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Women Writing Childbirth: Modern Discourses of Motherhood.

Since all of us are "of woman born," many of us assume, quite mistakenly, that we know what it means to become a mother. Yet the word "mother" may be understood as a reference to both childbirth and child care, a conflation of quite different activities. For a number of reasons - the fact, for example, that it is possible for a woman to give birth and yet decide not to mother her child - it is important to differentiate childbirth from child care. Another good reason for such differentiation is that, while childbirth may be instinctive to some extent, competent child care requires a particular kind of thinking, as Sara Ruddick explains in Maternal Thinking (1989). Yet, because child care is thought to be "instinctive," like childbirth, Ruddick found it difficult to persuade readers that mothers do, in fact, think. In Women writing childbirth, Tess Coslett has taken on a task as challenging as Ruddick's: demonstrating that childbirth itself is not a completely instinctive activity. Coslett argues effectively that a woman's experience of childbirth may be affected by a range of often contradictory discourses, discourses which shape her attitudes toward and her expectations of the experience of giving birth. Will the experience be painful or painless? Should she give birth at home or in a hospital, with the aid of a midwife or a doctor and nurses? Should she avoid or use drugs that, while diminishing her pain, also render her unconscious?

As Coslett illustrates, a woman's answers to these questions - and to some extent, her actual childbirth experience - will depend on which stories she believes: the stories of natural childbirth experts who contest the methods of medical authorities or the stories of contemporary women novelists who sometimes, usually to differentiate the heroine from her mother, challenge "old wives tales." In order to examine these conflicting discourses, Coslett has organized Women writing childbirth into four chapters: the first chapter, as suggested by its title, examines the rhetoric of "Natural childbirth and the 'primitive woman'"; chapter two examines "Institutions, machines and 'male' medicine"; chapter three analyzes the tales, oral and written, of "Other women: mothers and others, other mothers, and old wives"; and chapter four addresses the complex question of identity at the moment of childbirth, "Subjectivities: two in one, one becomes two." In my view, this riddle is the most interesting of all. For example, at the moment of giving birth, does a pregnant woman become two, not only in a physical sense, but in terms of consciousness? Does she imagine the newborn child (or children) as an extension of herself, or as differentiated? Or does she, at the moment of giving birth, shift the locale of the child consciousness, whether imagined or actual, from inside to outside her body?

As Coslett says, "Our culture has no way of formulating the intersubjectivity between mother and foetus/baby without reducing one to the object of the other" (8). These questions have intrigued me, not only because I have given birth to a child, but also because, as co-editor with Maureen Reddy of a volume called Narrating Mothers (1991), I struggled, without complete success, to comprehend them. It is understandable that Coslett does not begin Women writing childbirth with these questions; she addresses them in her fourth chapter after first examining some of the discourses of childbirth. She begins with the argument that "as a central, life-changing event for many women, childbirth needs to be made visible, written about, from a woman's perspective" (2). I certainly agree. As Coslett claims, such an analysis is necessary because, for centuries, childbirth has been a "taboo" topic. Furthermore, feminists themselves have tended to write about childbirth and mothering from the daughter's perspective, rather than from the mother's, as we pointed out in Narrating Mothers. Coslett emphasizes the fact that she is not attempting to liberate women from the "false" stories of doctors so that they can find their own "authentic" voices. Instead, she explains, "I find myself in a characteristic post-modern dilemma: both wanting to affirm women's voices, the inscription of their hitherto marginalized subjectivities, and needing to show how these voices, those subjectivities have been culturally constructed by prevailing discourses and cultural practices" (3).

What, then, is the position of women in relationship to these discourses? Coslett argues that women do not simply read and obey, as if acting in accordance with a script; rather, women are agents who have some choice over whether to obey, alter, or oppose the dominant ideology. Furthermore, as Coslett emphasizes, there is no single ideology, or discourse, in control of childbirth. Even though the medical institution has established a "monopoly" over childbirth, she argues that the discourse of natural childbirth has been contesting this monopoly for some time. However, despite its opposition to medical discourse, Coslett finds the role of natural childbirth discourse "ambiguous" in terms of its recovery of the maternal perspective. It remains "anti-feminist" in many ways, as she illustrates, dependent on prescriptive myths of primitive, essential motherhood. As she relates in chapter one, the discourse of natural childbirth began with a British doctor, Grantly Dick Read, in the 1930s, but became popular in the U.S., along with the approach of the French Fernand Lamaze, in the 1940s. Later Sheila Kitzinger appropriated and changed the work of Read and Lamaze, but she believes, as they do, that with the right state of mind a woman could give birth almost without pain. Despite the fact that this view - that pain in childbirth is not "natural" - represents a shift from a focus on the woman's body to her consciousness, it is based, Coslett argues, on the concept of "the primitive woman."

