"Birth is a monstrous thing, and it has no moral component."
August 11, 2016 5:59 PM   Subscribe

"Bodies do have a sort of wisdom but it’s easy to lose track of how that wisdom is not moral. It’s the stories we tell about bodies that overlay them with moral values."

"Monstrous Births: Pushing back against empowerment in childbirth" is an essay by Sarah Blackwell on the moral valence of birth, what we tell ourselves about empowerment, and a side of historical narrative. (SLHairpin)
posted by MsMacbeth (35 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
 
Previously: Pregnancy is like a biochemical war between mother and fetus

My wife, whose attitude toward the whole idea of childbearing can best be described as "body horror," insists that the best documentary ever made about pregnancy and childbirth is the movie Alien.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:18 PM on August 11, 2016 [39 favorites]


Thank you for sharing this. Thank you!

It is maddening how utterly taboo it is to say these things.
posted by Cozybee at 7:05 PM on August 11, 2016 [4 favorites]


"It’s the stories we tell about bodies that overlay them with moral values."

I think she's exactly right about this and it's a good insight; I think we have to tell those stories about birth and overlay the experience with meaning precisely because it's such a massive bodily experience and the outcome of it is lifechanging, and we have to have a way to understand what happened there. But in lot of ways it's just a thing that happens, an event you go through and survive in whatever messy way you do, and there's not an inherent meaning to it until we retroactively create the narrative. Which is a good and important thing to do and creating those stories that give meaning to our bodily experiences is a big part of how we make sense of ourselves as thinking creatures. But I think there are two dangers -- first, insisting on ascribing meaning to other people's birth stories (which leads to the moralizing about how they did it wrong); and second, creating the ideal birth narrative in advance, which -- when it inevitably goes awry because birth is messy and biological and not neat and mathematical -- can set women to judging themselves and often feeling like failures because they didn't live up to their own narrative.

"Queen Victoria was using it to dull the sensation of labor, which she described as “a dreadful thing,” “being like a cow or a dog.” "

Queen Victoria and I apparently think alike, I was just complaining on facebook a couple days ago about how pregnancy and birth and breastfeeding is just relentlessly mammalian. I was super not prepared for that the first time around, and really kinda dreaded it the third time.

"the c-section is the locus for some of the most intense birth moralizing of our era"

When I was five or six months pregnant this time around (having had two prior c-sections), I stumbled across an article on a mainstream parenting site (babycenter or parenting.com or somewhere like that) that began something like, "Dear c-section mom, I wish I could convince you that you're not a failure as a mother!" and it was all about how although you totes failed at birth, you don't have to fail as a MOM because of it and you can totally still love your children even though you started off entirely wrong. I have never gone "FFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUU" so hard. And I was super-glad I didn't see such a pile of nonsense the first time I was pregnant, because it would have totally freaked me out, while on time #3 it just made me want to go punch the sanctimonious jerk and hug the freaked-out first-timers who accidentally read it.

(My c-sections were fine and not dehumanizing (speaking just for myself), but I am very done with abdominal surgeries, thank you. I am extra-done with abdominal surgeries where you're awake for the whole experience which is actually pretty interesting but also, if you think about it too hard, kinda horrifying.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:12 PM on August 11, 2016 [38 favorites]


I was really enjoying the NYT piece this piece linked to, "Just Get The Epidural", before I got to the part about "I was feeling guilty about hiring a night nurse for a few weeks..." Hiring a who for a what now? Was that on the menu? Is there a secret menu?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:27 PM on August 11, 2016 [18 favorites]


I was awake and having a dissociative reaction to the meds during my c-section. Super fun times!

