Thursday, November 09, 2006

Is natural childbirth a mythology of the ideal woman?

Throughout recorded human existence, there have been innumerable mythologies about the ideal woman. These are essentially prescriptions for women's behavior based on pre-existing beliefs. They might be religious beliefs, beliefs about the physical nature of women, or beliefs about the relative importance of women and men.

These mythologies are extremely relevant to the people promulgating them. The men who declared women to be the "weaker" sex and created restrictive rules for women certainly believed deeply that the natural place for women was subordinate to men. There are women who are equally comfortable with the notion of subordination, and the mythology of women as the weaker sex is quite relevant to them as well. It resonates with them, and there is no psychic pain caused by accepting the limitations that are placed on women in societies that expect female subordination. However, there are always large numbers of women whose needs are not met by the prevailing mythology.

Is natural childbirth advocacy just a new mythology about the ideal woman? In the natural childbirth mythology, women are supposed to embrace the natural and reject the technological. They are supposed to experience childbirth as relatively painless, or even pleasurable. They are supposed to accept motherhood as the central experience of womanhood, requiring a multitude of sacrifices entailed by prolonged breastfeeding, co-sleeping, attachment parenting, etc. For the people who have promulgated natural childbirth advocacy, these requirements make sense. They are the beliefs and behaviors that they would undertake anyway. However, the mythology elevates their personal predilections to the status of the "ideal".

In mythologies of the idea woman, there is ostentibly a "reason" that the ideal woman should behave as prescribed. In societies where women are considered subordinate, the "reasons" range from the supposed physical reality of women's inferiority to religious dicta that God "expects" women to have a subordinate role. In the natural childbirth mythology, the "reasons" include a belief that childbirth in nature was generally better, safer, healthier and more satisfying then it was in reality, a belief that pain is not an inherent part of childbirth, and a belief that simple techniques like relaxation and position changes are enough to solve serious problems.

If those beliefs resonate for natural childbirth advocates, that's fine. The part of natural childbirth advocacy that is not fine is the notion that ideal women experience childbirth in one particular way. This is simply the all too human impulse to give one's own preferences and desires special status, and to denigrate other women who make different choices.


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