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Your stories about seeing and being seen in labor
For new subscribers who signed up through Substack’s new Notes feature: Other Feminisms is focused on how to build a world that welcomes women as women, rather than treating us as defective men.
Too often, our built world, our public policy, and our culture is designed with imaginary, autonomous individuals in mind. But all of us (men included) are frequently deeply dependent on others and need to sustain those who depend on us. Men can “pass” as autonomous more easily than women can, but none of us are our full selves when we pretend we stand alone.
If you want to read one essay from me to get a sense of Other Feminisms, make it “Dependence” from Plough.
For DC-area readers: I’ll be part of a panel at the Catholic Information Center on April 24th. I’ll join Alexandra DeSanctis and Christine Emba to reflect on Mary Harrington’s new book Feminism Against Progress.
I alternate between my own essays and your reflections, and I particularly enjoyed reading through your responses to my post “Mortality and Natality First Hand.” I wrote:
Rather than prepare for birth with a book, a checklist, and secondhand stories, as I did, the women in Kristin Lavransdatter all knew birth intimately. Instead of knowing only two deliveries, as I do, they had lived experience with the full spectrum of labors.
Just as alienation from the lives of what we eat (animal and plant) limits our ability to advocate for them; the more distance we have from birth, the harder it is to advocate for women and children.
I asked you about your own experience witnessing birth and supporting other (or being supported, and I was very moved by the results.
Mary put it simply:
I was shocked when my babies came and I found out what childbirth could be like—I had two very different deliveries. And now I feel like I want to tell everyone about my experience largely for reasons you describe here. People should know what birth is like. Historically men were lauded for being courageous and women were occasionally lauded for their "manly" courage—meanwhile, it's women who are risking their lives and handing over their bodies just in the normal course of things. I want people to know that it was no small thing that I did and endured.
MK thought we can’t esteem what we hold at a remove:
We have lost the necessary framework as female social groups, notions of privacy and femininity have changed. Loss of tradition around witnessing birth is a huge loss for women. As individuals lose ritual (around birth), society loses reverence (for pregnancy, birth, matrescence)
In the comments replying to MK, there was some good discussion of how baby showers/gender reveals try to fill the gap of ritual, but in a much less powerful way. Instead of an intense, intimate dependence, the gatherings tend to be framed through a consumerist/expressive individual lens. (We got asked “What is the theme of your baby shower?” and would just answer “It’s babies. We’re having a baby.”)
AJ was grateful to see her sister’s birth and found it steadying:
I was 14 when my younger sister was born, and it was the most powerful experience I've witnessed. After watching a 15 hour unmedicated birth, the nurses joked that my parents had given me "the strongest birth control possible." Quite the opposite! Seeing the strength of my mother, the pride and compassion of my father, the support of our entire family waiting eagerly for updates, and the calm resolve of the nurses and midwife crystallized my sense of the magic and meaning of human life and community. The year after her birth I fell into the deep spiral of anxiety and nihilism that seems to plague teen girls so frequently now, and thinking back to my sister's birth was a bulwark against my fear of death and meaninglessness. Now, I especially want to have children and have considered getting certified as a doula.
Magdalen’s first exposure to birth came early:
Basically everyone I know is SHOCKED when I tell them that my siblings and I were all born at home, and that I got to cut my sister's umbilical cord (with supervision of the midwife, of course) when I was six years old. Sadly I was taking a final exam for a physics class when my brother was born, so I didn't get to do the honors for that one. But for him I certainly remember with very clear eyes the magnitude of care that a newborn requires, something that people my age often don't quite seem to grasp.
Aside: once I was on a date with some poor boy and I mentioned offhand that newborn mammals have to be fed every 2-3 hours. His response was "Not human babies, though." Uh oh.
If someone gave me a lot of money which I could only spend on survey research, I would want to look into how kids who had younger siblings they could observe and care for differ from similar peers who didn’t. (Similar might include the youngest kids in similarly big families, or older sibs more closely spaced who couldn’t change diapers).
My husband is about eleven years older than his youngest sibling, and his comfort with children, his tenderness, (and his diaper changing experience) made it much easier for us to marry younger and be excited to welcome babies when they came.
Martha’s state fair puts (animal) natality on display!
At the Minnesota State Fair one of my favorite buildings (both as a kid and now, as a parent) is called the Miracle of Birth. For 12 days it contains very pregnant, birthing and post partum farm animals of all sorts! My kiddo and I have seen cows and pigs born there, eggs in various stages of hatching and a half-birthed horse. It's *fantastic*.
Sarah helps refugee women through their first experiences giving birth in the United States. So she was present for someone else’s first exposure to birth:
My second mentee was an Afghan woman, bearing her sixth child. Typical cultural practice in Afghanistan is that husbands do not attend births, however, her incredibly devoted husband wanted to stay by her side while she was in labor and interpret for her since she did not speak any English. At one point, he became distressed during her labor, saying, “I can’t believe I did this to her **six** times!!” When the baby was finally born, the husband turned a visible shade of green and declined to cut the umbilical cord, and gave me the honors instead—which I feel is a rare experience for non-doctor women in America since it is usually the husbands/partners of the mother who get this task.
I’ll give the closing remarks to Quakeress:
I was present at my beloved grandmother's death, and it changed my outlook on death profoundly. I sat with her for so many hours and the very air in the room felt chared with the effort of dying and letting go. It was (and I am not trying to sound banal or cliché, I swear it felt like this) like a birth: a lot of work and intense concentration. She obviously wasn't in pain although she was struggling with the enormity of the task. I never wondered all that much whether there was a soul. When my grandmother died, I could feel that it was there in all its indestructible sparkle, and it needed to loosen itself from the body.
I am in a phase of life when I am busy with a school child and my own double shifts of work and what Ursula Le Guin calls "the art of the infinite" that is running a house and a family. But I am drawn to both birth and death, which are both such holy experiences.