I always felt kind of... broken in that I really didn't have strong drives to produce a narrative around pregnancy and childbirth in either direction. It remained a 99% physical process which just kind of was what it was. It was an uncomplicated (if overlong) pregnancy and a pretty pear-shaped birth and people kept expecting me to have all sorts of ~~feeling about the whole experience and really I just didn't beyond the "yay I get a baby at the end of this" feeling that is pretty standard. Amusingly, my kid came out with the same sort of attitude and our 14 months of breastfeeding was such a hilariously business-like transaction that if robots had boobs we probably would have both been just as happy (or happier). The day I decided that I was done nursing (mainly because pumping is such a pain in the tits) I was like, "Here's your sippy cup, kid" and he never looked at my boobs again.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:27 PM on August 11, 2016 [17 favorites]


pregnancy and birth and breastfeeding is just relentlessly mammalian

Yes! I felt dehumanized and just reduced to biology. Advanced degree? Successful career? Meditation retreats? WHO CARES YOU MUST LACTATE

Dear c-section mom, I wish I could convince you that you're not a failure as a mother!

Wow yeah it's funny when people try to reassure you about things you weren't terribly bothered about to begin with. Um I'm not a failure who said I was??

As for the article itself, these days when "self improvement / character building" means mastery over the body (diet, exercise, extreme sports) instead of actual behavioural improvements as a member of society and to our fellow humans, it's not surprising that views on pregnancy have been swept up in it.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:31 PM on August 11, 2016 [11 favorites]


Maybe this is glib but my wife and I have started to view birth as the wedding of parenthood. We're supposed to spend all this time and energy preparing for this supposedly sacred event but it turns out it's just a blurry mess attended by a bunch of randos that has nothing at all to do with the rest of the fun, thankless, endless job ahead.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:33 PM on August 11, 2016 [67 favorites]


""I was feeling guilty about hiring a night nurse for a few weeks..." Hiring a who for a what now? Was that on the menu? Is there a secret menu?"

That's on the spendy menu in the US! I have a few friends who have done it -- mostly women with very demanding careers or with medical or family issues that made it fairly necessary. It's a reasonably affordable luxury for a middle class family if you budget for it the nine months in advance and prioritize it over some other expensive baby spending, or have generous grandparents. We looked into it this time around (our third) because we weren't totally sure how it was going to work out with the two older ones (at in-between ages where you can't just let them fend for themselves but they're not as easy to corral as toddlers); we also looked at an "evenings doula" who'd come take the older kids after school, make dinner, and take the baby in the later evening and then leave at night. It would have been expensive, but not prohibitively so. Options run the gamut from actual qualified nurses to professional nannies to certified doulas to night-owl college students on vacation who are good with babies, and expense varies accordingly. Anyway, family scheduling worked out so that grandma and grandpa could come help instead. (One of my friends hired a friend's teenager who'd deferred college out of directionlessness, and basically this 19-year-old came over at 9 p.m. and sat with the baby all night surfing the internet for $10/hour and changing diapers and bringing her for feedings, and literally everyone -- mom, the teenager, the teenager's mom, the baby -- thought this was the best arrangement ever.) I've been told that some insurance will pay for it if you have a medical reason, but I have never met anyone who's done that so I can't say for sure. Most people do 2 or 6 or 12 weeks; some people do just a few days a week so they can get solid sleep some nights and some people do every day.

I'm sure in the Netherlands one just appears on your doorstep as part of their kick-ass post-natal care regime.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:57 PM on August 11, 2016 [16 favorites]


Bringer Tom's Alien reference is closely related to one my Mom tells.

So my Dad took her to see Alien one night when she was 9 months+ pregnant with my brother. When a certain [spoiler alert] chest-bursting scene occurs, she had to flee to wait in the lobby.

