Performing privilege in pregnancy


The natural childbirth industry — midwives, doulas and childbirth educators — have a firm idea of what childbirth should look like: an unmedicated vaginal birth, supervised by a midwife and supported by a doula, complete with elaborate birth plan (she’s “done her research), immediate breastfeeding and 24 hour rooming in with the baby.

They appear to have no idea how much privilege is required to meet their expectations.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Natural childbirth advocates aren’t superior mothers, just white, well off women who are oblivious to their own privilege.[/pullquote]

What is privilege?

According to a New Yorker article, The Origins of “Privilege”:

…[T]he concept really came into its own in the late eighties, when Peggy McIntosh, a women’s-studies scholar at Wellesley, started writing about it. In 1988, McIntosh wrote a paper called “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” which contained forty-six examples of white privilege. (No. 21: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” No. 24: “I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the ‘person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race.”) …

As McIntosh explained in her paper:

I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege…

I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.

In the setting of childbirth, privilege is also a set of assets a woman can count in on cashing in, and to which she is by and large oblivious. Indeed, it would be accurate to say that natural childbirth is basically performing privilege in pregnancy.

McIntosh lists 46 assets of white privilege to which most white people are oblivious. I’ve created a list of 25 assets of pregnancy privilege to which the natural childbirth industry and its advocates are equally oblivious.

1. My pregnancy is planned and wanted.
2. I am healthy.
3. I have health insurance.
4. I have a choice of healthcare providers and do not have to rely on a clinic.
5. I can access a hospital that has excellent statistics for neonatal and maternal outcomes.
6. I can be sure that the majority of my caregivers belong to my racial and demographic group.
7. I speak English.
8. I am married or have a reliable long term partner who is available to care for me when needed.
9. I have easy access to and can afford healthy food.
10. I can afford books on pregnancy.
11. I can afford to take childbirth classes.
12. I may have to sacrifice, but if I wish I can afford a doula or midwife.
13. I can hire a birth photographer.
14. I can afford weeks or months of maternity leave from my job.
15. I have easy, reliable access to the internet so I can share information with other pregnant women.
16. I can write well enough to create a birth plan.
17. I am not a victim of domestic violence.
18. I am not addicted to alcohol or drugs.
19. If I have older children, I have family or friends to care for them when needed.
20. I can create a baby registry on the assumption that I and my friends can afford to purchase new baby items.
21. I can afford a breast pump.
22. I have a job that offers both privacy and time to pump without loss of income.
23. I have a spouse or partner who is supportive of breastfeeding.
24. I don’t face a dramatically increased risk of premature birth.
25. I don’t face a dramatically increased risk of maternal death

McIntosh writes about her reluctance to acknowledge white privilege:

… The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own. These perceptions mean also that my moral condition is not what I had been led to believe. The appearance of being a good citizen rather than a troublemaker comes in large part from having all sorts of doors open automatically because of my color.

The refusal of the natural childbirth industry to acknowledge pregnancy privilege (a combination of racial/economic/educational privilege) comes from a similar place. If pregnancy privilege exists, natural childbirth advocates’ moral condition is not what they wish to believe. The appearance of having a “good” birth come not from merit or hard work, but merely from having advantages that other women don’t have. They aren’t superior mothers; they are merely white, well off women who are oblivious to their own privilege.