Friday, April 16, 2010
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
So far I think I've focused on two distinct strands of thought regarding religion and childbirth. On the one hand, I've looked at the ways that women ascribe religious meaning to their birth experiences. On the other, I've explored birth as a feminist issue. But I haven't explicitly stated the connection between these two strands. Here it is, in the Epilogue of Blessed Events (page 216):
"...in home birth, while women draw from their religious traditions to make decisions about pregnancy and birth, they are usually creating their own local and contextual religious interpretations of childbirth. They give religious meaning to the home as a site of birth, to their bodies as the generative source of new life, and to their pain as a spark of both physical and spiritual power. The religious idioms they turn to in this meaning-making provide a persuasive moral language supporting a woman in her resistance to conventional biomedical approaches to birth. Religious discourse, then, can be used as an oppositional language challenging biomedical perspectives..."
The home birth movement is feminist in that it asserts women's power and insists that birth is a life-shaping experience for the mother and the baby. It rejects the notion that a woman is merely the "environment of the fetus." Klassen found that these home-birthing women use religious discourse to resist the biomedical model of birth. Her thesis is powerful. So often, patriarchy shapes religion and childbirth. For me, these words conjure up images of subservient, domestic baby-making machines. Who would have thought that religion and childbirth could be so radical? We cannot overlook their liberatory potential.
Monday, April 5, 2010
The Gender Studies department at my school organized an information session last week for students interested in learning more about becoming a midwife or doula. A panel of midwives and doulas from the area spoke and answered questions. (Thank you to the organizers and speakers!) It was super informative and inspirational. I think my favorite part was hearing how they become interested in the field. Everyone had a beautiful, unique story.
People are starting to ask me that same question, and I haven't come up with a good answer. My former boss at Planned Parenthood used to be a midwife, and sometimes she told me about it. In Puerto Rico last year, I met a woman at an ecovillage who was becoming a midwife, and she taught me the word doula. Then, a doula-in-training couch surfed at my house. I watched The Business of Being Born and Orgasmic Birth. Little things here and there. In retrospect, I think my most basic impetus is feminism. I was born a feminist, and it just took a while for me to acquire the right vocabulary to articulate it (thanks, Ani). The whole concept behind the midwifery model of birth always made sense to me. The notion that women know how to birth, and that birth is a natural process, seems so obvious. And yet, the current climate surrounding childbirth in the United States suggests otherwise. Educating myself about midwifery and childbirth 1) gave me vocabulary and 2) gave me the social, historical, and political context to realize just how important birth is. In fact, every day I learn something new that reaffirms its importance to humanity. The way women birth, the way beings come into this world, matters.
At the beginning of this year, as graduation and What Am I Going To Do With My Life crept up on me, I decided to look into midwifery more seriously. I read about the different types of midwives and schooling, and I learned that it is a real commitment. Midwifery school is expensive and takes at least a couple years. It is a demanding career. It's not the sort of thing that you can just try out for a while. (I suppose you could, but you'd lose a lot of time, money, and energy.) Then I read more about birth doulas. Doulaing (we really need to come up with a noun for it) sounded equally amazing and important, yet a lot more readily accessible. It would be a great first step toward becoming a midwife. I could get a lot of experience attending births, supporting mothers, and seeing what midwives do. After a while, I could decide to go to midwifery school. Or not. Either way, I could always be a doula.
The doula certification requirements didn't seem too demanding. Still, this year I am working two jobs, taking classes, and writing my senior thesis. To account for all of the time that would go into the certification, I decided to integrate it with an academic tutorial on religion and childbirth. This blog is sort of an alternative to weekly reading responses for the tutorial. Over the past few months, I took a breastfeeding course, a childbirth education course, and a doula training workshop. I read all of the DONA required reading. The last step is the most important: I have to doula for three births. I am still not sure when that is going to happen. I am graduating in May (if all goes according to plan) and then living on a farm in Connecticut. After that, I might teach English in Spain. When will I ever get the chance to doula? The ideal answer: within two years. I have to doula for three births within two years of completing the other requirements in order to get certified. I'm not worried about it, though. It's impossible to plan right now, since I'm not where I will be in a few months, but as soon I relocate, I will take a more proactive approach. In the meantime, I still have a lot to learn. There are so many birth-related books I want to read! So many classes to take, movies to watch, people to listen to.
