Some months ago I was asked to co-author an article with one of my lovely-midwife-friends, on the topic of birth as a rite of passage, for Barefoot magazine. As can be the way with writing, the words went off in their own direction and what resulted instead was a story of the small one’s birth from both of our perspectives (my LMF was also my private midwife). ‘Birth as a rite of passage’ is an enormous, unwieldy theme. For any person, it is all too easy to get bogged down in the nitty gritty of either facet. For me, the co-existing perspectives of midwife and mother lead to deep entanglement of thought in the realms of both. As my LMF and I tried to exert a coherent and shared grip on the entire concept and put pen to paper, or hands to keyboard, we got more intimate with our own ideas but further and further from either consensus or an article shorter than a thesis. The confines of small’s birth at least gave us a helpful boundary around a shared experience.
What it didn’t allow for was any meandering into the social paradigm, any talk of the meanings placed on birth by the modern woman (well, to be more specific, the white, middle-class, english-speaking woman of Australia, who is all I can really speak of with a speck of authority) and the society in which she lives. So what is this paradigm What are these meanings? What order can I create out of my tangled thoughts? How much can I assert my viewpoint without being critical and alienating?
To be flat out negative, I think the importance of birth as a rite of passage has been diminished to the point of non-existence. My cynical self believes that the modern, capitalist world has turned becoming a parent into yet another consumer experience. It’s no longer about being transformed, stepping away from one self toward a new self, irreversibly. It is all about acquiring a baby. Sometimes this is couched in ‘becoming a family’, but let’s not kid ourselves, this is just one more way of saying ‘as a couple, we are getting a new thing’. A new thing, in a natural progression of new things: holiday, engagement, wedding, house, coffee machine, car, a fancier phone, a pregnancy, a baby, mountain of largely unnecessary stuff for baby, newer bigger car, newer bigger house, newer baby, holiday (and yes, I’m aware that I am generalising wildly, but that doesn’t make me wrong)….. Becoming a parent is just one more opportunity for us to be aggressively marketed to and it starts before you’ve even conceived. ‘Take this supplement! Scientifically proven to make a better baby!’ ‘Buy this pill for your man! Give him the gift of higher quality sperm!’ ‘Eat this cereal! Your ovaries will thank you!’ I know that taking prenatal supplements isn’t an inherently bad practice (unless you’re the woman who unwittingly took ten times the recommended dose of folate) but it’s certainly not bad for business either. There’s not nearly as much money to be made from telling people how to maximise their ability to conceive without drugs. In pregnancy the pressure builds a little more. ‘Book into our private hospital! We have a big sparkly nursery!’ ‘Use this cream! You’ll never get a stretch mark!’ ‘Buy this special seat-belt!’ ‘Buy bottles now! Every mother needs them just in case!’ Then comes labour and birth. ‘Wear this labour dress! You don’t want to be stuck looking bad in hubby’s old t-shirt!’ ‘Take the drugs! Don’t be uncomfortable!’ ‘Listen to this music! Your unborn child will already be smarter!’ And once your child is out in the world the marketing pressure that parents are exposed to intensifies further, cunningly devised to play into every fear and anxiety they are vulnerable to. ‘Worried if your baby is sick? Buy this drug! Use this dummy that doubles as a thermometer!’ ‘Afraid your baby will stop breathing? Use this motion-detecting cot alarm! Buy these multi-point baby monitors!’ ‘Want your baby to sleep? Buy our disembodied, plush model-hands so you can trick your baby into thinking you are holding him! Bathe her in this bubble-bath! Slather him in this cream! Use this dummy!’ ‘Want your baby to be smart? Buy this toy/music/book/dvd/mobile/walker/bouncer/class! It’s never to soon to be over-stimulated!’ ‘Want your baby to be healthy? Buy this fortified formula! We’ll pretend it’s for toddlers but you know it’s really for babies!’ On and on and on and on. And that’s just the stuff you’re meant to be buying, never mind the image of modern motherhood you’re meant to be buying into.
