On Equality and Childbirth

By Ozan Kamiloglu

I just had a child. What a weird use this is of the verb “have”. There hasn’t been any physical connection between me and the child until now. My partner changed with the child, carried her, fed her, changed her life style, daily routine, diet, and she has passed through a difficult labour. I didn’t do any of these things. When they gave me the baby in the operating theatre, I thought “whose baby is this one now?” Her experience of having a baby and mine are shockingly different. Apart from the commitment to undertake certain responsibilities in relation to the child, there is nothing that makes the “child” mine. When I was in the ward with my partner, observing her experience during labour demonstrated this to me in a very striking way. And even more curious, is how we continue as if the labour, and pain, and commitment, and risk, and passing through very acute physical and psychological changes do not exist. Nobody prepared me for this. Rather, I was told that I have some responsibilities, like reminding my partner to go to the loo every hour during labour and keeping an eye on the frequency of the contractions. Fulfilling these responsibilities was enough to be a part of the birth experience. I did what I needed to do, and she did her part. Now we have a baby

I think this forgetting of the differences in our experiences during pregnancy and birth, and perhaps until the baby reaches a certain age (although this may not necessarily be so) is the peace treaty between two people (at least one of who still tends to be a birthing woman) in order to be a functional family. As in all peace processes, a consensus can be reached only after both parties agree over acknowledging the pain experienced by the other party (like in South Africa or Northern Ireland) and forgetting the disproportionality of it. To be a functional family (in the name of a bright future, for peace that will bring prosperity to a society, for new generations to flourish), parties make an agreement over forgetting, and reach a consensus about what to remember. From this perspective women’s experiences during pregnancy and labour are reduced to a ‘necessary commitment’ on her behalf, in order that the family continue. Men must acknowledge her struggle and be grateful to her whilst continuing to expect women not to talk and think about it too much. Now the experience of my partner has to be forgotten (of course apart from my praises of her courage and greatness) and we should claim ownership of the baby equally. We have a baby. Peace! Now we can be a family.

There is a history of using the metaphor of war in order to define labor. Jacqueline Rose quotes from Plutarch, according to whom ‘the only exceptions to the rule against naming the dead on Sparta’s tombstones were men who fell in battle and women who died in childbirth: the woman, the producer of the future citizens of the city state, bore childbirth ‘just as the warrior bears the enemy’s assault, by struggling against pain: giving birth is a battle.’1 In many countries governments in different historical periods have used taxes or other financial manipulation to promote reproduction, and making kids become a national duty for women in totalitarian states. My argument is this; it is not only totalitarian states like Sparta or Mussolini’s Italy, but also a western liberal patriarchal mind-set that considers birth as a war, and the child as the agreement that comes after. Walter Benjamin in his well-known article Critique of Violence underlines how law-making violence becomes institutionalized with the establishment of borders after a war.2 Labour understood as war, with the peace agreement that comes after – the baby – becomes law-making violence. New territories of women that are not in reach of man are colonized, and this colonization is inscribed through the baby. The artificial borders, in this agreement, also conditions what is to be remembered and what is not. Benjamin quotes Anatole France who expressed: “Rich and poor are equally forbidden to spend the night under the bridges”. Forgetting of the experience of woman, the changes in her psyche, the pain she experiences, the scars she has to carry, becomes something nobody wants to remember. Instead society creates the figure of the mother in the way it makes martyrs: people whose heroic efforts are acknowledged, whose sacrifice is monumentalized and turned into myths, therefore stripped of reality.

The birth of a baby always sparks  new relations of power. It can easily be an emancipatory moment, because of the very sacrifice women endure and the sheer uselessness of men. Therefore, the moment of birth has to be oppressed, dominated and domesticated by men. It has to be turned into the moment of mythic violence through the peace agreement that accompanies it. The peace that is offered by patriarchal society to women serves exactly this end. It is not surprising at all why depression is common, when that opening for new relations between men and women is smashed by the reactionary hordes of society. The baby becomes the written law to be obeyed. What the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott calls ‘primary maternal preoccupation’, which we could read as a form of submission of the mother to the baby is submission to this new law. A kind of trauma that we saw when a revolution is crashed by reactionary forces: the woman soothes herself with devotion or depression.

