I think there's been a massive - I'm torn between using the term patriarchal conspiracy and thinking of a term that's less likely to get me laughed of the internet - about education and conversation regarding childbirth. Only women* do it, women traditionally have been told we all have to do it and want to do it, and also that it's the most horrible and traumatic experience we will ever endure. Because it's a medical procedure, it's recently been placed in the realms of men in white coats. There's a taboo about talking about it in public, and all I was taught about it in school was watching a video of a woman on her back screaming a lot.
Now, obviously, information barriers are breaking down. We're better educated, doctors talk to patients more, and it's no longer considered dangerous or taboo to opt for an 'alternative' birth. With home births and specialised 'birthing centres', the hospital is becoming a place for emergencies, not the only option for the experience. There's increased acknowledgement that traditional 'folk' methods might have more merit than the accepted 'medical' ways.
I don't really want to get too far into the feminist issues surrounding 'folk' vs. 'scientific' medicine. I'm not in any way anti-medical science, obviously. I'm a scientist myself, and usually am in line to decry all sorts of 'alternative medicine' quackery and chicanery. On the other hand, as my sister's consultant told her:
All those old-wives tales about natural induction? Sex, cumin tea, foot rubs, chilli? They all work.Well of course, said I. If there's one thing old wives have more experience in than the educated male-dominated history of medical science, it's giving birth. Science is wonderful and great and fantastic, but historically has failed women on occasion - look at the hysteria myth. Meanwhile, in European cultures, women tend to be the guardians of oral tradition regarding medicine and drugs.Not all of these traditions provide anything more than a placebo effect; some might be inadvertently harmful, but some are almost certainly of value, and that the scientific community is now more ready to acknowledge, appreciated, and where necessarily, debunk folk remedies, that's a good thing for everyone affected. It's a feminist issue for me, but it's also a scientific one, and thus one that I'm particularly interested in.
So I think talking about childbirth openly and frankly, and re-assessing the way we've been told to view it is a worthwhile activity for society to engage in. We're told it's traumatic and painful, and I don't for an instant doubt that - but we've also been told that the best place to do it is on our backs in a hospital. Since then, I've been informed that on one's back is considered one of the worse possible positions, second only to standing on your head; and that perhaps bringing a probably-healthy person with little to no immune system into an environment loaded with all of the germs that sick people bring to hospital with them isn't the greatest idea for that little person's health. We've been fed preconceptions, and they should be challenged. It was only recently that I was even aware the body produces oxytocin during labour, for crying out loud.
Orgasmic Birth is a new movie that's going to be aired next month on TV in the USA, suggesting that perhaps there's a way of experiencing childbirth that can be sensual and pleasurable. It confronts the potential problems in viewing it as a negative, surgical experience, and presents case studies of women taking control of the situation and having it their way. There are comment threads about it on the New York Times website and on Feministing, and while there are some delightfully obtuse comments such as
women aren't allowed to enjoy childbirth! It says so in the Bible!and
having an orgasm while giving birth is child abuse; there are one or two valid concerns being raised.
The concern I relate to most is the concern that saying 'birth can be pleasurable' can so easily be misconstrued to mean 'if you don't enjoy it you're doing it wrong!', like so many statements about the female experience have been. We've seen this with sex: first women weren't supposed to enjoy it, and then we decided that women who don't have multiples with every encounter are dysfunctional. Not to discount or belittle actual sexual problems encountered by women - that would be kind of shooting myself in the foot - but there's this either/or thing going on. People don't like to admit that experiences vary from woman to woman. So if we start saying "you can enjoy childbirth", are we going to ostracise every woman in the world who doesn't?
Well, I think that's worth the risk, frankly. We can't not talk about something just because someone might get the wrong idea. We can be careful how we talk, of course, but I'd like to hear more about individual experiences and personal testimonies so we can further our understanding of each other.
The important thing here, as with everything regarding women's health, is to give women the ownership of our own bodies, so we can make an informed, conscious decision about what's best for us and our children; and the first and best way to be informed is to openly talk about the subject.
And no, as of posting this, my sister has not gone through it.
*with statistically insignificant exceptions