July 28, 2008

The empowering nature of birth

by Natalie Henry Bennon

Despite my best efforts, I often feel disempowered in our culture. Many choices are made for me. Many things are done to me, my family, my community, my country, and my planet without my approval – sometimes with my outspoken disapproval. I am expected to act, look, and sound a certain way. As a woman, this is particularly acute. Sometimes I am expected to be invisible. Often times, silent. Always I am expected to look my best and take pride in my appearance. I am expected to hope that others find me attractive. I am expected to buy pretty things and things to make me pretty. I often oblige. But none of these expectations are empowering and, in fact, most are disempowering.

What does feel empowering, when I am in tune with it, is my innate femaleness. And right now I am really in tune with it. I have a baby inside me! Okay, okay, a fetus. But, as a woman, once conception occurs, my body takes over and I can grow and birth a baby, and feed it after it comes out. These facts of life not only make me feel empowered, but also more connected with other mammals, the earth, and the world beyond our built environment.

Yet even in this, our culture tries to strip women of power. They tell us that doctors deliver babies, not mothers. We are generally expected to have surgeons, drugs, knives and machines to help us through childbirth. We are sometimes not asked beforehand whether we approve of what’s happening to us or our babies during birth, and often it’s neither explained to us nor our partners. In this way, the reigning culture of female submission is maintained. The taming of all things wild, scary, and animal in nature is maintained. We are controlled. Our innate power to create life is controlled. Our wild natures are controlled. We are stripped of our humanity. Of our autonomy. And of one of the few things that still connects us to each other, the earth, and other mammals. The current 30 percent rate of cesarean sections in this country illustrates my point.

Despite the problems with overpopulation and overconsumption, I want to have a child, maybe even two. One reason I want children is because I am desperately in love with Brady, and I think it would be marvelous to create a child together that’s a little bit me and a little bit Brady, and a lot just its own person, and nurture it into adulthood together. In essence, to create a family.

Another reason I want to have children is because there are few things we do anymore that are like other mammals, but making a baby and giving birth is one of them. While humans have manipulated and ‘technologized’ the birth process in many ways, the idea of natural birth makes me feel more connected to the earth and its creatures than anything else. As disconnected as our lives and culture have become from the natural world, natural childbirth is the most powerful way I know to connect with the earth’s most basic cycle of creation, growth, and destruction.

I am choosing natural childbirth in part because, just like other mammals, I want to scream and yell and connect with that earthly power of birth. Those of you who have already given birth and experienced the pain are probably laughing right now and figuring I will change my mind when it’s happening. Maybe. But I don’t want someone taking that power and wildness away from me. I don’t want someone controlling it with pitocin and epidurals. I don’t want someone telling me what I need when, dammit, it’s happening to me and I know what I f*in’ need. In the vast majority of cases, birthing women need nothing that the medical establishment gives them (drugs, monitors, knives) and everything that it doesn’t (emotional support, a soothing environment, freedom to eat and move and do what feels right).

I believe in my body, myself, and my partner to support me. I in believe in my midwives to help me through the process and know if I am one of the rare mothers who honestly needs to deliver in a hospital. And I believe in the empowering nature of birth and the ability of women to birth how nature intended.


Stacy said...

Your blog was beautifully written but I gotta tell ya- having given birth twice in a hospital with a doctor, with IVs, with monitors, with doulas, and with epidurals- it pretty much doesn't matter how the child is birthed the mother feels an empowerment/euphoria/pride/awe that is mind blowing. I know many women are led to med interventions that are unnecessary, but I for one am happy that these modern methods are available.

Welcome to the most incredible journey of your life- to a love that is indescribable- to the most raw time in your life- to profound sleep deprivation- to the club where it doesn't matter who used pitocin and who put on make-up during the delivery, for the power and femaleness of motherhood transcends the details that got us there.

Natalie and Brady --- said...

Thanks for your comment, Stacy. I hope you, and others, didn't feel judged by my blog entry. I agree, it doesn't matter who used pitocin or put on make-up during delivery, etc. And I didn't intend to judge anyone who gives birth in a hospital, at all. I do judge the medical establishment and the way they impart medical interventions on women often without their choice. But whenever a woman makes and is able to make a conscious chocie, I honor that and respect it. I only wish our medical establishment was more open to the woman's choices in hospital births. Not all hospitals or doctors are the same though; there's a wide range of different styles and types. And I am grateful that some doctors and hospitals are more open to informing women giving them options.

