Birth represents woman at her LEAST powerful



One of the most depressing things about the philosophy of natural childbirth is that it treats women like children who can be chivvied into believing sugar coated nonsense. Perhaps the premier example of this tendency toward infantilizing grown women is the bizarre claim that birth represents woman at her most powerful. Milli Hill purveys this ridiculous drivel in her recent piece in The Guardian while whining that Facebook removed images that violate their policies:

You could argue that this is simply about nudity, but I think there’s more to it. Social media reflects our wider culture’s issue, not with naked women, but with naked women who look real and active as opposed to air-brushed and passive. It also reflects millennia of attempts to suppress women’s power, of which childbirth is perhaps the ultimate expression.

Oh, please, Milli; grow up! Women have been giving birth vaginally without pain medication (or dying in the attempt) since the beginning of human existence, and until relatively recently, women have had ZERO power. Indeed, in countries that lack access to modern obstetrics, where every woman is forced to endure natural childbirth, women still have ZERO power. In such societies women are viewed as the property of their husbands, have no political or economic rights, are married off while still children, die in droves due to hideous maternal mortality rates, have their genitals mutilated, and are raped with impunity in war and often in peace as well. Does that sound like power to you, Milli?

The idea that childbirth reflects women’s power would be ludicrous if it weren’t so offensive. Obviously Hill isn’t talking about poor women, women of color, women living a subsistence existence in developing countries. She’s not talking about THOSE women, who are the majority of women in the world. Hill is apparently talking about privileged, Western, white women like herself who are apparently the only ones who count.

But, you know what, Milli, you’re wrong about those women, too. In industrialized countries that accord women legal and economic rights, birth does NOT represent women at their most powerful. It represents women at their LEAST powerful.

There is no power in being in agonizing pain, incapable of doing anything other than screaming or moaning, barely rational, and totally bereft of the capacity to control anything. A woman in labor surrenders all her power to others. A woman in labor is extraordinarily vulnerable and is at the mercy of anyone who walks by. She can’t defend herself, she can’t assert herself, she can’t express herself, she can’t care for others and she can’t care for herself if the need arises.

Yes, the process of labor is powerful. Once it has a woman in its grip, it does not let go until the baby is born or the woman is dead. It’s powerful in the same way that a tornado or an earthquake is powerful. Claiming that labor represents woman at her most powerful, is like claiming that a woman sucked out of her tornado ravaged house is powerful. In both cases she is subjected to powerful natural forces, but she herself is completely powerless.

Birth doesn’t merely render women physically powerless, the storm of hormones that surround and follow birth can also render them emotionally powerless. Many women have trouble controlling their emotions, may experience unexpected sadness, depression and in severe cases, major mental illness. In addition, many women are uniquely vulnerable to psychological manipulation in the days and weeks following birth because they are overwhelmed with love for the new baby and desperate to do their best in caring for him or her. They can be helpless to defend themselves against the depredations of natural childbirth advocates and lactivists who gleefully shame them with false accusations that a baby won’t bond to a mother who had medication during labor or who chooses not to breastfeed.

No, Milli, birth does not represent woman at her most powerful, it represents woman at her most vulnerable, and anyone who claims to care for pregnant women and new mothers should recognize and acknowledge that. To the extent that some women are powerful, their power resides in their intellect, their talents, their money, their political power (if they wield any), their military power (if they wield any), their degrees, their qualifications, and their work experience. Powerful women do not derive their power from having a baby transit their vagina, and it is pure nonsense to pretend that they do.

Natural childbirth advocates need to stop treating women like preschoolers. It is fine to tell a toddler that using the potty means she is a “big girl,” but it is demeaning to tell a grown woman that pushing a baby out through her vagina means that she is “powerful.” Expecting women to accept sugar coated lies in place of real power simply emphasizes their powerlessness.