Which takes me back to the notion of transformation – and this is where things are even more depressing. For an event to truly be a rite of passage it must involve change, irreversible, life-altering, monumental change. The transitions through menarche and menopause, from boy to man, from parent to grandparent, the events of starting school, finishing school, leaving home for the first time, retiring, all times of change. Change that, for the most part, is celebrated. Yet we have an image of motherhood held up for us that glorifies an absence of change. How many articles exhort you to get your old body back? How many articles indirectly encourage this, documenting celebrity mothers and their miraculous bodies, manicured nails and glossy hair? How many methods are being peddled, promising to produce a baby so controlled it couldn’t possibly inconvenience you? How pervasive is the notion that babies should be cutely silent and sedated, predictable and compliant? How negative the adjective ‘mumsy’? Because whatever you do, you shouldn’t actually look like a mother. Dammit, you should look sexy – boobs up, tummy flat, stretch-marks erased (if you were so irresponsible as to come by them in the first place), back-in-your-skinny-jeans-slim and absolutely no leaking. You should be out there, working, shopping, socialising, having coffee, having it all. The message is strong: have a baby – you needn’t let it change your life.
And whatever you do, don’t be dwelling on your birth experience. If it was awful it doesn’t matter, because (chant with me now) all that matters is a healthy mum and a healthy baby. If it was great just shut up, or you’ll make the other whiny mothers feel guilty and inadequate. Anyway, why are you even thinking the birth was about you? Clearly your pregnancy was a temporary and potentially life-threatening condition, treated heroically by our state of the art medical system. All you had to do was show up and get handed a baby at the end. There’s nothing special about having a baby. Women all over the world do it every day, squatting in rice paddies and fields and whatnot, and you don’t hear them banging on about it ad nauseum.
But it is special. And when the cynical ranter in me takes a break and the dewy-eyed midwife steps in, I’d even say it is magical. No matter how many times I see it happen, it is magical to watch a whole new person come into the world, a person that has been there, out of sight, curled up behind a wall of skin and muscle for fortyish weeks. It’s magical to see women birth their babies and cross over the threshold to parenthood, sometimes sweetly, sometimes with a lurch and a crash. I love bearing witness to those first few hours of naked emotion, naked bodies, tears and blood, shock and awe. Before the cleaning up, tidying up, washing, dressing, wrapping, texting, calling and anxiety begin. But if the message I’m reading, socially and culturally, is that birth is no biggie then should I care? Maybe women don’t care. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s the idealistic hippy in me, yearning for a scene from Spiritual Midwifery, where all the sweetly smiling, long-haired, vegetarian folks are kissing and singing as the newest arrival slithers into Ina May Gaskin’s hands. You could almost have convinced me of the error of my convictions, before I crossed the threshold myself. Yes, as a student midwife and even as a newly minted midwife, my only image of the transformational power of birth was a scene like that. I would have argued that birth has to be felt, that a woman needed to immerse herself in the raw physicality of it to truly appreciate her female power, to be truly transformed. I don’t believe that anymore. Yes, I believe in the importance of natural, physiological labour and birth, but not for the same reasons. I don’t think a normal labour should be messed with, but that’s because I’ve seen the damage that can be done to a woman and her baby, not because I feel we’d be interrupting her passage to powerful, enlightened motherhood. Now I believe that whether a woman births her baby through the tumult of labour, or has her baby lifted out under the glare of surgical lights, or even if she adopts her baby, she still walks the wild and vulnerable path to motherhood. She is changed and can never be the same again. She could bear the pain of her baby dying or of giving her baby up for adoption but she cannot undo becoming a mother.
This passage should be honoured, tended carefully, rejoiced in. Whichever way they do it, women need to be held up by their friends, family and carers when they become mothers. They are vulnerable and need to be able to find and wield their own power, they need safety but not rescuing, they need love but not infantilising. They need open minds and hearts surrounding them, allowing them to change and enabling them to know the changes within intimately. That knowledge, that is power.