Mother with Child: Transformations through Childbirth

Mother with Child: Transformations through Childbirth

by Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi


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"Rabuzzi rejects the status quo, presenting viable, often spiritual, alternatives to prevailing high-tech, patriarchal models of childbirth." —Booklist

"Excellent." —The Reader’s Review

"A lovely book.... It is a book for anyone wishing to reexamine and reclaim birth’s potential for sacredness." —Robbie Davis-Floyd, author of Birth as an American Rite of Passage

Rabuzzi, author of The Sacred and the Feminine and Motherself, contends that childbearing has been denigrated, denied, and devalued. This book is intended to help women rename, re-ritualize, reinterpret, and reframe childbearing for themselves and their partners.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253347695
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 02/22/1994
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

KATHRYN ALLEN RABUZZI teaches English at Syracuse University, is the author of Motherself: A Mythic Analysis of Motherhood and The Sacred and the Feminine: Towards a Theology of Housework, and is a founding editor of the journal Literature and Medicine.

Read an Excerpt

Mother with Child

Transformations through Childbirth

By Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1994 Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-34769-5



A definition of childbirth depends heavily on a mixture of the experience, imaginative power, and world view of the definer and his or her culture. Whether childbirth also depends on something "out there" believed independent of definer or participant is an unresolvable philosophical conundrum that current poststructuralist theories disallow. But to a great extent, childbirth depends on the preconceptions that any particular individual brings to bear on it.

Although not automatically construed as part of childbearing, preconceptions are just as important as the actual biological stages. So strongly do our preconceptions — the particular images of childbirth to which members of both sexes have been acculturated — influence us that they often determine a woman's experience of childbirth, including its physical manifestations, just as they do a man's expectations of what it is or should be. If a woman (or man) preconceives childbirth as so awe inspiring that "it is difficult to describe without becoming intensely poetic or religious," how different her experience will be from that of a woman who preconceives it, as does noted contemporary obstetrician Frederick Leboyer, as "the torture of an innocent." And equally at odds with both is the common contemporary preconception that birth is merely a mechanical process.

Preconceived notions necessarily cover an enormous range including beliefs that pregnancy and childbirth automatically fulfill a woman, labor is unbearably painful, or a baby will be deformed if its mother looks at any deformed creature in pregnancy. Some of these notions are clearly superstitious, some overtly religious, others ideological. To the extent that they inform the consciousness of a woman who plans to conceive and bear children, however, they all exert powerful influence.


In twentieth-century Western cultures, one of the most commonly held, pernicious preconceptions about childbirth considers it inherently "value-free." Value-free childbirth derives from a seemingly objective biological model, well described in that fount of "value-free" information, the Encyclopaedia Britannica: Childbirth, the act of bringing forth a child. Because this process requires considerable physical effort on the part of the mother it has been termed and is usually known as 'labour.' The term 'parturition' (a bringing forth) is also applied to the process of childbirth.

About 280 days after the onset of the last menstruation in the human female, or 270 days after the fruitful coitus, the irregular intermittent contractions of the uterus (womb) that began in the early months of pregnancy become more regular and increase in frequency and intensity. This assumption of a rhythmic character by the uterine contractions marks the beginning of the process by which the maternal organism separates and expels the mature products of conception.

This presumed value-free, seemingly natural biological model of childbirth exemplifies the interpretive problems at the heart of this book. Most people living in "advanced" technological cultures such as our own probably accept this model automatically; unquestionably, it is the one that most late-twentieth-century Westerners consider true to the facts of childbirth. Because pregnancy seems to result from successful male fertilization of an egg gestated inside a womb, the androcentric bias of the common biological model passes largely unnoticed. Yet when this process is viewed on film it is very much open to interpretation. What is typically seen in a value-free interpretation as a sperm penetrating the outer rim of an egg can just as well be seen as an egg choosing one sperm from the many and allowing it to enter. As anthropologist Robbie Davis-Floyd explained to me: "You can clearly see the egg reach out with a tentacle and draw the sperm into the inner area. Then the egg penetrates the top of the head of the sperm and blows it up. Then it explodes, and its genetic material is distributed throughout the egg. Thus, the two merge into one, but the egg's role is active, agentic." How greatly this view of the process departs from the supposedly value-free model that sees only the sperm as active!

Typically the value-free model is the only possibility, rather than merely one of many images of childbirth. By appearing to convey neutral information central to all humans, this implicitly androcentric, biological image has come to inform our foundational beliefs on the subject. In addition to its androcentric bias, there is another problem with this value-free model. From a modernist perspective it seems absolutely unassailable and totally lacking in mythic, religious, or ideological coloration. Yet this is not so.

