Parenting experts often discuss the importance of how parents talk to their children. Parents are reminded to keep discussions positive and to uplift children by our encouragement and trust in their abilities. Call a child stupid or worthless often enough, the child will believe it and live up to the label. On the other hand, belief in a child's capabilities will likely help that child have belief in himself and help him live up to his more positive traits. The names, labels, and words we use have power, as well as the fundamental beliefs and assumptions they express. In regards to women, and the attitude that society conveys about our place and our worth, I feel that unfortunately, society vacillates between the verbally abusive parent and the well-meaning, but unhealthy helicopter parent, who feels s/he must do everything for the child, perhaps out of genuine concern, but which ultimately teaches the child that she is not capable of doing anything on her own and so the child develops low self-esteem, never having learned the invaluable lesson: I am capable.
One way that society tells women that we are not capable is by its attitude in regards to childbirth. Over and over again movies and television repeat the story of how dangerous childbirth is and how incapable women are of doing it without a team of medical specialists controlling the process and saving women from our own dangerous bodies. A woman choosing to have a homebirth is seen as foolishly taking her life (and her child's life) in her own hands--despite evidence that shows that for low-risk pregnancies (which is the majority of pregnancies) giving birth at home is as safe if not safer than a hospital birth.1 But society acts as though every woman is the exception and so women are taught to fear birth and to fear and mistrust their bodies, and indeed, their own selves.
I think birth is like parenthood. Sometimes you're happy and excited. Sometimes you cry. Sometimes you're hopeful; sometimes you think, "I can't go on." But it always ends with you doing more than you ever thought you could and loving someone more than you thought you were capable. This is an experience that is important to allow women to have.
After birth, if the woman decides to breastfeed, she might face another uphill battle. My first child was born in the hospital and the day of my daughter's birth the pediatrician told me that it is often helpful to start out giving the hungry infant a bottle and then when she has relaxed and is no longer crying to then offer her the breast. Firstly, colostrum is perfectly formulated for a newborn's needs. Secondly, the infant suckling often is what stimulates the woman's body to make enough milk. Her body supplies milk according to the demand of the baby. Early formula supplementation is a recipe for an inadequate supply later. Unfortunately, from attending many La Leche League meetings, it does not seem that advice as horrible as what I received is rare. I have seen many frustrated women trying to recover from low supply caused by poor medical advice and many women do not. Some even give up breastfeeding altogether, since it has become such a frustrating and emotionally-draining endeavor. I know that for myself I was quite surprised when I could actually breastfeed my daughter exclusively for six months. Although most women can and the exception cannot, it seems so many women doubt their body's ability to give their children this perfect food.
I feel the distrust of women's bodies go beyond the events of pregnancy and childbirth. This distrust extends to our most basic functioning in our reproductive cycle. Rather than seeing fertility as the normal and healthy state that it is, the culture treats fertility as a disease, something to be suppressed at any cost. And in fact, not long ago, some were seeking to classify contraceptives as preventative medicine. I must ask, preventative medicine for what? Femininity? Is femininity a disease? It seems to me that it is only in regards to women's bodies does standard medicine take something that is normal and healthy, and purposely induce a state of abnormality.
All these things together conspire to send the message to women that we are flawed, that our bodies are just accidents waiting to happen if we do not hand over ourselves to the medical industry to control each function. The culture seems to paint the female body as an oppressor—an oppressor intrinsically opposed to our own dreams for an education or work-place success. Like the tired old tropes from yesterday's literature, this female character cannot be trusted. She's deceitful and cunning, and if you naively give her your trust, you'll be sorry. This revamped villain, however, wants to harm us by dangerously bearing as many children as possible and then kill us early when we are no longer able to bear any more work, having been worn out in the births of so many children.
The thing wrong with this picture is, like the other caricatures of femininity, it's not accurate. My body is not my enemy. My body is myself. And I honor myself, not by being at war with my body, but by respecting and living according to its natural rhythms. Last month I wrote about how learning to be receptive to the natural processes of my body healed me from a traumatic past and taught me unforgettable lessons about my true worth and dignity. And so, to the hovering misogynist culture, I want to say that I don't need to be liberated from myself. I simply need liberation from your oppressive interference. I don't need to take carcinogens to plan my family size. I can practice Natural Family Planning. I don't need you to control the birth process, or for you to give me misguided breastfeeding advice, so certain I won't be able to do it; I just need your support and your belief in my amazing abilities. Trust me on this.
Added September 28, 2011: Rather than saying this culture treats fertility as a disease, I feel I should have instead said "This culture treats women's fertility as a disease." For women are only fertile approximately 100 hours a cycle, yet the majority of birth control methods affect and suppress women's natural functioning every day of her cycle, with perhaps a few days of reprieve (but not long enough to allow her body to recover). Also, as an update, legislation has now passed that mandates that insurance companies cover birth control without copays, classifying them as "preventative medicine."
1. Cassidy, Tina. Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born. New York: Grove Press, 2006. (p. 73) Print. http://www.amazon.com/Birth-Surprising-History-How-Born/dp/B001F51WM4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1308187868&sr=8-1