October 31, 2014

Feminist Friday: Maternity, birthing and motherhood are all feminist issues

I follow a blog called the Skeptical OB. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it, because she is entirely anti-homebirth and a little abrasive on the topic, but she has really great information on the blog.

So I follow. I honestly truly appreciate the way that she goes head to head against so many of the lies and misinformation that surround hospital births within the fanatical aspects of the homebirth movement.

Last week she did a post titled "Birth Represents Woman At Her Least Powerful", and she makes some good and some meh points for me.

For example, she says:

Oh, please, Milli; grow up! Women have been giving birth vaginally without pain medication (or dying in the attempt) since the beginning of human existence, and until relatively recently, women have had ZERO power. Indeed, in countries that lack access to modern obstetrics, where every woman is forced to endure natural childbirth, women still have ZERO power. In such societies women are viewed as the property of their husbands, have no political or economic rights, are married off while still children, die in droves due to hideous maternal mortality rates, have their genitals mutilated, and are raped with impunity in war and often in peace as well. Does that sound like power to you, Milli?

We can all recognize the oversimplification in such a paragraph, I'm sure. It is not accurate to paint entire societies with the same brush. While this may be true of some, it certainly isn't true of all of them--many hunting and gathering societies, for instance, that have had little contact with the rest of the world still have very strongly egalitarian structures.

Aside from that, though, I think the point is solid. We often hear childbirth penned as an empowering experience, when in reality, it's the moment that we are at our absolute most vulnerable. We are defenseless and entirely at the mercy of our bodies and the species. In that moment, there is no way out but through--we have no choice, no agency.


Tuteur describes it like this, and it's definitely a vivid representation of the experience:

Yes, the process of labor is powerful. Once it has a woman in its grip, it does not let go until the baby is born or the woman is dead. It’s powerful in the same way that a tornado or an earthquake is powerful. Claiming that labor represents woman at her most powerful, is like claiming that a woman sucked out of her tornado ravaged house is powerful. In both cases she is subjected to powerful natural forces, but she herself is completely powerless.

She also says:

No, Milli, birth does not represent woman at her most powerful, it represents woman at her most vulnerable, and anyone who claims to care for pregnant women and new mothers should recognize and acknowledge that. To the extent that some women are powerful, their power resides in their intellect, their talents, their money, their political power (if they wield any), their military power (if they wield any), their degrees, their qualifications, and their work experience. Powerful women do not derive their power from having a baby transit their vagina, and it is pure nonsense to pretend that they do.

I don't necessarily agree that no woman can take power from the experience of birth. We are all empowered differently. Immediately, I think of a woman who potentially experienced significant fertility issues, having that moment after birth where she can think to herself, "I made it. I never gave up." I can most certainly see that as empowering.

But I do agree that the birthing experience itself simply shouldn't be painted as inherently empowering. Many women leave birthing feeling victimized, traumatized. Others won't leave the experience at all--the U.S., as we've discussed before, is the only developed nation in the world that has an increasing rate of maternal mortality.

The idea of covering birthing in feminist terms isn't unique. Maternity and motherhood are most certainly feminist issues.

There are a variety of reasons why these are so important to talk about.

Maternity and motherhood uniquely define us as women in both positive and negative ways. They can represent a divisive force--consider the woman who is infertile or has difficultly conceiving who feels, acutely, that society considers her "less than." For women that choose to remain childfree, they may face questions on their femininity, because what kind of woman wouldn't want to be a mother? That's the baseline expectation.

And I honestly can't even begin to imagine what the experience and societal expectations surrounding motherhood and maternity are like for trans individuals, whether men or women. It's truly an idea that affects every single one of us, often in vastly different ways.

It's an experience that men can't share. I am in no way undercutting the experience of fatherhood, because it is an experience I, in turn, can't share. But the unique character of maternity and birthing can only truly be understood by those that it impacts. Men can empathize--and many do--but never truly grasp what it means. I think this is why it is so easy for a legislature that is mostly male to simply whisk away a woman's reproductive choices--they truly can't understand what pregnancy is for us, and for some reason, don't understand that no one understands pregnancy, and the expectations of maternity and motherhood, better than we do.

Every pregnancy is unique. Some are wanted, wished, hoped, and prayed for. Others are surprised, unplanned, but welcome. Still others are unplanned and unwanted. Some think they are wanted and find out they aren't, and others reverse. It's an experience that's colored by our perceptions of ourselves and our circumstances, one that's flavored by those around us. Every single woman approaches her ideas about motherhood and maternity differently.

For those of us that can become pregnant, it's a unique experience.  In pregnancy, we confront, simultaneously, our ability to give life and our own mortality. We are at once in awe of the strength of life and its fragility. In that moment, we are in the grips of nature, with no real power to defend ourselves or our offspring. It's a waiting game. A hoping game.

We face an expectation that we will be productive economically in a nation that doesn't support women. And while I don't believe any woman should win accolades for choosing to become pregnant, or that we should be bending over backwards to accommodate them, I do think that it's time to look and acknowledge that if our goal is to continue our society, maternity and motherhood are significant. They are endeavors that should be supported.

That means looking at the ways that we support families, before and after birth. It means looking at our maternity policies, our nursing policies, our daycare systems, and finding the ways that we can support families better. It means looking at the way that maternity and motherhood are supported differently across racial and socioeconomic boundaries.

It means making it easier for women (and men!) to plan their families. Access to accurate and comprehensive sex education, contraception, abortion, parental leave, and daycare are incredibly important areas for reform.

It means looking at the way that we talk about femininity and acknowledging that motherhood is only one potential outcome. Women should feel welcome to experience life in the way that they choose. It means understanding the impact that our emphasis on femininity in relation to maternity and motherhood has for those who can't or don't want to have children.

It means accepting different family structures, and freeing women to have the family that they (their partner/s) choose. That means different-sex unions, same-sex unions, single parents, no kids, no kids but twelve cat or fifteen dogs (I'm a dog person...), no kids/lifelong bachelor/bachelorette--all of those should be viewed as equal family choices. These choices should shift from being a communal expectation to  a personal decision, one that we accept because it is completely in the purview of the individuals making the decision.

All of these points, all of these shifts and reforms that need to happen, put maternity, birthing and motherhood squarely in the realms of feminist progress. Half of the population of the world has the biological equipment to reproduce, and yet, we treat them as if we are doing them a grudging favor for anything we give them. Oh, your company has paid maternity leave? Be grateful. Don't ask questions. Don't ask for reform. Don't ask for more time to do things like heal or bond with your baby. Don't ask for leave for your partner, so that you can have necessary help and they can have necessary time to bond too. Nope. Be glad for what you get.

You can't or don't want to reproduce? Well, you're not a REAL woman then. Quit your bitching.

These are the messages we are sending, but it doesn't have to be that way. It's time to flip the script.

It's time to talk about it differently.

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