My Dad stayed inside the theater and watched the rest of the film.
posted by czyz at 8:01 PM on August 11, 2016


It’s grisly, frightening, and astonishing stuff

Having assisted (i.e. helped the doc down at the business end of things) in the delivery of our daughter, I can confirm this to be very, very accurate.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:23 PM on August 11, 2016


"Pushing back against empowerment in ________" what the hell? why would you push back against "empowerment"?
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 8:26 PM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Assuming you aren't being sarcastic:

Because the dialogue and framing around said empowerment is, in reality, horribly frustrating/dehumanizing/invalidating/shitty/exclusionary for many of the people supposed to be helped by it.
posted by joyceanmachine at 8:37 PM on August 11, 2016 [25 favorites]


what the hell? why would you push back against "empowerment"

Because it's not actually empowerment. And generally the people being "empowered" should be the ones who get to decide if it really is all that empowering.
posted by rtha at 8:59 PM on August 11, 2016 [16 favorites]


"Dear c-section mom, I wish I could convince you that you're not a failure as a mother!" and it was all about how although you totes failed at birth, you don't have to fail as a MOM because of it and you can totally still love your children even though you started off entirely wrong.

I swear to God, I'd write the piece "I loved my scheduled C-section and would do it again in a heartbeat! It was the greatest!" if I didn't think it would be the "We eloped and so now we can carry on ceaselessly about how smart we were for sidestepping the financial and logistical hassles of throwing a wedding" of Smug Fertile Lady Who Bore Live Young essays.
posted by sobell at 9:44 PM on August 11, 2016 [14 favorites]


I think the US midwifery movement is largely guilty of a course overcorrection that, yes, is sometimes pushing an empowerment agenda in an attempt to reduce the over-medicalization of childbirth. I think the US medical industrial complex is also guilty of making us more frightened of birth than we need to be, and of not upholding good, evidence-based standards.

I speak as a woman who is 33 weeks pregnant, who is trying for a VBAC, who got pre-eclampsia with her last pregnancy and had to fight hospital policies to see her daughter after she was born (I did not really hold her until a full 24 hours after her birth, which was agony for me). Like the author, I read Ina May and again like the author, I have a similar reaction to Ina's seemingly glib handwaving of birth and its dangers. On one hand, I like the stories. On the other hand, birth can be monstrous and destructive. I have lost a friend to childbirth, and had another who had to have hernea surgery after the birth of her daughter. Even as I am seeking out a doula and an unmedicated birth, I have no illusions that this shit can kill and/or maim you.

But I'm also totally okay with the "mammalian" side of all this, because sometimes it is nice to be reminded I'm not just some senior-level cog in a machine who makes Important Decisions and Goes To Important Meetings. I also like camping! For similar reasons.

I like shedding worries about methodology, deadlines, and KPIs. I like narrowing life down to a small life I'm actively shaping (whether I like it or not), a teeny tabula rasa, clinging to me because I'm all he's got.

And yes, there is something beastly and mildly horrifying about having a tiny human surge toward your boobs, grasping hungrily before latching on. There's also something kind of cool about knowing you're feeding him. You. You're it.

I dunno. Ultimately I just want birth on my terms and not to be judged by either side. The crunchy granola types who would give birth in a forest glade if they could, and the women who schedule c-sections alongside their plastic surgery. I don't judge them. I don't care. I care about me, and what my body can do. I want to see who I am when I come out the other side.
posted by offalark at 9:49 PM on August 11, 2016 [11 favorites]


This is not because “all that matters is a healthy baby” (perhaps the most misogynistic phrase in all of postpartum language).

Amen.
posted by Catseye at 10:11 PM on August 11, 2016 [18 favorites]


My wife, whose attitude toward the whole idea of childbearing can best be described as "body horror," insists that the best documentary ever made about pregnancy and childbirth is the movie Alien.
posted by Bringer Tom at 21:18 on August 11 [12 favorites +] [!]


I am in full agreement with your wife.

If I were to ever get pregnant, I've decided I'd like a below-the-waist epidural, a C-section, and a photographer. The photographer would be there so that I and the infant would pose in various positions to make it seem as if were bursting from my womb, crawling up my torso, and then feasting on my neck. The last page of the baby book would be me, blood everywhere, baby at my neck, a silent scream on my face as it celebrates its life by taking mine.

