feminist concerns about the natural childbirth community

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.


31 thoughts on “feminist concerns about the natural childbirth community

  1. I think you’re right on, and I also think that lefty movements often have strange bedfellows in the far right. Think of the home schooling movement–the keep my kids home from school because I don’t want the government to touch their innocent ears have more in common with unschoolers than I do. And I’m pretty far left.

    As you know, I’ve been on two sides of the baby carrying. I think that because I carried our first child, and knew the importance of my partner through the pregnancy, through labor, through the birth, through the first weeks of nursing, and through the hormonal charged first months of life, I could roll my eyes through the bullshit that you point to here about the implied lesser role of the NGP. YOU know that you don’t have a lesser role. In fact, your voice is and will continue to be so important as J struggles through (what I’m sure will be a very easy and perfect!) labor. The voice of strength that she might be unable to articulate, that she might be too tired to say, that might be ignored because of the sexism still present about the implied weakness of women in labor. I think it is important for women–both those who are gestating and those who are not–to call attention to the both/and roles of all parents. So, thanks for doing it.

    (also, I have to say that one of my biggest fears during Jessica’s pregnancy was that I wouldn’t be as strong during her labor as she was during mine. That’s how key the NGP role is. And, well, we know how that turned out in my family’s case!)

    • Thanks, Jill. My ideas on all of this are so deeply informed by the strong, brave, loving mamahood that you and Jess have modeled for us. Your reassurances mean a lot.

  2. “For these women, the strong rhetoric of this movement is at risk of instilling shame…we need to create space for power that can exist in light of that fact. Not in spite of it; in light of it.”

    I still sometimes struggle with this one. I still have trouble with how I got sick at the end of our son’s pregnancy (a rare unpredictable liver condition), in a way that was a big risk to my son (and also lost us that “natural” birth). It was a great birth. Our son was and is healthy. But I still get a bit caught there, feel a bit sad and sometimes even a bit ashamed, and yes, some of the feelings are amplified because of drinking (some) of the natural birth koolaid.

    “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?”

    Yes. Did I point you to the equally shared parenting book by Marc and Amy Vachon? Not nearly so deep as what you are writing here, but lovely on the nuts and bolts of making this happen, and lovely for getting bits of stories from families who have found ways to do things differently.

    • This is what breaks my heart: that you could do such strong, powerful work bringing your son into the world, and yet not feel strong and powerful in the wake of having done so. And I mean, if that’s true for you, then I can only imagine how true it is for people who don’t have some of our resources. Anyway, I haven’t heard of the Vachon book before, but I will definitely check it out now. The community of alternative parenting is wide and awe-inspiring. Thanks for the comment and the suggestion!

    • Oh, thank you Laura. That means a great deal coming from you. If you and Ben decide to have children, I just know you will do it with grace, presence of mind, and loving generosity, as you do everything I’ve seen you tackle. My love to you both!

  3. Yes, Yes, Yes! Thank you for putting words to the gnawing feeling that has been growing inside me regarding this growing community. As someone who has struggled with fertility and has had to seek help from the -gasp- medical community I absolutely have felt judged and disrespected for not being a complete woman or being enlightened enough to be all natural.

    • Wow, thanks you. I apologize for a community that made you feel judged and disrespected when it should have been holding you up as you faced the traumatic struggles of infertility. My only hope is that in having faced that judgment, we’ll all be empowered to treat other women with respect and compassion (and maybe in doing so we’ll learn to treat ourselves that way).

  4. Thank you for this post. I’ve been meaning to write about why the term natural applied to childbirth gives me hives, and this is a big piece of it (especially, as a mother who has only given birth, part two). I reject the idea that the birth I gave was unnatural, though I certainly benefitted from modern technology (as most births do, even at home), but more than that I reject this poisonous division between natural and not, a division I have found myself on the shamed end of far too many times already.