Granting a value-free status to childbirth viewed through a biological lens is common to modern cultures. Premodern cultures, however, would abhor this view that most of us now automatically accept as natural. Various Australian aboriginal groups, for example, much like many contemporary New Agers, "know" that babies are "made" when an appropriate spirit child enters a woman. To claim that men and women create babies on their own is absurd! Furthermore, it is sacriligious. How can mere mortals claim powers unique to deities? Even to think so risks grave offense.

At issue here is a serious, not specifically androcentric, problem of modernity — desacralization. Desacralization is the process by which accepted premodern connections linking this world to the divine world snap. What remains appears purely human. Thus, this world loses its special awe-inspiring capacity. In a poststructuralist view this is also the case because all meanings are believed to result solely from the language we use. To think that we can ever reach "beyond" language to the thing itself is absurdly delusive.

To a certain extent desacralization is implicit in the view that childbirth is a biotechnological process, that is, it occurs for totally explicable reasons. Premodern views — whether matrifocal emphases on parthenogenesis, or patrifocal revisions, alterations, or usurpations of childbirth — make childbirth sacred, albeit in different ways, although it may not be sacred as far as a particular laboring mother is concerned. Just as sacrality may be considered in terms of its feminine, depth and Earth-oriented qualities, or its masculine, height and Sky-oriented aspects, so with its opposite, desacralization. Given a supposedly value-free model of childbirth that desacralizes childbirth, the disturbed sacrality is not exclusively masculine.

One of the most archaic images of childbirth, which depicts women as sole possessors of the power of giving life, makes childbirth a great mystery. When we give birth, the powers of cosmic creation come into play. Yet biological descriptions reveal no trace of the awe traditionally associated with cosmic powers. As ordinarily worded, the language of a value-free model precludes the great mystery once believed unique to women. Thus, the desacralization reflected by a value-free biological model includes a gynecocentric as well as an androcentric perspective.

Given the sexually inclusive nature of desacralization, are women better off with a value-free biological model than with models that impose an inappropriate masculine sacrality on childbearing? This is the kind of question that divides some radical feminists from women with differing views. When childbirth is construed as sacred from a masculine perspective, the outcome of a woman's labor, her child, is sacred. Or, if not the child, the presumed central figure of the drama — its father. Or, if not the father, the deity responsible for the child's creation. Religious understandings of childbirth that focus on a Divine Child or a Divine Father unquestionably diminish its personal meaning for some women. Yet, even if religious meaning is variously bestowed on baby, father, or deity, a woman still knows herself to be instrumentally meaningful. Even if she personally does not play center stage, and even if she functions as a vessel, understood negatively (rather than positively as vessel imagery is when it reflects feminine sacrality), her part still matters. It contributes to the religious meaning that she, as a member of her culture, professes.

But meaning of this sort poses a serious problem. It is androcentrically biased toward the importance of child and/or father while simultaneously diminishing that of the mother. Such androcentric meaning has severely injured generations of women. Yet, despite this potential for harm, the question must be asked: Are women better off with androcentric sacrality than with no sacrality at all? Have all women who have seemingly enacted the role of passive birthgiver vis-á-vis their glorified spouses or offspring found their experiences negative? Events that many contemporary Western women consider degrading may not have seemed so to most premodern women. This point, of course, lies at the heart of consciousness raising. Before consciousness raising influenced hundreds of women's groups in Western cultures, few of us knew the extent of our own internalization of patriarchal preconceptions. In the past, cultural norms typically went unquestioned by all but the most feminist of women. At the same time, the assigned role of an individual of either sex mattered vitally for maintaining preindustrial cultures. While childbirth per se might not have ranked high in the past, it was clearly essential. Even if received wisdom overvalued men's roles at the expense of women's, women nonetheless played clearly defined, meaningful parts. Biblically speaking, a woman was destined to feel pain. This is certainly negative and undesirable from most contemporary feminist perspectives. But for women who believe the patriarchal Genesis story, this role confers spiritual meaning. The woman experiencing intensely painful labor at least knows why it hurts. If she is Jewish or Christian, she understands herself to be the most recent descendant of Eve.

By contrast, a seemingly value-free biological model of childbirth inhibits that kind of meaning. Unquestionably, many women find it a great relief to be freed from patriarchal meanings. Yet a biological model also "frees" women from the ancient, prepatriarchal meanings evident in woman-centered, parthenogenetic imagery of childbirth. With a biological model, women don't just lose the negative meanings conferred by patriarchy. We also lose the positive ones of feminine sacrality. This double loss raises an important question: Can we replace the spiritual meanings — whether androcentric or gynecocentric — erased by the value-free biological model with some other positive ones congruent with contemporary Westernized world views? Because the language surrounding the biological model makes the issue of meaning as such seem irrelevant, childbirth becomes an occurrence viewed primarily as necessary to ensure a product, the child. Consequently, a major interpretive issue is raised by a biological image of childbirth. Does a woman fare better when her world is informed by overtly mythic and religious meanings, even those precluding equality or excluding her from her culture's power structure? Or is she better off in a world devoid of such meanings, negative and positive alike? Does exchanging androcentric for mechanical meaning improve her lot?

