Empowerment or Compliance? Making Modern Birth Choices

Empowerment or Compliance? Making Modern Birth Choices

I teach childbirth classes and when I first started, about 8 years ago, there was always a hilarious conversation regarding birth plans and “shaving.” The curriculum I taught at the time contained some things that were a tiny bit outdated.

We always had a fun conversation about enemas and shaving the “birthing area.”

Oh yes, while it hasn’t been common for years, there was a time not too far off when women were routinely shaved, “down there,” in preparation for birth. They would also be cleaned with some disinfectant because, as we all know, women and their special parts are kind of dirty.

Warning: the following post may get awkward.

Now I hear that so many women are getting a full Brazilian wax in preparation for birth.

Do they have doulas for that? I’ve heard people ask…

Does anybody else think it is strange that antiquated, forced, and degrading obstetric practices that have since been abandoned are now being accepted, and even embraced, by women — and that they are being called empowerment because they are choosing them?

I’m an old lady, obviously. But I’m baffled.

For the record, you don’t need to have it all gone “down there” lest you offend someone at your birth. Yes, you will still look beautiful for your birth pictures. No, your care provider won’t be shocked if you are au naturale. As my friend says,“Viva la Bush!”

Doesn’t it seem like we have done this with other aspects of birth?

We recoil in horror at the few images that exist of twilight birth — women forcibly tied down so that they don’t hurt anyone during the birth process.

What were those fools thinking? We are shocked women could be treated in such a way. We would never allow that in our modern, liberated day.

Or would we?

Is it possible that many current obstetric practices accomplish the exact same thing — and we are often choosing them?

A woman with an epidural will also very likely have an IV, a catheter, and continuous fetal monitoring — just to get started. She could have internal fetal monitoring, an internal uterine pressure reader, and more. This all adds up to five or more things effectively tying her down to the bed. Not to mention that the epidural itself prevents walking.

The biggest difference between today and the years of twilight sleep is that, today, women are choosing this to some degree, and they are even MORE compliant.

Those twilight ladies were thrashing and fighting.

Now, we sit and be good patients as we are tied down to a bed with wires. We don’t make a fuss. We make even less noise than the twilight birthers.

And we call it empowerment. Because we chose it.

I’m not convinced.

I’m not convinced that we need a Brazilian to look good for our birth pictures or to be clean. I’m not convinced that we are more empowered in birth today than we were 70 years ago. I think we have bought into the same lies — they are just packaged a little differently today.

Women used to be shaved by their physicians. Now they pay someone to do it prior to the birth.

We still believe our bodies don’t work.

We still believe our bodies are ugly.

We still believe our bodies are dirty.

We still fear “losing it” and appearing to be out of control in front of others.

We still want to be saved from the pain of childbirth.

We still fear birth and all that goes along with it.

The truth is that women WANTED twilight birth. It was part of the early feminist movement and was embraced by feminist leaders.

Women were scared and they didn’t want to be in pain. They wanted technology to save them from this painful, sometimes dangerous, misunderstood aspect of womanhood — childbirth.

Women lined up and signed up for twilight birth, just like they line up and rave about current, modern obstetric practices.

We call it empowering when we are handing our power — and our very ability to walk and move — over to experts who, very often, don’t even have the right parts for the job.

Brazilians and Epidurals- Making Modern Birth Choices

I know, I know. This is probably the most offensive post I have ever written. How dare I question the empowerment of a woman’s birth choices?

I guess empowerment lies in the eyes of the empowered.

It it feels empowering to you, no matter what or where it was, then it is empowering. But I can’t help but wonder if we are buying and paying for a lie that really doesn’t benefit us, but instead benefits those who would rather we be quiet and do as we are told.

Choosing bondage to a bed doesn’t empowerment make.

And yes, I shave my legs and armpits. Full disclosure.

Yes, birth can hurt. It can hurt a lot. It is not uncommon for women to say, “That is the hardest thing I have ever done!”

It is also not uncommon for them to say, “I am so strong! I never knew I could do that.”

We meet ourselves in the trenches of childbirth.

The blood, the sweat, the pain — they purify. We meet our strength and we meet our weakness, all in one howling, messy experience.

