Sunday, 27 October 2013

Labour like a feminist

I’ve been reading about ideas of ‘feminist childbirth’ in Al Jazeera. It seems that the choices we make about how to give birth are becoming a feminist issue.

There is a bit of competition mentality, which I was warned about in my antenatal class, where no pain relief is seen as good, something to boast about. I really don’t see why. Pregnancy and labour are really difficult. Why turn down something that helps?

I don't really see why fear of the pain of childbirth makes me any less a feminist.

Planning birth

My basic birth plan is to get myself and my baby through the whole thing with the minimum amount of stress and pain to either of us.

I’ve wondered if somehow I don’t really ‘get it’. Some people say that giving birth is an amazing and beautiful experience, even that they enjoyed it. I am sceptical about this. Pushing another human being out of my body sounds difficult, painful and messy.

I am of the ‘knock me over the head and wake me up when it’s all over’ school of thought. I’m very much looking forward to meeting my daughter in the next few days, but really wish I didn’t have to go through labour first. I would quite happily go to sleep and wake up several pounds lighter, when someone hands me my child. I don’t need to know how it happened.

The whole labour thing sounds quite terrifying, so I want to be in a place where they can give me good pain relief if I need it, and where, should something go wrong, there is the best chance that it can be fixed. So it’s hospital for me.


A feminist aspect to this is that we now have options. Women who want to stay at home where they feel most comfortable and avoid drugs are, where possible, supported to do it, and that’s brilliant.

For those of us who are absolutely bloody terrified – just because I wanted to have a family, doesn’t mean I want to push seven pounds of human being out of my chuff – there are epidurals and reassuring professionals in white coats.

Another choice which is becoming increasingly popular is a twist on the home birth – freebirthing, or unassisted childbirth, when women give birth with no medical assistance. No hospital, no midwife, no gas and air, nothing. Just them and a few towels.

Independent midwives are being banned in the UK, because they can no longer be insured. This means that women who want a homebirth might not get a midwife. They will be asked to go into hospital, but if they really want to have their baby at home, they may choose to go it alone. Freebirthing could become very common.

Controlling our own bodies

Pregnancy and the need to care for our offspring makes us weaker and more dependent. It’s a big part of why we ended up in a patriarchal society in the first place.

A cornerstone of feminism is having control over our own bodies. It’s difficult to talk about equality when it comes to childbirth, as men don’t do it. But empowering women to have control over where and how they give birth is undoubtedly a step forwards.

For centuries childbirth was an extremely dangerous part of women’s lives, over which they had little control. The lack of contraception or of ownership over their own bodies meant that women were items of property to be married off and impregnated, often with little choice in the matter. Women and babies frequently died.

Thanks to contraception and emancipation we can take control, choosing when and if we want to have children. Good medical care means that childbirth in the West is pretty safe.

I find the idea of freebirthing bizarre. It feels like a step backwards, taking away the safety net (although of course there is still the option of hospital if something goes wrong). But each to their own.

Whether you’re a freebirther who wants to treasure every moments of your child’s entry into the world or, like me, you’d quite like it if they’d wake you up when it’s over, what matters is that we have choices about what happens to us, can take control over our own bodies, and don’t see our differing attitudes to childbirth as making us better or worse at the business of being women.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Are women the biggest barriers to the feminist cause?

I bet this little minx is great at picking out curtains
We women tend to judge ourselves and each other more harshly than any men do, I think.

Sneering judgements about the way we dress (or don’t) are much more likely to come from female mouths than male ones. 

Take the picture of this lady, right, which fetched up on the internet. So she's pretty, nicely-dressed, has really good hair and can cook. I'm still looking for something to criticise in her. Maybe she's stupid, or really bad at relationships or something.

We expect ourselves and each other to excel at work, be adept at household management and buying and wearing clothes. We're supposed to be able to walk in high heels, be good at interior design, and understand the off-side rule (I've failed at all three of these).

A man who can’t cook is simply that, whereas a woman who can’t cook is an oddity, and someone who really needs to learn.

Amazing women

The world is full of amazing women doing amazing things, proving they’re as good as men.

High-achieving women who are also mothers can be the most praised and the most criticised, in a way that high-flying fathers are not. We wonder how female cabinet ministers with small children will balance the demands of their public role with childrearing. It doesn't occur to us to ask the same questions of their male counterparts. 

And, in my opinion, it's more likely to be women asking these questions than men.

But why are we so hard on ourselves and our sisters? I think there’s something in the idea that we think men are fundamentally a bit stupid, so we don’t expect as much from them – whereas we expect more from women. We expect the world from ourselves and each other. 


I’m not a parent quite yet, but I always worried that if I decided to have children the experience would turn me into a different person – one that I didn’t and don’t want to be.

