Birth is not a crucible

Failure - sign series for business terms.

When it comes to controlling women, there are few better ways to encourage desired behavior than inducing shame. For most of recorded history, women were controlled into maintaining their virginity before marriage and sexual fidelity after marriage by surrounding women’s sexuality with intense shame. Women who had never been married were rendered unmarriageable by sexual intercourse. In most cultures married women who had sex outside the bound of marriage were subject to severe punishment up to and including execution.

Fortunately we’ve moved beyond that in industrialized societies in 2014, and it’s not by making sure that all women are virgins until their wedding night. It’s by removing the shame from women’s sexual satisfaction.

Now we need to do something similar for childbirth.

Just as shame was used by men to control women’s sexuality, shame is used by natural childbirth advocates to control women’s experience of childbirth. Where would the natural childbirth industry be if they couldn’t convince women to be ashamed for “failing”? They’d be poor and unemployed without using shaming as a marketing tool.

Childbirth educator Gabrielle Volkmer, in her piece Birth As a Crucible perfectly illustrates the intense shame that is integral to natural childbirth advocacy.

You prepare painstakingly — religiously fervent, almost — for your birth. You read, you study, you attend classes, you watch videos, you talk, you research, you listen, you question. You form firm core beliefs about pregnancy, labor, birth, femininity and motherhood. You have surrounded yourself with people you think will support you on your big day. You have conquered your fear and are prepared to have the best birth you can. You are ready to get your birth “right,” whatever unpredictable course it takes, because getting your birth right simply means doing all you can to achieve the best birth possible.

Only… you don’t achieve your best possible birth. You are left with the feeling that you and those around you didn’t do all you could to attain your goals. You have failed at getting it right — not because of your outcome, but because of how you got to that outcome. (emphasis in the original)

Why does that happen?

And all the time you wonder why. Why are you so upset? You have a healthy baby. You are safe. Your body has healed from the beating you called birth. It was fairly normal. No crazy complications. No coerced procedures. No emergency C-section or anything quite so dramatic. Just a normal birth gone a little off on an unexpected track…

It happens because Volkmer imbibed the shame-making nonsense of natural childbirth “education” that teaches women to judge themselves by their birth performance and to emotionally flagellate themselves if they don’t perform as mandated.

I have some advice for Ms. Volkmer:

Birth is not a piece of performance art
Birth is not a test of personal fortitude
Birth is not a crucible

Come closer and I’ll share with you the secret of the true meaning of birth:


Yes, I realize that natural childbirth privileges process over outcome, and views birth as primarily an opportunity for boasting when done properly or shaming if you don’t follow the pre-approved script. That’s how natural childbirth advocacy perpetuates itself. First they get you to believe, then they punish or reward you based on how faithful you are to dogma.

Volkmer responds just as prescribed:

You may not be able to control your pain, but you can channel it. After a while you use it to help you heal. You let it drive you to prepare for a better birth next time around. It motivates you to try to help other women avoid what you have gone through.

Or you could address the shaming integral to natural childbirth advocacy in the same way we addressed the shame surrounding women’s sexuality. You can reject it!

There is no “best” way to give birth. Don’t let anyone tell you that there is, because believing it means ceding power and agency to a group of people who control other women by making them feel like failures. You can’t be empowered giving others power to shame you, mandating how you must give birth and finding you wanting if you don’t comply.

Women find their power by rejecting efforts to control them, not by giving in.