Kate C said...


I'm sorry that my busy week at work has prevented me from responding to your amazing blog post until now. When you sent it to me last week I was filled with pride and awe at your strength and clarity. I am terrified of birth…and reading your post made me feel brave, fierce and wildly natural. Thank you.

I agree with you that in this day and age we have only rare opportunities to get in touch with our most natural selves. Part of the reason for this is that we live in a consumer culture that operates by creating so-called “needs” that can be filled with more “stuff.” I am not immune. Take for example the amount of time I spend watching Home and Garden Television. I’m beginning to feel the anxiety of needing a perfectly decorated home…something that never occurred before I knew the words “curb appeal.”

Your post reminds me of my innate capabilities. The ones that do not need to be sold to me or provided by scientific technology. I am a fully equipped model, in other words, and hope to make this journey into motherhood relying on my natural ability to give birth.

I too am concerned about how “medicalized” birth has become in the United States.
There is plenty of evidence that that the damage done by the widespread use of modern technologies such as episiotomy, fetal monitoring, epidurals and pitocin has outweighed the benefits. On a population level, these “technologies” lead to higher morbidities for women and including those related to higher c-section rates. Even if individual women may be in need of c-sections to have a healthy birth, few people can argue that 1 out of 3 women in the United States (it’s even higher in Brazil) should be having their children birthed surgically.

I fear that I would not have the birth experience I want if I am in the hospital. I also fear that I’m going to freak out from the pain of natural birth and want drugs IMMEDIATELY. Luckily I have about 5 more months to allow my skill in pain management to catch up with my ideology around home birth.

Nevertheless, as Stacy points out in the comments to your post...no matter how a woman gives birth it is still her birth. No matter where she gives birth, the experience is accompanied by all of the feelings she lists: “empowerment, euphoria, pride, awe.” All women should be able to feel powerful in their births no matter what level of medical intervention is involved. And, no matter how little troutface enters the world…he will still be your little troutface: a beautiful and perfect reflection of yours and Brady’s love for one another. At least until he learns to talk.

Like many other gendered issues in our culture, the way we give birth has as much chance of making women feel antagonistic towards each other as it does to make them feel like sisters. How can we, as women who believe in home birth, advocate for ourselves and our decisions without making women who have delivered in hospitals feel judged? How can women who have wonderful hospital births (especially those who needed medical intervention) support our decisions for home birth?

We’re all crying out for validation. We’re all crying out for support. But often what we give and we get feels like one-sided advice, judgment, or condescension. These types of communications erode our sense of security and leave us even more vulnerable then we started.

We need a new way to listen to each other and to support each other. I think your blog post was a great example of personalizing the journey of motherhood. You discussed your own feelings, your own beliefs and your own hopes for your birth. Nevertheless in this culture of judgment that women are so unfortunately bound it is unsurprising that your words may come across as invalidation to some.

Until enlightenment comes we must remember how vulnerable we are to criticism from our sisters.

In the meantime, we must take the time to say to one another “you made a good decision.”

When a woman chooses to have an abortion we must tell her: “you’ve made a good decision.”

When she chooses to give birth, but gives the child up for adoption we must tell her “you’ve made a good decision.”

When she carries to term and gives birth in a hospital we must embrace her and say “you’ve made a good decision.”

And when she takes the road less traveled and gives birth in her own bath tub we must praise her and say “you’ve made a good decision.”

Natalie, I’m proud of you. You’ve made a good decision.



Bradley Wogsland said...

Funny, I always thought of the technologies around birth as enpowering, freeing people from constraints placed on their bodies by nature. You can conceive the old-fashioned way, or in a more controlled because the older way isn't working or to pre-screen for defects. You can chose to forgo the pain of birth. C-sections save babies that might not otherwise live and makes fistula something unseen in the developed world.

But on the other had I totally relate to your naturalist streak, the feminine equivalent of machismo. It's the same urge that leads me to build my own laundry room and grow food in my backyard. Sure, it would be easier and cheaper to use Round-up, but there's something wholesome about being bent over with your hands in the dirt pulling up weeds.