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'Ecstatic Birth' And Expectations Placed On Mothers During Childbirth
LAUREN GILGER: In the 1970s, Ina May Gaskin and her philosophy of midwifery created a new awareness about natural birth in the U.S. It was in response to the over-medicalized practice that she thought birth in America had become. Today, that idea of having a natural or unmedicated birth is on the rise again as hospitals adopt midwife units and birthing centers, and home births gain popularity among certain cadres of women. Now there are countless Instagram accounts showcasing these modern day "earth mamas." There's a new cottage industry for birth photographers and doulas, all promoting, it seems, the "right" way to give birth. At the same time, so has grown the idea of "ecstatic birth" and the idea that birth should be a beautiful experience for women. But according to our next guest, those ideas are setting up unrealistic expectations for new moms and shaping the way we think about motherhood today. Kate Rossiter is an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada and she studies this idea of ecstatic birth. I spoke with her more about it and how her own birth shaped the work she does today.
KATE ROSSITER: So ecstatic birth, when I'm writing about it, it can mean a number of things. It can mean basically a birthing experience that is deeply pleasurable. Some women and some people who think about this talk about it as actually experiencing physiological orgasm during birth, which does sometimes happen for some women. Others really are thinking about it more as this kind of very deeply pleasurable, often spiritual, experience that comes along with birthing and the place that that gets really complicated for me is the idea that, in order to mother well, you have to have an ecstatic birth. You have to enjoy this birthing experience and find it deeply pleasurable and that really tripped me up in my own life, quite badly actually.
GILGER: So it's this idea of having a natural birth, quote unquote, versus a medicalized birth or getting an epidural or something like that or being an earth mother?
ROSSITER: You know, I have to say I really support women's choice around birth and birthing. I am not someone who believes that birth should or has to be medicalized. That's not it at all. But yes, the idea that birth needs to be a certain thing, a certain way and sort of one of the new facets that I think the mommy wears is birthing correctly, birthing naturally without an epidural, as you say, you know, and that birth needs to look a certain way in order to set your course for motherhood. I think for many women that that's really profoundly limiting and very alienating.
GILGER: Yeah. So I know I could relate to that, having had a baby last year. I definitely felt that. Tell us a little bit about your own experience and how this experience shaped what you're working on now.
ROSSITER: Yeah, so my first baby I was kind of "type A" about the whole thing and read all the things that I could possibly read and did all the things that I thought I should be doing to do this experience right and to do it well, and I plan to have a natural birth, and in Ontario, where I live, midwives are quite integrated into the health care system and midwives offer home births, and I had done a lot of reading about birth and thought that home birth would be my route to having this kind of, wonderful, lovely birthing experience, and when it actually came time, my birth experience wasn't like that at all. I was very overdue. I was exhausted. My labor was really long. I felt overwhelmed. I felt really terrified, actually. I felt very scared and overwhelmed and in hindsight, I would have been better, I think, to have gone to the hospital, had an epidural, had a nap, gone back into the sort of laboring process — that, I think, would have been better for me, but my mindset was so much fixated on doing this birth "the right way" that it became really hard to kind of see the forest for the trees. I was fixated on having a particular kind of birth. My baby was born very healthy. In all respects, it was a great birth! She was whole and healthy and I was whole and healthy. That's what you want, but my emotional experience of the birth was quite different.
GILGER: It wasn't this "euphoric" experience?
ROSSITER: Yeah and, again, that sounds like such an awful thing to say. But I think when I kind of reflected back, I was actually quite undone by how much that experience didn't line up with what I had expected to happen, and the kind of profundity of my disappointment and I think that disappointment wasn't just a kind of, like, you know, you're being narcissistic. I think that disappointment actually felt more nerve-wracking than that because I felt like, oh, if I didn't get birth right, I'm off on the wrong foot to motherhood. I was supposed to love this. I was supposed to feel this wonderful thing and I didn't, and what does that mean about me as a mom? What I actually need was for someone to say, "Yeah sometimes birth is terrible but you got through it, and you're whole and she's whole and well done, because that's a really hard thing to do."
GILGER: So how much of this do you think has to do with sort of the celebrity around this? Like, you've got the business of being born and now there's this world around getting a doula and like, there's a podcast I listened to the entire time I was pregnant called “The Birth Hour,” where you hear other women's birth stories. There's this whole industry sprouting up around birth photography and videos of your birth and like, sharing that on social media. How is all of that shaping this?
ROSSITER: Oh yeah, I think hugely. Like, I remember I — and I hear myself and I just shudder because it sounds so narcissistic and it is narcissistic — but I remember getting my haircut when I was nine months pregnant and huge and it was a terrible haircut, and I came home and I cried because I thought, God, I'm going to look awful in my birth shots now. The reality is that my birth shots, I look like I've been beaten around the face and my daughter looks like she's beaten around. We're exhausted! There's no amount of good hair that would have fixed how tired and overwhelmed I look in my birth shots. But yeah, I think there was this really real sense of the kind of performance of good motherhood and loving it and it being this, you know, joyful experience that meets all of your spiritual needs. Well you know actually, my experience is that birth and motherhood since then has been complicated and at times unbelievably beautiful and at times really, really hard and you know, kind of all of the biggest emotions rolled together. I felt let down by the idea that it was going to be all ecstasy, all the time.
GILGER: So you say that this movement has sort of the patina of feminism but it's actually, you say, feminism in the age of narcissism. What does that mean exactly?
ROSSITER: Yeah and I don't, you know, again I don't want to come down on individual women for, you know, how they choose to birth. But, you know, I think it's sort of a celebration of a kind of image of motherhood that actually is really constraining, and I think it's the kind of sense that if, you know, that motherhood is now a way to perform yourself in certain ways and in actuality, when you peel that back, what we have, I think, our moms who are really struggling, moms who more and more are finding themselves torn between being at work and in the home and trying to make the best decisions they can about those pieces, or single moms struggling with that, families who are not really supported in community because we've really eroded what it means to live in community with, you know, lots of grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles, and people around. I think that's become more and more eroded, and I think the work of parenthood is actually really hard right now and we owe it to ourselves not to understand it as a kind of performative contest or, you know, another way to feel gratification and joy, but to understand it as the really hard work of growing people.
GILGER: All right. Kate Rossiter, associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, thank you so much for joining us to talk to us about this.
ROSSITER: Oh, you're very welcome. Thank you for having me.