May Women all be treated
as rare and holy flowers
Petals strong and fragile
rise up sacred powers
Life its very breath.
I read this poem in an anthology of women’s prayers, blessings, and readings and it spoke to my heart and to the heart of birthwork, of women’s work, of why I do what I do, and care about what I care about. This is what I wish for women, not just in birth, but in life. I wish for baby girls around the world to be greeted with love and joy, “oh, good! It’s a girl! Another girl! We’re so blessed!” rather than viewed as second class citizens or as property or as burdens or as objects. I wish for the lives and bodies of women to be honored and respected and for their wisdom to be cultivated.
I’m happy to be reviewing a really great book right now called Into These Hands, Wisdom from Midwives. In the introduction is a great quote that makes me think of the above sentiments as well: “Every new member of the human family arrives on Earth through the body of a woman. Each day on our planet, the majority of babies emerge into the hands of a midwife. Since the dawn of time, midwives have been receiving the generations into their hands.” –Geraldine Simkins
For a dozen years now, birth and breastfeeding advocacy have been areas of intense and sustained interest to me. I feel like these are core, basic women’s issues and that women in our present day U.S. birth culture, as well as women around the world, experience significant amounts of devaluation, disempowerment, and even abuse in the medical birthplace. I agree with anthropologist Sheila Kitzinger who said that, “In any society, the way a woman gives birth and the kind of care given to her and the baby points as sharply as an arrowhead to the key values of the culture.” Our current birth culture does not value women and children. Though my focus is usually on the women, it also doesn’t much value men or fathers either. I also agree with Kitzinger’s assessment that, “Woman-to-woman help through the rites of passage that are important in every birth has significance not only for the individuals directly involved, but for the whole community. The task in which the women are engaged is political. It forms the warp and weft of society.”
A popular saying in the birth activist community is “peace on earth begins with birth.” Perhaps it really means, “respecting the birth-givers, eradicates patriarchy.”
Women’s voices & social discourse
In an article by Grassley and Eschiti in summer 2011 Journal of Perinatal Education, they state, “Women’s health research is grounded in women’s voices and experience…’What matters to people keeps getting told in their stories of their life.'” I’ve written before about the value of stories and story power. I would love for us to reach a cultural point in which the most common element found in most women’s birth stories is about their own power, rather than about times in which they experienced distress and victimization. How we talk about birth and about women matters. It matters a lot. Some time ago I read an interesting article by Debra Bingham about Taking Birth Back. It it she asks you to consider–when talking about birth–how your basic assumptions affect your discourse (the way you talk about birth):
1. Does your discourse include stories about the power of women?
2. Or do the stories shift the locus of control away from women and their bodies to other authority figures such as nurses, physicians, or machines?
3. Does your discourse assume that women are physiologically capable of giving birth and nourishing their own children?
4. Or does your discourse assume that women’s bodies are fundamentally flawed and in need of medical attention and intervention?
I frequently attempt to shift the locus of control from “authority” figures back to women–it is shocking to me how ingrained the terminology is about medical care providers (even midwives!), “letting” someone do something, etc.
As I’ve previously written, the prevailing social discourse about birth assumes a locus of control external to the woman and you rarely hear stories about the “power of women” amongst the general public or mainstream media. Ditto for the assumption of women’s bodies as fundamentally flawed, except replace “rarely” with “frequently.” These messages are so dominating that I think it is hard for women to really “hear” positive birth talk–it seems like a “joyful birth” must be a myth or impossible. Likewise, when a woman is striving to keep the birth talk around her positive, it can be very difficult to override the predominately negative messages coming at her from every side. I see this in my classes, “I believe birth is a natural event, etc., etc. BUT….” (followed by a “I trust my doctor’s judgment and if he wants me to have this GTT test or this extra ultrasound to check my fluid level, etc. I guess I will do it…” comment that contributes to the “climate of doubt” in her life). There are also the woman’s own “inner voices” to contend with—I hypothesize that the loudly-shouted cultural voices about birth contribute a good deal to the “negative voice” in her inner dialog.
Women’s stories have not been told. And without stories there is no articulation of experience. Without stories a woman is lost when she comes to make the important decisions of her life. She does not learn to value her struggles, to celebrate her strengths, to comprehend her pain. Without stories she cannot understand herself. Without stories she is alienated from those deeper experiences of self and world that have been called spiritual or religious. She is closed in silence. The expression of women’s spiritual quest is integrally related to the telling of women’s stories. If women’s stories are not told, the depth of women’s souls will not be known. (Carol Christ, p. 341, emphasis mine)
Yes. May we see and hear women. May we witness them in the act of living, of birthing, of struggling, of triumphing. In surrender and in self-doubt. In exultation and joy. May we hold that space for her story. May we listen well and wisely.