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07/31/2009

Builds character

Earlier this week I was reading a post over at the always-excellent All and Sundry about Linda's birth experiences:

I don’t have bad feelings about either of my C-sections. They weren’t terrible, they were fine. I saw my babies right away and held them moments later. I recovered with no problems. It was fine.

But. It doesn’t feel brave. It doesn’t feel like that magical spiritual I-am-woman-hear-me-roar experience I now have such a hard time hearing about. I’m torn between thinking, well, that’s great for you, but not everyone gets the birth they thought they were going to have, and my babies came into this world perfect in every way and you know what, we’re ALL brave . . . and I wish I could have had that. I should have tried harder.

...which made me a little weepy, because, damn, Linda, don't you know how magnificent you are?  I do.

You are brave, to reinforce what half of you already acknowledges.  The courage comes in doing it at all, not just the carrying or the bearing.  The nobility is in the intention, if you ask me, of starting a family.  I think in every good parent there's a little voice that says now and then, "I meant to do that," and it says it at the best of times — Ben pushing a shopping cart at the store yesterday in his brand-new big boy sneakers, grinning, my God, my God — and at the worst, reminding us that however bad this moment is, we got here on purpose.  We made a promise, one we have to keep.

You do try harder.  It comes through in everything you've ever written about being a mother.  We all do, every damn day that we calmly place that son of a whore of a harmonica out of reach "until you can behave nicely, not obnoxiously," instead of vengefully stomping it into a ruined twist of crumpled metal that will wheeze no more forever.  (No harmonica yet, Linda?  Oh ho ho, you're in for a treat.  I hope you like your music prisony.)

So now that I've shored up the rational part of what you've said, is it okay to get all up in the other part's business? 

I don't mean to suggest that women's birth experiences are unimportant.  By the time mine came around, my feelings about my body's abilities were already, ah, somewhat ambivalent, so I don't feel any lingering grief about missing out on labor and delivery.  (Lingering skeeve-outedness about having my uterus gently withdrawn from my abdomen and taken for an intrapartum spin, sure, but that's different.)  But it's real, the grief and disappointment many women feel when a birth doesn't go the way they hoped, as real as the empowerment other women feel when it does, and I'm sorry it has to be that way.

I respect those feelings, but I think they need contextualizing, which may help neutralize them somewhat.  Allow me to refer you to an article in the British press from a few weeks ago: It's good for women to suffer the pain of a natural birth, says medical chief, aforementioned medical chief being Denis Walsh, a male midwife.

Ignoring the sensational headline, I read the article with interest.  Not to impugn the general knowledge or integrity of male lady-doctors or anything, but any time a man tells me it's a good thing my body hurts, I get ever so slightly skeptical.  (It's just a reflex.  I'm knee-jerk about vagina jerks.)  But I didn't discount Walsh's opinion just because of his sex.  If we accept that there's such a thing as objective observation of pain, and that men are as capable of empathy as women, there's no reason to do so.  Not giving birth oneself, I reasoned, doesn't disqualify someone from an evidence-based opinion on the process of doing so. 

And in fact, I found myself agreeing with some of Walsh's points: that there are an awful lot of epidurals done that aren't strictly necessary, and that it would be beneficial to work towards reducing that number; that women should be offered other effective pain management options (in addition to epidurals, I add in a tone of no-dissent-brooking); and that we should work to change the perception of pain in childbearing so that it's not so frightening to so many.  Which all seems to me a good message for everyone to hear, particularly doctors and midwives.

Where he lost me was his claim that "preparing a mother for the responsibility of nurturing a newborn baby" is among the "number of benefits" of pain in labor.  "Emerging evidence [shows] that normal labour and birth primes the bonding areas of a mother's brain better than caesarean or pain-free birth."

Uh...what?

Hours of pain plus the possibility of perineal tearing and future incontinence are supposed to make you feel...closer...to the baby...whose very passage caused it?

And undergoing physical distress is going to render you more conscientious, and therefore a better parent?  Because sucking it up during labor, I guess, is good practice for...I don't know, other feats of parental endurance that suck for a while but then mercifully end?  Like when I finally take away that fucking harmonica and destroy me some truly righteous harp?

Or, to distill it to its essence, suffering builds character?

"Over recent decades there has been a loss of 'rites of passage' meaning to childbirth, so that pain and stress are viewed negatively," said Walsh. Patients should be told that labour pain is a timeless component of the "rites of passage" transition to motherhood, he added.


Right!  Like infant mortality and maternal death in childbirth!  Remember how great humanity has always thought those are?

...What?

To suggest to medical professionals that women should be armed with accurate information and encouraged and supported if they choose deliver naturally is a welcome step toward empowerment.  To urge that we consider turning less readily to pharmacological pain relief during labor because it may benefit the baby — if indeed that is so — is to place the emphasis where I believe it rightly belongs.  With you that far, Dr. Walsh.  But to suggest that not only is a woman's pain in labor ennobling, but that it's her duty to withstand it if she's to be considered a fit mother, is misogynistic nonsense.  (Considering the question in a sociobiological sense, I can only wonder what similar experience might be said to prepare a man for the responsibility of raising a child.  IMAGINE IF YOU WILL.)

Now, I want to ramp back just a bit because I wasn't able to read the paper the Guardian's article refers to.  I'm willing to believe that Walsh's comments were taken out of context.  Actually, I'm eager to believe it, because it would piss me off if someone whose profession is founded on helping women actually turned out to be such a bully.  But even if Walsh didn't do it himself — not that the popular press ever gets it wrong — the fact is that we do this to each other and ourselves every day of our lives as mothers.

I see it in Linda's post, the one that made me cry.  The notion that because we didn't go through X or Y in the childbearing arena (the vadge-osphere?), we're somehow less — maybe not less of a mother, but possibly less of a woman, less of a fighter, less of a winner.  I understand where that feeling comes from; it's rampant among infertiles.  Still, I reject it.  With compassion, I reject it.  Doing it at all makes us magnificent.  I wish any other implication made us not sad, but angry.

I mean, come on, doesn't it piss you off, the idea that a man would say the way you get your babies is a mark of the kind of woman you are, a sign of what kind of mother? 

So why do we women still whisper it to ourselves?

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