decompensated like last time). While I felt pride at the end, it was the kind of pride one might feel after finishing a race or setting a new personal record for weightlifting. Pride at what my body could do. But in no way was it the ‘best’ or ‘right’ way to do it.
Birth is an awe-filled process unlike any other, and unique for each person.
Personally I also think of birth as amoral. Mostly because it’s so personal and different for everyone. It’s so out of our control in a way. Yes we can make decisions about how to give birth (natural, at home, hospital, etc) but even those decisions can change in ways that aren’t in our control. And even when we make decisions we are doing the best we can at the time. I let the doctor’s give me pitocin during my first birth as they thought ti was best and I trusted them. Was that the best decision? I don’t know because I don’t know what would have been different had I made a different decision. I know what may have been different. Would it have made my birth easier? Maybe. Would it have made it harder? Maybe! We all find a way to get through it. You are so lucky to have had easy births. But that doesn’t make you “better” than someone who struggled more (my first birth was rough!). I had one tough birth, and I easy birth. And I don’t look at them differently actually other than they were just different experiences: My body was different, my babies were different, my doctors were different. So the experience was different. I think this is a very interesting topic and I’m sure I could ramble forever on it. Thank you for bringing it up.
Yes. Looking forward to the article. I absolutely felt pressured about my first birth, how to have it, where to have it, blah, blah, blah. It ended up being about 40 hours of misery with my baby in the NICU for 2 days. I really didn’t want a c-section and escaped that, but that’s about it. Yes, he was healthy, and I felt so wrong to be in the NICU with all of those babies and mommies and daddies who were truly hoping for the next minute of life. It was a pretty horrendous experience and I certainly felt more that I’d survived, not some kind of empowered Amazon like person. If my water hadn’t broken super early, maybe it would have been different. But I think that you are right, Gabby, in saying we all use different narratives for the way we experience things as well. I’m not the type of person who takes a great store in personal accomplishments, maybe to my detriment. Ugh. I’m due with my second in a month. This is a very different experience than with my first, mainly bc I’m running around after a very solid little boy who still can’t go down the steps by himself! At age 35, I’m wondering how I’ll survive a 3rd pregnancy, with 2 young kids (my plan.) Of course, my Mom was a true Amazon, being she had 7 of us, 2 at home, and homeschooled all of us. That’s the other part, what is your norm? The women I know are crazy strong. Makes me feel like the biggest wimp to be in such pain, thinking my uterus is going to fall out when I stand up from peeing for the 400 the time today!
What a wonderful essay–thank you for sharing it. I do not have children and this idea (among many others) is always on my mind when I think about the possibility of having a child–or not. Setting aside all questions about parenting, if giving birth is a moral act all on its own, what does it say about women who choose not to? I’m obviously on the side of the author, but opening up conversations like this is so important to women like me. Thank you.
This clarifies so much for me about why I wasn’t totally immersed in giving birth – to me, pregnancy was a mild annoyance, kind of like menstruation but also fascinating. It’s biological. Interesting, but it didn’t change or affect my personality.
A couple of thoughts come to mind:
1. Unlike you, I could not be passed out and have delivered my babies–they didn’t slip effortlessly out, as I hear from some women. I had to work hard–very very hard–to get those babies out. And it took every ounce of inner strength I could muster to get through the 20 hour labor with my second baby. Giving birth is most certainly the most difficult thing I’ve ever done physically. I’m just thinking that all of those voices of encouragement, both literal and figurative, empowering me, must have been part of the strength behind me in those moments.
2. I wonder if this narrative (and the morality behind it) developed and continues out of necessity–to get women through those moments–and to make sure that the human race doesn’t just end. Hah!
I forwarded this article to my NCT buddies (child prep classes in the UK) after I read it last week because it resonated so much with me.
When I had my daughter, my coccyx was damaged as she was pulled out by forceps. I couldn’t sit for 8 weeks but doctors kept telling me that postnatal recovery is painful, and shrugging it off. One of my friends severely haemorrhaged and nearly died following her c-section. Another had infected stitches and was left struggling to heal. A few suffered immense pain breastfeeding but battled on.
Of course a healthy baby is incredibly important, but is the health of the mother less so? Because it feels that way when your health concerns are sublimated and ignored by the medical profession. And you know what? It’s hard to be the best mama you can be when you’re physically a mess. I just feel as though our attitudes towards childbirth are conditioned by centuries of misogyny. I remember you shared a link a while ago comparing treatment of men and women in hospitals when it comes to pain relief – and I strongly suspect that labour would look very different indeed if men were going through it!
