“I had a lady friend years ago… who was a mother of several children. She had a bout of shingles. She told me she would rather give birth. I have had shingles. Bring it on.” — A male friend of a friend on Facebook.com, July 26, 2013
Facebook is a hurt-feelings-machine. It’s an Offense-O-Matic. It’s a Jerk-A-Tron. It can make ordinary strangers sound like idiotic, sexist monsters. We all know this. However, Facebook is also the only place I can reliably see pictures of my nieces and nephews so, like most users, I have reasons to put up with the website that outweigh the heaps of garbage I find there. But the comment quoted above – one made in response to a comedy sketch about a bogus medical device that transfers the pain of childbirth contractions from mothers to fathers — reads as particularly loathsome to me, even by Facebook standards.
When it comes to empathy for the ordeal of childbirth, I prefer quotations like this one:
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know it could be like this or I would have told you.”
That’s what my mother said to me moments after my first son was born. She didn’t say it because she was ignorant of childbirth and hadn’t worked hard enough to prepare me for it. She had borne seven children herself and been frank with me about her experiences. She knows much more about childbirth than most people will ever know.
But my mum was still shocked at how differently childbirth unfolded for me. Unlike Facebook-Shingles-Man, there’s no bravado, nothing dismissive or smug in her response to my very personal passage to motherhood. Standing at my hospital bedside, Mum knew my labour had been twice as long as any she’d ever had. She had watched me struggle with the second stage – the pushing part where things usually developed quickly and fruitfully for her. For me, it went on for hours, until the whole debacle finally ended in a traumatic, complicated delivery of a baby whose size was so out of proportion with mine that the doctor had said, “I can’t believe he was in there.” My mum knew if we hadn’t been in a modern hospital that night, it would have been the night that I died.
My son’s birth was not what my mother had expected – and that was something I hadn’t expected.
Birthing a child is different for everyone, even closely related people like mothers and daughters. And every time I had a new baby, his delivery was different from the other ones I’d weathered. I don’t know why. Maybe it had something to do with my age, the babies’ sizes, the tides, the placement of the pins in some Voo Doo doll – I don’t know.
Apart from physical differences, childbirth medical interventions also vary based on where we are, who attends us, and our personal choices. My boys were delivered by four different doctors plus a boomtown nurse left alone with me while a fifth doctor was on lunch. Even though I asked, none of my deliveries worked out so I could have much pharmaceutical pain relief. Every time my children were born, I was right there for all of it – mind, body, and soul. That’s certainly not the case for every mother.
Our bodies are different. Our surroundings are different. Our babies are different. In addition to concrete factors like these there are innumerable emotional, social, cultural and other issues colouring our childbirths – enough factors to keep the experience infinitely variable.
I think the case of shingles is actually a good example of how social and psychological factors exacerbate suffering. My mum taught me this too. Only for her, it wasn’t shingles. When I was an elementary school kid, she was hospitalized for kidney stones. She said it hurt a lot, like having a baby, only there was nothing to hope for at the end of it. There was no mounting sense of love to convince her that the pain was meaningful and worthwhile. In light of that, I’m sure she, like Facebook-Shingles-Man’s “lady friend,” would have said she’d rather give birth than pass her stones. Birth is hard but, unlike disease, it isn’t a bad thing. Heck, I’ve been mired in arguments so painful I would have rather given birth than listened to another word of them. But that doesn’t mean the experiences of birth and disease, or birth and a nasty argument, are equivalent. What it does reveal is that the meaning of suffering affects our perceptions of it.
And there’s far more to withstand in childbirth than just pain. There’s also fear and panic. Birth is scary. For some of us, the fear grows worse every time. I was nervous when I was admitted to the hospital the morning of my first labour. But by the time I arrived in an ambulance for my fifth labour, I was terrified – phobic and crazed. No one in the comedy sketch that started me on this tirade had any comic device for transferring the fear of childbirth from the mother to the father. Maybe even they know there’s nothing funny about that.
Yes, I get punchy when I hear people talking about birth as if it’s some kind of syndrome – a universal experience we all live through in exactly the same way. I get especially punchy when that person is a man out to appropriate the most powerful and sublime of female powers for himself by equating it with a disease he’s suffered. Clearly, what Facebook-Shingles-Man said was sexist – disgustingly so.
And then it’s more than sexist. It would have been offensive even if it hadn’t been a man who’d said it. What arises from the bad assumption that birth is the same for everyone is the worse assumption that we’re qualified to evaluate and pass judgment on each other’s reactions to childbirth – or anything else we suffer. Looking at somebody’s suffering and joking about it or daring them to “bring it on” is never a decent thing to do. It’s a perversion of empathy. It’s a mistake my mum – someone wise and acquainted with the breadth of human experience called motherhood – taught me never to commit.