Disclaimer: I am not a big fan of children: I have no younger siblings, I rarely babysat as a teen, and though I was until relatively recently an active Mormon, I've never had much contact with young children. I very much doubt I will ever have any. That said, I have EXTREME problems with US views and attitudes toward pregnancy, childbirth, and early childhood rearing (not to mention a sort of broad, anthropologically-based distaste for the concept of teenagehood, particularly as it is spun out in the United States. But that's another post). My aunt is a nurse practitioner and lactation consultant, and knows many midwives; when I was small my mother and aunt would take me, my sister, and my cousin to La Leche League meetings. Cultural and to some extent biological anthropology delves into global birthing practices, "alternative" child-rearing processes, and cultural attitudes and values surrounding pregnancy and birth. Suffice to say I am comfortable with and reasonably knowledgeable about female bodies and how they are viewed and treated in a variety of cultures.
What's my point again? Oh yes. A book review! The book in question is The Women's Wheel of Life, published in 1996 by Carol Leonard and Elizabeth Davis (the latter having previously written the Bible of midwifery, Heart and Hands). This text purports to provide positive archetypes for women in any stage of life--thirteen in all--and, as an Amazon.com review says, is rather steeped in New Age/Neo-pagan language, references, and rhetoric. I have no opinion on whether drawing on goddess archetypes and utilizing I Ching will enrich a woman's life or empower her (ok, untrue: I DO, of course, but that is also a topic for another post), and can't really comment on these aspects of the book. However, what I found really compelling and fairly groundbreaking was the book's treatment of midwifery and what the authors refer to as "Blood Mysteries": menarche and menstruation, childbirth, and menopause.
Unsurprisingly, the US is not friendly to any of these female-centric mysteries. Some of you will say, Hold on, Diana! America LOVES babies! Just look at the abortion controversy! To which I say, Indeed. You are not incorrect. BUT, once the baby's out of the womb, do we give a shit? Not really! The processes for removing the baby from the womb are also fraught with problems. The months of pregnancy leading up to birth are questionably traversed. The early childhood rearing process, including breastfeeding and the question of where the child sleeps, are practically Victorian. At least we've dispensed with twilight sleep, amirite ladies?? Ack. So anyway, The Women's Wheel of Life emphasizes that menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth, and menopause are WOMEN's mysteries, and basically the authors' position is that the devaluation, diminishment, and divorcing (alliterative agony!) of these mysteries from the lives of women who experience them has contributed greatly to the erosion of the nuclear family and the oppression of women in general.
No matter my position on the nuclear family, I don't find their hypothesis difficult to accept. In our society, menstruation is a laughing matter, subject for jokes and mocking when a girl is in public school, and a drag later on in her life as she must navigate higher education, jobs, and family and social obligations. "PMS" is blamed for everything and its spectre demonizes women's emotions and bodies alike. Menopause as well is always good for a giggle at the expense of older women who are beginning to be perceived as less feminine, no longer worthy of the male gaze. And pregnancy and birth--well, in this country, with all our boasting about cutting-edge medicine, it's practically archaic. The pregnant woman's body becomes public property; suddenly invasion of personal space and the laying of hands on a stranger's body are acceptable and typical. Throughout her pregnancy she is subjected to unwanted advice, again often from strangers, and a barrage of information which may not be on the topics she needs. Midwifery is STILL looked down upon by the general public as unsafe. Why would any woman choose a midwife and/or doula when she could go to the best hospital and have a Real Doctor?
The prevailing attitudes toward women's bodies in general and these female mysteries in particular predictably leave lower-class and minority women in the cold. The general perception of pregnancy and childbirth/rearing ignores women who do not have access to or cannot afford hospitals and obstetricians, as well as placing women who PREFER a midwife firmly in the freak category. Popular literature decries extended breastfeeding and co-sleeping. Midwives and lactation consultants are not covered by health insurance plans, and it was not until the late 1980s that midwifery was licensed. Pregnancy and childbirth in the US come down, like so many other things, to capitalism: what will make doctors and hospitals money? What will make diaper and formula companies money? What will make insurance companies money? Instead of placing emphasis on the woman in question, instead of reaffirming that this process is HER decision and HER experience, pregnancy and childbirth have become commodified. No, scratch "have become"--the pregnant woman's experience in the US went from being tied down and morphined up at the turn of the century to the twilight sleep of the '50s and '60s to the epidural, which, while certainly an effective palliative, has been noted by some studies as reducing automatic biological bonding processes between a mother and newborn.
The crux of this wide-ranging issue is abortion. Although Leonard and Davis rarely mention it in The Women's Wheel of Life, it's easy to extrapolate their position to include abortion. The divorcing of female biological processes from the female experiencing them is exactly what abortion is about. The babies, as I have stated, are not the issue. The issue is that our current kyriarchal structure is so vehemently opposed to the concept of female bodily autonomy.
If menarche has no ritual and menstruation is mocked and demonized and menopause largely ignored but for the laugh value, if pregnancy means that the woman's body becomes the state's, if women who breastfeed longer than ten months and co-sleep with their children are peered at suspiciously, it is all too clear where the blame lies. The systemic oppression of women throughout Western history has resulted in this: an almost complete separation of women's minds and souls from the processes their bodies undergo. There is no participation anymore, no involvement. Men don't want to hear about their girlfriends' or wives' bodies, even if it involves the so-called miracle of life. No glory is given to the girl experiencing her first period. The thing that makes pregnancy, which America is obsessed with, possible is demonized and laughed at. Remove the woman from the process her body is undergoing and small wonder that abortion becomes appealing beyond its place as a method for removing an unwanted passenger: it's a CHOICE, a grasp for power that has been stripped from her.
(On a happier book note, I am pleased to announce that tomorrow all four books of The Circle Opens plus The Will of the Empress will be arriving from Borders, and then my Tamora Pierce collection wil be complete. Yes yes.)