So I feel very ambivalent about my daughter’s birth and about childbirth in general – I would actually say I feel proud that I came out the other side of a difficult birth, a bit like you feel proud for having endured a marathon. But I hate the idea that if I’d had more intervention or demanded more pain relief that could have somehow been perceived as a ‘lesser’ experience.
Thank you for this article, and this topic. Yes, a whole lot of judging and interpreting goes on with childbirth. It really comes down to one woman, in one room, every time. We hope with as much love and support as possible.
Texas has achieved the worst level of maternal mortality in the developed world recently, in tandem with a withdrawal/defunding of maternal health care.
What we all deserve is love, support, and skilled and experienced assistance through labor and birth.
Let us not judge other peoples’ labor and delivery. It is the most individual and personal experience on the planet.
Anything that can be done to alleviate stress and support the mother is commendable We all deserve expert support – it is impossible to be objective in the midst of childbirth and we all need people to protect the mother and child who understand the risks of each situation.
With love to all my sisters out there, in their own voyages. No matter what others may tell you it is a deeply personal and unique experience for every woman. Do what is right for you.
People are leaving such a wonderful comments here, I feel a little silly with this comment, but alas, here it is: people would often ask what my birth plan was heading into the birth of my daughter. I said that my plan was for both of us to survive. If we met that bar, everything else was gravy. To be honest, I was hoping for a vaginal birth so I could avoid surgery, not because of any judgement, purely from an ease of recovery, and I was also hoping not to tear anything too badly. On the last point, several women who had asked me chuckled and said “good luck with that!”
Also, I am not sure I felt empowered, but I certainly felt a very distinct superiority to men in that moment. My boss is a super-athlete, but in that moment I thought of all of his physical accolades as child’s play compared to childbirth. I probably shouldn’t have been thinking about work, but hopefully my point is clear.
As I reflect on it, all of my feelings have calmed over time and I no longer have that same emotional response. But immediately post birth – particularly when I felt like I had been hit by a truck – my thoughts were very clear on this matter. I had just completed a physical feat and I was damn proud of my body.
” but I certainly felt a very distinct superiority to men in that moment.”
Ha! I think it’s funny that no one has mentioned that until now! Perhaps every birth story should be a bit of the middle finger to “the Man.” Hey you, Patriarchal Power Structure, look what I just did!
:) Made me chuckle.
A million thank yous for posting this. I’m getting ready to have Baby #2 so labour and delivery occupy a lot of my thoughts. My first delivery was recently categorized by an OB as “traumatic” and while I had secretly felt that way, I felt it wasn’t “typical”, no one in the medical profession at the time would acknowledge it as such. My concerns and questions were dismissed and I was made to feel like I wasn’t tough enough and was told “well, that’s what having a baby does…” It felt demeaning and since that time I’ve read a number of articles and studies that discuss and investigate misogyny in medicine. In hindsight, that’s exactly what happened – I was treated without respect because I am a woman. I’m currently being seen at Walter Reed by the complicated OB practice because of other health issues that have arisen. With the impending arrival of this new baby, I want a plan in place. I want my questions answered and above all, I do not want to be dismissed as an emotional pregnant woman. So far I’m less than impressed with the responses I’m receiving but I see this team of doctors every week so I ask the same questions and make my thoughts clear every time we speak. I will not allow others to dismiss me this time around. I’ll even print the article and this blog post so they can better appreciate the consequences of words, actions and inaction. Again, my thanks Gabrielle!
I think that my 2 natural births (the second at home) were some of the most painful experiences of my life. I had been raised by a mom who believed her births were magical and I thought mine would be too. Mostly though they were just a messy, painful process that I had to through to get a baby out of me. No more, no less.
The funny thing is that I was good at it. I handled the pain well. I was astonished by my self-control when the contractions came. During it though, I kept thinking that I hated the people who had romanticized it. Like everything difficult in life it can show us the amazing stuff we’re made of…but really, who would want to find that out while pushing a human head through your vagina? It’s not exactly the best moment to ponder your power.
I remember staring at my midwives during a break between contractions and thinking they were the most sadistic people I had ever met. “What kind of sick person would choose to be around women during the most painful point in their life?”I wondered.
I still don’t understand the drive to romanticize childbirth. It’s this thing we have to do to get a baby out. Yes, it makes us feel powerful, yes it can feel empowering, but what about the women whose births don’t go as planned? Are they less powerful? Of course not! I wish that every woman felt permission to birth the way she wants to. With no pressure to make it magical. Let’s just get those babies out, right?
I think experience really shapes your perception of birth. I went into my son’s birth with really no fear, believing that birth was a natural process that women have been doing successfully for years. Then there were complications during my son’s delivery that ultimately led to his death (meconium aspiration, lack of oxygen). So now I do think that all that matters is a healthy baby. If I could go back- I would allow absolutely anything for my Will to be here (cut me open with a 24 inch incision if you need to). So I think we should be supportive of other woman’s choices- you never know how previous experiences may have shaped them.
