Monday, March 22, 2010

birth unites

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

religious vs. spiritual

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

doula workshop

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!