I receive many emails every week from people who have seen Felix’s birth video, and who want to express happiness for our family and our beautiful birth. I really love hearing from those who have been inspired by our experience, and I truly appreciate every message. But I have noticed with interest that a number of these messages tend to emphasize Lee’s role in Felix’s birth, congratulating me on having such a wonderful husband–so calm! so centered! So skilled! How lucky I am.
And I concur, completely. Lee is fantastic–and his personal disposition and demeanor are certainly well-suited to homebirth. Lee is naturally chill, and drama-free. These are excellent qualities to bring to birth.
But Lee would be the first to admit that he knows absolutely nothing about birth. After all, birth is not an experience that Lee, or any other man, has access to. During my birth processes, Lee is there, to simply do exactly what I ask him to do. His wonderfulness has zero to do with any acquired skill or predisposition towards attending births or midwifery. In fact, during my pregnancy with Horus (my third baby, and our first baby together), Lee tacitly refused to read anything at all about birth, or to pay any attention whatsoever to the birth videos I tried to get him to watch, or to research the birth process in any way.
At the time, to be honest, this infuriated me, and also led me to believe (erroneously) that perhaps he didn’t care…How stupid of me. I realize now that Lee is a full-out experiential learner, but more importantly, he trusted me, and trusts me, and that his simple acceptance of my decisions about birth–without having to research or quantify or prove or deliberate outside of my own convictions– signified the deep respect he has for me as his partner, wife, and the mother of our children. He knew how steeped *I* was (and am) in research and facts about birth, but on a more visceral level, he deeply understands that there is *no one* on earth more committed to bringing our children safely into the world than me, the mother. And I think this is true for every mother. Mothers love their children, and our decisions are almost all based on this biological imperative to keep our children alive.
The extent of Lee’s role during the births of our children is to do exactly what I ask him to do. He is there as my adoring servant, and I am one hundred percent in charge–the full authority of the entire process. How could it be any other way? I am the mother, and our baby emerges from my body. Lee totally respects that it is not his “right” at all to attend our baby’s birth, but rather a privilege that is entirely mine to grant or deny. My body, my choice.
I feel strongly that every single woman should be the decision-maker when it comes to all of the choices surrounding the birth of her child–where, with whom, and under what circumstances. I feel strongly that no one should assume to have any authority over the mother–not her partner or husband or any man, no midwife or birth attendant, no obstetrician, and no government.
And yet, I have been shocked to find that this seems to be quite a controversial position. I am a member of a private online chat room dedicated to an open discussion of freebirth. It’s a fantastic group of very intelligent women and independent birth-workers, and a great resource for answers to questions that pertain to trusting family-centered birth at home. A few days ago, a discussion developed on the chat room as to whether or not a father has a “right” to attend his baby’s birth. This query was of particular interest to me, because I have thought a lot about solo birth, and I am increasingly drawn to the idea of giving birth entirely on my own. I have spoken with Lee about this on several occasions, and his answer is always the same:
“I would be sad not to be present during our baby’s birth, but I will support you in whatever you decide.”
And of course, I end up realizing that this answer encompasses part of why I love Lee, and why I not only tolerate his presence during birth, but enjoy the fact that he is there. (And while I will certainly consider solo birth for possible future pregnancies, I tend towards having Lee with me, precisely because he is so respectful and deferential during birth).
But it seems that many women heartily disagree with me, and they feel that their partners do have a “right” to be with them during birth. Online, arguments for father’s rights ran along the lines of “Well, he’s the father, so he should have the right to be there.” or “He would feel left out, so he should have the right to be there” or “I love having my husband there, so I think he has a right to be there”.
Interestingly, these arguments all came from women who really enjoyed their partners’ presence during the birth process…except for one woman who always gave birth entirely alone–and whose husband accepted this–but who felt that he *did* in fact have a right to be present, if he so desired (however, I did not ask her how she would feel if he exerted that right, despite knowing her preference to birth alone).
I have received many emails from women who express to me their desire to give birth at home, but who tell me that their husbands or partners have forbidden or opposed this, usually because they have a perception that homebirth is unsafe or unduly risky, and that for these men, to “allow” their partners to give birth at home would essentially be putting their babies in jeopardy.
I have considered this issue extensively, and I still don’t know how to respond diplomatically. And so, as usual, I will forego diplomacy, and simply state that for me, personally, I could not imagine being in a relationship with a man who felt that he had a “right” to dictate to me where or with whom I give birth, or to even suggest that my highly informed (and I mean informed intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, factually, personally, historically, and all the myriad ways one comes to a decision on a topic as personal and holistic as birth) decision as the mother, is not simply The Way, and to be respected.
The concept of being dictated to, or pressured, or unduly influenced on that most intimate an experience of a baby emerging from my vagina, by the person who I have committed my life to…is simply anathema to me.
Women own birth. As one [hilarious] woman on the aforementioned chat group explained: “When men give birth, then they have the right to make decisions surrounding birth”.
For me, my birth experiences have been the most transcendent, transformational and defining moments of my life. I understand and appreciate that this may not be the case for all women, and certainly can’t be, for women who have decided not to have children. But for me, birth, and my ultimate sovereignty over the experience of birth, are central to my philosophy of life, my sense of self, my wholeness and my place in the world. This is my story. And I’m sticking to it, because it represents what is most real to me of all of my life events.