. . . one of the many reasons I will never be pregnant is that I probably shouldn't be allowed to raise children.
posted by schroedinger at 11:33 PM on August 11, 2016 [15 favorites]


There is literally no point to having children if you're not going to mess with them.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:41 PM on August 11, 2016 [30 favorites]


"Dear c-section mom, I wish I could convince you that you're not a failure as a mother!" and it was all about how although you totes failed at birth, you don't have to fail as a MOM because of it and you can totally still love your children even though you started off entirely wrong.

Uh I had a c-section because I wanted a vaginal birth but trying to force one after twenty hours of labor with a large baby would have put her at risk and I feel like prioritizing her need for safety over my personal narrative is starting off RIGHT? There is a bunch of weird stuff out there about c-sections and I don't really understand it; my c-section was super unpleasant -- I hated being strapped down and my shoulder hurt a fuckton and I was really nauseated and spent the whole time feeling loopy and vomiting up water and sufficiently out of it that I was sure I was going to choke on the water and die -- but I don't think I think about either the surgery itself or the fact that it's how my baby was born nearly as much as people who write blog posts about motherhood. I spend a lot more time thinking about my health (good!) and the health of my baby (good!).
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:43 PM on August 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


Point of anecdata. I was a csection baby, and my working mother fed me formula. They also let me swim in the drainage canals in Broward County, FL, and ride my bike unaccompanied all over town. I graduated HS with a 5.0 GPA and got a perfect SAT score. Just love them and be a decent person and your kid will probably end up ok. I think that's far more important than any technical specifics.
posted by dudemanlives at 11:48 PM on August 11, 2016 [12 favorites]


Maybe this is glib but my wife and I have started to view birth as the wedding of parenthood. We're supposed to spend all this time and energy preparing for this supposedly sacred event but it turns out it's just a blurry mess attended by a bunch of randos that has nothing at all to do with the rest of the fun, thankless, endless job ahead.
posted by Potomac Avenue


This is such a great way to think about it. Also, having gone through the whole biological shebang three years ago, I am also inclined to think "I should have just eloped/adopted".
posted by lollymccatburglar at 3:14 AM on August 12, 2016


Well, I can report from the trenches of having lost a perfectly healthy baby to a mismanaged delivery that while I agree that "all that matters is a healthy baby" is misogynistic, the natural childbirth movement can bite my ass.

I pushed for 4 hours while my L&D nurse literally sang to me about woman power and assured me that my body was made for this and coached me like I was winning a marathon. I remember a point about two hours in when I sobbed that I wanted the (distracted) OB for a c-section when she took my hands and looked into my eyes and freaking welcomed me to the sisterhood of strong women. And I, keen on giving my daughter the very best of me from the start, joined with her and dug deep. Unfortunately she was inexperienced, it was a shit day on the floor and a wide variety of people who should have been watching were not, and she missed the W pattern on the tracings that showed the pinched cord wrapped twice around my daughter's neck was not delivering enough oxygen.

After my daughter's heartbeat actually stopped on the monitor, the adrenaline surge of knowing she was dying helped me push her out far enough that the late-arriving OB, slapping gloves on and coated in blood from someone else's surgery, was able to do a big episiotomy, cut the cord off her neck and deliver her in time to resuscitate her for her short 89-hour life.

There is totally a story about ethics here but I assure the world that empowering me to a c-section at the 2 hour mark would have been pretty great. My body was made for biology, which requires organs to get oxygen, and physics, which dictate that a vagina is a squishy place to get a cord and neck stuck in.

