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When Did Birth Become A "Birth Experience"?

Sheila Kitzinger says the consumer-driven language of birth sets women up for failure.

Sheila Kitzinger, grand dame of natural childbirth, social anthropologist and author of 25 books on pregnancy and birth, says women are being set up by promises of the perfect birth and end up feeling like failures. What’s to blame? A big part of it comes from our “consumer-driven marketing.” Though having options about where and how to give birth is worth fighting for, the emphasize on “choice” can feel like pressure rather than freedom. Speaking to The Telegraph, she says:
“Choice comes from the language of advertising it is what happens in supermarkets. The idea is one of free choice but in fact the products at eye level are displayed to have the greatest impact on the consumer; it is the same with maternity…. Childbirth experts are often blamed for raising women’s expectations but I think you have to look further. I think the problem is a consumerist agenda. We are geared up to competition, to test everything; nowadays, we see birth as a performance… ”

Kitzinger says women who are hoping for natural births are “railroaded” into interventions, then they feel extremely disappointed or like failures.

In my childbirth classes I have lots of students who hope for a “natural birth” and whose faces start to fade when I mention that in the hospital they will be on an external fetal monitor 20 minutes out of every hour, unable to move. Or when they hear how helpful water is in labor but that there’s no tub in their hospital…. and that one in three births is a c-section. They ask if they can switch to a birth center but for all of Manhattan there’s only one birth center and it can be hard to get into, especially late in the game. So do these women really have that many “choices”? Some might say they should be more “open” (ie: just get the epidural, it’s awesome), others might say, get out of the hospital next time. I can see where both of these responses are coming from.

I try to help these couples know what choices they do have. There are actually lots of things she can do along the way to have the birth she’d like to have, but it’s no joke that having a natural birth in a major NY hospital takes work.

As good feminists and Americans, we chant the word “choice” all day long. It’s associated with good things, especially vis-a-vis reproduction, but it’s also definitely bound up with our predatory consumer culture. And it can screw us up when it comes to childbirth (which is unpredictable and messy and incredible but hard and grunty and raw). I have often wondered, when did having a baby become a “birth experience?” You see it written often. What kind of birth experience are you after? And while I get it– it’s certainly an experience- the word is plucked right from the language of marketing. You don’t just eat at The Olive Garden, you have a”dining experience.” You don’t just fly on Virgin, you have an “in-flight experience.” Now we have the “birth experience.” Isn’t giving birth big enough without the promise of an “experience?” For a lot of women the birth experience comes pretty shortly after the bridal experience–talk about a fairytale marketing.

I think Kitzinger is really onto something, but I’m not sure how we dig ourselves out the current situation, given how consumer-driven *everything* is these days and given that the right to “choose” where you give birth and how you give birth is such an important part of the larger conversation about maternity care reform. How on earth can you manage to have the birth you hope for without some planning and pushing to get it? And doesn’t that include fighting for your “choices in childbirth?”

I have so much to say on this subject but I’ll leave it at that because I really want to learn more from you: How is birth being sold to you? Do you feel like you have choices? Or that this is another big event, like your wedding day, for which you can plan everything down to the slippers on your feet?

Click here to read about one mom’s birth-plan disaster turned blessing!

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