Recently, I read Misconceptions, a book by Naomi Wolf about pregnancy, labour and having babies. It was an excellent book and I recommend it to anyone who plans on getting pregnant in the future - though possibly not if you’re pregnant now. It’s not your typical feel-good, self-help type pregnancy book. In fact, you might say it’s that type of book’s evil twin sister. Rather than being a book about what to expect when you’re expecting, it’s more about how our expectations are wrong and how society fails women in this crucial time.
It’s been nine years since I was pregnant. So I was reading it more from the point of view of reflecting on the past, rather than imagining the future. I did feel complete sympathy for Wolf when she said she threw up constantly throughout her pregnancy. And when she said the last day she was physically ill from morning sickness was on the day of her labour, I felt like yelling out ‘Me too!’. It’s the first person I’ve heard of who was also sick every day (often a few times a day) for the entire nine months. But that said, it’s not that common. And although I would have liked to have known that was a possibility, I imagine if they put it in all the pregnancy books a whole heap of women would be worried about something that probably wouldn’t happen to them.
One of the sections that I believe deserves a lot of consideration is where Wolf talks about the lack of support available to women after they have a new baby. Unfortunately it’s not a problem that is easy to fix. In the past, when a woman had a baby, there was lots of family support around. Most likely she would be living in the same area as her parents, sisters, aunts, cousins and family friends. Furthermore, many of these women were not working. Nowadays, a woman’s family can be all around the globe. It is not unusual for women to have no relatives at all in the same area. And even her mother (usually a key support person) is quite often working and unable to help in the way mothers could in the past. We can also add to the problems the fact that many women nowadays are single mothers from the beginning of their child’s life. So these people do not even have the support of a husband or partner.
I don’t think there’s an easy fix for this. We can’t make people go back to living in the same town or tell grandmothers that they can’t work. But I think at the very least society must recognise that women are not getting the support they need. We must see that new mothers now are far more isolated and alone than they ever had in the past. Something needs to be done to address this issue. What? I don’t know. But at least if we admit there is a problem there, that’s a start.
But the part that I found most heart-wrenching was actually the part that I couldn’t relate to at all. It was about labour. I never realised how lucky I was, before reading this. Maybe it’s because I’m in Australia and things are better here than in America. I suspect it probably also has something to do with the fact that I gave birth in a small hospital. Although I went in on Medicare, and theoretically did not have a choice of doctor, the doctor who delivered both my children was the same doctor I saw through the pregnancy. All the midwives were extremely supportive.
The only thing that went wrong with my ‘labour plan’ was probably due to the midwives actually trying to give me what I wanted. I had a tape that I had put relaxing music on. The only problem was I didn’t reach the end of the tape. As it was taped over an old Choirboys tape, my labour took place to the sounds of lovely, relaxing music, followed by Choirboys. It was really annoying me, but I didn’t have the energy to say anything. And I guess the midwives just supposed that that was what I wanted.
The story Wolf tells in Misconception is very different. Although she is describing the situation in the US, I suspect that some of it at least is true for Australia. And if not, there’s a chance it may follow US lines soon. But in the US at least, women’s labour receives way too much medical intervention. Wolf claims that doctors are more likely to say medical intervention is needed to justify their big pay-checks. But the biggest problem seems to be that doctors and hospitals operate on a timeframe. A woman is expected to give birth within a certain period of time. If this doesn’t happen, then all kinds of medical intervention takes place - including Caesareans when they’re not really necessary.
And some people might say, well does it really matter? For a start, labour will always be painful - and modern medicine has come up with some very good ways of alleviating that pain. Furthermore, there are very good reasons why we need medical intervention. I’m sure no-one wants to go back to the days when there was a good chance a woman might die every time they gave birth.
But at the same time, I believe we are ruining a beautiful, spiritual, natural event. It is the time in a woman’s life when she gets to feel something of the joy the Creator must have felt when he looked over all He made. We get to not only see, but be part of new life coming into this world. And at the risk of offending the feminists, we also get to appreciate one of the great joys of being a woman. We are part of the ongoing story of generation after generation of women giving birth, and generation after generation of life coming into this world. So yes, I want medical intervention - sometimes. But I don’t want that medical intervention to completely take over this experience.
And I think it’s part of a wider story too. It’s a story where we fail to value what is spiritual and natural and beautiful. We replace God’s intended plan with profit-maximising practices. Instead of waiting for nature, we impose our will on it so that it meets our deadlines. We presume that our way of doing things is better than God’s way. We’re too busy and too egotistical to recognise the spiritual dimension of what is happening in our world. Quite simply, we fail to see.
In order for this world to truly reflect God’s plan, we need to uncover the spiritual dimensions that hide behind so many things. And just because human beings can come in with their machines and their technology and their ‘expertise’ doesn’t actually mean they are actually the experts. To truly be an expert, we need to not just look at the ‘facts’ or the ‘science’ or the ‘data’, but the whole. And the whole does not just consist of what we can study or what we can see, but includes those spiritual aspects as well.
Having a baby is not just a medical procedure. It is the most beautiful, emotional and I would say spiritual time in a woman’s life. And a successful outcome is not just a healthy baby delivered within a set timeframe. Instead it is one where the entire woman (body, emotions and soul) is respected and valued. It is one where all dimensions of the labour are looked after, rather than just the physical. And to be completely successful, it needs to recognise that giving birth is a natural and spiritual event and should be treated as such.