I delivered both subsequent children in very different, also vaginal labours. They were not empowering either. For my first son, the second sentence out of my mouth at my first appointment with my (new, high-risk) ob was that I would like to schedule my c-section that day and he empowered me all along to make choices, but he also provided evidence-based information in the context of his experience and my particular pregnancy that ended with a super fast easy as pie delivery...because everything literally lined up right. Dumb luck. For my youngest, I decided he was going to be the same but ended up struggling through a "sunny-side-up" delivery that left me whacked out and both of us bruised. Also sheer angles.

But in both those deliveries I had attentive, thoughtful care. I still didn't really have any illusion that I was empowered. What I was was expertly cared for. This was way more important to me than exercising my power.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:08 AM on August 12, 2016 [72 favorites]


They also let me swim in the drainage canals in Broward County, FL

So, the Marvel universe is pretty New York-centric, but if they'd created superheroes in Florida, this is definitely the Daredevil origin story.
posted by explosion at 4:56 AM on August 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


This essay was great. Birth is ridiculous, and I thought our experience in the hospital with June had shown me how ridiculous it can be, but then thirteen weeks ago I delivered Rose in the back seat of our Honda Fit in a Burger King parking lot and now I feel like I've gained a couple of additional insights.
posted by saladin at 6:18 AM on August 12, 2016 [20 favorites]


Vaginal birth is generally safer and has benefits. (Ask me about my post-surgical infection and complications.) But we've gone from birth being over-medicalized to women having deeply emotional and cultural expectations about the process, sometimes in weird ways. Thanks for posting this.
posted by theora55 at 8:33 AM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Warriorqueen, I'm so sorry your daughter died. Thanks for your story.
posted by allthinky at 10:35 AM on August 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


Warrior queen I am so sorry. And I also had a sunny side up delivery (they kept assuring me "oh no he's face down" and I was like "uh yeah, no" and when he popped out they were all astonished "HOW DID YOU KNOW???" Uh cuz I felt his nose bumping the entire way?) and the recovery is awful.

I keep saying, in the future children will be beamed out of the womb like Star Trek, no fuss no muss.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:35 AM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


warriorqueen, my condolences. Your experience sounds devastating. I have a daughter via adoption and my experiences with birth have been strictly as an observer. I was in the labor (but not delivery room) with my kid's birth mother and everything about it convinced me that outsourcing birth was maybe not a consolation prize but a really excellent way to create a family. I didn't have a choice, I would have taken the traditional route had that been possible, but the howling teenager in front of me made me think, Gee, not sorry I get to skip this portion of the program.

Then my daughter asked me to be present for the birth of her son. And only then did I get an inkling of how primal, violent, and potentially dangerous birth is. My poor kid got ripped up quite a bit and a doctor spent a fair amount of time stitching my daughter's body. And in that moment I became enraged that men--any man, anywhere, at any time--get to have a say in what happens to female bodies. I was also tremendously relieved that my kid was okay and her son was okay but also filled with anger and resentment that women are obligated to live under rules largely created by men and often zealously enforced by other women as well as men.

Honestly, I don't understand why people who cannot give birth (and yes, I include myself as a woman who is infertile) should get to have any say in anyone else's pregnancy management or termination. I've always, always, always been pro-choice but the violent reality of my grandson's birth gobsmacked me. How could anyone except the woman involved get to have a vote in the matter? (Apologies if this is a derail.) Thanks for the post, OP, and thanks for the comments from everyone else.
posted by Bella Donna at 2:27 PM on August 12, 2016 [19 favorites]


Why did I ever listen to this natural birth shit? I so wanted to give birth the way it's "supposed to be". I ended up with emergency c-sections twice (after hours of labour with number two!) and they were awesome.
I'm serious. No screaming or insane hurting or fear. Go to sleep, wake up again, boom, here's your baby. And I was in a better shape than the rest of the moms on my ward and out and about again after four days. It was clean, it was professionally executed, it was civilised.
I don't know why the hell we're sold on painful childbirth being the way it's supposed to be, the thing that makes it real, makes you a woman. It's not. It's allowed to be easy, and safe, and comparatively painfree. There is nothing sacred about wrecking your body.

