Are women socialized to fear childbirth or are midwives socialized to pretend childbirth isn’t fearful?


Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

That question came to mind when I read an article in today’s Guardian, Growing childbirth terror disorder ‘fuelled by social media’.

Catriona Jones, a lecturer in midwifery at the University of Hull, who has studied tocophobia, believes social media is partly to blame for the phenomenon.

Speaking at the British science festival, taking place at the university, she said: “You just have to Google childbirth and you’re met with a tsunami of horror stories.

“If you go onto any of the Mumsnet forums, there are women telling their stories of childbirth – oh, it was terrible, it was a bloodbath, this and that happened. I think that can be quite frightening for women to engage with and read about.

Jones has adopted the position that the proverbial chicken came first. Fear of childbirth is implied to be a cultural construct that does not reflect the reality of nature. It arrives fully formed in response to socialization through frightening birth stories.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Midwives are employing the classic misogynist tactic of muzzling women who seek community and validation in sharing their experiences.[/pullquote]

Medieval philosophers also thought the chicken came first:

By the end of the 16th century, the well-known question seemed to have been regarded as settled in the Christian world, based on the origin story of the Bible. In describing the creation of animals, it allows for a first chicken that did not come from an egg.

They “knew” the chicken came first because their Bible told them so. Similarly, Ms. Jones “knows” that the chicken of fear of childbirth came first because her bible told her so. It is an article of faith among natural childbirth advocates that pain in labor comes from fear and fear comes from socialization.

But science tells us that it was the egg that came first:

…[A]n animal nearly identical to the modern chicken (i.e., a proto-chicken) laid a fertilized egg that had DNA identical to the modern chicken (due to mutations in the mother’s ovum, the father’s sperm, or the fertilised zygote). Put more simply by Neil deGrasse Tyson: “Which came first: the chicken or the egg? The egg — laid by a bird that was not a chicken.”

Science also tells that it the pain and the death toll of childbirth that led to fear, not socialization. The pain of childbirth is thought to have had the evolutionary purpose of promoting the purely human behavior of assistance in childbirth. Human childbirth is inherently dangerous and assistance can mitigate the risk by manipulating the baby out of a difficult position or by massaging the uterus to prevent hemorrhage after birth. A woman in pain sought out help; a woman who sought out help was more likely to survive; ultimately painful labor spread through the population because it was evolutionarily advantageous.

The death toll of childbirth speaks for itself. In every time, place and culture childbirth has always been a leading cause of death of young women. In countries where pre-technological conditions remain, the lifetime risk of maternal mortality has been as high as 1:10 as recently as 1990.

Even if science didn’t give us the answer, history tells us that the idea that labor pain is a construct of modern Western culture is nonsensical. The people who wrote the Bible were so impressed by the extreme agony of labor that they explained it as nothing less than a grievous punishment from God.

May midwives insist that the pain of labor is a cultural construct for a very simple reason: self-dealing. They have lost the care of a large proportion of women to obstetricians because OBs can abolish the pain of childbirth and midwives cannot. Living in our culture, where people are socialized to imagine that anything they like is natural and anything they dislike is a cultural construct, they have resorted to the foolish claim that painful childbirth is result of socialization, transmitted in this case by social media.

Midwives thus make stupifyingly ignorant claims like this:

Julie Jomeen, a professor of midwifery and the dean of the faculty of health sciences at the University of Hull, said: “Tocophobia is a modern-day phenomenon. Some of these women really think they are going to die.

“Two hundred years ago people accepted that they might die from childbirth. Today we expect childbirth to be safe.”

What? Does Jomeen think that women didn’t fear childbirth prior to the 20th Century? We have copious written evidence from women themselves that they viewed childbirth with unalloyed horror, dreaded the pain, feared the deaths of their children, and perhaps most anguishing of all, were terrified that they would leave their older childbirth motherless.

Is Jomeen trying to suggest that prior to the 20th Century women accepted the possibility of their own deaths with equanimity? Every bit of historical evidence we have shows that all people (men and women) have feared their own deaths throughout recorded history. Yes, they were surrounded by premature death; yes, their religious practice was designed to prepare them for death; but they still resisted death any and every way they knew how.

What’s going on here? The irony is that the midwives accuse women of being socialized to fear labor are oblivious to the fact that THEY are the ones who are blinded by a cultural construct. THEY are socialized to believe, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that labor is enjoyable, empowering and worthy of embrace.

As Suzanne Moore, also of The Guardian notes:

Women fear childbirth because pushing out another human being through a small opening in your body is to be split asunder…

The fear is rational. When women tell each other birth horror stories nowadays, this is not an exercise in fiction. They are telling the truth.

But there is another larger and more tragic irony here. Midwives who claim to be promoting a feminist ideal of birth are employing the classic misogynist tactic of muzzling women who seek community and validation in sharing their experiences.

If you feel mentally and physically traumatised, please do keep talking. You are not spreading fear. Because women sharing their truths, however bloody messy these are, is actually how we change things.

It is only through sharing the agony of postpartum depression that women have forced medical providers to take action. It is only through sharing maternal deaths (including sharing by journalists) that women have forced providers to take action. Similarly, it is only through sharing stories (especially sharing by the Fed Is Best Foundation) of babies harmed by aggressive breastfeeding promotion that women are gradually forcing medical providers to acknowledge the dangers and take action against unscientific programs like the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative.

Social media has serious problems, but those problems concern empirical facts not personal experiences. Indeed, social media can serve as repository of and witness to raw human suffering and can elicit the best in human nature through campaigns, emotional and financial, to support those who are suffering. Moreover, social media is remarkably democratic, allowing anyone to communicate with the world, not merely those who satisfy a publishers’ prejudices.

Disparaging women who share their stories of childbirth agony, injuries and trauma on social media is a particularly chilling way to control discourse. Not only does it blame the victim but it also seeks to disempower women from preventing victimization. If you don’t know about the dangers of childbirth, you can’t protect yourself from them. If you don’t know about the agony of childbirth, you can’t mentally prepare yourself for it. And if you don’t know about the suffering that childbirth causes many women, you may needlessly, regrettably end up blaming yourself when it happens to you.