Feminist childbirth is much bigger than a bathtub

Feminists should forcus on affordable maternity care for all women, not on particular methods of birth.

Home births have become more popular in the past decade, and there are many options for pregnant women [AFP]

This past summer, Soapbox Inc, a speakers’ bureau for feminist voices, launched a feminist summer camp in New York City. Attendees came from around the United States to meet activists, visit feminist art exhibitions and learn about home birthing.

As Ginia Bellafante explained in The New York Times:

“Ms Cook and a group of other teenage girls had just watched a condensed version of ‘The Business of Being Born’, a documentary that takes a sceptical look at hospitalised childbirth, contrasting the arrogant and stressful world of medicine with images of women having babies at home in shallow pools of water as calmly as if they were placing orders from Fresh Direct.”

Now I’m all for immersing young women in feminist thought and culture, but home-births as a cornerstone of contemporary feminism? Is this really what we want future feminists to focus on?

Over the past decade and a half there has been a “natural birth” great awakening in wealthy, industrialised countries around the world. In the US, we’ve seen a rise in home births, the use of midwives and doulas and the publication of books on using things such as hypnosis and orgasms to manage labour pains. There has even been an uptick in freebirthing, or giving birth without any medical assistance, which some expect to continue to rise in the UK now that independent midwives have been outlawed there.

Advocates of these alternative methods often present them in a feminist context, presenting them as another step forwards on the journey of female liberation. As they see it, birth is a path to self-discovery and the truly liberated woman will embrace it with as little intervention as possible.

Todays feminists shouldn’t be encouraging a few privileged women to have their babies at home, any more than they should be telling them to get an elective C-section to save time and energy. Both options can be empowering or oppressive depending on the circumstances.

To each her own

When it comes to delivery, I really don’t think it is my business to take issue with how another woman chooses to do it – assuming she doesn’t put herself or her baby in obvious harm. Your baby, your lady-parts, your choice. But I do take issue with any one method being seen as “more feminist”. This type of thinking hurts women on an individual basis, by its endorsement of a model of female empowerment that many of us can’t, or choose not to, physically, financially or psychologically endure. It also distracts the women’s movement from pushing for universal, safe and affordable maternity care which should be, by now, a basic human right.

When I was planning the birth of my son, I spent a few months contemplating the many different options offered to me in my alternative-leaning neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York. Eventually, I decided I just wanted to keep things simple and easy. This meant, a good old-fashioned, meat and potatoes, hospital birth. No special prepping, no elaborate birth plans, no backup option should complications arise. Instead, I just showed up and let the professionals do their thing.

I don’t doubt the mothers who say they found their home or water births deeply inspiring or that going drug-free made them feel more connected, but I knew that that just wasn’t for me. I preferred spending my pregnancy devoted to my professional work and getting ready for life with a child, and, um, napping, instead of preparing myself for a medication-free water birth. This, for me, was liberating. Also, at my core, I just couldn’t buy into the ideas promoted by some alternative-birthing advocates that women have some magical quality that lets them breathe through pain, or that any medical intervention would be catastrophic for mother-new born bonding – it wasn’t.

The thinking of hospital births as anti-feminist was borne out of the second-wave feminist determination to give women the ability to have some control over the birthing experience during a time when they had very little. If you’ve seen the “Mad Men” episode when Betty gives birth, you know what I am talking about. She is shaved, given an enema, induced into a “twilight sleep”, and left alone in a room. Things needed to change, and thankfully, they have.

And the pendulum swings

Though what many don’t know is that the push to have medicalised and anesthetised births in the first place also came from feminists, decades earlier. First-wave feminists pushed for pain relief during childbirth and the medical supervision it requires. For these women, pain relief and hospitalisation was a way for them to take control over the experience, as opposed to them being controlled. Historians have found that before the 20th century, when most births were at home, many women reported feeling very fearful of the pain and danger of delivery.

Todays feminists shouldn’t be encouraging a few privileged women to have their babies at home, any more than they should be telling them to get an elective C-section to save time and energy. Both options can be empowering or oppressive depending on the circumstances.

That said, there is plenty of work that feminists could and should be doing in the arena of childbirth. They should be fighting to make maternity coverage both affordable and standard around the globe. They should be pushing for the integration of midwives into the medical system, so that women can have the best of both worlds. And they should be fighting for accessible prenatal care for all women, which will greatly reduce many complications for baby and mother, as well as C-sections, down the line. 

As it stands now, complications from childbirth account for half a million deaths a year and millions of injuries. And with the US having the highest cost of childbirth, middle-class American women  are going broke from having a baby. Feminist childbirth is so much bigger than a bathtub.

Elissa Strauss is an essayist and blogger whose writing on gender and culture has appeared on Jezebel, Slate, Salon and the Forward, where she is a lead blogger for the Sisterhood.