Birth of a Mother: Empowered Birth, Empowered Motherhood

By Tracy McDaniel

An Appalachian native and former nomadic explorer of all parts flyover, Tracy McDaniel is a doula and public health worker residing in the mountains of New Mexico. Her multitude of children, jobs, dogs, and chickens leave little time for the exploration of the written word, but you can find McDaniel’s rather neglected blog here.

This is the second in a series of posts by Tracy McDaniel on woman-centered birthing and regional differences in US birth culture. Read the first Birth of a Mother post here.

[Editor’s Note: More people than just cis women need and want access to reproductive, prenatal, and postpartum health care.]

Reproductive choice is often considered synonymous with contraception and abortion rights, but I would argue that reproductive choice does not end when a woman chooses not to terminate her pregnancy. A woman’s reproductive journey continues throughout gestation, birth and the post-partum period. It is a journey that can be either empowering or victimizing. As a feminist, I feel strongly that women should feel educated and empowered to make the best choices for themselves and their families from preconception through the post-partum period.

Interestingly, First Wave Feminists recognized birth choice as an issue. At that time, many felt as though women should not be made to bare the pain of childbirth. They pressed the medical establishment to allow women the “twilight sleep” (amnesic) birth experience. The intention was to provide women with freedom from pain perceived as unnecessary. Of course, manipulation of birthing was uncharted territory, and no one understood the biologic importance of the many hormonal processes that occur during birth. These processes are deeply significant in bonding, breastfeeding, and prevention of postpartum depression, and they are interrupted by maternal disconnection from the birth experience.

I have seen this theme replayed by some feminist writers throughout the years. It is a discourse of disconnection from motherhood. A sense that women should somehow ‘rise above’ their biological station as mothers to focus upon intellectual and economic pursuits. By no means do I argue that this is the only perspective coming from mainstream feminist theory, but it has certainly been a persistent undercurrent through many scholarly writings from then to present. I have also seen many non-feminists distort this vein of thought into a belief that feminists are fundamentally anti-family. The promulgation of both sides of this debate ends with women feeling like motherhood is anti-feminist and to mother is to embody the patriarchy. The opposing messages have one commonality – motherhood is valued less than other roles. I see this as an essential “othering” of mothering in America today.

There are very few venues in which American mothers are celebrated as multi-faceted, empowered, and outspoken decision-makers. The societal image of the mother is one of frenzy, forgetfulness, disarray, and competition. A woman pulled between two worlds- the pressure to achieve and the pressure to devote every waking moment to producing the most perfect children Earth has ever known. The “Mommy Wars” moniker exemplifies this dynamic. Women are portrayed as petty and judgmental, believing that their way is the only way to be a ‘good’ mother. There is a perception of a narrow binary, in which every mother is decidedly ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The ways in which our children eat, sleep, cry, hug, fight off infections, are carried, and learn are all judged as right or wrong.

Mothers are dehumanized when they are ranked against other mothers in someone else’s hierarchy rather than being supported and exalted as the experts on their own families. Mothers are human beings raising human beings. No two women will mother in exactly the same way, and no two children will need the same type of mothering. And you know what? That is okay. It is more than okay. It is an amazing gift of diversity that should be encouraged and celebrated. Women who choose to mother should have the freedom to navigate their own journey through parenthood.

The perinatal period is the foundation upon which motherhood is framed. This momentous period is the intersection between reproductive choice and parental choice. A woman who feels empowered by her birth experience is poised to experience an empowered motherhood.

Being empowered during birth does not necessarily mean having an unmedicated birth. For many women, having the choice to request pain relief allows them to achieve their optimal birth experience. Whether they choose an unmedicated birth, an epidural block, water birth, Cesarean birth, whether they choose to birth at home, a birthing center or a hospital, what matters is knowing and understanding the options and having the confidence and freedom to make the best choice at each moment during the highly dynamic birth process. When a mother’s confidence in birth is undermined, the foundations of an empowered motherhood are also undermined.

There is no doubt that modern obstetrics has saved countless lives. I might not be here without it, as my mother’s health conditions precluded a normal labor and delivery. Her condition was exceptional and required exceptional care. This is the caveat, though – we have come to treat nearly every pregnancy as an exceptional one, a dangerous one, one that could not end well without some degree of medical intervention. As with many other societal issues, we hit a slippery slope when we begin to believe that the exceptional is normal. This is the territory of lost knowledge, lost power, lost choice.

In my experience supporting women during this critical period and in listening to women’s birth stories, I have come to realize that even in those exceptional situations when a woman is unable to birth her baby without undesired medical intervention, she can most certainly feel empowered during birth.

Empowerment isn’t about getting the “ideal” birth. It is about mothers knowing that they worked hard, were well supported, and made good informed decisions for themselves and their babies. It is about knowing that they are strong, knowledgeable, and capable of anything.

This is the wisdom and strength they can carry with them into an empowered motherhood and why the culture around birth is so critically important. Unless we acknowledge this as a fundamental issue of reproductive rights and begin speaking out in support of mothers and mothering, we are missing a major opportunity to celebrate women’s wisdom and to improve the status of all women in America today.

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