An extract from Hearts of Fire, by Kemp Battle

Men know nothing about  birth. Nothing at all. No man can truly grasp the thousand nameless moments when her body weaves within itself a new life, those long months of quiet, astonishing transformation. Even the male doctors, who routinely bring babies into the world and know everything about the medical procedures, cannot really know the pain and joy of that one, startling moment when the baby comes. But women know. They speak to each other wordlessly about the pain, about the sacrifice, the bliss. Those who have made that journey take those who have not by the hand–Do not be afraid. You can do it.

Strange, then, how many stories of birth we know with men at the centre–the country doctor who rides out and delivers the baby in the driving storm (remember his unflappable calm and steady wisdom?); the firemen and taxi drivers, called in as unexpected midwives; allowed for a moment to take part in the mystery (we applaud them for not flinching); the familiar figure of the husband pacing anxiously up and down the corridor, waiting for the doctor to come and tell him triumphantly “It’s a boy!” American folklore anthologies are filled with the comical cliches of the birth story and, inevitably, they minimize the toil and the mystery of the event by making the birth itself something of a sideshow.

Such stories are not the ones women tell each other. They are not the narratives that women use to help one another. The best of them touch on the lonely and powerful journey that every woman takes in childbirth: the journey towards empowerment and solitude that often means leaving everyone else behind–and climbing alone toward that place where one’s child is waiting to be claimed, saved, born.

Increasingly in America, birth is being reclaimed by women. Midwifery is once again being viewed as economical, practical, and superior to the automatic interventions routinely authorized by a medical establishment long dominated by men. These midwives are part of a long and honored tradition, one in which women look upon birth as a natural event, not a medical one. The midwives are seasoned guides through the anxious and sometimes confusing landscape of birth. Like many mothers, midwives often find themselves at odds with male doctors intent on moving women in and out as quickly as possible. Midwives have travelled the road so many times, seen the mother’s fear and her triumph–and they are among our best folklorists. Every midwife has a great birthing story to tell and each knows that a man, even a good, kind, and anxious one, must stand aside when the pain comes. There is work to be done honey, the midwife tells him. Hold her hand but let her concentrate. And then she speaks to her woman as if the man were not there at all.

Of the sadness or joy, good fortune or tragedy that awaits every mother and newborn child in this life, we can never know in advance. But the birth journey is and will always be nothing short of heroic, for every child and every mother, every time.

Midwives offer the birthing mother something that a male doctor never could, even if he wanted to. Mothering of the new mother.

This mothering is what makes it possible for a woman to reach deep down inside herself in order to find the strength she needs to birth her baby.

Men who are privileged to be present to witness the birth of a child should remember that they mustn’t talk to a labouring woman. When the endorphins kick in she needs to go into labour-land, a trance-like state which accesses the most primitive part of the brain. Her language and communication skills shut down. Selfishly, some male spouses and doctors often attempt to communicate with the birthing woman to bring her back into the present, because as we know, men don’t like not being the centre of attention. If this happens, and the woman is forced to revert back to her “thinking” brain, the labour can stall.

Stalling the labour, might actually be the point of the male intrusion into birth, so that they can whip out their knives and contraptions and Save the Day. When all a labouring woman needs is to be left alone. Or perhaps a strong, warm hand on her back.

Most babies come at night because the woman’s body lets her wind down before beginning the work it has to do. Ob/gyns hate this and enjoy inducing a woman with chemicals so that the baby comes at a more convenient time (for them).

With my second baby, I laboured for an hour and a half. The contractions woke me at 2 a.m. I went to the nearby midwife’s house. She showed me to a tatami room. It was dark, cool and it smelled of inscense. The baby shot out. It was beautiful.

Not all women are able to deliver babies naturally. But it’s important to know the difference between necessary and unecessary intervention. Hospitals are known for their infamous “cascade of intervention”. If you go to hospital to have  a baby you are more likely to end up with a C-section or an episiotomy (almost guaranteed), or both if the doctors tried and failed to get the baby out. In some countries, C-sections make more money for the hospital.

If you’re a pregnant radfem reading this, or a woman hoping to give birth one day, make midwives your first port of call.