    • I agree about the division, which is such an artifice. We need to blur these lines, not draw them more absolutely. Thanks for the comment, and for sharing your own struggles!

  5. I appreciate this post immensely. “Tricky vixen” has got to be the best two-word summary of Foucault ever! I particularly love your focus on the ways that privilege and inclusion thwart possibility. I shared it on Facebook, and a surprisingly diverse group of folks echoed my feelings.

    • Thank you, Travis! I’ve been surprised by the response to what was, for me, really just a way of working through my own sense of injustice vis-a-vis all of this. It means more than I can say that it seems to resonate with others. I have to tell you that when I feel excluded – when the narratives start to get to me and I begin to fear that they’re right – your family is a go to mental counter. I am in awe of what you have built; your family gives me the confidence to trust myself as a parent, as a critical, necessary, powerful presence in my future children’s lives. Thank you for the example you three live.

  6. Yes, yes, yes – a thousand times yes! Thank you for articulating some of the things i have been ruminating on over the past few months so thoroughly and so insightfully… I am going to share this. <3

    • Back atcha, sister. Surely you hear your own words echoed here, so deeply has your struggle informed my thoughts. Thanks for the share!

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  8. Thanks R, for your observations and insights. As a woman who feels deeply identified with my femininity yet who probably won’t procreate (unless something drastically changes in my life soon), I’ve been sitting with your question: Might we not make sincere space within the feminine for a power that does not procreate? And what would that look like?

  9. This is such an insightful post — I’m one of those women who would not have made it through (and my son certainly wouldn’t have) without medical intervention during my labor. This post has given me a lot to think about.

  10. Thanks for this eloquent post. As a child born at home in the 1970s, then a NGP and then a birth-mom — but one who required an emergency C-section to save both my life and that of my daughter (despite my planned home birth) — I have struggled mightily with a sense of having betrayed the natural birth community/feeling betrayed by it. And have struggled with precisely what you articulate here — the sense that empowering women is more complicated and multi-faceted than just empowering birth mothers, and mothers who birth in a particular way at that.

  11. I found your blog a while back, but lost it, and then found it again. Thank you for putting everything into words what I was feeling, but was lacking the language to artfully articulate!!! I’m the (intended) NGP since we’re trying to knock up my wife. I’m also a Neonatal ICU nurse in a very (awesome) baby-friendly hospital. I’m an intense breastfeeding and parental bonding advocate (which, thankfully, is not uncommon amongst my coworkers). I’ve struggled with the idea of not being able to hold my baby when it’s born for fear of interrupting the bonding process and establishing breastfeeding and the likes.

    I also see lots of mamas whose babies need high levels of intervention (we are the highest level NICU you can get, plus we are the only surgical nursery in the province), most born by emergency c-section for all kinds of things. I think a lot of them struggle with what you’ve mentioned, and also struggle with the same things you are (that your body let you down). They’re still parents, no matter how their baby came into (and sometimes exited) the world. My getting-close-to-discharge-getting-ready-for-the-outside-world shpeal has started to include nuggets about the political-ness of parenting and how EVERYONE will have an opinion about EVERYTHING, but that they need to do whatever feels right for THEM.

    So thank you again for this post. You’ve absolutely made my night. I wish you and J and Rabbit all the happiness!!

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  13. Thank you. As an adoptive parent I can relate to your post. I’ve been a mom legally for almost 6 years and effectively for 7, and I still sometimes find myself insecure in my role. I tend to think of my daughter as belonging more to my husband than to me, as he has known her longer than I have and was married to her bio mom (deceased). I know this doesn’t make sense but then feelings often don’t. I love my daughter and will protect and nurture her with everything in me but I must also admit that parenting is HARD. There are days when I feel I might have been better off without this challenge. I’m not proud of these feelings. I’m pretty sure that at least some bio parents also occasionally feel this way. But in the back of my mind there is always a question about the quality and intensity of feelings, positive and negative, in bio vs NGP.

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