The Fem Spot

Is motherhood under attack?

Posted in Feminist Theory, News, Personal Essays by femspotter on June 9, 2010

June 9, 2010

The countdown ’til baby for me is just under eight weeks. This time in my life has been a precious experience. There are days when I feel like the most beautiful and powerful woman in the world, and days when I want my body back so I can do all of the things I used to: drink alcohol in moderation, swim a mile with the crawl stroke, have comfortable sex with my husband rather than “Tetris sex,” or even just walk up a flight of stairs without becoming winded. And there are days when I look around the world – my locale, the newspapers, the blogosphere, etc. – and I realize that this exciting time isn’t universal even though it should be. Pregnancy and its resulting motherhood in its best form should be a choice lauded by others, for all women who want it. It isn’t.

Here are just a few of the pregnancy and motherhood related issues at large in the world today:

  • Maternal mortality is on the rise. According to the Los Angeles Times and others, the maternal mortality rate in the United States has doubled in the past 10 years putting this country’s death rate higher than 40 other industrialized nations. Two women die from pregnancy-related complications every day in the U.S. And while that may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the 11,000 or so babies that are born here each day, it’s still a scary number when you picture the faces of moms-to-be whom you know. “For each death, experts estimate, there are about 50 instances of complications related to pregnancy or childbirth that are life-threatening or cause permanent damage.” What are the causes of these complications and deaths, a third of which experts say are preventable? Obesity, increases in age of expectant mothers, increased implementation of cesarean sections, increased elective induction of labor by medicines, and over-reliance on electronic monitoring devices are being blamed as the main culprits of maternal death.
  • Is it okay to fat shame a mom-to-be? The New York Times reports that growing obesity among pregnant women is linked to higher risks of birth defects, cesareans (risky for moms) and even death for newborns. While this rise in obesity has been met publicly with disdain from the healthcare industry and subsequently a rebuttal argument of obesity support from those under attack – accounting for everything from the prevalence of high fructose corn syrup, trans fat and other additives found in inexpensive foods to even the perils of dieting and being too thin, etc. – in the case of pregnancy, obesity may have more to do with a failure on the part of the mother, putting her unborn child at risk due to her obesity, than her right to maintain her own body the way she wants to or is even able. It must be tricky for doctors to address this issue with their patients because conventional wisdom suggests that moms-to-be shouldn’t try to lose weight during pregnancy. (I had to drop out of Weight Watchers when I conceived because the program no longer offers a pregnancy plan.) But a doctor can’t tell an overweight woman not to have a baby, can (s)he? Wouldn’t that be tantamount to the pro-life argument: you can’t do with your body what you will because of the rights of your unborn child?
  • Abortion might mean eugenics for some. According to Womanist Musings, “(a)n anti-abortion group in Atlanta is targeting Black women by putting up billboards stating that Black children are an endangered species.” The New York Times also reports that some activists consider Planned Parenthood to be a racist organization that promotes elevated abortion rates among black women, with blacks accounting for 13 percent of the U.S. population yet 40 percent of its abortions. While Womanist Musings writer Renee upholds the validity of this fear while negating its foundations in a provable truth, she – as a womanist – asks for white pro-abortion activists to get involved in standing up for the rights black women share to elect abortion procedures. It makes me very sad indeed to think of a racist telling a happy expectant mother that she should abort under the guise that she’s better off without her baby, when really they mean that we’re better off. But I am sickened by the idea that some activists are telling women that they should keep their unwanted pregnancies because it’s their duty to their race.
  • Men think pregnancy is ALL ABOUT THEM! According to CNN, dads-to-be run the risk of postpartum depression too. Okay, I’ll buy that. But they don’t run the risk of maternal mortality, fistulas, varicose veins, back spasms, incessant heartburn and much, much more due to pregnancy. So sack up, dads! Now, it is true that the males of many species can act as incubators for embryos during the early months of fetal development. But only seahorse males have the unique privilege of being “pregnant dads-to-be” simply because of their inherent anatomy. While transsexual human males have given birth successfully, their pregnancies are due to inherent female anatomy (though, by choice, these men are known as “males”). Why would a cis male want to serve as a fetus incubator? Is it that he just can’t stand that females have one power that he doesn’t? Why does science need to find out if this unnatural occurrence is possible when there are so many other challenges it could be conquering: Alzheimer’s, autism, maternal mortality, etc.? By the way, guys, early scientists believed that women were “just incubators” and, until a couple of hundred years ago, didn’t believe female anatomy played any special role in conception and delivery of newborn babies. We know better today. I happen to believe that our reproductive anatomy may be the one cis privilege women have over men. So back the fuck off! And just because your wife has given birth, doesn’t mean you have the right to tell me how to run my pregnancy “the right way.”
  • Feminist mothers are under fire. I recently read more stay-at-home mom hatred on a radical feminist blog. One writer posted something about moms being too preoccupied with baby stuff “to do the reading.” What the fuck does that mean?! Do women who go off to careers or jobs every morning outside the home have more time during the day to read than moms providing in-home childcare? Do childcare workers also fail “to do the reading” too? Is it the baby stuff or the mom stuff that cuts into women’s “intellectual development?” (Apparently, I’m standing on the precipice of ignorance because of the major time-suck my child – wanted as she is – will be for me!) Intellectual development like exercise is something we make time for. And there are many fine activists who are also mothers. Crystal Lee Sutton (the real “Norma Rae”) died in 2009. She had three children and worked as a union organizer in North Carolina during the 1970’s, that lazy bitch!
    Furthermore, an overview of Elisabeth Badinter’s new book “Conflict: The Woman and the Mother” (Badinter is of course the heir apparent of Simone de Beauvoir because she’s, ya know, French) reports that Badinter “blames feminists for inventing the idea of women as victims, putting men on trial and making maternity itself a political act.” (And she’s a feminist because…?) Badinter also thinks that women are being socially pressured into unsafe situations: “The ‘green’ mother, she says, is pushed to give birth at home, to refuse an epidural as the reflection of ‘a degenerated industrial civilization’ that would deprive her of ‘an irreplaceable experience,’ to breast-feed for both ethological and environmental reasons (plastic baby bottles) and to use washable rather than disposable diapers – in other words, to discard the inventions ‘that have liberated women.’ Which of any of those green alternatives is unsafe? Home births are controversial in the U.S. but not necessarily less safe than hospital births. As I mentioned earlier, doctors are considering what caused the rise in maternal mortality here. Funny they aren’t looking into washable diapers, right?!
  • Pregnancy choices are dwindling. What I mean is this: women may not feel empowered to give birth the way they want to. And really, shouldn’t we be calling the shots? Isn’t how you give birth just as important as why and if you give birth at all? The choice to deliver naturally is in the same league as the choice of whether or not to deliver at all. Now, if your birth plan calls for an elected cesarean, a premature induction of labor, a preemptive episiotomy and the biggest, badass epidural you can find, go for it! Enjoy your “twilight sleep.” (That’s an Edith Wharton reference not a condemnation.) But if you’re like me and you want to have a natural birth unless there occurs a medical emergency, you should have that right too and not feel pressured by your obstetrician to lie flat on your back and throw your feet up in the stirrups like a cowgirl. You should be allowed to stand or squat or roll on your side or face the mattress on all fours…whatever works for your body and your baby. And you should be allowed to choose your place of birth: hospital, birthing center or home. Medical organizations in the U.S. oppose home births claiming they’re risky for moms and babies alike – but we must be skeptical about this stance since healthcare in the U.S. is centered on a capitalist, for-profit model. It is currently legal to hire a midwife and conduct a home birth in 37 states, though no state prosecutes mothers for electing to give birth at home. In Britain, Canada and Australia, to name a few, midwifery and home births are much more prevalent than in the United States. (Incidentally, it is very difficult to find reputable statistics about the (un)safety of home births. Please feel free to chime in if you have any.)

