Sunday, October 07, 2007

A critique of essentialist notions of childbirth

Christina Mazzoni uses folklore, literature and theory to create an insightful critique of essentialist notions of childbirth. Mazzoni is a literary theorist and her area of specialty is maternal impressions, the idea that what a pregnant woman sees, thinks or is exposed to will result in birth marks or other permanent disfigurement of the unborn baby. In her book, Maternal Impressions, she argues that contemporary notions that the mother's body was seen as a protected space and only recently has come to be seen as "treacherous" are ahistorical and do not reflect reality.
... [M]any of today's feminist critics who discuss the disempowerment of pregnant women in contemporary society ... [fall] into generalizations that may be rhetorically powerful, yet historically unfounded...
Mazzoni offers examples:
Sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman, for example, writes: "previously the uterus was thought of as a protected nest, but now the nest seemed unsafe, inadequately protected... Before this fall from grace ... the mother's body was believed to do the work of protection," whereas "now ... the uterus is no longer seen as a fortress"...
"Whereas gestation was itself once the most natural of processes," claims cultural critic Valerie Hartouni, with a singularly romantic view of nature, "it has now become treacherous". Again, Hartouni implies that things were different in the past, things used to be better for pregnant women... Can this ... rhetorical praise of the good old days, hold?
Mazzoni answers her own question:
... I would argue on the contrary that this "mythical celebration," ... is itself a mythical construction without historical basis. It is furthermore an unabashedly ideological construction, one aimed at buttressing the unwittingly essentialist argument that, in matters of pregnancy and abortion, "mother knows best." It seems that the pregnant woman instinctively, "naturally" knows what is good for her and for the fetus she carries and needs and wants no help in deciding the latter's, and thus her own, fate... In order to construct the myth of the womb as "protected nest" and "fortress", however, the entire history of pregnancy ... needs to be erased. For as the theory of maternal impressions attests, the womb has not been perceived as a "safe, idyllic sanctuary" for a very long time.
Mazzoni examines historical records and literature of the past to show that the claims of natural childbirth advocates are fabrications. Childbirth was never seen as inherently safe. Mothers were never thought to "naturally" know what is best. Indeed, they and their bodies were always viewed as potential agents of harm. The idea that homebirth harks back to the way birth was understood in the past in nothing more than a myth, fabricated by contemporary theorists to butress a specific, contemporary point of view.


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