I suppose the thing with having children is that it does kind of ‘chain’ you to traditionally feminine activities – feeding, nurturing, caring. As well as all the other stuff we can already do, we have to learn to be really good at all this if we are not to judge ourselves as failures at the tricky business of being women. 

I’m sure motherhood it will change me in lots of ways. But I don’t think it will stop me being who I am. I hope not – I signed up to have a child, not a personality transplant. The chances of me turning into some kind of earth-mother figure in the next few months are, I hope, slim to non-existent.

Doubtless, this will be me in a few
months (except for the blond hair).

Juggling work and parenting

There is so much potential for women to judge themselves and each other when it comes to deciding whether to go back to work, how many hours to do and what childcare to provide for their offspring.

I know people who went back to work full time within a few weeks of having a child, and I know people who didn’t go back to work at all after having a child.

There are loads of reasons why women make these choices – for money, because they’ve always wanted to, the particular needs of their child, the availability of childcare, and what their employer will or won’t let them do.

I’m trying to remain open minded about what I will so, but other women keep asking me – citing their own choices. Hopefully whatever they did was the best thing to do – for them. Equally, I hope that whatever I choose to do will be what’s best for me and my child. But what’s best for them won’t necessarily be what’s best for us.

Giving ourselves and each other a break

I think one of the reasons we're so critical of other women is self-doubt. We secretly believe our dress sense, intellect, career progression, fashion senses and domestic skills aren't as good as they should be. Singling out other women who are worse-dressed or more domestically impaired than we are, makes us feel better about ourselves.

But really, it would be nicer if we could be happy about what we are good at. We don't all have to be master bakers - there are far too many of them in the world, trying to fatten us up so they will look better in comparison. 

We should be able to enjoy the fact that we have so many opportunities that the women before us didn't have. We can be mothers, and have fun and have good jobs, if we want. But we don't have to do all those things, or be the best at everything.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Owning and belonging

When I got married a few years ago, I was adamant that I didn’t want to be ‘given away’. I was very happy to walk up the aisle with my dad, but was clear that I shouldn't be given from one man to another, because I didn’t belong to anyone. And no one should be owned by anyone else.

A sense of belonging

I’ve been thinking about this idea about belonging recently. Because now I miss it very much (read my story if you want to know why). It makes me realise how important it is that we tread a strange tightrope of freedom and containment. We want to be free to make our own choices and live our own lives, but we also want the sense of security and love that comes from belonging to someone.

Losing that sense of belonging is terrifying. I'd always insisted that I was more than just 'X's girlfriend/wife', and I hate the phrase 'my other half' because it suggests that you are in some way not whole. But suddenly not being that person left me questioning who I really was.

If you've belonged to someone for half your life, and they've belonged to you, it's hard to know where one of you ends and the other begins. Had I been lying to myself all that time, and pretending that I wasn't defined by my relationship, when maybe that was who I was? If so, then now, without it, I'm really just a bit of a person.

Feminism and belonging

I can't very well call myself a feminist if my entire sense of identity is bound up in the man/men in my life.

But ownership and belonging are two very different things. In some cultures, where women are treated like property, a man might be considered to own a wife, even to purchase one. In liberal western countries we don’t own each other, but we do belong.

What this means, is that the desire to belong to someone doesn't have to be anti-feminist, and wanting to be part of something doesn't have to diminish your identity.

The more people we belong to, the luckier we are, I think. As well as someone’s partner, we can be someone’s daughter, granddaughter, aunt, sister and niece. So much of who we are is bound up in our relation to other people, but that doesn't mean that we ourselves are any less complete.

Addressing the family

When considering motherhood in the past, I wondered why it would be necessary for my child to address me as ‘mum’ ‘or ‘mummy’. I’ve heard of people bringing their children up to call them by their first names, and in a way it makes sense to me. I don’t really like the word ‘mummy’.

Surely a child will know who his or her mother is - the person who is always there for them, who gets them up in the morning and loves and cares for them. Why do they need a special name for them? 

In deciding what my soon-to-be-born-child should call my parents, it occurred to me that when she is around, I will need to address them as her grandparents, whereas when I am alone with them, or addressing them directly, I will continue to refer to them as ‘mum and dad’. Won’t she find this confusing, I thought? If we all just called each other by our names, it would be a lot simpler.

I have decided not to go down this unorthodox route (my family situation is now quite confusing enough), but it was interesting to consider. As far as I'm aware, in most cultures children address their parents by special names. And I think that the reason for this is the strong feeling of belonging it fosters.

New belongings

When my daughter is born, she will belong to me. I will do everything for her, and it is most likely that she will become the centre of my world. But I won't own her.

As I see it, my job is to bring her into the world, and introduce her to it, bit by bit, until she's ready to face it on her own. And even then, I'll always be her mother. Hopefully she'll always feel a sense of belonging with me, and that when it all goes wrong, she can come back to me, as I've come back to mine.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Surrogacy - feminism or exploitation?

