Natural childbirth and the valorization of maternal masochism

29673371 - eraser deleting the word masochism

There are many viewpoints sheltering under the umbrella of the philosophy of natural childbirth — midwife attended birth, home birth, unassisted birth, hypnobirthing and even orgasmic birth — but all share a central belief in the value of masochism.

Ashley Noel Mack writes about the supposed transformative value of maternal masochism in The Self-Made Mom: Neoliberalism and Masochistic Motherhood in Home-Birth Videos on YouTube.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The philosophy of natural childbirth isn’t transgressive; it’s a new way to oppress women by ecouraging them to oppress themselves. [/pullquote]

I explore their role in cultivating a masochistic subjective posture that rationalizes self-governance and subordinates opportunities for feminist systemic critique in favor of celebration of individual autonomy. After detailing the functions of birth stories as self-made narratives that reinforce dominant discourses of masochistic motherhood in a neoliberalist context that conditions mothers to self- renounce, self-deny, and sacrifice in order to be “good” citizens …

While her analysis is based on homebirth, it seems to me to be generalizable to the philosophy of unmedicated childbirth in any venue: from hospital, to birth center and to the great outdoors.

Mack believes that there is more to birth videos and birth stories than their creators suppose:

While the videos likely reflect a deeply felt and real experience of self-empowerment and transformation for the maternal subjects depicted, in the present essay I build a case for complicating the videos’ claims of empowerment by asking questions about for whom and to what end these videos function.

The philosophy of natural childbirth isn’t transgressive; it’s a new way to oppress women by ecouraging them to oppress themselves.

The glorification of “the natural” is particularly problematic:

…As a plethora of feminist and gender scholars have previously noted, discourses of naturalism serve to bind women to notions of motherhood and womanness that are then taken for granted as “innate” and inescapable. Considering the fact that giving birth is a biological process of the “female body,” the naturalization of the birth process may seem like an obvious articulation. However, while birth is certainly a biological and physiological process that certain female bodies are capable of performing, its meanings are socially produced …

Women who refuse to root their value in their reproductive organs are pathologized as victims of false consciousness:

Discourses … often suggest that if only the maternal subject would “wake up” from the state of false consciousness imposed on her by the technocratic model of birth, she would become what she has always been predetermined to be. The naturalist orientation, taken to its furthest conclusion, forecloses on possibilities, alternatives, and routes to indeterminacy in birth and mothering by tethering these experiences to privileged, socially produced, and homogenized conceptions of the female body and motherhood.

But perhaps it is natural childbirth advocates themselves who have been tricked into eagerly accepting a philosophy that promotes the idea that pain is good for women.

“Pain” is symbolically negotiated and depicted as a resource for self-optimization in these texts, and the masochistic impulse of the self-made narrative contributes to the reification of modern motherhood on particular terms… I chart how pain is not only framed as central to the narrative but also valorized as maternal subjects are depicted enduring, embracing, or even enjoying their encounter with pain.

Is this is a subversion to the biblical injunction that the agony that women suffer in childbirth is punishment for their intrinsic sin or this merely a way to convince women to accept the punishment? If you believe that women ought to be punished for having sex (and many people do), what better way to enforce that punishment than to have women embrace it?

The pain of childbirth is also valorized as a hardship that the subjects endure or pass through on their way to transcendence… Unsurprisingly, many of the women state that “giving birth naturally was my biggest accomplishment” or proclaim while holding their baby, sobbing and wailing shortly after birth, “I did it, oh my God, I did it,” or that “It was so worth it.”

There’s no better brainwashing than that.

Feminist scholars have written repeatedly about the ways in which women are convinced to punish themselves:

Ehrenreich and English argue that by the mid-20th century, motherhood was defined rhetorically by a dutiful self-denial and renunciation. A good mother gave up her passions and sacrificed her happiness (and often well-being) to take care of her children and her family… To be a good and healthy mother, citizen, and person, then, was to be a masochistic child bearer, mother, and wife.

Betty Friedan questioned this emphasis on self-sacrifice and the woman’s movement seemed to sound its death knell:

Of course, the voices of disenchanted mothers would prove that the experts’ “prescription” of masochism was insufficient to quell the anxieties and disaffection facing house-wives and mothers during the mid-20th century. The depression and anxiety afflicting mothers and housewives became a powerful resource for the radical and liberal feminist movements, the women’s health movement, and critics of the cult of domesticity and the institution of motherhood.

But it has been surprisingly resistant to efforts to kill it:

[I]n the 1980s, pro-family values campaigns returned to emphasize the social responsibility of the family unit, while naturalizing women’s traditional role in the family as a mother and domestic laborer through “dubious psychological theories of maternal instinct, mother–child bonding, and primary maternal preoccupation.”

In the 1990s, a “new momism” emerged that held mothers liable and accountable for “producing ever more perfect children” by exercising a great degree of self-surveillance to be ever-present, both mentally and physically. This new institution of motherhood stipulates that “mothers’ primary occupation is to predict and prevent all less-than-optimal social, emotional, cognitive, and physical outcomes.” Accordingly, an increasing amount of pressure is placed on the maternal body to self-optimize through breastfeeding, staying fit, providing financial stability, creating a stronger bond with her baby, and sacrificing herself for her children.

Although natural parenting in general and natural childbirth in particular wax rhapsodic about the value of maternal choices, but in truth there is only one acceptable choice: masochism.

Therefore, even as popularized motherhood narratives celebrate the freedom of the individual maternal subject to make choices on her own, self-empower, and self-optimize, “the guiding principle of contemporary motherhood is [still] that women who are mothers must act first as mothers and that their self-identity is dependent on optimizing their children’s lives.” Discourses of contemporary masochistic motherhood compel mothers to self-optimize in the name of efficiency and self-empowerment at the same time that they function to normalize the suffering, anguish, or anxiety that this persistent state of self-governance may produce.

In valorizing maternal masochism, the natural childbirth movement reveals itself as profoundly retrograde and deeply anti-feminist.