I didn't feel disempowered by the c-sections, I felt relieved. I felt pissed off as hell. I felt like everyone else was crazy for asking me so gingerly if I wanted one. I'm bleeding buckets out of my vagina, I don't care how you get it out, just do itttttt!
posted by Omnomnom at 2:42 PM on August 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


The number of people in my close friends circle that have given birth while I've known them is fairly small, yet in that number there were two that likely would have died before modern medicine (one of them my best friend) and a third who came damn close even with modern medicine. There's nothing like visiting a friend who still looks grey and bloodless, despite having used up the entire hospital's supply of her blood type, to really remind you what biology is. And I'm pretty sure that in retrospect that she'd have picked a c-section somewhere before the second day of labor turned bloody and bad.
posted by tavella at 2:54 PM on August 12, 2016


Yeah, I always shock friends and family who ask me about how I liked pregnancy by saying that actually I hated it. I hated the physicality of it, the loss of control, the inconveniences great and small, the kicks, the dread of birth and recovery, ugh.

I love my children but I hated carrying them and I hated birthing them and I hated breastfeeding them. Epidurals for me, thank you, as soon as it was feasible, and with my second born son I actually decided to formula feed while I was still in the hospital because fuck that, life's too short to force myself to do it just to avoid the mommy guilt.

Done being pregnant! I don't need to be so strongly and furiously reminded that I'm a mammal, thank you.
posted by lydhre at 5:04 PM on August 12, 2016 [4 favorites]


This is not because “all that matters is a healthy baby” (perhaps the most misogynistic phrase in all of postpartum language).

So I have a slightly different perspective on this particular phrase. The birth of my first came after two devastating back-to-back miscarriages and five years of infertility. I didn't give a rat's ass what orifice that child emerged from, as long as he was healthy. Because I had been in Nope Land for so long, I did not care.

While it might be said in a misogynistic way to a lot of women, to me, it was the reason why I would have felt zero guilt about getting a c-section with him. As it is, frankly, I have more complications still from his birth due to 2.5 hours and a 2nd degree tear from pushing out mega baby than I do from the subsequent c-section for his sister. I am a cheerleader for c-sections if they are available because vaginal birth does a number.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 8:39 PM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


I so appreciate the stories from everyone who's commented here. This essay hit so many of my areas of interest: rhetoric, monsters, historical narratives of birth, my eternal frustration with how women are blamed from every corner in matters of sex and children. I had the most boring, straightforward pregnancies and deliveries and I still hated, as lydhre put it, being furiously reminded that I'm a mammal. I'm waiting for the Star Trek deliveries and being a head in a jar, thanks.

When my husband read this essay, he was astonished that there is a even a conversation about the "right" way to give birth. This is a conversation that currently happens almost entirely in female-coded spaces and it's the best example of how the patriarchy lives inside all our heads, how we subvert our own genders, and the cost thereof.

Thank you again, everyone, for telling your stories. (This was my first ever FPP--I lurk a lot, but Metafilter was how I found my pretty damn good online moms' board.)
posted by MsMacbeth at 7:08 PM on August 13, 2016 [6 favorites]


Thank you, MsMacbeth, for this beautiful FP. As a penis bearer and person who doesn't have to personally worry about birth issues, I have of course wondered how these things appear to the person I love most in all the world. And your title so perfectly encapsulates the way we both knew we felt about it when nobody else would admit it. Birth is a monstrous thing and it has no moral component. How much does a billboard cost these days?
posted by Bringer Tom at 8:00 PM on August 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


lydhre, we are kindred spirits. I adored my babies. I've had so much fun with my boys. But the miserableness of pregnancy, coupled with all the mess and pain of expelling said creatures, was a load of crap. I always wondered what was wrong with me for not having the radiant pink glow of beatitude and smugness.
posted by Sweet Dee Kat at 8:29 PM on August 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


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