People often ask why I invest so much energy in birth activism, and why I care so much about how women have babies. After all, babies are born every minute of every day, all over the world. Why make such a big deal about it?
I started caring about pregnancy and birth when I started linking it to my identification with feminism. I’d always known about both: for the duration of my childhood, my mother was a family doctor with a busy obstetrical practice, and she was (is) a feminist. I don’t recall her linking the two explicitly, at least not to me. (Although we did have a book about Judy Chicago’s Birth Project on our coffee table, and I understood without any doubt in the 1970s that the fact my mother was a doctor at all was because of this feminism thing that she and her friends sometimes discussed.) But I knew from the time I could be conscious of anything that supporting pregnant and birthing women was worthwhile and that feminism, defined very simply as empowering women to do whatever we wanted to do, was good.
I got that birth mattered, and that women deserved to be treated with care and respect. I remember little things like my mother’s answer when I asked why she had short nails without nail polish: so she wouldn’t scratch her patients when she was delivering their babies. That made deep sense to me as a child, illustrating in an utterly comprehensible and practical way the things we can all do to make women more comfortable when they are vulnerable and in need.
Birth mattered and it also seemed absolutely mundane, and often annoying. I was not amused as a child by having trips to the park and the pool interrupted because my mother was on call and some lady was having a baby. I did like making pictures with all the colourful tape at the nurse’s station in the hospital where I sometimes had to wait for my mother while she worked. But I didn’t like having to wait. And sometimes I was impatient: I once told her to “just do a c-section” when a patient seemed to be laboring for an awfully long time, interfering with whatever it was I wanted my mother to do for me. Yeah.
It was all very matter of fact until after my first baby was born. I realized then that birth might be common but it’s actually never mundane, and that all the care and respect that I received as a pregnant and laboring woman—that I took for granted from a family doctor who my mother had trained—was not necessarily the norm. I learned after the fact that I was lucky to have grown up believing the things I believed about women and to have had the kind of birth I had, and that my total, unfailing trust in my doctor and my mother’s medical angle on birth might be worth questioning, even though they believed in the medicine they were practicing and my outcome was good.
My daughter’s birth almost fifteen years ago radically altered the way I understood women’s relationship with medical approaches to childbirth. The high I felt after giving birth, the incomparable sense of accomplishment and power, was so incongruous set alongside my unquestioning willingness to let my doctor manage my pregnancy and to accept—even anticipate—interventions simply because they were ‘normal.’ I began a long process of reframing and rethinking, asking questions, demanding justifications, searching out evidence of benefits and risks, wondering what ‘normal’ even meant and why anyone automatically believed, in the context of intervening in pregnancy and birth, that it was good.
It didn’t take long for me to recognize that the framework for my analysis was feminism. Feminist thinking made it possible for me to de-center medicalization without demonizing individual doctors, and to explore other approaches such as midwifery without romanticizing them. Feminist thinking encouraged me to look at pregnancy and birth first from the perspective of the women who experience it, and consider the ways in which ‘normal’ pregnancy and birth are constructed by particular social, historical, political and economic contexts. Feminist thinking made it impossible for me to look uncritically at any action that interfered with women realizing or being supported in realizing the unhindered potential of their bodies, and allowing their bodies to take up space, and be noisy, messy and inconvenient.
It probably comes as no surprise that this has all led to some *cough* interesting conversations between me and my mother. We agree on the fundamentals: birth is not a medical emergency, interventions should be kept to a minimum, and women deserve respect. We agree on many critical points, including a shared sense that today’s skyrocketing caesarean rate is a problem and the importance of supporting all women in making truly informed decisions about their own reproductive health. But then there are other topics, such as the relative safety and advisability of homebirth, where the discussion gets a little more complicated and I have to remind her: intentionally or not, you raised me to think this way.
Believing in women’s bodies and their capacity to grow, birth and feed babies without undue intervention, and in women’s right to control their own reproductive labour—not only whether they give birth, but how they give birth—is central to my belief in women’s capacity to be agents in their own lives and effective political actors. I don’t reject medical intervention when a woman needs it. I do reject the dominant medical model that says intervention is almost always necessary. And I reject the notion that just because birth is common we shouldn’t care about it or that birth activism makes mountains out of molehills. Minimizing issues that are unique to women is a time-honored tool in the war against us. And it’s often in the struggle for autonomy in our everyday lives—including what some consider the mundane, uninteresting work of pregnancy, birth and mothering—where we discover what power really means.