Anyway, that is my status, in case anyone was wondering. A few lovely New College students have approached me about this project. A few have checked out this blog (hi!). If anyone reading this would like to talk to me about it, I would love to! Feel free to comment, email, approach me in person--whatever you'd like. You have no idea how happy it makes me that so many New College students are interested in this stuff! I will miss this place. Now back to my thesis.
Monday, March 22, 2010
Earlier, in the post called "Feminism and Women as Birthers," I talk about the tension between feminist and traditionalist views of women as birthers. The funny thing is, I have found that the "natural" birth movement is one place where feminists and traditionalists, liberal and conservative women, unite. The participants of my doula training workshop represented these two groups that are often considered polar opposites. The same goes for the participants of my childbirth education class. Maybe tension does exist, but I think the commonality is much more interesting--and much more overlooked.
In a study of an evangelical women's prayer group, Marie Griffith found that feminist and conservative Christian women actually have a lot in common; one shared belief is that "social and cultural tasks, traits, and affinities traditionally coded as 'female' or 'feminine' ought to be accorded greater respect and value than they have been."
In chapter 4 of Blessed Events, Klassen juxtaposes two of her informants. One spent her third birth at home, surrounded by sculptures of Goddesses and a women friends. She wanted to "honor and explore her developing fascination with feminist spirituality and empower herself in the process. The other gave birth at home with only her husband's help, because "she wanted to follow the commandments of her Christian God." Klassen makes the point that while their religious traditions and beliefs are very different, their religiously informed approach to childbirth is the same. They both see birth as "not simply a bodily process to undergo, but an experience to be chosen."
If you are interested in how this overlap manifests in Orthodox Judaism, specifically in the Chabad Lubavitch movement, check out this list of inspirational articles on pregnancy and birth. Some of the article titles are: "The Most Joyous Pain," "A Spiritual Delivery," "Midwives," "The Torah as a Process of Birth," and "The Power of the Mother." Almost all of the articles are written by women. All of them view birth as a spiritual experience that empowered them and brought them closer to God. Of course, Orthodox Judaism has been criticized for being patriarchal and sexist, and is often pitted against feminism. These articles make such a simplistic distinction much more nuanced.
In a journal article called "Sifting through Tradition: The Creation of Jewish Feminist Identities," Lynn Resnick Dufour identifies three types of Jewish feminists: inclusionists, transformationists, and reinterpretationists. I consider the authors of these Chabad articles reinterpretationists. Reinterpretationists are comfortable with practices that others might view as non-feminist or even sexist. They reinterpret traditional practices as in line with their feminist beliefs. Unlike inclusionists, they often view men and women's roles as distinct but equally important and valuable.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Try this experiment. Next time you read or listen to something related to childbirth--a movie, class, book--see how many times the word "spiritual" is used to describe the experience. Since my tutorial focuses on religion and childbirth, I have been listening for religious language throughout the doula certification process. Every time I hear someone's birth story, whether I'm at the Bradley class or watching a documentary, I notice that she uses the word "spiritual."
It seems important, and definitely worth unpacking. But the meaning isn't clear. The woman doesn't elaborate or explain what she means by spiritual. Furthermore, I hardly ever hear someone describe her birth experience as "religious." If I were conducting an ethnographic study, I would ask these women what they mean. There are a few things I think might characterize this spiritual experience. 1) The perception that it is extremely important or ultimate. 2) The perception that it is transformative; the experience changes the woman. 3) Going along with the first one, the perception that it is set apart and special, i.e. sacred. 4) The perception that the experience transcends the body or physical world.
It fascinates me that many women who identify as atheist or agnostic describe their birth experiences in these terms. I found a 2002 study called "'Being Religious' or 'Being Spiritual' in America: A Zero-Sum Proposition?" The study asks, is there a difference between being religious and being spiritual? Can you be one but not the other? What do religiousness and spirituality mean? In every survey the study cited, the majority of people said they were both religious and spiritual. But after that, the next biggest group were those who said they were spiritual, but not religious.