I have experienced what it is like to have my power taken from me by medical “authorities” institutions, doctors, and nurses. I experienced that sense of powerlessness as a teenager during an unfortunate surgery and subsequent extended stay in the hospital (during which my consent and lack thereof was repeatedly assumed, ignored and abused), and then again during the miscarriage of my first pregnancy which also occurred in the hospital. That experience in particular was so demeaning, and so undignified and so destructive to me, and it remains seared in my memory. I cannot imagine what that would be like to undergo that kind of horror in the context of the birth of a healthy child. And if anyone–let alone my significant other–even dared to diminish the very real and valid and authentic feelings that I have about birth, or to suggest that my convictions about giving birth at home in my own power are somehow illegitimate or “risky”…this would be intolerable, unacceptable, and definitive.
So my advice to women who find themselves in a situation in which their partners or husbands are attempting to exert a paternalistic control over their birth choices is the following. Not only do I strongly believe that no one should be telling you the circumstances under which you give birth, but I believe that we, as women, have a responsibility: to ourselves, to our children *and* to our partners, to immediately quash any inkling of the idea that the men in our lives have a right to our bodies, during birth or any other time. I reject the idea that a father’s insistence that his partner birth in a particular way should be seen as caring. I see it as paternalism and disrespect, betraying an often deeper and more fundamental chauvinism about women and authority. Furthermore, (and I admit fully to my own biases) most of the men that I have encountered who are strongly or immovably in favor of hospital birth simply have no idea what they’re talking about.
I want to underscore that I have not been “lucky” in somehow tripping across men who just happen to have respected my birth choices. I have informed the men in my life right from the get-go, that birth is mine, and This is how I do it. Would you like to come along for the ride? And I want to acknowledge the father of my two first children in this area. I tend to believe, that due to my utter conviction (that developed immediately after my experience of miscarrying in the hospital and through subsequent research) that I would never give birth in the hospital again, along with my enthusiasm and joy at the prospect of freeing myself from the shackles of the institutions that lay claim to birth in this day and age (obstetrics, registered midwifery, hospitals) I enrolled my ex in the possibility of the birth of our first two children being a peaceful, normal, fantastic event. And it absolutely was, and my ex was lovely and supportive throughout both births.
I think that most men would acknowledge that birth is not their purview. And I think that perhaps if more women approached the issue with *more* authority, perhaps men would respond more positively than we might assume. I met one wonderful (incredibly strong) mother recently, who told me that her partner has said that he doesn’t want to have a homebirth for their next baby. Her response? You don’t have to be there.
Another woman online, when I asked about men who don’t support birth choices wrote:
“Ultimately, I think those fathers need to get with the program, or excuse themselves from being at the birth. My husband was not supportive of home birth, to say nothing of UC (unassisted childbirth) when I first brought it up to him. He ended up coming around (and is now a big supporter of family birth), which is good, because there is no way I was going to compromise. I knew he was coming at it from a place of fear. I point blank told him that I was the one who had done the research, and when he was ready to have a calm, intelligent exchange, we would discuss it. And by discuss, I mean that I laid out my reasoning for wanting to birth this way, and I calmed his fears. I was nice, and gave him space to deal with his feelings about it, but I made it very clear that we would be having an unassisted birth, period.”
The fact is, the phenomenon of men having anything to do with birth is extremely recent. Prior to about 60 years ago, birth was entirely the domain of women–in almost every culture, since the beginning of time. Now that women’s rights have granted us the freedom of self-determination (ha), it seems that the choice to determine the conditions surrounding their birth experience, or (gasp) to ask their partners to NOT observe or take part in the birth process is seen as being highly unfair, politically incorrect, and as an infringement of HIS rights! What an interesting reversal.
It is most troubling to me, to observe that nowhere in North American culture are women *less* respected, or granted *less* authority than during the birth process–the very definition (in my view) of what it is to be female. Women’s rights to bodily integrity, to informed consent, and to be free from sexual discrimination and sexual assault are *consistently* ravaged by doctors and nurses in the obstetrics unit, and, unfortunately, by midwives and partners as well.
From my observations, the attitude of ownership and entitlement that many men have when it comes to birth has put many women into a state of collective shock and paralysis. Is this the price we have to pay for men to be involved in the rearing of children? An erosion of our rights to determine whether or not we will be observed naked and flailing, covered in blood and shit ? Or an infringement of our right to decide where this most primal act will take place? I’ll stop now.
As I write, an independent birth attendant sits in jail in North Carolina, accused of murdering a poor sweet little baby, born still after the mother transferred to hospital. I have no idea the details of this case, but I feel confident that this birth attendant had no intent to harm anyone, and was acting out of service to her community. As someone who went out of my way to find an independent (unregistered, unlicensed, illegal!) birth attendant for my first two babies’ births (best decision I have ever made) and then who went on to give birth three times unassisted, the fact that this woman is being charged and held in this manner, chills me to the core. And of course, the ensuing freak-out-hen-fight that has erupted in the natural birth community is just exactly the thing that will frighten attendants away from serving women, and terrify women themselves out of many gentle birth choices.
The many layers of Patriarchy.