So, the well-known feminist critique against the virtues of motherhood is very understandable but at the same time misses the point. ‘I do not see the mother with her child as either more morally credible or more morally capable than any other woman,’ Adrienne Rich writes in Of Woman Born.Such an approach does not take into account the importance of the loss and defeat. Loss of a hope that comes with the striking experience of childbirth. After observing day-by-day changes in my partner’s body and psyche, her life, daily routine, joys, and finally the birth, I am very much convinced that this feminist approach that equates all the women with each other serves rather than challenges the ‘normal’. All these changes are not normal, this sacrifice is not normal, the peace agreement with the world on the normalcy of this experience is not normal, to claim that after giving birth women become what they were before is not normal. This is not a struggle between the normal and the myth of the virtuous mother, but more a clash between the norm and the abnormality of childbirth. Taking a stand against the myth of virtuous mother shouldn’t makes us forget the experience of hope, hope for a new distribution of the sensible in Jacques Ranciere’s words.4 The woman has to show her obedience to the equality of parties, her return to normal life as if nothing apart from a medical intervention happened. I do understand the hesitation around the use of words with religious connotations like sacrifice or miracle, but again, hesitations shouldn’t reign over us while acknowledging the potential of birth to break the claim of equality in the eye patriarchy.

I am very happy to say after what I experienced, woman and man are not equals. And I do not accept the equality under the law, that forbids sleeping under the bridge for both poor and the rich. This is a law that threatens women if they refuse to be a part of a functional family with shared responsibilities, for being a single mother, a bad mother, an evil woman, and who knows what else. One more note; my mother always tried to talk to me about her labour, but I never wanted to listen. Because no man would want to listen to such an experience that can strike at the claim of equality. But then, she told my partner after the birth, ‘don’t worry it is all passed’. It didn’t pass. It will never pass.

1 In ‘Le lit, la guerre’, L’Homme 21, January – March 1981.

2 Walter Benjamin. Critique of ViolenceSelected Writings; Volume 1;1913-1926. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

3 Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, W. W. Norton & Company , 1976.

4 Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Ozan Kamiloglu

Ozan is a doctoral candidate and associate lecturer at the School of Law, Birkbeck University of London. He teaches Criminal Law,  and his research focuses on the ethics of Human Rights, questions surrounding violence and revolt, and relations between depoliticization and rights struggle.

Affordable Mothering and Respectability

By Agatha Lisiak

The low total fertility rate in Poland (1.3) has repeatedly been juxtaposed, in Polish and British media alike (often in an alarmed tone), with the apparently much higher (2.13) total fertility rate of Polish women living in Britain (ONS 2014). As analysts from Polityka Insight have cautioned, these numbers tend to be taken out of context: if we consider the overrepresentation of young women (20-39) among Polish migrants, Polish women in the UK give birth to only 15% children more children than their counterparts in the same age group in Poland. And yet, it remains a fact that the birth rate in Poland sank considerably from 2.0 in 1990 (GUS 2014), and the new government is set on reversing this trend.

The campaign program of Poland’s conservative party Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), who won last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, included a proposal to introduce a universal child benefit. The campaign promise has recently materialized in the form of the Family 500+ program, which, in a nutshell, is a monthly child benefit of 500 PLN (£90) for all parents or legal guardians (irrespective of their income) who have two or more children and for parents of only children if their monthly income per family member does not exceed 800 PLN (£140). The program has raised much controversy as economically flawed and socially unfair and has been criticized as discriminatory for single parents. For example, whereas a wealthy couple with three children will be legible for 1000 PLN a month, a single mother of an only child, whose monthly income even marginally exceeds 1600 PLN (£280) per month (the minimum wage in 2016 is 1850 PLN, or £330), will not receive any support within the new framework.

As feminist researchers have argued, women in Poland (and elsewhere as well, for that matter) are reluctant to have (more) children not, as it has often been alleged by the conservatives, because they are career-obsessed selfish monsters, but primarily because they simply cannot afford them. Job insecurity, unemployment, low salaries, precarious living conditions, and underdeveloped childcare infrastructure paired, in a perverse manner, with exorbitant costs of childcare are among most often cited reasons for not having children among Poles who declare desire to have them. Aside from these very concrete structural problems, another factor impeding women in Poland from having (more) children is, as we learn from talking to Polish mothers living in the UK and Germany, a general sense of unaffordability of life as a mother in Poland. What exactly then makes mothering affordable?

