Reproductive Writes: The Model Home Birth

Holly Grigg-Spall
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Supermodel Gisele Bundchen gave birth recently. Usually the gossip magazines will move from reporting the baby's name to detailing the mother's baby-weight shedding exercise and diet regime in the course of a week, but this time a pit-stop was made in the storyline for Gisele to announce that the birth had been painless.

'I wanted to be conscious and present for what was happening. I didn't want to be anesthetized,' she is quoted as saying, 'I wanted to feel.' She went on: 'The whole time, my head was so focused - every contraction, the baby is closer, the baby is closer - so, it wasn't like, 'Oh, what pain.' It was, 'With every contraction, he is getting closer to me.'

The implication of this statement as it was reported in the magazines seemed to be that Gisele's birth was painless because she is generally a superior woman. Superior, that is, as a direct result of her attractiveness. We are either supposed to be awed by her abilities, or angered by her condescension. We are supposed to think she is either lying to retain her sexy image, or because she wants to make us all feel even worse than her beauty already does. In the context of celebrity news, it is necessary for us to hate them, or hate ourselves.

The UK's Daily Mail newspaper predictably managed to make the story about how horrible women are to each other, how we are our own worst enemies and all that spin that helps them get away with being outrageously misogynistic day in day out. Women, according to The Daily Mail, are the worst women-haters. The fact that much of the bile comes from the paper's female journalists genuinely confuses a lot of people. It produces that Sarah Palin "dazzle" effect.

Journalist Liz Frazer claims that she was forced by the pressures of 'Sisterhood' and her female midwife to not use pain relief during labor. 'It took the kind words of a male doctor to say 'please have an epidural. It's not a sign of weakness and will help you, and your baby' to change my mind,' she states.

Frazer argues that 'competitive female culture' is to blame for the unobtainable, stressful 'criteria' of motherhood -that is ' to look great, dress in the latest fashions, earn a living, bake organic cupcakes, have a beautiful house and keep our man happy in bed.' Apparently women just love to persecute themselves, almost as much as they love to persecute each other. The Mail likes to take its philosophies from 1950s Freudian psychoanalysis - in a culture predicated on self-gratification, women must be masochistic. In a way, it's nice to know where we stand.

Women tend to be portrayed as victims of their reproductive abilities - either restricted by their bodies or subject to biology's will. We are not our bodies, we are separated up as self and body. An epidural is more than medication; it is an action, a behavior, that has become socially ingrained. As Emily Martin wrote in The Woman In The Body, the pushing of pain relief on women is an act of control by the male-dominated medical authorities over women's bodies. Birth is presented as something that happens to us, not something we ourselves actively do. And an epidural quite literally separates the woman's head from her body by numbing her from the neck down.

Women should have the choice and be free to choose pain relief when giving birth, but when medication becomes normalized the reality of that choice is eroded. In the midst of giving birth in a hospital bed it would seem unlikely women are given much opportunity to argue with their doctor, who's advice is likely couched in the persuasiveness of what he sees as 'best' for the baby.

Many women, including myself, know very little about what happens during the birth of a child. My last point of reference was a film I watched at 12 years-old which juxtaposed real life footage with cartoons. A journalist friend researching for an assignment was shocked at what she discovered she didn't know through just watching videos on You Tube. Videos, she noted, that were marked as 'adult content' and thus restricted. This lack of knowledge and open discussion keeps us mystified about birth, and only able to defer to the doctors. Possibly the only time many of us think about the subject is when we become pregnant, right when we get overwhelmed with well-meaning advice and when the focus is often on the child's needs and wants and not ours.

There has been speculation on the web that Gisele may have studied self-hypnosis prior to the birth, alongside other alternative therapies. The suspicion that often surrounds discussion of alternative medicine is complex, but an element of the skepticism seems to stem from the fact that it is a field dominated more so by women and bedded in women's history. The practices, particularly those regarding women's reproductive health, have cultural links back to a time when the work of female midwives was respected over that of male doctors. Barbara Ehrenreich discusses in For Her Own Good how female midwives' involvement in birth was discredited and sidelined to make way for the intervention of male-dominated medical authorities.

In Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History Of Women Healers Ehrenreich writes that homeopathy became popular under the Populist Health Movement of the 1830s and 40s and that this movement had strong ties to the emerging organized feminist movement. Pain during labor was explained by the Church in the middle ages as the punishment of women for Eve's sin. Women deserved to suffer and so when the women known as witches advised the use of ergot as a painkiller they were seen as preventing God's Will, and thus working for the Devil.

Over time as women healers were discredited, their knowledge was assimilated into mainstream medicine. Clearly, the progression of science is to be encouraged, but should not be the reserve of an elite and the knowledge retained or manipulated as a source of power.

Unfortunately, it takes more than reading some Barbara Ehrenreich to de-program your mind.

Alternatives in the realm of reproductive health are often presented as irresponsible or ignorant. Women who question authority are risking their child, or risking an unwanted pregnancy - both actions considered detrimental to society as a whole. We do not need to be anti-science, or anti-medicine to be interested in alternative therapies - medicine has a definite place when there's an illness or disease that requires treatment. The administering of medications to perfectly healthy women without good justification should be considered as a very different matter.

There was a time when all drugs were considered poisons to be taken with care. Now, I think, we can absorb the medical authorities desire for control and see medications as a way of controlling our own bodies - bodies we can find, and are encouraged to find, frightening.

If there's a way to give birth painlessly, or at least with less pain, I would like to learn about it, and not only from a supermodel quoted in a celebrity magazine.

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14 Comments Have Been Posted

An epidural numbs your body

An epidural numbs your body from the waist down, not the neck down as you've indicated in your article.

I can understand your points about how pregnancy is seen as a problem--or disease--for modern medicine to "fix." I was frequently frustrated by this in my pregnancy when my overly conservative (female) doctor would detail the litany of things I shouldn't do as they could harm the baby (for example: keeping my heart rate below 140 when exercising, a guideline that was changed years ago by the ACOG). My wishes for those nine something months were largely downplayed or even ignored--or worse, seen as irresponsible and dangerous to the baby. I would love to have a midwife for my next pregnancy, but unfortunately, there don't seem to be enough in my area. I hope midwifery makes a resurgence in the coming years.

That said, I did chose an epidural during labor, but I think this was in large part due to being induced (pitocin makes labor more painful) and having inherited by mother's fast labors (I dilated 7 cm in 45 minutes--ouch!). While pain medication certainly shouldn't be seen as a given for women in labor, it truly should be a personal decision, whatever a woman decides. I'm glad I chose the epidural, as it allowed me to actually enjoy the labor. Before, I was in so much pain (and constant pain--not just during the contractions) I couldn't even think, let alone practice the lamaze breathing techniques. Good for Gisele for managing a medication-free labor, but that's certainly not for everyone.

Cultural expectations of birth

I was really surprised by some of the anger that people had in response to Gisele's experience. My experience with natural childbirth was similar to hers (although I did not have a waterbirth) -- it was strenuous, but not painful, not even at the end.

But there is a cultural expectation that giving birth is the Worst Thing Ever. There's a cultural expectation that you Will Have An Epidural. These expectations are perpetuated by the media, by Hollywood (see the recent trailer for Backup Plan, for example) -- in short, often by men. And that's a huge part of the problem. Why are people choosing to believe the patriarchal cultural expectation over the experience of a woman who's been through it?


Just came across this piece about French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter's new book Conflict, Women and Mothers:

'Attacked by her critics as out of touch with the new generation she is ­attempting to salvage, Badinter has stuck to her guns. She says that the new image of the "ideal mother" – one who breastfeeds for six months, does not rush to return to full-time work, avoids painkillers in childbirth, rejects disposable nappies and occasionally lets her baby sleep in her bed – makes impossible demands on any woman who has a life outside of her child.

"'Good motherhood' imposes new duties that weigh heavily on those who do not keep to them. It contravenes the model we have worked for until now [and] which makes equality of the sexes impossible and women's freedom irrelevant. It is a step backwards," she said.'

Women's autonomy

But natural childbirth <i>increases</i> a woman's autonomy while she's in labor. Then she's not stuck on her back, or denied food and (sometimes) water.