The image of the primitive woman is, according to Coslett, "often identified as 'African,' she goes into the bushes on her own, gives birth painlessly and without fuss, and returns immediately to her work in the fields" (9). Coslett finds, in Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, the most powerful challenge to this racialized image of "natural" childbirth. I agree with Coslett's interpretation of Beloved, but her reading would have been strengthened had she considered the possibility that African American critics might read this novel differently. For example, while Coslett argues that Morrison "explodes the myth of primitive woman" (40), African American critic Carol Boyce Davies in Narrating Mothers finds that "Morrison fails to overturn the symbolics of breasts," a problem evident in the "alignment of cows (with the associations of milk giving) with women" (52). As it happens, my own reading is closer to Coslett's, but I think it important that white critics, whether British or American, carefully consider the perspective of African American critics and theorists, particularly when challenging racialized images.

In chapter two, Coslett illustrates, again through an analysis of feminist literary works - particularly Weldon's novel, Puffball - how women can appropriate and subvert the discourses of natural childbirth and medicine. She demonstrates, very effectively, how Weldon creates a "playful expose of the inadequacies of our systems of thought, the frames - male-medical or female-natural - we use to structure our experience" (74). Puffball subverts such dichotomies, according to Coslett, while Margaret Atwood's poem "Giving Birth" "confuses and reverses them from the start" (75). I found Coslett a careful reader who did not distort a passage to prove her point. I also enjoyed, in chapter three, her examination of the differences among stories by mothers and non-mothers, as well as by mothers of different races and classes. There is no single childbirth story, as Coslett emphasizes: the experience may lead some women to seek solidarity with other women while some continue to show a lack of concern for women of other races or classes. Coslett's analysis of "old wives tales" is equally attentive to differences, demonstrating that, despite the widely shared prejudice against them, people have a range of reasons, not all of them admirable, for resisting "old wives tales."

Unfortunately, perhaps because I had such high expectations, I found chapter four, "Subjectivities: two in one, one becomes two," somewhat disappointing. Even though Coslett remarks that our culture "has no way of formulating the intersubjectivity between mother and foetus/baby" (8), she does not go beyond describing the logic of one - of either/or - which governs childbirth stories. "Pre-oedipal oneness is celebrated" (124) in some maternal narratives, she says, while in others the relationship is antagonistic, ending as the child devours the mother or the mother the child. And at times Coslett's analysis of "oneness" slips, without warning, from attention to childbirth to child care, thus confusing the question of maternal consciousness at the moment of childbirth. Coslett describes two opposed images of the maternal self at the moment of childbirth - images of flowing and splitting. But what is the nature of a mother's consciousness at such moments? As Coslett explains, a mother cannot see her child as it is being born, but must rely upon her audience or a well-placed mirror. How, then, does this impossibility - the fact that a mother cannot see her child born, but must rely on others - shape maternal consciousness and story telling? I had hoped this question would move Coslett beyond description. Perhaps, I thought, she will critique monologic thought in her conclusion, "Oral Birth Stories."

But once again, despite her great care in showing the differences in these oral birth stories - including the different ways she tells her own birth story to different audiences - she stops just short of analysis. For example, in the story of a Japanese woman named Keiko, an undergraduate in Women's Studies who had married an English man, Coslett found an "unexpected moral": "Childbirth taught her to accept her own vulnerability and helplessness, and tempered her previous individualism" (162). Since Keiko's story is closest to my own - she learned, as I did, that one is not enough - her views of childbirth should not be ascribed to cultural difference. Coslett doesn't make such a claim; however, she does conclude that Keiko's story "fits in with the psychological theories of Jean Baker Miller and Nancy Chodorow" (164), whereas I would argue that Keiko's insight actually subverts these theorists, especially Chodorow, who does not move us beyond a Freudian formulation that silences the mother. Furthermore, such an Oedipal formulation, focusing as it does on the pre-Oedipal unity of mother and child, ignores the dialogic nature of childbirth - the fact, for example, that the mother cannot, alone, describe the birth. Coslett might have taken a more critical stance toward Chodorow had she examined a wider range of theorists, including, for example, Jessica Benjamin and Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi. Nevertheless, Coslett's book fulfills its stated objective, to "undermine the totalising effect of the official discourses" (6), and many readers - from the social sciences, medicine, and Women's Studies - will find Women writing childbirth an excellent book.
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Author:Daly, Brenda
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1997
Words:1791
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