[Inspired by a post at Fabulous Fab Stuff. BRaxton Hicks (a man) did NOT discover the pre-labour contractions that he named after himself. Women did. Idiot]


33 thoughts on “Birth

  1. I cannot speak from experience, but there seems to be a lot of things designed to interfere with the natural process, particularly in the 20th century. Things like lying down flat, epidurals, and probably bright fluorescent lighting – essentially all the stuff that goes on in ‘modern’ hospitals. Back in my mother’s day, they used to shave the women completely (no idea if they still do that, don’t think they do).

    • No, they don’t shave women and give them an enema anymore, thank god, but they used to in the fifties. Then it was up in stirrups and episiotomy. A bunch of men sat around deciding that’s how it would be, as if they were preparing for a porn set rather than a birth.
      It’s extremely difficult for a woman to give birth lying on her back because she needs to move around to get the baby out. GRAVITY helps. Squatting or an all fours are the best ways, but it depends on the baby. That’s why pain medication causes problems because in order to get the baby out the woman has to listen to what her body is telling her. Plus, if she’s on her back the weight of her baby is on her body and that can hamper the blood flow in some of her major arteries. Male ob/gyns’ ignorance of the female body is stunning.

      In many hospitals they still take the baby away from the mother and feed it formula under the pretext of allowing the mother to rest, when in fact breastfeeding a baby contracts the uterus and brings it down to size quickly, which prevents heamorradge. It was interesting to me to feel the breast-womb connection in action. Baby would suck, womb would hurt from contracting back down to its original size of a fig and in about 5 days had already tucked itself back behind the pubic bone.So if breastfeeding prevents heamorradge, then WTF are male doctors doing taking the baby away from a new mother? Causing female deaths is the answer. Murder through ignorance. Our bodies are perfectly designed.

      With my first the pain was telling me: run away and climb the walls! This meant I was pacing up and down, until suddenly I felt the compulsion to lie on my left side and then I felt the baby starting to come down quickly. With my second, as I said, I just arrived at the midwife’s and she showed me to the tatami room. I went on all fours and she caught the baby.

      Men have destroyed birth for so many women and continue to do so today. Lots of women experience birth trauma, which is akin to rape. Often in hospital, when male ob/gyns refuse to listen to the labouring woman’s opinon, and override her, she experiences PTSD. It’s the lack of control over what somebody is doing to your body that cause the trauma. Thankfully, the PTSD can be cured when she goes on to have her next baby with a midwife. Many women say that a midwife birth with their second baby healed them of their horrendous hospital birth.

      • That’s why pain medication causes problems because in order to get the baby out the woman has to listen to what her body is telling her.

        Yup, and you can’t do that if you body is numb from the waist down, which is why it actually extends labour.

        Then it was up in stirrups and episiotomy. A bunch of men sat around deciding that’s how it would be, as if they were preparing for a porn set rather than a birth.

        Yes indeed, it does seem more like a porn set, and certainly the woman in the equation becomes a neglible object in the whole ‘procedure’. The position is very much the woman reduced to being ‘a vagina’. I can certainly imagine many women being traumatised by an experience like that. With all these things under patriarchy, many of us don’t have the words to describe an experience or what is wrong with it, but on a base level we ‘just know’ it is wrong. PTSD is the body’s reaction to being in a bad situation that you are powerless to change.

  2. Reading this made me want to experience childbirth. If I could have a natural, male-free birth, I would. Unfortunately I am probably infertile, and also the transplant medications I have to take make it impossible to have a natural, non-medical pregnancy. They also cause birth defects. I’ll never be a mother unless I adopt. It makes me so sad.

    • Don’T be sad, Rainbow Riot. Although I don’T agree that rejecting our bodies and motherhood is the path to revolution (because it is accepting the patriarchal view that our BODIES are the problem, when actually it’s MEN), being a mother under a patriarchy is a living nightmare.
      This has been done on purpose, of course.
      So if you can’t have children, grab onto your freedom with both hands, because if there’s one thing mothers can never be, it’s FREE. I would love to have experienced motherhood in a matriarchy, or at least an egalitarian society.

    • As a single woman or lesbian couple, it will be almost impossible to adopt. Hence most lesbians go the insemination route and make one.

