Disciplining women through the rhetoric of natural childbirth

Beautiful woman doing different expressions in different

When I started the predecessor of this blog more than a decade ago I was a lone voice in the wilderness. Now my views — including the notion that natural childbirth is a deeply anti-feminist effort to exert control over women — are generating ever more attention in academic circles.

The latest paper to focus on controlling women through the rhetoric of natural childbirth is Pushing Ecstasy: Neoliberalism, Childbirth, and the Making of Mama Economicus written by Kate Rossiter and published in the journal Women’s Studies. It is Rossiter’s contention that birth has been commodified not merely to make money, but to discipline women.

Natural childbirth disempowers women by forcing them to erase their non-maternal selves.

Rossiter was inspired to explore the ways that natural childbirth advocacy controls women after she did everything “right” and had a terrifying birth experience nonetheless.

In 2011, I gave birth to my daughter unmedicated, at home, and assisted by a midwife—just as I had planned. She was healthy. I was healthy. It was, in the order of things, the “perfect” birth. Perfect, except that the birth was over- whelming, painful, and frightening, and I came away from the experience feeling as though I had fallen short—had failed, or been failed. When I expected to feel exultant, empowered, and proud, I simply felt empty, sad, and numb. Why had I expected ecstasy, and why did this failed promise indicate my overall failure as a mother? …

Sounds familiar, right?

Rossiter blames the usual suspects:

…I engage three key texts—midwife Elizabeth Davis and doula Debra Pascali-Bonaro’s Orgasmic Birth, physician Sarah Buckley’s Ecstatic Birth: Nature’s Hormonal Blueprint for Labor, and spiritualist Jeanice Barcelo’s website Birth of a New Earth—that illuminate and exemplify the underlying tenets of the ecstatic (or orgasmic) birth movement.

Her description of their rhetoric is spot on:

Through a critical analysis of these three aforementioned texts, I argue that the discourse of the ecstatic birth movement, under the guise of supportive instruction, provides an extremely compelling (and ultimately constraining) construction of the “good mother” as expressed through the birth experience…

I aim to trouble and challenge the underlying politics of the ecstatic birth movement, and to capture the oppressive impact that this discourse has on birthing women.

Rossiter’s analysis follows that of Foucault, arguing that consumerism can be used to control people.

My analysis takes seriously Foucault’s assertion that the body—and discourses about the body and bodily practice—is a critical site for the production and manifestation of particular kinds of power relations.

Natural childbirth discourse is a way to exert power over women, ultimately constraining their choices to those favored by the powerful.

Rossiter postulates the existence of Mama Economicus, the female analogue of Homo Economicus:

…Foucault argues that there are two important facets of the neoliberal construction of homo economicus: first, homo economicus is, at heart, an “entrepreneur of himself [sic]” and therefore invested in schemas of his or her own self-improvement; second, the goal of neoliberal production is not to earn a wage, but rather to engage in consumptive gratification.

Rossiter notes, as I have noted, that the original goals of the natural childbirth movement were valuable but the goals gave been transmuted. It started as an effort to wrest control from the patriarchy; has become an effort to enforce control by society by convincing women to discipline themselves:

…Thus, what on the surface may appear to be an ethic of care that empowers women in their choice-making ability is in fact a tactic that individuates and ultimately disempowers women in terms of their ability to operate outside self-managerial, consumerist frameworks.

It is a source of oppression.

…Anthropologist Gail Landsman points to the ways in which the contemporary discourse of pregnancy and childbirth places total responsibility for the health and wellbeing of children in the hands of the mother, demanding that women do everything right. Specifically, Landsman looks at the rigid instructions for self-care (and self-deprivation) in pregnancy, which contribute to stigmatizing and painful forms of mother-blame in mothers of children with disabilities.