When I found out I was pregnant, I excitedly booked an appointment with my OBGYN and skipped merrily into her office where I was greeted by one automaton nurse after another shoving paperwork I didn’t understand into my face. The two big questions: do I want to elect a cesarean section and do I want to bank my baby’s cord blood? I hadn’t give either any thought. I mean, I’d assumed I would give birth vaginally because that is, after all, how birth happens. What they were telling me, in essence, was that I could elect to forgo all of the hassle of nature’s greatest surprise and declare upfront that I wanted to deliver my baby “painlessly” and according to schedule so that I didn’t miss a day of work beyond my planned maternity leave. And as to the cord blood, they were telling me that the hospital where “we like to deliver” only works with one private bank. For weeks, my husband and I tried to find a public bank we could give Ellie’s umbilical cord blood to for the good of the many and the integrity of our checking account. No public banks in our area are currently accepting blood. I have been guilt-tripped by the established medical machine into feeling like a lousy mother because I am throwing my daughter’s cord blood away.

I hired a doula. She’s going to help my husband and I experience this birth as a rite of passage instead of an emergency pathology if possible. When I talked to my OB about working with a doula, she asked rather abruptly, “She’s not going to tell me how to do my job is she?” I muttered “no” under my breath, lamenting that this doctor couldn’t look me in the eye, remember my name or think about my birthing experience beyond her role to play in it. Under the advice of the doula, I asked what position the doctor was comfortable delivering my baby in, and to my dismay, she told me that she’s only comfortable “the normal way” with me on my back and my feet up in stirrups. I was heartbroken and didn’t want to tell the doula that my voyage of discovery was going to end “normal(ly.)” How I wish medicine could be there for our risks and emergencies and leave us alone to find our inner peace. I should have made better choices or stood up for my wishes or felt empowered to choose earlier in my pregnancy…but I just didn’t know any better until now.

So, as I mentioned earlier, there are some days when I feel like a goddess and other days when I feel like I’m doing just what every other mother-to-be does and I and my baby are nothing special. Western medicine has a plan for us. It, like other feminists, has rules and expectations. My pregnancy and motherhood are violating somebody’s idea of how they should be.

On those goddess days, I fight back assumptions and shaming. But today I feel defeated. It’s time to do yoga.

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