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Childbirth is a feminist issue – but maybe not in the way you think

There has been a lot of ink spilled about feminism freeing women from mandatory heteronormative motherhood, how reproductive rights and access to abortion on demand are a crucial part of women’s liberation, how “motherhood is optional” and “childless by choice” are issues central to the fight.

I want to look at another side of the coin, looking at those women who do give birth, and how the patriarchy* has been working overtime to co-opt and transform that experience, and more importantly, why.

[*Note when I say “patriarchy” I don’t mean men, I mean the sexist systems of power which serve to keep women second-class and less than; it is perpetuated by men and women alike, often in pretty unconscious ways.]

Confession: I am a dreadful person to watch television with. Every single depiction of birth I see in a film, drama, sitcom or sketch show seems to follow the same completely ridiculous sequence: pregnant woman is somewhere in public when her waters break, spectacularly and completely. She is then immediately in the throes of near constant labour pain, screaming to be rushed to the hospital before it’s too late. When she arrives, she is placed in bed on her back and almost immediately begins to push, with everyone around her shouting at her “go go, harder harder, PUSH!” With a scream the (4-month-old-sized) baby is born, without blood, vernix or even umbilical cord. Baby is immediately wrapped up like a burrito, put in mom’s arms (or sometimes dad’s) and cue smiles and tears and applause. Oh and placentas don’t exist at all, ever.

At every step, I am shouting at the screen “don’t be ridiculous! that’s absurd! that doesn’t happen! let that woman get up for Christ’s sake! leave her alone! turn off those lights and just shut the f*&% up!” Mostly these days, I just leave the room.

I understand that a truly realistic normal physiological birth does not necessarily make good television. Imagine 12 hours of a woman standing, walking, swaying, and periodically maybe mooing a bit. Follow that with a couple hours of grunting and sometimes pooping, a fair amount of blood and muck, and whee, where’s the Emmy?

But I think there is also something a bit more problematic going on here. Aside from just being factually inaccurate, there is another problem with the standard narrative. It is one that says that birth is terrifying, uncontrolled, dangerous, and only safely managed by the men in white coats; that a birthing person is “delivered” of their baby under the minute instruction of the medical professional; that they are done to, rather than doing. It is a narrative that seems almost calculated to rob women of confidence in themselves, their bodies, and their ability to be the hero of their own birth experience.

Why is it that everyone feels entitled when they see a pregnant belly to relate the most terrifying and devastating horror stories about birth? If someone were about to have a broken leg put in a cast, would you feel free to describe the case you heard where the wound went gangrenous and the leg had to be amputated? If a teenager were preparing to leave home to go to university, would you feel free to tell them lurid detailed stories about all of the students who are raped, suffer overdoses, and commit suicide every year? Then why is terrifying mothers-to-be considered good sport?

There is a secret that I and my sister birth workers know, a dangerous secret, a secret that, if widely understood and promulgated, could begin to spell the end of the patriarchy itself. The secret is this: birthing mothers are goddesses, and the process of giving birth brings them into their power with a force unlike any I’ve witnessed. A natural physiological birth, properly supported, is a hero’s journey unlike any other, and women emerge from it resplendent in their power and glory.

A good birth is truly one of the most empowering experiences a woman can have, and unlike many other empowering experiences, it is one available to the majority of women who choose it, no matter their race or class or education or cultural background. It is simultaneously a great leveller and a great elevator. It is experienced each time as a miracle, no matter how many times a day it occurs around the world. Mundane and transcendent are not antonyms; they meet in the birth room.

It is not an experience that (cis) men can have for themselves. They can share in it, but they cannot do it. Growing a new person inside our bodies and pushing them out into the world is a power that belongs only to women (though of course not to all women). And from the grand top-level perspective of the survival of the species, it is the most fundamental power there is.

Every person I have ever met who had a well-supported natural physiological birth has found it one of, if not the most, empowering experience of their lives. They emerge from the experience profoundly changed, with a new awareness of their own power and (this is my word, not theirs) divinity. They feel strong, invincible, proud, accomplished, amazed at themselves and what they can do. What a grand set up for the challenges of parenthood!

Now imagine a world filled with women who have only had that kind of birth experience. Imagine a world of women from all walks of life who feel strong, proud, confident, aware of their own strength and power – and aware that this particular power is unmatched by any (cis) man. What does that mean for the patriarchy?

Women feeling their power is a dangerous, dangerous thing. So perhaps it is no wonder that dominant discourse (and many modern obstetric practices) serve to rob women of this possibility.

So this is my plea – be subversive! Tell all the young people you know (men and women alike) that the births they see in the media are complete and utter BS. Tell women that childbirth can be a wonderful, lifechanging experience, a rite of passage that will challenge them to the core and from which they will emerge full of power.

And then we carry on fighting the fight to change modern childbirth practice to really enable and support that mundane and transcendent experience, for all birthing people everywhere.

What do you think? Do you know of any realistic, empowering depictions of birth in film or tv? Let me know in the comments!

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