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Monthly Archives: August 2018

Our bodies, our babies, our births

Our bodies, our babies, our births

Before I write the rest of this piece I feel the need to lay out my mothering and birth ‘credentials’. I am a mother to two daughters; I’ve given birth twice, both times vaginally, neither time without intervention. I found one birth traumatic and one deeply and intensely healing. One pregnancy was life-threatening and high risk, the other was not. (The traumatic birth was not the one which resulted from the life-threatening pregnancy.) I’ve breastfed both daughters, both exclusively for 6 months, and for an extended period beyond that. 5 years in total with some crossover in babas being fed at the same time (only once literally at the same time thankfully, I HATED that). I’ve spent the entirety of my life as a mother in the struggle for bodily autonomy in pregnancy (whether ended or continued) and birth. Here in Ireland, with the 8th amendment limiting our rights in both, it was always clear to me that pregnancy and birth are a continuum and the restriction of our rights in one aspect of it will be used to restrict our rights in others. The fundamental right to ownership of one’s own body has always been to me one issue.

I do not care how anyone births as long as it’s the way that’s right for them; one they have chosen as freely as possible, one they feel safe and supported in, and in a pregnancy they’ve chosen to continue. Likewise I do not care how anyone feeds their baby as long as it’s the way that’s right for them; one they have chosen as freely as possible and one they have, if problems have been encountered, received appropriate, accurately informed, and timely support for. Unfortunately when women run into problems with breastfeeding this is all too often not the case. I don’t just mean the kind of ‘support’ that involves telling brand new mothers with bleeding nipples to ‘just’ pump instead (the casual disregard for the work and time of women inherent in this is enraging), though. I also mean the kind of support which ignores the realities of that woman’s life, particularly when she already has other very small children around to care for, on top of feeding herself, and no other adult in the home for most or all of the day. The kind of support which pretends the problems of capitalism and patriarchy, where women’s work of feeding and raising babies, doesn’t exist, being instead part of a magical and wonderful nurturing process that is bestowed on us by some earth mother fairy godmother type at birth, and that all will magically come right if you just ‘feed feed feed’. Peer support and advice can only compensate for so much; without an additional set of hands there in the home, many mothers will simply be unable to complete all the separate tasks they must do in a day to ensure each of their children, as well as themselves, are safe, clean and fed. For this to happen, that set of hands would need to be a paid worker, provided by the state, because the state recognises that mothering work, and the work of bringing babies into the world and feeding those babies once they’re there is work of value. I do not believe that we will see this happen while we continue to individualise the ‘problems’ and place the ‘responsibility’ for breastfeeding or not on each mother. As I once said to a friend in the aftermath of her own journey to breastfeed ending earlier than she wanted, with a baby who just wouldn’t latch, I am an advocate for women, not for breastfeeding. I want to support people, not a process.

This piece has been brewing in my mind for some time now, with much of it brought to the fore by some of the response to a US study that found in a cohort of 6,000+ women, induction did not raise the risk of c-section, and that a woman who chose not to have an induction at 39 weeks was more likely to have a c-section. I certainly think there are questions to be asked around this study – I would love to know the outcomes of the 16,000 women who declined to participate. The interrogation of the concept that there may be an element of self-selection in the participants is a welcome one too, and I would like to know to what degree that matters. I also think societies which consider free maternal healthcare to be a basic right for all may not be directly comparable to a society in which those who cannot afford maternal healthcare must go without it.  I would question too if it is reasonable to compare c section rates in a country in which some hospitals and indeed states will compel women to have c sections against their will to those which do not. I would also find far more interesting a trial which, for once, took into consideration the feelings of a large cohort of women about their births. There is a strong distinction to be drawn between the sometimes unavoidable damage to our health and bodies that pregnancy and birth can inflict and the always avoidable suffering and trauma that the denial of our autonomy wreaks upon us. As someone who has experienced both in different pregnancies, I found the former far easier to recover from.

In much the same way as I view breastfeeding, I do not believe in nor agree with the privileging of ‘natural’ pregnancy and birth above all else in the birth advocacy world. Not least because the insistence on ‘natural’ pregnancy as a process seems to me to be at odds with the struggle for our rights to choose to end or continue our pregnancies as we see fit. Please do not misunderstand me here; the fight for ownership of our own bodies in continued pregnancy and birth is frequently one that takes the path of having to defend our rights to say no to external intervention in pregnancy and in birth, rights which are all too often trampled on. But I simply do not agree that the one overarching goal of the entirety of the maternity and birth rights movement should be the prioritisation of ‘natural’ birth. I worry that the focus of this movement has shifted from our right to have the time and space and care to have the best birth for us, to the idea that there is only one best type of birth. It would be easy to understand how this might have happened, in societies in which all too often a medicalised pregnancy and birth is presented as the only option and in which it can frequently seem as though the intervention-free birth is only possible in one’s own home. But I am concerned that this focus on ‘natural’ birth, as distinct from the right birth for each birthing person simply creates a parallel between natural birth advocates and the paternalised medical system which so many of us have negative experiences of.  Again, I want to be an advocate for women and each individual woman or person’s right to own their own unique experience, not an advocate for a certain kind of pregnancy and birth. I don’t always believe that what’s ‘natural’ is best for each and every woman, but I do believe in every pregnant and birthing person’s right to fully informed choice. And I believe with that right, and with supportive, informed, qualified, involved carers, from whom the person giving birth has had continuity of care throughout pregnancy, everyone giving birth would have the perfect (though perhaps not natural) birth for them.