      I became sub-fertile then completely infertile fairly early (20s-30s). But as CBL says, motherhood is a raw deal under the current regime. Transfer your ‘baby love’ to a cat or dog! End up with a completely spoilt baby-substitute! I fear my Crazy Old Cat Lady title is slipping away at the moment, down to one 20yo tabby cat.

      • LOL *I* want to be the only Crazy Old Cat Lady in the village when I grow up. I have two cats now, one still a kitten, really.

        But the title has already been taken by the woman I got my first cat from.
        She’s in her fourties, no children, and she drives a van with the sign “Angel Service” on it. What she does is *collect* strays and keeps them so the city council doesn’t round them up and take them to the pound. When I went to her house to pick a cat I saw that she had renovated the upstairs of her house for the cats, with a sort of cat jungle-jim for them. I assume she slept downstairs on a fouton. She had about 30-35 cats, most of them missing eyes and tales. NObody is ever going to pick them.
        I chose a quiet, clever-looking cat of about 2 years old and when I said that that was the one I wanted she started umming and ahing and talking about how that one probably wasn’t the best choice, and how she thought it might have mental problems and I realized she didn’t want to part with any of them. But she did in the end. Refused to let us have the cat until she’d checked out our house to make sure we’d be good enough parents. She stayed at my place about an hour and as we chatted she laughed and said she knew she was crazy. No you’re not, I said.

      • Well, the last adoption from the rescue centre ended up with me bring TWO instead of ONE home. The second, who insisted I take her with me, is the 20yo tabby of whom I speak. Very intelligent she is (although now she is really elderly lady, and being solo cat now, is spoilt and has reverted to babylike).

        And… I really wanted to take another two or three that day…
        but I figured two girls would be enough for my solo boy to handle. My boy passed away in April this year, after nearly 15 years together, got him as rescue cat when he was two. Part Maine Coon, very soppy and dedicated to me. He also insisted I take him.

        I guess the secret is really to let the moggie pick the human. After all, you are going to be enslaved by the moggie for many years… 😛

  3. Cherry, I’ve been meaning to comment on this post since it first went up! This other part of my life (the totally idiotic part, because it unfortunately has 2 stooopid men it and that can’t be helped for now) had me kind of busy and highly irritated. 😛

    For now though I’ll say that birthing spaces, especially, MUST BE male-free. None of their damn business.

    • Actually, they (males) need to stay the fuck away from that region. Male gynaecologists are the most useless, the most rough, the most clueless about the workings. Reading it all in a book is NOT THE SAME as having the working parts. So yeah, they can fuck off out of gynaecology, obstetrics and midwifery.

      • Now that women have the internet and are able to compare notes, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that gynecology and birth attracts the most unsavoury of men. I mean, WTF are they *doing* there? WhyTF do they decide to go into that profession? Many ob/gyns don’t hide the fact they find women’s bits disgusting. I’ll never forget reading Gyn/Ecology where one male gynecologist said “you get used to it after a while”, referring to the vaginal exams he was “forced” to give women. I have read birth stories online of women who faced pure unadulterated hatred from the male doctor who was supposed to be helping her deliver her baby. [In male-speak, of course, it’s the doctor that delivers the baby, not the woman. Which again goes to show how little men know about birth]

      • it’s becoming increasingly obvious that gynecology and birth attracts the most unsavoury of men. I mean, WTF are they *doing* there? WhyTF do they decide to go into that profession?

        Yes indeed.

        It all started when women weren’t allowed to go to medical school to become doctors, so the dudes thought they would think up a specialty area (because there was, probably still is, more money in specialties). Once they got into ob/gyn, they edged out the midwifes (who were/are owner/drivers of the relevant parts) and demoted them to handmaidens of the self-appointed demi-gawds. In some places there used to be good money in delivering babies. So I think many went into it for the money-making of baby-delivering, and got saddled with the ‘gyn’ as the ‘unfortunate’ part of the deal (no real money in it, lots of women moaning about their parts). Any wonder women get shit medical attention for gynae when the dudes have little interest. The other (systematic) reason is that by having males ‘in charge’ of women’s downstairs regions, they got to control it, collectively on behalf of patriarchy.

        And telling women to “relax” as they forcefully try and ram a cold metal speculum up the vagina really does not help with the relaxing… they would fucking know that if they had one.