Sending you lots of Love Robin
For a long time after the birth of my first son, I felt so conflicted. While I was pregnant, I heard all the things one hears about the best kind of birthing and how it can be empowering. Then I was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia and had to be induced. I went into childbirth terrified; every hope I had for delivery had morphed into something I couldn’t control. While many aspects of his birth went well and were wonderful, I hemmoraged (a lot) after delivery and had a near death experience. I didn’t want his birth to be a bad experience, especially since I became a mom! And lived to see him grow! But it was difficult to not have negative emotions attached.
With the birth of my second son, I felt like it was almost a chance at redemption; to have the birth I’d wanted. To go into labour naturally, to birth without interventions, etc. While all that happened, it’s only now that I realize the thought of redemption is a bit absurd. I didn’t control any aspect of my labour, I just got through it and it was easier than the first time around. I did feel empowered at the time but my views on the experiences I had have shifted. More than pride, I just feel lucky that it was uncomplicated and that we both made it through.
And I don’t think it’s so wrong to express gratitude that the child is healthy. So many things can go wrong and there are absolutely no guarantees. The mother’s health matters of course (and I know that is the point, not the exclude the mother) but I also think it’s easy to discredit a difficult experience when weighing it against the health of the baby.
I actually missed this post in August, because I was busy recovering from my first c-section, fifth baby. After arguing with the doctor who recommended the c-section because a scan showed big baby, I finally conceded. I reallly wasn’t in the mood for an induction, either. My previous labours were uncomplicated, but long. Even the fourth birth took 12 hours start to finish. The C-section was better than I expected (even though the anaestesia didn’t work properly, and I could feel them sewing me up). I enjoyed knowing on which day my baby would be born, the calm and methodological process, and getting to stay in bed for three days while people brought me food! (which I not once experienced after normal delivery. ) My conclusion was that C-sections are underrated! And I totally get why some women opt for elective C-sections.
Perhaps I should also just mention, that after my c-section, I did get some comments (in my “circle”) about how “the doctor had talked me into it”, and how so-and-so had a VBAC with an even bigger baby, at home etc… I just replied, “Look, I birthed a 4.3 kg baby when I was 7 years younger, and it was a struggle. I am now 7 years older, and this baby was even bigger. I wasn’t going to risk it.” And after I saw him (4.7 kg), I was sooooo glad I didn’t attempt a natural birth even though the anaesthesia wore off! – IMO the sum total of pain of the c-section was less.
I loved reading these comments. I’m 76 yrs old and had five children. I loved having my babies. To me it was miraculous. I felt the same way watching some of my grandchildren born. Jean
Interesting post. I agree that birth is an amoral act. It is one where we truly are not in control of the outcome or process. I am myself a birth doula. Many people may think I value natural birth over a birth that uses modern medical intervention or c-section- this is not the case with me. I value and honor women’s choices about what is healthy for them and their babies. I understand medical intervention is necessary sometimes or simply preferred.
There is no failure in needing a c-section or medicalized birth and quite frankly I am annoyed that that has become attached to midwives and doulas……
for me having a natural child birth was empowering, but I don’t associate that with being moralistic about birth. For me, it was a mysteriously spiritually strengthening experience. I only have one child and if I had another and experienced birth again I don’t claim to say that that will necessarily be the case again.
I can also say I understand when people say ” atleast the baby is healthy.” I think most people mean well and are not associating a deeper meaning to that. Of course mom and baby both being healthy is a blessing but again even a baby being unhealthy or a mom suffering adverse medical consequences as a result of child birth isn’t something that is necessarily bad or wrong because our VALUE as persons goes beyond such states.
Thanks for the article!
I only read this now and I agree with you: childbirth is amoral. There shouldn’t be any lables whether a natural birth or a birth with medical support is the better one. What should matter is how the woman feels most comfortable giving birth.
But the births of my children felt very empowering to me, because they showed me what I can endure. After my first birth I felt fearless because I experienced it as such a natural power going through me that things that used to scare me, didn’t anymore. It was a home birth and I don’t know if I would have felt the same way if it would have been a hospital birth.
But then my second child had to be born early via emergency c-section because my placenta appearently failed to feed him. He was born weighing 2 pounds and was only a hand full of skin and bones, tubes going everywhere in and out of him. We spent seven weeks in hospital together and again, it felt empowering to me because I saw the strenth I could come up with.
Both times I was surrounded by doctors, midwives and nurses who put a lot of emphasis on the mother: They trusted me, supported me and believed my intuition. This is what I wish for every woman who is giving birth and then there is no right or wrong way to do it.