I agree that aspects of the "ideal mother" are completely inaccessible to many women. But it's more an issue of class, not feminism. Although breastfeeding saves much, much money in the long run, poorer women don't tend to have the access to lactation consultants, or money for them, or money for a pump when they go back to work. <i>That's</i> a problem. Women in this country generally don't have paid maternity leave, and either way, unless they can afford to stay home for longer, must go back to work by 12 weeks. Having the <i>option</i> to stay home longer if they so choose is important. I went back to work at 12 weeks with no regrets, but having a financially viable <i>choice</i> would be nice.*

Instead of complaining that breastfeeding ties women down, why not campaign to make nursing in public more accepted? That's why women feel tied down with breastfeeding -- because in many parts of the country, nursing in public is frowned upon.

Thanks for the link. I'm glad to see that the tradition of mothers judging each for their choices is alive and well.

* I will digress to bitch about smug people who claim that most mothers don't "need" to work, and if those silly women would just do the math, they'd see that they're not coming out ahead financially, what with daycare and other work-related costs (commuting, wardrobe, etc.). That argument assumes that a woman is earning much, much less than her partner.

I realize there are multiple authors on this blog . . .

I must note that you are coming perilously close to making a "formula is feminist!" argument on the same blog that complained about big chains marketing veg*n items on their menu. So let me get this straight:
- Paying a large corporation like Enfamil for food for my child, when I <i>am already equipped with better food</i> to feed my child: feminist!
- Paying Burger King for a veggie burger for myself, when I'm on the Ohio Turnpike and have no other healthy veg*n options: not feminist!

Got it.


I'm a pregnant, feminist academic, and so these issues (the gendered politics of birth and medicine) are very close to my heart and thoughts these days.

Holly, I really don't think you dealt with them well here. This blog is unfocused, confused, and misdirected.

Stick to what you know; I don't think birthing politics are it.


We're not an educational society

I don't entirely know what you think blogs are for, but I used to come to Bitch to be informed. It's why I read a lot of things. Twice now you've posted extremely ill conceived articles with little foundation, ridiculous conclusions and expected us to explain things to you. I think you may be better off remaining a film reviewer until you have the time to do more in depth research on what you're writing about.

She's right you know. This

She's right you know. This was not a good entry. It was poorly written and confusing. The only reason I kept reading was I thought maybe it would all come together in the end. It did not.

Just stop

<i>The implication of this statement as it was reported in the magazines seemed to be that Gisele's birth was painless because she is generally a superior woman.

Superior, that is, as a direct result of her attractiveness. We are either supposed to be awed by her abilities, or angered by her condescension. We are supposed to think she is either lying to retain her sexy image, or because she wants to make us all feel even worse than her beauty already does. In the context of celebrity news, it is necessary for us to hate them, or hate ourselves.</i>

Where do you get this stuff from? What supports your conclusions? And you know your audience is primarily American right? No one here gives a flying about the Daily Hate Mail.

I know you write for the Guardian and C4. But I also know, for a fact, they're both guilty of the same kind of journalism you like attaching to the easy bait.

<i>The Mail likes to take its philosophies from 1950s Freudian psychoanalysis - in a culture predicated on self-gratification, women must be masochistic. In a way, it's nice to know where we stand.</i>


I couldn't even finish. I got to the epidural part that you got so wrong, which even I know and I'm a petless and childless woman and couldn't continue.

This is embarassing. I'm really disappointed in the quality of these posts.


'Where do I get this stuff from?' My own head.

These blogs are tagged 'social commentary' for a reason - they are comments on society. What 'supports' the statements of any of the bloggers here at Bitch? I am assuming you're looking for stats, demographic breakdowns, field research, interviews with sources and the like - you'll find that's investigative journalism, and not social commentary blogging.

I am here to analytically assess contemporary media relating to women's reproductive health. Bitch is a feminist 'response' to pop culture. These are my 'responses' to pop culture from my feminist standpoint.

I was hired for my voice, not to present annotated academic essays or pieces of investigative reporting.

Exactly how would you like to see me 'support' the writing you picked out? What would you see as adequate evidence for the veracity of my claims?

I recall in the other post you were similarly outraged about my lack of research. Although were I to present research as dry statistical data, would you not then find issue with the collector of that research? You don't like the Daily Mail, you don't like the Guardian, you don't like Channel 4 - that's a pretty wide spectrum from left to right, so what media outlets do you find informative?

And speaking of research - a quick Google of my name does not an astute assessment of my career make. Why didn't you call my former employers and interview them? Perhaps call Bitch and ask for a breakdown of their decision making process before hiring me?

