Birth in the Closet
“You are the caretaker of the generations, you are the birth giver,” the Sun told the Woman. “You will be the carrier of this universe.” ~ Brule Sioux Creation Story
“If a woman doesn’t look like a Goddess during labor, then someone isn’t treating her
right.” ~Ina May Gaskin (Midwife, Goddess, Mother)
“It’s not CONSENT if you make me afraid to say no. “~Anonymous
“Birthing a baby requires the same relinquishing of control as does sex — abandoning oneself to the overwhelming sensation and doing so in a protective and supportive environment.” ~Libby Bogdan-Lovis (Assistant Director Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences at Michigan State University)
It always makes me incredibly sad when I hear a woman say that she did not enjoy her birth experience because I know, in the deep, sacred knowledge place, that in most cases it did not have to be that way. When I talk about my (mostly) positive birth experience, there is often an instant fluttering of explanations by women as to the choices and decisions that were made by them and for them by those in charge of their care throughout their pregnancies. But when I say that I’m saddened by the fact that they did not have a positive birth, it is not a criticism of these mothers. That expression of sadness is the awareness that they have lost something that they never knew they had which is that sacred, spiritual moment when they are connected into the erotic divine. Nor do I really blame them because I know what our society and our medical industry does to pregnant and birthing women; these institutions erase women from birth by making pregnancy a disease and women afraid of their own bodies.
It is not that I am unaware that there sometimes is a real, urgent need for medical interventions during a birth. I am not speaking to those moments. I am speaking to the unnecessary ones, the ones cloaked in the false demands of “necessity.” My question is: necessary for whom? Surely the thought is for the mother and the baby, but what many people don’t realize is that many of those “necessary” interventions are caused by other medical interventions that were administered earlier in the process such as labor inductions either chemically or instrumentally (stripping membranes, repeated cervical exams, breaking of the amniotic sac). Intervention happens so often that the U.S is seeing an astronomical increase in the rate of caesarean sections (7% in the 70’s with over a 30% rate currently….The Business of Being Born). Here’s what happens: Pitocin is given at the first signs of labor. The labor progresses so quickly and so painfully that the mother cannot adjust to it, and she is given an epidural much too early in her labor. The epidural causes the labor to “stall out” and a C-section is administered (The Business of Being Born). But C-sections cost more money that vaginal deliveries and hospitals are businesses. It is beneficial to the hospitals to do things this way. All this information flies in face of the reality that reveals that we have one of the highest infant and maternal death rates in the industrialized world (The Business of Being Born). But for me, death rates aside, what we are stealing from birthing mothers and their children is a critical connection to the sacred that reduces post-partum depression, increases breast-feeding success, speeds the physical recovery of the mother and protects the health of both mommas and their babies for the entire extent of their lives.
I stumbled upon this connection accidentally. After a very negative experience reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting, at around 28 weeks into my pregnancy with my daughter, I started researching alternative options. One thing led to another, and I was avidly reading books on home births, midwifery and attachment parenting. My husband at the time, was much less enthusiastic about my newfound knowledge, and wanted to stick to the more standard medical/hospital experience. We struck a compromise: a hospital delivery, but with a doula and with as few medical interventions as possible. We decided that we would begin looking for a doula (a birth advocate and assistant who is present during labor and delivery) in my last month of pregnancy. Unfortunately, I went into labor four weeks early. What followed was an “unplanned” experience that ended with me having an “accidental,” natural delivery (I had finally asked for an epidural, but the anesthesiologist did not arrive till it was too late). Not having the epidural allowed me to feel when I needed to push, thereby having more control over the birth. It also allowed me to feel the birth “high” afterwards which being “numb” does not always allow. That birth high was a mixture of a huge adrenalin dump and the euphoric feeling of power. To this day, nothing has put me more in touch with my own power and the power of my womanhood, than that moment. This is a moment I have heard talked about by many other women who have experienced a natural birth. It was a moment of informing, of knowing, of finally tapping into that sacred place of woman-power and motherhood. I felt solar.
It was a feeling of power I wish for every birthing woman.
Audre Lorde discusses this kind of power in her essay, “Uses of the Erotic,” in which she discusses the cost of the detachment to the erotic as a source of power and the effect its loss has on women’s existence. Simply, the erotic is a source of power that has the ability to create change. She writes, “[the] erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change” (Lorde 53). In an effort to avoid change, the oppressive systems must corrupt our connection with the erotic. We see this in the medicalization of birth. Within a matter of about 100 years, birth has shifted from a natural phenomenon of womanhood, guided and managed by generations of midwives and birthing women practiced for millennia, into a medical condition controlled and organized by medical professionals and insurance companies. Babies are born every day, and there is money to be made of off the regular, consistent rhythm of that occurrence. It is a steady stream of capital.
The reason why home-birthing and non-medicalized birthing is so maligned and dismissed by the medical industry is because it disrupts their oppressive control over it. What these oppressive systems realize is that if they lose the “consumer” at the birth experience, other oppressive systems will likely be disrupted. An example of this would be: Big Pharma: creator of chemical birthing interventions, vaccines and baby formula. Once women start to investigate the business of birth, they may continue to research other systems that affect themselves and their children: food, education, toys, circumcision, chemical exposures, vaccinations, etc. This is just one example of how one moment tapped into the powerful erotic, can create a snowball effect of liberation from other oppressive systems that seek to parasitize the mother/child experience for capitalist profit. Because once a mother feels her power, there is no taking it back. (This is not to say that there aren’t other ways women can disrupt oppressive systems besides an un-medicated birth. Birth just happens to be a prime and primal one. Maternal attachment itself brings many such moments). This is the power of the erotic, and Lorde believed that distancing ourselves from that power is “not self-discipline, but self-abnegation,” and that it should not be admired, but avoided. Lorde also points out that our fear of the erotic power keeps us “docile” and that “[r]ecognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world” (59).
At this point, I ideally would’ve like to discuss the connection of birth and birthing to a “transgenerational memory,” a “metaphysic…us[e] of the Spirit knowing as a mechanism of making the world intelligible,” and the concept of the “spiritual closet” as presented by M, Jacqui Alexander, but I am running out of space. But I want to quickly explain how, for me, this relates to queer theory. I feel it relates because as so many examples show us, behavior that responds against the normative whether it be homosexual partnership, vegetarian diets, and non-medicalized births, makes many people and systems uncomfortable and even defensive. It is the quintessential “rupturing” moment in that is a place where many “queer” identities converge: class, temporality, race, gender, and place (I would even argue that birth belongs in the studies of queer and feminist ecocriticism because of its connection to nature and womanhood). If we look at birthing through that lens, we will soon realize that much more than a baby is being born in that room.
I enjoyed reading this, and I would like to hear more about the last part! Very often in queer studies, the matter of reproduction and procreation is relegated without much though to the realm of the straight; yet the messy realities of birth, and the hegemonic obfuscation of them, are clearly far more complex and worth exploring through a queer analytic. Perhaps there are many moments on the inside of “straight” life narratives that are queerer than they would seem.
I think that the Foucaultian frame of the biopolitical, which we discussed when reading Puar as well as quite a few of the other texts, could be a useful way in to this analysis for you, in addition to the Lorde and Alexander you work with here. Biopower is power over life; how does it operate there in the bodies and the more or less medicalized spaces where human bodies enter officially into the realm of culture? You might also ask how the biopolitics of birth are differentially applied by race, class, location, kinds of family; who benefits from the excessive medicalization of birthing and what kinds of knowledge, from where, are applied in resisting it?