We finished our series of natural childbirth classes a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been reflecting since on the experience. Before I get into my concerns, let me first make clear that my gratitude for the (mostly) women who’ve fought to educate families about natural childbirth cannot be overstated. I cannot imagine how out of control things would have felt – how at the mercy of medical authorities – without the privilege of this education. A short history of the evolution of hospital births in this country would convince almost anyone of the criticality of the natural birth movement. You simply cannot love women without loving people who’ve worked to revolutionize and empower an experience (birth) that at least 80% of American women face. To the women who dedicate their lives to serving others in this way: my hat is off to you. Our childbirth instructor in particular is nothing short of amazing. So much wisdom. So much generosity. I felt nurtured, and included, and supported. None of my concerns have anything to do with her. Instead, they’re all about the (inadvertent?) politics of the natural birth movement itself.
I should also acknowledge how much my perceptions are a product of my subject position as a non-gestational parent. I wonder sometimes how much of this I would have noticed had I carried to full-term, had we taken these classes (as we were about to do) while I was pregnant with E. Would J – who felt at home in the NGP role – have felt as excluded as I sometimes have? Would I have felt that way on her behalf? My guess is: a little. But I think some things would have been invisible to me (that’s the way privilege is, isn’t it? despite our most sincere efforts?), and I don’t think she would have minded. But here we are, and something about the newness (achiness) of my subject position, combined with my research interests, has created an awareness. Not the first awareness to be born of feelings of exclusion, and no doubt not the last.
So here’s what I’ve noticed. In this post-third-wave culture, we’re finally getting down to the business of redefining power. This is a good, good thing. No longer willing to let masculinist structures of dominance define what it means to possess power, we’re finding it other places. One of these places is the female body, and recognition of its awesomeness comes to us via the natural childbirth community. Women create life. And they usually don’t need rescued (by a strong, male doctor in a long white coat) in the course of doing so; their bodies know what to do. We had damned well better respect this. The history there (birthing women) is immense and awe-inspiring. And the natural childbirth community is finally telling us that, which is lovely and necessary. You are powerful, they tell pregnant women. The connection you share with this being is unmatched. You are God-like in this role. Pregnant women are a source of power that cannot be replicated. Not with all the science, and the money, and the authority in the man-made world.
What worries me, however, is that – like almost every bid for power that’s come before this one – the approach is exclusionary. In this way, it follows the exclusionary power-in-dominance mode of masculine authority. This happens in this particular community in three ways:
- The first is obvious, and it’s something women who aren’t called to mother (or can’t) have been fighting for decades: If this is the locus of female power, then women who don’t give birth to babies are less powerful. Less woman. Less God-like in the one way women can be so. But must these women find power in the masculine? Might we not make sincere space within the feminine for a power that does not procreate? We’ve done strong work in this area, but the natural childbirth community privileges motherhood in a way that might be said to undermine that work.
- The second is similar. It’s the reality that some women do need medical intervention. For these women, the strong rhetoric of this movement is at risk of instilling shame. Not all of our bodies do this safely. Some of us don’t make it through that way, and we need to create space for power that can exist in light of that fact. Not in spite of it; in light of it. Because when we define power as a woman’s ability to give birth naturally, what are we to think about women who don’t?
- The third is this: If we claim this space as entirely female (and birth-mama centric), then NGPs have no role here. This incredible right/journey/privilege is marked as one that birth-moms take alone. And on the surface, this makes sense. I mean, why shouldn’t birthing women claim this power as theirs and theirs alone? They offer life, for Pete’s sake; they offer life-sustaining milk. These facts are used to empower them. Your babies need you much, much more than they need anyone else. But even as it offers empowerment, this rhetoric puts the heavy weight of early parenthood back on women. If J is the person Rabbit needs most – the only person he really needs at first – then her responsibility to him is massive because she doesn’t share it. For this reason, their bonding is all that matters. There’s very little talk in the natural childbirth community about NGP-child bonding because it’s understood to be secondary. It can wait. But can it? Without the benefit of holding these little beings inside of our bodies, isn’t it especially important to attend to NGP-child bonding? If all we carefully cultivate is bonding between women and their (birth) babies, aren’t we relegating them to being the primary parent at six months, too? And at two years? And at five years? Aren’t we contributing to the creation of the very distance between fathers and their children that we simultaneously bemoan?
If we know how formative those early experiences are, and we care about women (and thus don’t want them to bear unnecessary burdens), shouldn’t we do all we can to create some equity in this community? We might do well, for example, to use this forum to teach men about the awesome power of fatherhood. To teach all NGPs about the gift – and the responsibility – that is parenthood. To help all parents-to-be understand the transformative (bodily. spiritually. emotionally. cognitively.) reality of this journey. Because I have to believe that parenthood is transformative in ALL of these ways for ALL parents (adoptive. gestational. non-gestational.). If we’re going to advocate for the idea that child-rearing is a calling – that it is worthy of our serious attention – shouldn’t we insist that that’s true for parents no matter how they take on that role?
I guess I’m worried that this approach might backfire, that by defining maternal power in such exclusionary terms, we’re relegating birth-mothers to bearing it alone. Because childbirth is (in most cases) followed by a lifetime of parenting, and those early narratives are sure to stick around. Hierarchies, once established, are pretty hard to overthrow. This seems reason enough to be cautious in our definitions of parental power. To be as inclusive as it is possible to be. As it stands, the power of this rhetoric is strong. And it’s confusing because in its exclusion of NGPs (mostly dads), it mirrors the rhetoric we see coming out of much more conservative organizations. A friend recently called my attention to a new study showing how much more working moms multitask than working dads. Though things have clearly changed a great deal since we were kids (more, surely, than I can recognize), we’re nowhere near a state of parenting equity. And there are plenty of right-wing proponents of maintaining that fact: the women-occupy-the-domestic-sphere ideology ain’t even close to dead. So it worries me to see a progressive movement like natural childbirth advocating for a resurgence of division, even if the party line is that division is a product of female power, not – as it’s used elsewhere – a mark of subordination. I love it that we’re telling the institutions that seek to control women’s bodies to fuck off. I’d just like to see us send the same message to institutions that tell us that fathers can’t nurture, as well.
Power is a tricky vixen. It cascades, evades, dominoes in unforeseen ways. I guess I’m just hoping to see it used a little more carefully in this arena. To see it claimed in ways that make space for the life-long relationships that are born each time babies come into this world. To see it resist not just female inferiority, but the notion that carrying a child inside of you is what best suits one to parenthood. We have this platform. Let’s use it to design not just the births we want, but the families we’d like to see.