        Ob/gyn needs to be a female-only profession. Unfortunately, when any area becomes a pink ghetto, there will barely be any money in it. Apparently women don’t need money to live or anything…

      • giving a pregnant woman an internal exam can actually push bacteria up into her cervix and womb.
        I suppose you know that trans women go for smear tests so they can get the full woman experience. ugh

  4. Call me a freaking vegemite sandwich! Chonky knows dogs are better people than dudes.

    So are birds, rodents, other small, medium and large mammals. Reptiles, mollusks, crustachea, equus, cactus etc..

    Well, hope my drift is gotten.

    • Thank you for that link Cassaundra! It covered all the bases… and was absolutely chilling to read. I just think men are completely insane; that’s my base theory, and then each week I learn something new that consolidates it.(and hi, by the way! Beautiful children. All FOUR(!) of them 🙂

      From the article:

      We shave ’em, we prep ’em, we hook ’em up to the IV and administer sedation. We deliver the baby, it goes to the nursery and the mother goes to her room. There’s no room for niceties around here. We just move ’em right on through. It’s hard not to see it like an assembly line.

      The hospital itself is a highly sophisticated technocratic factory; the more technology the hospital has to offer, the better it is considered to be. Because it is an institution, the hospital constitutes a more significant social unit than an individual or a family. Therefore it can require that the birth process conform more to institutional than personal needs. As one resident explained,
      There is a set, established routine for doing things, usually for the convenience of the doctors and the nurses, and the laboring woman is someone you work around, rather than with.
      The most desirable end-product of the birth process is the new social member, the baby; the new mother is a secondary by-product. One obstetrician commented,

      It was what we were all trained to always go after–the perfect baby. That’s what we were trained to produce. The quality of the mother’s experience–we rarely thought about that.

    • Yes, great link Cassaundra!

      I had not thought of a hammock, but that really sounds rather ideal to me. No need for a catcher either!

      The very inevitability of hospital procedures makes them almost antithetical to the possibility of normal, natural birth. A “cascade of intervention” occurs when one obstetric procedure alters the natural birthing process, causing complications, and so inexorably “necessitates” the next procedure, and the next. Many of the women in my study experienced such a “cascade” when they received some form of pain relief, such as an epidural, which slowed their labor. Then pitocin was administered through the IV to speed up the labor, but pitocin very suddenly induced longer and stronger contractions. Unprepared for the additional pain, the woman asked for more pain relief, which ultimately necessitated more pitocin. Pitocin-induced contractions, together with the fact that the mother must lie flat on her back because of the electronic monitor belts strapped around her stomach, can cause the supply of blood and oxygen to the fetus to drop, affecting the fetal heart rate. In response to the “distress” registered on the fetal monitor, an emergency Caesarean is performed.

      Wow, it is even worse than I suspected!

      Robbie Davis-Floyd has her own site (for some reason not loading for me, possibly due to cookies disabled?) although there is mention of a revamp of the site, so it could be that.

      If you have the same problems viewing it, view it via google cache:

      any other pages you wish to view, just amend the end of that URL (you can find the URL by hovering over links, FF tells you the URL.

      • luckily the “cascade of intervention” has become a sort of household term among mothers. On mumnset, women there are quite clued up about it.
        There are a couple of problems left to tackle though. The first is that the anti-midwife/witch-hunt lobby is extremely powerful. Nick Clegg is part of this. Before the global conference on birth, he came onto mumsnet for a web chat and the women there asked him which prominent midwives would be present… he didn’T have a clue. It was going to be a bunch of men chatting about how to “empower” women by having shiny new hospitals staffed with men built in their villages. He actually used the word “empowerment”. How fucking nineteen nineties.
        The other problem is that women are taught not to trust women and TO trust men. And there is a dearth of birth stories out there– real birth stories, BUt luckily that is changing with the internet. Many women are reading the birth stories of others and are encouraged by them. It’s very positive.

        IN areas of the western, developed world where there are no midwives available, or where they have no power and are handmaidens of the patriarchy, we are seeing a rise in unassisted births, whereby women simply DIY at home. Lots of women film their unassisted births and you can find them everywhere online now. Before my friend was about to have her baby she watched a lot of these birth videos. I never watched any personally, as I don’t fancy it. I just read books written by midwives.
        Obviously, being with a midwife is the best option, but if I had to choose between a hospital birth with a male doctor and an unassisted birth I would definitely choose the latter, especially knowing by body has given birth easily twice.