As a final note, I haven’t mentioned anything about babies, their rights, and their best outcomes in this piece. This is a deliberate choice on my part, in part because I believe that information (as pertaining to breastfeeding in particular) is pointless without the resources to implement it, and in part because I don’t believe that the outcomes for babies should weigh on anyone who is not their mother making decisions about their mother’s body. Nor do I believe it is my role as a mother who breastfed to advertise breastfeeding to other women. Each individual woman is the only person who is or ever will be in her shoes and is the only one possibly qualified to make the right call for her and her baby in their best interests.

 

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No more than she deserves

No more than she deserves

In a country which voted overwhelmingly only a few months ago to return ownership of our bodies to us, it was dispiriting, though not surprising, to watch the mob turn on a young homeless Traveller mother, Margaret Cash, for the crimes of being young, a mother, a Traveller, a woman and homeless. The mob has spoken, and it has decreed that she has too many children (though it has failed to specify which exactly of her children should not have been born), that she is in some way to blame for her circumstances (though the housing and rental crisis is in no way of her making), that she should have taken the housing options she was offered (though she could not afford them, had no way of getting to them, and indeed in one case they could not take all of her children with her).  The mob would presumably let them all rot on the benches of Tallaght garda station indefinitely. The mob also does not give a toss that Margaret Cash’s children are listening while it bays that they should not exist.

Why is it that we can talk about “the housing crisis” or “the homelessness crisis” in the media as one under which people are suffering, yet when a mother in pure desperation shares a photo of the straits her children and her family are in, she is torn apart for it? Are people that desperate to believe it couldn’t happen to them that they will peer through every tiny chink into a family’s life through Facebook posts and deem them unworthy and undeserving on this tiny, one-sided, skewed angle of perception? That is surely a part of it, but there is a darker truth here too. The habit of misogyny and of blaming women and mothers for their societally created and enforced suffering is one that has long been pervasive in Ireland. However much you may like to believe that your Together for Yes twibbon frees you of the need to interrogate any of your beliefs about women – especially mothers –  if you believe that you have the right to a say in anyone else’s reproductive decisions, particularly in the wake of their being already made, you are a part of Ireland’s misogyny problem.

Let me be perfectly clear; if you are one of those people who last week thought or said or posted or tweeted or commented that Margaret Cash had surely some part to play in sleeping in a garda station along with her children, you are one of those people who would have said the same about the mothers and the children in the Magdalen laundries and the Mother and Baby homes. If you believe that it is in any way acceptable for you to suggest going through Margaret Cash’s Facebook posts in response to a family being so utterly failed by the society they live in that they are forced to resort to trusting to a policing force that automatically sees their ethnic grouping, including their children, as criminals, to house them, you are one of those that would have looked straight at those women walking together with shorn heads in ragged uniforms down the main streets of Ireland’s towns and never seen anything amiss.

To want a home in which to have and raise children, and to be supported by society in so doing, is a perfectly feminist ideal and to suggest otherwise is pure misogyny. The work of having and raising children is work of value on which society depends; indeed without the work of mothers in growing, birthing and raising our children society as we know it would end within a generation. This is not a new feminist ideal; it has been widespread since the Wages for Housework international campaign of the 1970s. Most of the demands of the Wages for Housework campaign (paid maternity and parental leave, women’s right to work outside the home, equal pay, and social welfare supports) have passed into the accepted needs of society as a whole and are taken entirely for granted as part and parcel of our fought-for and hard-won rights in feminist circles. There is however one area that hasn’t yet been assimilated into society; the concept that the work within one’s own home, of raising one’s own children, of contributing to society the thing it needs most to keep going, should be paid work. That a mother’s work is valuable because it has a price; not worthless because it is of no monetary value.

The reason this vital part of the Wages for Housework campaign did not succeed as its other demands did? Simple; ‘business’ (by which I mean of course capitalism) does not directly benefit from it in the same way that the opening up of a new supply of workers (mothers) to the workforce does. Capitalism requires that this work not be seen as ‘real’ work; that it be done silently and alone without pay, that one employee who wants to have a family must have another person in the home doing the unpaid labour of caring for that employee and the family. Without that person and their unpaid labour the edifice of capitalism begins to shudder, to be seen as the imprisoning behemoth it is, beneath the weight of which all of us are being slowly crushed.

Margaret Cash and her children are today’s sacrifice to Ireland’s continued worship of the combined gods of capitalism and misogyny. We cannot continue like this; leaving the children of ‘undeserving’ mothers to be trodden underfoot by the rest of society, nor can we continue to declare the system is not broken beyond repair in the face of the growing thousands without homes and safe places to stay while the massive landlords that are banks and the vulture funds are given tax break and bailout hand over fist. In much the same way that we reclaimed ownership of our bodies, so too is a movement where we seize back our basic, fully achievable right to homes and safe shelter the only way from here. The ongoing refusal of the State to provide for our obvious needs while women and families suffer and die is an all too familiar echo of the decades gone past. We know they would not have listened to us then had we not risen up and made them. It’s time to make them listen again