Overall, the study concluded that "being religious" and "being spiritual" were most often seen as distinct but interdependent concepts. Surprisingly, most religious people also tend to be the most spiritual people. This finding combats the notion that the United States is becoming more spiritual and less religious, or that religiousness and spirituality are mutually exclusive. There are a few common characteristics of those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. Some scholars call these people "seekers." Seekers tend to be agnostic, not attend church, and to be independent (from a religious group). They also tend to "experiment with New Age or Eastern practices."
That being said, the birthing women to whom I refer do not describe themselves as spiritual, but rather describe their births as spiritual. The study is still helpful, because it shows that most people associate religiousness with external institutions. It makes sense that women would call birth spiritual but not religious, if "religious" connotes church or some other organized structure. Now I understand why birth is not always considered religious, but I have yet to understand fully what it means for birth to be spiritual.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Last Friday and Saturday I attended a DONA birth doula workshop. It was amazing; I learned so much. If you ever want to take a doula workshop in Florida, let me know so I can put you in touch with this instructor. In other news, this Thursday is my last Bradley class. A longer update is coming soon!
Saturday, February 27, 2010
Andrea Smith is a Cherokee scholar, feminist, and anti-violence activist. A lot of her academic work focuses on the intersections of Native studies, feminist theory, and theology. She co-founded INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, the Boarding School Healing Project, and the
chapter of Women of All Red Nations. Smith is brilliant; I strongly recommend all of her writings. She spoke at my school a few years ago on state violence against women of color, and I got to have lunch with her. Chicago
Anyway, today I read a paper she wrote in the National Women's Study Assocation (NWSA) Journal titled, "Beyond Pro-Choice Versus Pro-Life: Women of Color and Reproductive Justice." I have always been pro-choice. In high school, I volunteered at Planned Parenthood. This paper really opened my eyes and made me think more critically about the problems with both movements. She argues that ironically, the pro-choice and pro-life movements "are more similar than they are different." Both movements marginalize women of color, poor women, women with disabilities, and women from other marginalized communities.
On the side of the pro-life movement, she points out that even if one does believe that a fetus is a life, it doesn't necessarily follow that someone should be punishment for it. She proceeds to debunk the criminal justice system in the United States, also known as the prison industrial complex. Basically, since the prison system in the United States completely fails to address social problems (except to make them worse), it is actually counterproductive for someone who supports life to support the criminalization of abortion. And it is defintely counterproductive for women of color and other marginalized women, because the prison industrial complex is extremely racist.
Like I said, I considered myself pro-choice, so it's not like I need to be persuaded against aligning myself with the pro-life movement. But it was interesting to read a new argument instead of the usual ones that constantly get rehashed. Which reminds me of why this topic has everything to do with religion and childbirth. I am becoming a birth doula. Doulas are there to support whatever choices a mother makes. But how can we talk about birthing options and choices when not every woman has a choice? (See previous posts for more on that.) And the choice to not have a child is not a separate issue; that is also a reproductive choice. So social issues like this are certainly relevant to childbirth. Furthermore, the pro-life movement makes many religion-based claims. It's important to keep in mind that these sociopolitical issues are very tied up in people's religious and spiritual beliefs.
Her analysis of the pro-choice movement is what really surprised me. I had known that Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was involved in Eugenics, but I thought that Planned Parenthood and the pro-choice movement in general now made an effort to cut ties with Eugenics and to truly support women of marginalized communities. Smith argues that the pro-choice movement "often supports population control policies and the development of dangerous contraceptives that are generally targeted towards communities of color." She provides solid evidence that Planned Parenthood is invested in population control and sterilization in third-world countries.
Finally, back to the question of having true reproductive choice, she points out that "both positions do not question the capitalist system—they focus solely on the decision of whether or not a woman should have an abortion without addressing the economic, political, and social conditions that put women in this position in the first place." Definitely read this paper if you get a chance. You can find it here, but unfortunately access is restricted to those with a subscription to Project Muse. I can send a pdf to your e-mail address, though.