Moralizing Childbirth

As you may have noticed, I talk a lot about empowerment in my discussion of fertility, pregnancy and childbirth. Recent conversations and articles have been pushing me to deeply examine what "empowered birth" really means, and how it affects women.

In her article Monstrous Birth, Sarah Blackwood suggests that the opposite of empowered birth is monstrous birth. And that birth really is amoral.

Birth is love. Birth is creation. Birth is trust and surrender, intuitive and natural. Birth is hard work, scary and chaotic. Birth is messy, stinky, beautiful and... monstrous.

My birth was long, hot, peaceful, empowering and exhausting. Sarah Blackwood's birth was "dehumanizing, disempowering, and yet completely illuminating." All of these words are moralizing. If empowered birth is moral, so is monstrous birth.

Moralizing the way we choose to birth is quite real. For most of the Christian era we moralized that birth and the pain of labor were punishment for the sins of Eve. In the modern feminist era, as we sought to take back our authority during labor and birth, we decided to call birth empowering.

Empowerment, as defined by Robert Adams is "the capacity of individuals, groups and/or communities to take control of their circumstances, exercise power and achieve their own goals, and the process by which, individually and collectively, they are able to help themselves and others to maximize the quality of their lives."

My birth experience was incredibly empowering. I felt that I had control over all aspects of my labor and birth, and that control equals power in a world where experts/doctors largely make decisions for us.

Interestingly, the true power in birth is actually in surrender and allowing the body to act on behalf of its natural instincts. But we can only surrender when we feel safe, and when we trust that our care providers have OUR best interests in mind, not the convenience or protection of the provider or the hospital.

Today, telling a woman she is a bad person or wrong for how she chooses to birth is moralizing. Our friends do it, our mother's do it, strangers on the street do it, nurses and doctors do it. It is especially dis-empowering when our care providers, who are "experts", tell us how we are supposed to birth. Much of birth protocol in the United States is based on the protection of the medical-industrial complex rather than evidence-based research. If it were truly based on the choices of the laboring woman, we would not have the level of birth trauma that is real in hospitals. When we don't have options, when we don't have informed consent, we are dis-empowered. That may not be moralized, but it is not choice.

Every woman's birth experience is unique. She may call it whatever she wants to call it, for herself.  My view of the universe is that of a living, breathing (on many levels), conscious creation. I am Spiritual. I ascribe meaning to very much in my life. I believe that every woman experiences birth in a way that is perfect for her body, her spirit, baby's body and baby's spirit. My objection is that ascribing any qualities to birth, such as empowering or monstrous, or natural or unnatural is moralizing.

When we judge something, we are moralizing. I think our most important work in the birth world is simply to accept what is, without judgement. To allow for one woman to have an empowered birth while allowing for another to have a monstrous birth is non-judgemental and amoral. There is no one way. No right or wrong way.

As a mother, I have had MY experience of birth. I also know that I belong to a tribe where others share my experience and beliefs. If you share my view of the universe, perhaps you will choose to birth within the philosophy that I birthed. If you share my view of the universe, I can give you powerful tools to educate yourself and prepare yourself for the kind of birth that is perfect for you and your baby.

If you don't share my experience of birth and the universe, I still respect you and your perspective. As a trained doula, I can still give you tools to educate and prepare yourself for birth in the modern word. I will still hold space for you and whatever you choose to do or be during your labor and birth experience. And as a doula, I TRUST that you will have the perfect birth experience for this moment.

Dawn Leonard

Dawn Leonard Design, Greensboro, NC, USA