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.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Natural childbirth disempowers women by forcing them to erase their non-maternal selves.[/pullquote]

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.