  5. I was lucky as hell to actually have a rotating team of FEMALE midwifes for all of my Kid knitting.

    They finally agreed that I could have the picotin drip (which I wanted for a variety of reasons) mostly because they were convinced that I was very much in tune with my body and because they were all too familiar with the *drip-scenario* mentioned above and that they were/are trusted to avoid. IOW, we all knew that working together that Kid and I would do fine.

    Certainly it wasn’t ideal to be in *hospital* (I’d only ever in my whole life been in once before and that was just weeks into this pregnancy!) but, sisters, I’m telling you that I just wanted that GIANT tiny person out of my body at any cost!

  6. That’s incredible.. and eye-opening.. It is so beautiful to know that there’s a sort of reclamation of midwifery happening, “doulas” are popular these days, though never popular enough.

    seems to me there were LOTS of midwives burned as “witches” during the Burning Times/Witch Hunts.. In part because they would sometimes give drugs to procure a natural abortion, I think, which I only mention because it was probably a dire necessity especially then.. but mostly male violence and jealousy and fear of female power..

    your writing is so beautiful! men have no right to usurp this transcendent experience.. and yet they do, all the time! or try to.

    It seems to me also that in hospitals women re made spectacles of .. there’s no recognition of her need to be alone, like you said, in a cool , dark, sacred space. I was shocked to learn that my parents and stepsister all were in the room when my other stepsister gave birth a couple of years ago. Such an immensely personal moment and everyone there, seeing you flat on your back..:/ no.. I didn’t say anything, but I cringed at the thought.

    • your step-sister’s birth experience sounds awful. I’ve even heard that some hospitals do birth parties, and the woman can invite loads of her friends and family and the hospital puts on a spread for them all. horrific! A spectacle, as you say. A sideshow. And so lacking in respect.

    • There is the theory that the midwives and medicine women were burned as ‘witches’ to pave the way for male medicine and interference in fertility control.

      Plus it also had the ‘added benefit’ that spinsters could be gotten rid of, because they were seen as burden to the community.

      Sounds very man-chine.

    • And the last ‘witch’ executed in the UK was a woman in Scotland, executed in about the 1940s.

      So witchtrials were not a thing of ancient history, but very much a continuation into modern history – 20th century history in fact. And many developing countries still murder women in the name of ‘witchcraft’.

      • bloody hell! 1940!!! I’m boycotting Halloween. Is it normal to take the piss out of the millions of women who were burned by walking around with pointy hats and face paint on? No, it’s not.

        Off on a tangent, but have you seen the film Magdalene Sisters, set in Ireland? It’s set in about the 1940s and women who have lost their way (i.e been raped, had a child out of wedlock, or were regarded as too pretty) were sent there to do laundry for free, sometimes for the rest of their lives!
        After watching the film I googled these Magdalene Laundries and it turns out the last one shut in 1996!!!!!! And that was for economic reasons, not for human rights reasons. Ireland, I went there 2 years ago. Now THAT is a weird fucking place.

      • I am sure there is a lot more dirt on the Catholic-run houses for ‘unwed mothers etc’. They had them in England too, did not sound terribly nice. I recall too (might be back 19thC or earlier) that they basically forced the unwed mothers to give up their babies (gawd’s will and all) and rich childless couples adopted them. I am sure a bit of money changed hands.

    • it’s sooooooooooooooooo sad. I recently came across a website entitled something like “INvisible birth mothers”, all about how even today birth mothers who give up their children for adoption are invisibilized by the system. Actually, as my first baby passed through the perinium– the so called “ring of fire” — the actual thought that entered my head was “OMG, my aunt went through all of this, only to have her baby taken away for adoption” .It was one of the saddest realizations in my life. The baby is THE PRIZE. IT’s your reward for the hellish pregnancy and hellish birth.. Only in the sickest of patriarchies would the concept of adoption be made to appear normal.. And now we’re having to deal with the doubly sick practice of “surrogacy” i. e rent-a-womb

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