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.

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