Answering these questions requires distance from our own technological culture. Then what appears value-free becomes just another folk system of values and beliefs. But because our entire culture is so permeated by a scientific world view, it seems natural to most people who have grown up with that view. That makes it extremely difficult to see scientific models themselves as just some among many different models of "reality." The essay, "The Technocratic Body and the Organic Body: Cultural Models for Women's Birth Choices" by Robbie Davis-Floyd, helps clarify this issue. Based on interviews with forty middle-class women who have given birth, thirty-two in hospital, eight at home, the essay reveals markedly different belief systems in the two groups. Most striking are the differences in their attitudes toward mind/body and control. The women who chose hospital births did so because their world views so thoroughly reflect the Cartesian mind/body split that they feel their bodies are not identical with themselves. This statement of a woman named Georgia is representative: "You know, I think there is me and then there is what I'm like physically which can be changed or modified — clothes, makeup, exercise, hairstyles, food." Most of the women who saw themselves as being separate from their bodies also viewed pregnancy negatively, as a time when they were out of control: "I didn't like it. It just overwhelmed me, the kinds and varieties of sensations and the things that happen to your body because of the pregnancy. I didn't like it at all. I felt totally alienated from my body."

By contrast, the eight women who chose home birth were more in tune with their bodies. Not only did they not separate out body from self, they also experienced the growing fetus very differently, as what I call motherself, a binary-unity which is both two and one at the same time, its parts consisting of mother and child in varying degrees of relationship to each other.

Such close interrelationship of mother and child is not characteristic of the value-free model of childbirth. Although this model cannot legitimately be called either good or bad, what is potentially harmful is the way it so readily suggests that ultimately humans can control everything. "God" or "a cosmic force" or "nature" is replaced by the hubristic notion that nothing remains outside human control. A particular danger with this thinking for some childbearing women is that the associated technology they welcome to control a painful process may also serve to alienate them from their bodies, their womanhood — which already seems separate — and most disturbing, their own fetuses, which then become "products" emerging from their alienated bodies. The most serious question that this supposedly value-free model so painfully raises is whether what appears like progress is not at times a strong contributing factor in many of the diverse alienations so common to contemporary Westernized cultures. If so, the common preconception that childbearing is a neutral, value-free event deserves at the very least to be carefully reappraised as part of the process of reinterpreting childbirth.


A particularly prevalent patriarchal preconception holds childbearing to be woman's destiny. As feminist writer Gena Corea puts it in The Mother Machine, "The message comes down to women with the force of centuries-long repetition. The patriarchy gives us the message through games, stories, toys ('Sunny Suzy Suburban Doll House'). Our doctors give us treatments if our ovaries or wombs fail us. It is our cell-deep knowledge. We are here to bear the children of men. If we can not do it, we are not real women. There is no reason for us to exist." Corea's words accentuate the line between destiny, ordinarily thought of as a predetermined course, and duty, usually considered what one is morally obligated to do. That line typically blurs in the case of childbearing.

It is primarily in the name of family that women's childbearing "destiny" turns into duty. But what exactly is family? Many Western individuals still imagine it as mother, father, several children, and a dog. But this Norman Rockwell image is only one — an increasingly problematic one, at that — of several possibilities. In most of the postindustrialized world the family has shrunk, just as conversely in the nonindustrialized world it still extends beyond a nuclear core to include mother, father, all unmarried children, eldest (sometimes youngest) son, his wife, and their children. Domestic groups that defy these nuclear or extended categories are variously stretched to fit, considered anomalous, or otherwise categorized as clans or tribes, thus skewing the experiences of many groups such as Amerindians, African Americans, and mothers and children living without an adult male. But however it is defined, "family" in a patriarchal context is the vehicle by which women's presumed destiny is turned into our "duty."

Women's duty to bear children for the sake of the family is difficult for women in patriarchies to avoid because patriarchies appropriate the family by defining it almost exclusively as the eldest male's, making every other family member subject to him. Each member contributes to the family as a whole, but only as a supporting player. As an individual, he or she does not matter. Only his or her role really counts. And who fills that role matters much less than the fact that it is filled.


Excerpted from Mother with Child by Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi. Copyright © 1994 Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


I. Preconception(s)
II. Conception
III. Miraculous Conceptions
IV. Misconceptions
V. Pregnancy: A Natural Initiation Process
VI. Models of Labor and Delivery
VII. Phases of Labor
VIII. "Delivery": A Time of Potential Revelation
IX. The Postpartum Period



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