It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly it happened, but it’s clear we are living in a new normal. No, I’m not referring to Trump. I’m referring to the shift in public opinion about what constitutes a morally sound approach to childbirth and early motherhood.
A summary for the uninitiated: Medicalized childbirth, with its epidurals and scheduled cesareans, is morally inferior. Natural childbirth, with its doulas, home births and heaping dose of additional pain, is morally superior.
The value judgment doesn’t end in the delivery room. Increasingly, it is considered not just physiologically advantageous but morally correct to breastfeed one’s child until toddlerhood. For extra credit, an ambitious mother can subscribe to the philosophy of “attachment parenting,” which combines un-medicated birth and on-demand breastfeeding with the added duty of having to be in constant physical range of your child for months and even years on end.
None of these approaches is “new,” of course, but they are newly mainstream. What started as a rejection of overly scheduled labor and delivery is quickly becoming gospel. There are more than 300 natural birthing centers across the United States, roughly 100 of which opened after 2010. Even the website for the seminal pregnancy guide “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” dedicates a page to celebrities who had natural births.
In Los Angeles, this movement has converged with the New Age luxury market to produce a particularly intense aspirational culture. A pregnant woman in L.A. can give birth amidst Midcentury Modern furniture at GraceFull, a natural birthing center in Silver Lake, which espouses the philosophy that birth is 85% mental and emotional. It offers placenta encapsulation, $475 childbirth classes and T-shirts that say “My Vagina is Magical.”
But this shift isn’t limited to the United States. In Britain, a 2015 investigation into baby deaths at one hospital attributed them to “overzealous” midwives who imposed natural childbirth “at any cost.” In a controversial book published in 2010, the French author Elisabeth Badinter cautioned against an “essentialist” feminism that prizes breastfeeding and natural childbirth, warning: “A revolution has taken place in our concept of maternity, almost without our realizing it.”
I think it’s safe to say that, seven years on, we now realize it. And we haven’t decided merely that these choices are morally superior, we have also decided that they are more feminist.
Granted, giving birth in the 1950s wasn’t ideal. Mothers were often alone and unconscious, strapped into stirrups. Episiotomies were common. In this context, the natural-birth movement fought to give women choice and, in many ways, it succeeded. It’s now normal for fathers and partners to be present in the delivery room, women have say over the pain relief they receive, and newborns are immediately brought to the mother for skin-to-skin bonding.
But measured against today’s hospital practices, is the natural-birth movement more feminist? That depends, of course, on your definition of feminism.
To me, the approach feels retrograde. It further entrenches women in the home as primary caretakers, places much of their value on their bodies, and makes it even more difficult for them to work. And as Claire Howorth recently pointed out in Time, “the Goddess Myth” also sets women up to feel like failures if they can’t live up to the movement’s biological ideals.
What’s more, although the movement is frequently framed as the righteous refusal of a male-centered obstetric history, its roots are hardly sisterly. In fact, most of the movement’s founders are men.
Dr. Fernand Lamaze, who popularized the technique for breathing through contractions, ranked women’s childbirth performance from “excellent” to “complete failure” on the basis of their restlessness and screams. Lamaze also believed that intellectual women who asked too many questions were the most certain to fail.
Grantly Dick-Read, an evangelical Christian who wrote the best-selling book “Childbirth Without Fear,” once wrote: “Woman fails when she ceases to desire the children for which she was primarily made. Her true emancipation lies in freedom to fulfill her biological purposes.”
William Sears, who coined the term “attachment parenting,” spent most of his life as a Christian fundamentalist and believed his technique to be God’s design for raising children. In his 1997 book “The Complete Book of Christian Parenting and Child Care,” Sears opposed the idea that women belong in the workplace. “[Some] mothers choose to go back to their jobs quickly simply because they don't understand how disruptive that is to the well-being of their babies,” he writes. “So many babies in our culture are not being cared for in the way God designed, and we as a nation are paying the price.”
Even the female icons of the movement are overtly traditional. La Leche League, the group that gave rise to modern “lactivism,” was started by seven Catholic housewives who advocated for a return to breastfeeding and were also opposed to mothers working outside the home. In the 1981 edition of their book “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding,” the League wrote: “Our plea to any mother who is thinking about taking an outside job is, ‘if at all possible, don’t.’”
I’ll stop short of calling the natural-birth movement anti-feminist. But I’d caution that feminism is about choice, and the moment we start dictating one set of choices over another, we lose the plot.