It isn’t easy. But oh my, it is empowering. All birth is empowering and all birth is humbling, no matter what. This is just the nature of the event. 

I just wish we would stop fearing it so much and stop making birth choices based mostly on fear or on being a “good girl.”

To me, I think the difference between empowerment and compliance is partially in the motivation behind the choice — and how much of a choice it really was.

Did you really want that epidural or that wax? Or did you feel you needed one because of outside pressures? Was it fear that motivated you? Was it something you were pushed into? Was it subtly hinted that you didn’t work so many times that you started to believe it?

It’s hard to pry apart the “why” when our culture and our birthing practices are so entrenched in a very real, and very deep, distrust of the female — so much so that even women themselves have a hard time seeing their own beauty and power.

What is motivating your birth choices? What did you find empowering about your birth?

I hope we can all honestly say, at the end of the day, that our birth experience was one we cherished — one that helped us see our own strength — an event that left us in awe of our power and our vulnerability.

I hope you loved your birth experience and I hope you felt empowered by it.

Photo credits: fczuardi via Foter.com / CC BYkoadmunkee via Foter.com / CC BYmusic2fish2 (eric lanning) via Foter.com / CC BY

11 thoughts on “Empowerment or Compliance? Making Modern Birth Choices”

  1. I agree. If your motivation is fear, then it was not a choice.

    But ALL women should be able to choose. Epidural, shaving, elective C-section. Whatever. And nobody should be judged for those choices.

  2. Totally agree with the other comments. Stop judging other women’s educated decisions! It’s just as important to empower women when they full wax or get an epidural as it is when they choose to go natural! Judgemental biddies like the author are why I’ll never feel at home in the “natural/AP” communities. Nothing is ever enough.
    I didn’t have any women in my life to teach me about anything. I learned everything I knew from the internet. (Which was quite a lot, I am thankful to live in the internet age!) When I went into labor I learned my water had been broken at least since the night before (lets just say i had NOT been peeing myself) but I had trouble progressing from 7cm. I opted to start Pitocin after 14 hours because we just couldn’t know how long I had been leaking I was SO frightened by the horror stories of the added pain of a Pitocin aided birth I also opted for Nubain. The Nubain didn’t even work on me but I’m still quite angry that I made that particular choice out of fear. While I don’t regret the choice for Pitocin because it was an educated decision. The only fear I felt that day came directly from scare tactics from the natural community, my birthing center was absolutely wonderful. Since that day, I decided I will educate myself but no longer listen to the anti-medical birth blather.

  3. I’m so glad you wrote this! I was thinking this the other day. Years ago I took a childbirth class and they said I would be shaved before birth unless I asked them not to. Seemed silly. But now almost everyone gets shaved beforehand and washed with antibacterial soap like they’re too disgusting to have a baby come through that area. There’s nothing judgmental here, just some honest questioning of WHY you’re making the choices you are. I hope everyone makes choices from a place of empowerment, peace, and trust in their bodies.

  4. Lol! I would *definitely* need a doula for that!

    …she says after a natural homebirth that her midwife nearly missed and without a doula! 🙂

  5. I’d like to flip this, if I may:

    “To me, I think the difference between empowerment and compliance is partially in the motivation behind the choice — and how much of a choice it really was.

    Did you really want that x or that y? Or did you feel you needed one because of outside pressures? Was it fear that motivated you? Was it something you were pushed into? Was it subtly hinted that you didn’t work so many times that you started to believe it?”

    I was pretty young when I gave birth the first time, and I really wanted to do it “right,” because I wanted to prove to everybody that I was up to the job of being a mother despite my age. I immersed myself in the anti-intervention culture that is ubiquitous on the internet. I took note when people used phrases like “too posh to push” to describe women who chose C-sections, just as I heard the thinly-veiled derision when people spoke of those “weak” women who chose pain relief. So I had a natural birth, no pain relief, and I spent the whole experience feeling profoundly disempowered. Deep down, and right from the beginning, I had known that was not what I had wanted–I had wanted an elective C-section. Why that particular birth experience, which many women would insist I was “lucky” to have had, was not what I wanted, is not something I am obliged to explain or justify. My body, my choice. Or, at least, it should have been.