Would you carry someone else's child in your womb for nine months, go through labour and delivery, and then expect to never see the child again?

Surrogacy is when a woman carries a baby for a couple who cannot conceive or carry a child themselves. It means placing a fertilised embryo from a couple in the womb of another woman. When the child is born, the couple collect it and are its parents.

I've been watching House of Surrogates, a documentary about the practice of surrogacy in India, which is flourishing, mainly because:
  • It is legal to pay a surrogate (this is illegal in the UK)
  • It is cheaper than other places where it is legal to pay (i.e. the US)
  • The surrogate has no rights over the child

Baby farm

The documentary focussed on a clinic run by the extremely successful Dr Nayna Patel. Couples from around the world (the US, Canada, Japan and Australia) who have been unable to have a child pay the clinic to employ a surrogate for them.

A review in the Telegraph describes Dr  Patel as a cross between 'Cruella de Vil' and an 'ethical entrepreneur', - she is very glamorous and very rich, but clearly believes in her work. To her, she is providing couples who can't have children with the child they so desperately want, and the women who act as surrogates with a way to support their families. She describes herself as a feminist.

The women in House of Surrogates live in a house together from the time the embryo is implanted until they are eight months pregnant, when they transfer to the clinic. They see their families only at weekends, when visiting is permitted.

They have little to do in the house, spending most of their time lying about, being very bored and eating - a disturbingly cattle-like process of fattening up, although they are encouraged to learn new skills, to help them earn a living when they leave.

The surrogates receive constant medical care and monitoring, and are told at the beginning, that even if they develop a cold they will immediately be given medication. Interestingly, in the UK the one time you don't take any medication for a cold is during pregnancy, whereas in the surrogate house they seemed to be chucking pills down them like anything.

The babies the surrogates carry have no genetic link to them, but the bonding that goes on is, I'm sure, no different. It was noticeable that the surrogates interviewed all referred to the babies they were carrying as 'my baby'. There was a sad scene in which a surrogate who also nursed 'her baby' for four months finally had to part with him.

Sister helping sister or the West exploiting the East? 

Is surrogacy one woman helping another to make her dream of a family come true? Or in this case, is it wealthy Westerners exploiting poor, desperate women on the other side of the world?

To see it as rich Western women exploiting their poorer sisters is to ignore the depth of heartache that many couples go through who aren't able to have children. The couples interviewed talked of journeys of at least 10 years, peppered with miscarriages.Who can blame them for trying everything in their power to build the family they always dreamed of, and just assumed that they would have?

Surrogacy does happen in the UK. The main difference is that it is illegal to pay a surrogate here, so they do it because they want to help, receiving only expenses.

In India, where surrogates are paid, the parents-to-be will interview the surrogate. There was a cringeworthy scene in which a Canadian woman interviewed her prospective surrogate, sizing her up to decide whether she would be "good and solid enough to handle".

In the UK, where surrogates are doing it to help, it's the other way around, with the surrogate looking for a couple she 'clicks with' (Surrogacy UK).

What comes through loud and clear is that the Indian surrogates do it to make better lives for their own families. One woman lives in a single room with six other members of her family. The surrogacy payments are helping them to build a bigger house. Another said she'd always wanted to do more with her life, but without an education, had failed. She hoped the surrogacy money would let her give her daughter the kind of life she'd wanted to have. Another used the money to send her children to English speaking schools, to improve their prospects in life.

Dr Patel may find helping western families rewarding, and suggests that the surrogates also feel this, but they made no mention of this - wholly focussing on the rewards it would bring for their own families. This makes me think that, for them, surrogacy isn't about women helping women, but another chapter in the struggle for survival amongst some of the world's poorest women.

Why be a surrogate? 

Personally I find surrogacy bizarre, and I suspect I'm not alone in this. For me, the fact that I would have to go through pregnancy was a serious reason not to have children. Writing this from the 37th week of pregnancy, I can say that I thought incubating a child in my body would be difficult - it has been eight-and-a-half months of hell, although not entirely for physical reasons.

But at least I know, when all this is over, I will have a daughter to show for it. Why you would go through these difficulties of pregnancy, without the prospect of a child at the end, seems very odd to me. I'm all for helping people, but this does seem the most extreme form of philanthropy. The only people who I can understand doing it are those who are desperate, like the women in House of Surrogates.

Desperate women have always gone out on the streets to sell their bodies through prostitution, and in a sense these women are doing the same - selling their bodies to help themselves and their families survive, albeit it in a medicalised context.

I don't think we should blame them for doing this, nor should we blame the childless couples who see this as their last chance at happiness. But while unpaid surrogacy seems just strange, paying women for it feels deeply unethical, exploiting the desperation of both the surrogates and the intended parents, to fund a massive money-making industry that farms infants from women's bodies like cattle.