Consumerism is deployed to exert control over women, “the making of mama economicus“:

…[U]nderlying this appeal is, in fact, a highly constraining model of self-regulation where women’s lives and routines are governed by a series of practices necessary for getting it [birth] right… [G]etting it right is not simply a matter of having an enjoyable, fulfilling birth, but in fact is critical to the act of good motherhood…

Rossiter notes:

…[T]his discourse juxtaposes two images of the birthing mother: one wild, and one under technocratic gaze; one pure and authentic, and one living uncritically and irresponsibly within contemporary culture. Paradoxically, in order to access this wild self, the mother must work very hard to regulate herself and her surroundings in order to ensure that her ecstatic potential is realized… This is a mother who, through her diligent preparedness has optimized her natural capacity to birth … This is the mother who forgets herself in the face of her baby’s needs, and, crucially, enjoys this erasure of her non-maternal self…

And it pathologizes women who refuses to go along:

This model holds no place for alternate reactions, such as ambivalence, grief, or anger. Rather, the implicit correlation is that deviation from the ideal of the ecstatic mother marks some kind of failure or pathology—suggesting that the birth circumstances were not optimal, or the mother’s hormonal system is somehow faulty, or that she herself is not a natural mother.

What purpose does mama economicus serve? She is a woman bound to her children and bound to her home?

…The work of motherhood here is twofold. First, it is the work of her own self-regulation qua enjoyment. She works on herself so that she may better perform the work of motherhood, which promises unceasing joy and happiness. Perhaps more importantly, though, through her own self-regulation—and by extension the management of her children for whom she has utter responsibility—she relieves the state and other broad structural forces of social responsibility.

Women could reject these restrictions but:

… [They are] presented as extremely compelling and deeply gratifying, perhaps more so than any other form of work. The work of assuming total responsibility for herself and her offspring is her birthright, should she so choose. As exemplified by the ecstatic birth discourse, the work of motherhood is constructed as so deeply fulfilling and gratifying that even labor—a quintessentially agonizing feature of motherhood—is refigured as orgasm.

At a stroke women are disciplined into restricting themselves to motherhood and relieving society of any responsibility toward mothers or children.

  • And underlying it all is this deeply misogynistic tone – the female machismo exemplified. Why is it so critical for women, to forget themselves, to be good mothers? Men are not expected to “forget themselves” – rather they are expected to bring the best of themselves to fathering. I deeply suspect, that rather than lowering the rates of women traumatized and deeply harmed (psychologically and physically) this movement has inflicted a large toll – one where, as the author aptly points out – is heavily stigmatized for failing to reinforce the belief. How isolating and awful, that this event – central to women’s lives – is held in this way, where there is no room for a “range of experiences”, where here too, there is an idea about what is right and that idea focuses so heavily on a specific process rather than specific outcomes or values.

  • lawyer jane

    “Perhaps more importantly, though, through her own self-regulation—and by extension the management of her children for whom she has utter responsibility—she relieves the state and other broad structural forces of social responsibility.”

    YES. I have been searching to see this articulated for a while now.

  • Emilie Bishop

    It’s not just birth, it starts at the preconception stage. I was in the best shape and lowest weight of my adult life when, at age 26, I miscarried my first pregnancy. No one ever said explicitly that I caused this by doing or not doing something, but the rhetoric surrounding nutrition during pregnancy has a tendency to cut both ways, especially when dealing with infertility or losses. You need to eat perfectly and exercise right up to the point of discomfort to ensure optimal health for your baby–all while eliminating stress, because that’s bad for brain development. Do prenatal yoga and tons of pelvic floor training to be in shape of delivery–“widen your hips as much as possible,” my doc told me from 36 weeks on. And all of this is probably good advice at some level, but it’s the moralizing, paranoid tone that turns it toxic. But then to question it leaves you sounding and feeling like you don’t want the best for your child…and full circle of crazy complete.

    • AnnaPDE

      But don’t do the wrong (fun) kind of exercise because that’ll kill your baby. Only woo-filled pregnancy yoga please!

  • TsuDhoNimh

    “a highly constraining model of self-regulation where women’s lives and
    routines are governed by a series of practices necessary for getting it
    [birth] right”

    Tribal rituals … like locking yourself in a hut during menstruation, not letting the groom see your face on the wedding day …

    And you are judged, not by the outcome, but by how strictly you adhered to the rituals.

  • Mel

    The oddest place – for me – that I’ve seen this is in well-meaning people’s sympathy for the fact I had a C-section with Spawn.