In my research project Immigrant Mothers As Agents of Change, I ask Polish women living in British and German cities about how mothering works for them in their adopted homes. The narrative and visual responses I have gathered so far point to the importance of the ability to satisfy family’s basic needs through an income that, even if minimal, allows for renting an apartment, keeping the fridge full, and even saving a little for trips to Poland or vacations in a warm country. What is also much appreciated is the partially free childcare (for kids older than 3), free medication for children, and financial support for single mothers. It comes as a big relief to the Polish mothers I have talked to that they can not only borrow, but also afford to buy everything they think their children need: clothes, shoes, diapers, strollers, toys, etc.

I see the danger of my findings being misinterpreted by those who oppose state support for low-income families on the grounds that benefits recipients are irrational and bound to spend the money on excessive consumption. Imogen TylerLes BackOwen Jones, among many others, have addressed such misguided views and repeatedly debunked the myths that emerged around them. And yet, it suffices to leaf through The Daily Mail, or to listen to politicians of the governing party, to realize that these misconceptions obstinately prevail in Britain. I, therefore, find it important to stress that the Polish mothers I have talked to in Birmingham and London do not think they found themselves in a welfare paradise, they are not set on having more children only so that they claim benefits on which they will then live extravagantly. What they undoubtedly cherish, however, is the kind of social security they lacked in Poland. As Paulina put it:

I simply feel free because we have a place to live, we have a car, and we don’t have to worry about money, which is very important when you have kids, it saves you a lot of stress. … I feel safe here, as a mother. It’s nice.

Paulina is a single mother who works as a waitress and attends college to be able to qualify for a better job. Her house is mold-infested (and the landlord refuses to do anything about it), her brother’s second-hand car was bought only after a long period of saving, and yet Paulina claims to be better off than in Poland where an independent place to live and a used car were beyond her reach.

Paulina feels safe in Birmingham because her basic needs are fulfilled. And basic needs, especially for low-income families, include the need to look respectable.

I wouldn’t say I buy a lot, and I don’t spend much money on it, but I buy nice things that don’t cost I-don’t-know-how-much, but I like it that they have… I like to buy only nice clothes for [my sons], I don’t like ‘home clothes’ — not even at home. I don’t mind if they get them dirty. I don’t care. I can always wash them. And here clothes don’t cost a fortune.

Clothes, as Virginia Woolf famously noticed, have “more important offices than to merely keep us warm”. In the absence of other forms of social recognition, investing in children’s clothes may be the only measure of achieving respectability available to low-income parents.

As austerity policies in Britain have disproportionately targeted women and children, it may seem surprising that recent immigrants feel safe there. It is important to remember, however, that Poland and other not-so-new-anymore EU member states have been experiencing austerity ever since the demise of communist regimes in 1989-1991 – and that it is predominantly women who have been acutely affected by these transformations. Feminization of poverty is a widespread phenomenon across Eastern Europe and South East Europe as Slavenka Drakulicdiscloses in her essay evocatively titled How Women Survived Post-Communism (And Didn’t Laugh). To those familiar with everyday realities of mothering in postcommunist countries, having children in the UK appears to be a much easier task – despite all the cuts, despite the exorbitant cost of childcare, even despite the geographical distance separating immigrants from their families and friends they could have otherwise relied on when it comes to child rearing.

Dr. Agata Lisiak is a postdoctoral researcher at Humboldt University’s Institute of Social Sciences and Lecturer at Bard College Berlin. She is the author of Urban Cultures in (Post)Colonial Central Europe (Purdue University Press 2010), as well as articles and book chapters on gender and migration, everyday life in the city, media representations of the city and cultural memory. She has published in City, Forum Qualitative Social Research, View, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Journal of Urban History, and other peer-reviewed journals. Agata is interested in visual cultures, everyday urban cultures, spatialities and visualities of migration and developing methodologies for researching said issues (http://vmw.bard.berlin).