    So, back to your question: “Did you really want that [natural] birth? Or did you feel you needed one because of outside pressures? Was it fear that motivated you? Was it something you were pushed into? Was it subtly hinted that [your feelings were wrong and immoral] so many times that you started to believe it?”” Damn straight. I didn’t want a vaginal birth, but I succumbed to the fear of judgement by people who, I assumed at the time, were wiser than I. I believed them that wanting anything other than a natural birth made me a bad person, a bad woman, and a bad mother. So I complied, I was a good girl. My midwife approved. My doctor, my mother, my aunts, they all approved. Every time they gave me a pat on the back for giving birth the “right” way it just reminded me of how powerless I had felt through the whole process.

    Seriously, stop pretending like natural birth ideology is some marginalised, ignored corner of the conversation. On the internet, it is very nearly the *whole* conversation. It’s judgemental and oppressive. Please try the putting the real feelings of actual, individual women ahead of your gender politics.

    Reassuring women that a natural birth doesn’t have to be scary, but can actually be an incredible experience, is of course very important. Implying that choosing anything else means they’re weak, spineless, ignorant, oppressed fools is bad, bad feminism.

    1. I can empathize with you, Angela. My twin went through the same sort of thing when she had her baby. Our mother and her MIL were both pushing her to do the all natural vaginal birth, but she didn’t want that. She’d done the research and weighed all the risks/advantages for herself, and she wanted to be in a hospital with an epidural at minimum. I tried to support her, but I guess other pressures were too much. I know her husband was completely useless at supporting what she wanted.

      My twin ended up doing a home birth with a midwife. She hated every single second of it. I know because I was there with her through the whole thing and, at her request, ended up kicking out everyone except the midwife and her assistant. I was the one who watched her endure that and then blame herself for not being “strong enough” or “woman enough” to be glad she had “done it right.” Quite frankly, I doubt her marriage will recover from the betrayal and resentment she feels toward her husband because he didn’t support her.

      Now I am pregnant, and I’m dealing with the same kind of pressures my sis did. Or, well, I was. My mother and MIL started the harping right away. I tried to be nice about it for a while, but eventually I told them both that I would evaluate my options and decide for myself – that I refuse to discuss it with them any further. Still, they wouldn’t give up until I lost my temper at a dinner my DH and I were hosting. I told them both they should sit down and STFU unless they knew a way to make it so I could be sitting on a beach sipping margaritas while they went through the pregnancy and birth for me.

      I’m lucky that my DH is supportive and thinks I’m funny instead of offensive, and my twin is totally on my side, of course. I still have time to decide, and I don’t know what I’ll choose to do yet. One thing I do know is that I’m not letting anyone else make the decision for me, not matter how good their intentions supposedly are.

  6. I think moms who disagree with this might not realize how much their birth ‘choices’ may have been influenced by our medical culture. There is pressure to conform at a vulnerable, fearful time for a woman. The vulnerability and cascading effect increase with each intervention allowed or chosen.
    Birth providers can be manipulative, they have their own agendas, biases, and routines.
    Almost everything pushed on me as the norm and responsible choice was neither best for me and baby, nor was it truly a choice!
    This is from someone who hospital birthed, supplemented with formula, and is a lifelong full waxer 😀

  7. It broke me. The doctor and medical staff broke me en Thai disregarded my choices and forced their will on my. 3 years later and the injuries are only worse. Life is only worse and since using to fight what was done to me, I’ve learned that women don’t really have civil rights/human rights during childbirth in The USA. Change.org, search “women’s rights, childbirth.”

  8. It broke me. The doctor and medical staff broke me when they disregarded my choices and forced their will on me. 3 years later and the injuries are only worse. They say to wait until my problems are much worse and then have three diffetent surgeries, cutting from the vaginal incision point, abdominal and rectal. Life is only worse and since trying to fight what was done to me, I’ve learned that women don’t really have civil rights/human rights during childbirth in The USA. Change.org, search “women’s rights, childbirth.”

  9. I agree with what you’ve said about choice, but my pubic hair got caught in stitches after birth which caused a lot of irritation. It turns out grooming isn’t just for aesthetics (as I’d previously thought, hence I didn’t bother), so I will definitely be doing some trimming prior to my next birth.

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