‘Captured womb’: feminism, childbirth and motherhood

Deborah Talbot explores the relationship between birthing experiences and the transition to motherhood.

Ann Oakley wrote in her seminal work on childbirth and motherhood, Women Confined, that ‘the medicalisation of childbirth has changed the subjective experience of reproduction altogether, making dependence on others instead of dependence on self a condition of the achievement of motherhood’ (1980, p.98). For Oakley, a core part of the feminist project was control over one’s own body; childbirth, in the context of increasing medical intervWomen Confinedentions, no matter how well-meaning, was a critical moment in the social control of women’s bodies.  The core question of ‘who owns my body, myself or the state’ is answered in Oakley’s work.

Yet since then there has been a resounding silence on the relationship between the feminist project, birthing and motherhood. Of course birth doulas and midwives talk about these matters, and the natural birth movement through organisations such as the National Childbirth Trust have highlighted some core concerns (albeit with their own strictures), and there has been specialised research done, but it has thus far remained on the margins of debate. Of course, rape, contraception, work and childcare are important aspects of women’s equality; although arguably the equation of work with equality – a capitalist hijacking of oppression – unravels when children arrive, and is perhaps more to do with the lack of flexible work and work/life balance for all, than the lack of childcare as successive governments have claimed.  The embodiments involved with being pregnant, giving birth, being a mother, seem to sit uncomfortably and messily with recent feminist demands for equality and inclusion, precisely because it is a condition of difference and, in our work obsessed and micromanaged society, deviance.

These issues were all raised in the first seminar of a new seminar series organised by Birthrights and myself, and sponsored by Centre for Citizenship, Identity and Governance at The Open University.

Elizabeth Prochaska presented a range of perspectives around dignity in birth, including highlighting the importance of rethinking the feminist project to be inclusive of birthing and motherhood. So she argued that ‘there is a need to match up feminist discourse with women’s experiences of their bodily integrity through pregnancy and childbirth…feminism is quite uncomfortable with the concept of motherhood. It doesn’t know what to say about it or construct it in any positive way’. She cited the case in 2013 in Essex of a women who had her baby removed from her by forced caesarian section because of a breakdown; this underlies the increasing lack of control women have over their own bodies and when, in the words of an article of the Lancet (2010) ‘Women have the right to choose how and where to give birth, but they do not have the right to put their baby at risk.’

Nicky McGuinness presented research around midwives’ perspectives, touching on issues of consent and control even for the most committed midwives. Her research showed that her sample thought and cared deeply about how women were treated during labour, but that ‘there was a feeling that sometimes biased presentation and/or coercion was used to manipulate women to make certain choices that were in line with recommendations and guidelines‘. The subsequent discussion focused on the surveillance and control of women’s bodies through the dominance of risk management in the NHS, where women’s compliance is expected and delivered, and midwives use of guidelines secured, through the threat of likely harm or risk particularly to the baby. The discussion was very lively and demonstrated an appetite not just for thinking about birthing and motherhood, but how we might begin to articulate a narrative of resistance.

I will present the next seminar on the 26th February, and will be taking forward these themes by examining research I conducted in 2013 exploring the relationship between birthing experiences and the transition to motherhood.

For further information on the seminar series and to register for future events follow this link.

 

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