    Some people seem as disturbed on my behalf at the fact that I needed a CS as they do about the fact the CS happened at 26 weeks gestation…or more disturbed by the CS.

    I enjoy the look of confusion on their faces when I say that I was honestly relieved to have a CS since I had not been terribly excited about undergoing a vaginal delivery and had planned on getting an epidural as early as possible anyways.

    One lost soul attempted to explain that the doctors’ really should have tried to induce labor before the CS. I shot that one down. I was a FTM with no organized uterine contractions and a rock-hard cervix so induction had a snowball’s chance of hell of succeeding at all. If it did work, Spawn was breech (and alternating between complete and frank…he was active even then) and a vaginal breech delivery of a 26 weeker promises brain bleeds. Oh, plus, a good BP for me laying flat in bed breathing deeply and relaxing all my muscles was 150/100 so I’m guessing that pushing ran a good risk of me having a stroke as well as Spawn. Add in the possibility of torrential bleeding at any point from my lack of platelets and no one – especially me – felt having a vaginal birth was worth the risk of both of us gaining disabilities or dying.

    • Montserrat Blanco

      NCB rethoric at its best… you are allowed to tell them to go make love to themselves in my name.

      How is Spawn doing? Is he doing well with his breathing? Best wishes.

      • Empress of the Iguana People

        Ibid.

      • Mel

        He’s doing pretty solid!

        He’s on NIPPV and much happier with it this time. The only “problem” right now is that the NIPPV tubes cause his isolette to be warm – and he is not heat-tolerant.

        Today, he would be doing fine during skin-to-skin and would become cranky with a really high heart rate and a raised body temperature whenever he was in the isolette. They’re running CBCs every few hours to be sure he’s not getting an infection – but he’s been sound asleep with his normal heart rate and body temp since they opened the top of the isolette.

        I’m glad Spawn’s doing well on NIPPV for one other reason – I hadn’t realized how much it would free him to wiggle around more. I don’t have to keep his head clamped to my chest and his right arm pinned at his chest to keep him from moving his ET tube during skin-to-skin. I love being able to move him into another position when he’s uncomfortable without ending skin-to-skin, too. He is pretty good at crying, too. My favorite sound, though, is a noise he makes when he’s either slightly annoyed or trying to join a conversation. We call it his “bag of angry Tribbles” noise since that’s what he sounds like.

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      Oy. *eyeroll* I was sort of hoping for a reason to get one. My own spawn is built along very sturdy lines.

    • Of all the things to worry about in that scenario, the lack of a love canal transit or attempt seems so petty. Hoping Spawn is doing well – and that you are also doing well. Glad you weren’t at the mercy of someone hell bent on the process at the expense of the ultimate outcomes.

  • fiftyfifty1

    I see a lot of parallels here with how women are taught to believe that they will achieve happiness if only they can curb their hunger and discipline themselves into reaching and maintaining their “ideal weight”. Think of all the time and mental energy that women put into this effort, and all the self blame. Men get to put this extra time and energy into their careers or at least their hobbies.

    • Sean Jungian

      Yes, it’s amazing how something that ostensibly began as reaction against the patriarchy has ended up ruthlessly enforcing it.

      Another “job” women have is being attractive/appealing to men. We’re told that basically we don’t deserve to be loved unless we make those efforts.

      I’ve always wondered why, through history, men have been so threatened by women and womens’ sexuality? Is it really so simple as just being squicked out by our anatomy? Why does this legacy dog us century after century?

      • J.B.

        There are consolations to getting older…older women with self confidence and economic power can be scary as h3ll.

        • fiftyfifty1

          So scary, apparently, that they print bumper stickers that say “Trump that Bitch”. 🙁

      • TheArtistFormerlyKnownAsYoya

        I chalk it up to the fact that men can’t know *for sure* that a child is theirs, not the same way women can. The attempt to control women’s sexuality is an attempt to gain certainty around paternity, and I think mostly it’s subconscious.

    • J.B.

      Physical attractiveness does go both ways though. Plenty of men spend too much energy bulking up muscles. Even though it’s not as defining for men, they can be caught up in it too. I think the important thing is having a diverse array of things you can put your energy towards.