Until the 20th Century, most women labored and gave birth in their own homes; less than halfway into the 1900’s over half of women were giving birth in hospitals. The Birth House by Ami McKay takes place a small village in Nova Scotia during this transition. It tells the fictional story of Dora Rare whom we meet as a 17 year old girl who is sent to live with Mrs. B – the unofficial midwife and healer of their tiny community.
Through Dora’s eyes, we learn that Mrs. B is present at just about every birth in the town; we also learn how little respect is given to her despite the impact she’s had on the lives of the families of the town. As Dora accepts her role and her fate as an apprentice to Mrs. B, we are introduced to Dr. Thomas – an OB/GYN who has recently opened a birthing center that promises to revolutionize the way women give birth.
Ms. B is at once discredited and pushed aside to make room for the new, expensive, and highly medical interventions at the birthing center. Seemingly overnight, giving birth at home becomes seen as unsanitary and unsafe. The people of the town are so taken by the glamour that they do not realize how offensive this new doctor is to them and their way of life.
Dora’s story takes readers through the beginning of the pathologization of child-birth and the place of women at that time in history; such a story causes one to pause and wonder if we have come as far as we think we have from a time when women were expected to be at the beck and call of their husbands, to endure the pain and exhaustion of childbirth, housekeeping, constant pleasing… with no autonomy.
As someone who has recently given birth, I can attest that this inherently misogynistic attitude prevails. Perhaps more concerning is the fact that it has become so ingrained in society that some of the worst offenders are women themselves.
While my daughter’s birth and the subsequent year have brought more happiness than I could have imagined, when I think back to that Friday morning last March, I still shrink just a little bit given the tiny war going on with my midwife and the shame I felt on that day.
After finding out I was pregnant, I chose a midwife group in Evanston, Illinois for my pre-natal care. There are many reasons why people traditionally choose midwife service: the practice is generally more personable and less clinical; there is a greater focus on the birth experience as a natural phenomenon and not a procedure. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sold. I wasn’t exactly sure that I wanted to focus on the birth experience – my opinion, based solely on theatrical interpretations of childbirth, was leaning more towards being knocked out for the entire thing.
I was even less sure when I came head to head with one of the midwives in the practice – I felt as though she challenged me; that she disapproved of my condition and the decisions I was making with my husband. As a people pleaser, this bothered me immensely. To have such a strong woman, a pioneer in a movement to take back childbirth, project what I perceived to be frustration and condemnation during a time when I felt most vulnerable was very emotional.
Because I am writing of feelings and not tangible evidence, I have few specific examples to point to. One that sticks out would be the discussion of pain management during labor. Instead of, “What are your thoughts about the use of pain medications during labor?” It was more of “You’re not planning on using pain medication, are you?” How exactly is one to respond to that?
As I attempt to look back objectively for the purpose of this piece, I wonder if perhaps my judgement of this midwife was too harsh. I would expect that she was subjected to underlying misogynistic perceptions that are not only embedded in the history of medicine itself but that also spill in to everyday societal values.
The bottom line is: Women have been giving birth for forever. Somewhere along the line the male dominated medical industry has taken this miraculous (albeit a little gross) ability of the female body to create life and turned into something dirty, indecent and inherently pathogenic.
There is no “one-size fits all” pregnancy and labor experience. Therefore, the woman giving birth should be given the encouragement and support to develop her own perceptions of the experience as well as to be able to decide when, where and how without being subjected to the opinions and judgments of others – especially the medical professionals trusted to assist in the delivery.
This essay is a response to our Fem101 Syllabus Week 2 assignment. Did you complete the assignment? Share your thoughts on comments below!