“There was a time when the pregnant woman stood as a symbol of stately and sexual beauty. While pregnancy remains an object of fascination, our own culture harshly separates pregnancy from sexuality. The dominant culture defines feminine beauty as slim and shapely. The pregnant woman is often not looked upon as sexually active or desirable, even though her own desires and sensitivity may have increased. Her male partner, if she has one, may decline to share in her sexuality, and her physician may advise her to restrict her sexual activity. To the degree that a woman derives a sense of self-worth from looking ‘sexy’ in the manner promoted by dominant cultural images, she may experience her pregnant body as being pregnant and alien” (53).
Iris Marion Young, “Pregnant Embodiment”
Several weeks ago, our class was visited by Merrill Durham, one of few Nashville-area labor doulas. Her presentation was very impressive—an entire classroom of college-age students was engaged and excited about birth, which is not something that many university students are thinking about. Ms. Durham is a woman who is genuinely excited and passionate about her work, which is a big part of the reason why her presentation was so successful in our class. She explained to us that the role of a labor doula is not the same as that of a midwife, and her job does not include actual prenatal exams and the responsibility of birthing the baby. Her job entails being more or less a coach for expecting mothers and their partner (if they’re present). She seeks to reconnect women with the experience of being pregnant, and is a big advocate for our bodies’ natural capabilities to give birth in a more-or-less natural setting, especially for women who are considered “low-risk” mothers.
Our modern outlook on pregnancy greatly devalues the empowering, natural experience for expecting and new mothers. By hospitalizing women when they give birth, suddenly we are classifying pregnancy, and as a result, labor, as a condition or a disease. “Pregnancy doesn’t belong to the woman herself. It is a state of developing fetus, for which the woman is a container; or it is an objective, observable process coming under scientific scrutiny; or it becomes objectified by the woman herself as a “condition” in which she must “take care of herself.” (Young, 46). This quote comes from Iris Marion Young’s essay, “Pregnant Embodiment: Subjectivity and Alienation”. In her essay, Young explains that pregnancy has become increasingly regulated, and that changing role of doctors during pregnancy—from a helpful presence to an authority—has destructed the sexual, natural nature of gestation for women. It seems as though Ms. Durham agrees with Young, save for the extreme criticism of doctors. Her job as a labor doula is to allow women to find empowerment in embracing their pregnant selves: to find confidence, to embrace their sexuality, and to embrace their amazing power with open arms.
Ms. Durham discussed everything from her own experience giving birth to her daughter, to the history of doulas, and the need for birthing-education in places that have made birth an increasingly medical process: the most obvious of which is the United States. The norm for low-risk mothers in the US is a hospital stay, countless drugs to reduce pain and labor time, and even scheduled C-sections. Upon further examination, it is easy to become skeptical of why this is the norm. Documentaries like Orgasm, Inc. explain how pharmaceutical companies create both the label for easily self-diagnosed diseases as well as the medicine to “cure” it in order to make money off of easily-convinced consumers. Similarly, the highly medical birth process in the US is a reflection of our desire to sterilize and treat this “condition” of pregnancy. It also points out how much we rely to tell us what is wrong and how to fix it: in this case, that authority is an obstetrician. Rather than listening to our bodies’ natural signals and abilities, we are listening to a physician. Ms. Durham is not anti-doctor, where many critics, like Young, are. In fact, Ms. Durham expressed to us that many high risk mothers do need to be in a hospital in order to have a safe birth. Regardless, she desires to teach women to listen to their bodies and to be able to voice any concerns to their doctor or midwife, rather than having the doctor tell the expecting mother what her concerns should be.
The bond between mother and child is incredible, both inside and outside of the womb. Ms. Durham gave me, and I’m sure many others, the impression that that connection has been somewhat severed by the medicalization of our bodies and the reliance we have on doctors. Her presentation was both eye-opening and thoughtful of any and all medical or non-medical choices that women make throughout and after their pregnancies. Without guilting anyone for wanting to be a doctor or wanting to give birth in a hospital, she expressed the importance of our bodies and maintaining a strong sense of self as the most fundamental pieces of a pregnancy. The role of a doula is to guide an expecting mother toward this bodily connection and self-confidence. This being said, the visibility of labor doulas like Ms. Durham and the doula options for mothers must increase in order to eliminate the idea of pregnancy as a “condition”, and return it to its most natural meaning.
Do you believe that a doula has an important role in one’s pregnancy, or are they an unnecessary addition? Do you believe that hospitals and obstetricians serve a critical role in all pregnancies, or just high risk cases? If you or your partner were pregnant, would you consider using a doula or a midwife? Why or why not?
Young, Iris Marion. “Pregnant Embodiment: Subjectivity and Alienation.” 1977. On Female Body Experience. By
Young. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 46-61. PDF.