It would be a lie – or at least an incomplete truth – to deny that part of me longed for natural childbirth as a threshold of redemption. I had never fully treated my body as an ally. I had starved myself to reduce it and for years I drank myself to blackout and various other dangers. Pregnancy already felt like a more liberating chapter in this charged mind-body relationship: I cared for another little body in my own body! Everything my body ate nourished hers. All the blood pumping through my heart flowed through hers. Bringing her into the world would not only be the culmination of her nine-month incubation period, but would also be a refutation of all the ways I’ve abused or punished my body over the years, all the ways I treated it like a burden rather than of as an employee. My mind resisted this logic, but I could feel its pull—on a visceral, cellular, hormonal level.
“Silent Knife: Cesarean Prevention & Vaginal Birth After Cesarean,” an influential anti-cesarean section manifesto published by writers Nancy Wainer Cohen and Lois Estner in 1983, emphasizes that what it calls a “pure birth” is “not a cry or demand for perfection.” ”, although the definition ends up sounding a bit… demanding: “Birth that is completely free of medical intervention. It is self-determined, self-assured and self-sufficient.” The unspoken tension of the entire book is also the unspoken tension embedded in the wider resistance to C-sections: between recognizing the trauma of a C-section and amplifying or creating that trauma by inserting the C-section. lists as a compromised or lesser birth. A section called “Voices of the Victims” quotes women traumatized by their cesarean section: “I felt like I was being raped,” says one woman. “I couldn’t do anything but wait for it to be over.” One father says: “A c-sec is one of the worst mutilations a woman can commit, as well as a denial of a woman’s fundamental right to undergo childbirth.”
Inspired by Ina May Gaskin’s famous statement that “you can restore the body by working on the mind”, Cohen and Estner argue that our wombs are full of “unprocessed tensions or fears” that hinder the birth process, but that they can become swept away by self-consciousness to ‘clear a passageway for normal birth’. The implication is that, conversely, emotional baggage can be blamed for a cesarean section. When I read the book 38 years after it was written, I immediately rejected this idea. But another part of me—the part that had been conditioned all my life to feel responsible for impossible ideals of motherhood—was not immune to this magical thinking. I had secretly indulged in my own favorite theories about the possible psychological causes of my cesarean delivery: my eating disorder, my abortion, my maternal ambivalence. Had I abused my body so much that it refused to give birth naturally in retaliation? Was I more attached to the idea of being a mother than prepared for the reality of being a mother? Was my labor stalled—when my baby’s heart rate dropped—a sign of this unconscious reluctance?
If “Silent Knife” was written to restore agency to women by pushing back against the tyrannical paternalism of caesarean sections, then there is another tyranny embedded in the apparent restoration of agency, a tyranny that continues today: a script of self-control that can become another straitjacket, a new repetition of the claustrophobic maternal ideals. Showing condolences to a woman who feels like an inadequate mother for not giving birth “naturally” can easily imply that she should feel that way. Many of the ideas ‘Silent Knife’ made explicit years ago are still deep forces shaping childbirth today, even if people are less likely to confess them: the idea that C-section birth is less ‘real’, that it’s may imply a lack of willpower or a lack of mind.
Motherhood is instinctive, but it is also inherited: a set of circulating ideals that we encounter and absorb. The fact that we are constantly shaped by external models of an internal impulse makes women intensely vulnerable to stories of “good” or “real” motherhood, and all the more prone to feeling abuse or exclusion from them. A woman’s right to express her preferences during the birth process is increasingly prioritized, and rightly so, but it’s easy to fetishize these preferences as the ultimate proof of female empowerment, when of course they are also shaped by societal forces. It is kind of a partial view to cancel a woman’s desire for natural birth as a sign of uncontaminated feminine agency, when that desire is shaped by all the voices that glorify natural birth as the consummation of a woman’s feminine identity.
as my daughter has grown from newborn to toddler, i have daydreamed about getting a tattoo on my tummy scar. There are entire Pinterest boards full of C-section scar tattoos and Instagram hashtags devoted to it (#csectionscarsarebeautiful): angel wings, diamonds, draping pearls, guns blazing. Ganesh, the remover of obstacles. A blue rose unfolds in italics: “Imperfection is beautiful.” Bolder Gothic script: “MAN’S RUIN.” A “Star Wars” scene of two blunt fighters approaching the Death Star. A zipper that is partially unzipped to reveal an eye lurking. Scissors stood ready to cut along a dotted line, inked next to the scar itself. A trompe l’oeil of a paper clip piercing the skin, as if holding the abdomen together over the line of its fracture. My favorites are those where the scar is intentionally incorporated into the design itself. A low crosscut becomes the backbone of a feather or a branch full of cherry blossoms. These tattoos don’t try to hide the scar from view, but instead put it to work as part of a bigger vision. I started imagining a row of songbirds on a thread on my skin.
The fantasy of this tattoo was part of a deeper reckoning with whether I want to tell the birth – to myself, to others – as miraculous, traumatic or just banal, an everyday necessity. About the time I started considering a tattoo, I read a memoir by an Oregon writer named Roanna Rosewood called “Cut, Stapled and Mended: When One Woman Reclaimed Her Body and Beval on Her Own Conditions After Cesarean.” My inner Sontag (“Sickness is not a metaphor!”) quivered with a mother’s approval on the front cover: “I blamed my midwife for not progressing, but secretly knew I was; my lack of confidence led to my to fail.” While I resented what I interpreted as the book’s veneration of vaginal birth as the only “true” kind, I could admit – if I was honest with myself – that my resistance also stemmed from a fear that I was an extraordinarily powerful When I read Rosewood’s statement that a “clean and passive birth is like a powerful birth in the same way a yearly exam is like lovemaking”, I felt profoundly foolish – as if I understood my daughter’s birth as the most powerful The experience of my life (which I did) was somehow like mistaking a Pap smear for an orgasm.