You stated you did not read the entire article, so your critical assessment of my writing is very poorly supported. If you never reached the conclusion of the piece, how do you know it was 'ridiculous'? What was ridiculous about it?

If you came here to be informed...on what exactly? The details of Gisele's labor? How to go about a painless birth? A directory of the best midwives? This is social commentary, once again.

The definition of 'commentary' is: 'interpretation, analysis, assessment, appraisal, criticism'. Shall we find a definition of 'social commentary' too? Here's one: the act of rebelling against an individual, or a group of people by rhetorical means. Here's another: the act of expressing an opinion on the nature of society.

I'm a registered nurse who

I'm a registered nurse who works in Labour and Delivery. One of my coworkers, also an RN, does hypno-birthing classes on her days off. Now I know every woman's experience is different and everyone has different pain thresholds or ways to deal with pain when it comes to labour, but I was very impressed with the level of control the women who have participated in these classes have. For the most part, they seem to be able to mentally and physically deal with labour. Without participating in these classes, I've only seen the same level of calmness and control in women who opt not to have drugs a handful of times. I think it's something worth looking into, and I know if/when I choose to have kids I will look into it for myself.

People need to stop being

People need to stop being self righteous over how they birth their children. Who cares, really, as long as your child is healthy and happy and you are healthy and happy with the experience.
I had a home birth with my first child and we both almost died and ultimately ended up in the hospital.
I had my second child in the hospital and much to my surprise the doctors were very nice and accommodating and my wishes were respected in every situation. Don't let scaremongers from either side sway you.
Many women and even my midwife laid a lot of blame at my feet over the first experience - that there was somehow something wrong with me for not having a "happy home birth". Yes birth is a natural event but nature is impartial and life can be "nasty, brutish and short" so patting yourself on the back for having a painless birth or feeling guilty for a C-Section is just a waste of everyone's time.

Oxytocin the LOVE hormone!!

Holly, this is a great commentary - having worked as an apprentice lay midwife, and having given birth twice without medication (one in esctasy, and one in yes, 'pain'!!) I find this inquiry into birth experience, especially when it comes time to give birth yourself, beyond epidurals and c-sections so important. Birth can be painful AND/OR ecstatic, and yes birth walks the edge of death in life. I used to love reading (i guess i still do!) women's in-depth home birth stories when I first studied midwifery, which gave me such a wealth of insight into the sensations and inner-outer workings of un-medicated births. There is really good work on female hormone/physiology of birth being done by French OB Michel Odent, who writes of oxytocin as the "Love" hormone, and is ideally what we want to have going in free flow during the process of birth. Oxytocin flows when a woman feels secure, relaxed etc, yet is inhibited by adrenaline release (adrenaline is stimulated by stress) - but this is so little studied! Though is intuitively I think what many midwives work towards/with - I suppose ideally being able to love the women through labour, to support mother's sense of safety and release is so important to the process and her experience. The 2Oth century medical focus of birth has been so much on pain regulation without looking to deeper experience (and physiology) of this always awesome event.

Holly, I know this is an old

Holly, I know this is an old piece and noone has commented for awhile, but I really appreciate reading your posts and just wanted to say thanks. I am seriously disappointed and shocked by the language of people like Tiffany, who seem to think that whatever we read in a blog we should take as gospel. Unlike her, I am excited to read about things that get dialogue going and prompt me to explore issues I may not have thought about before, whether I agree with them or not. Ironic that by being rude and snarky and refusing to discuss anything, they usually end up making your writing sound a lot more credible than they would like--I loved the comment about formulaic feminism--according to that the formula is to define yourself the way the commenter sees fit! I am one of those mean feminists who doesn't have kids yet (and I look forward to them, mind you) but still thinks it's vital to talk about the issue of motherhood, a topic that is supposed to be off limits to me, apparently, until I have experienced the miracle of childbirth according to feminist formula. I cannot believe the superiority of some of the mothers who comment here, who wish to have no dialogue of the implication of certain aspects of birth control, birth, and motherhood on all women, feminist or not. It honestly disgusts me. But anyway, keep up the good work, I am a fan, and hurry up and get out all your good ideas before motherhood erases any critical thinking skills you have (and yes I know this is hugely offensive, but I would say if you're offended by it, you are probably guilty of it.)

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