Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Eve's Labor Pains

Eve deceived Adam and seduced him. Their joint punishment was mortality and a lifetime of work for sustenance. Eve, the instigator, received an extra special punishment -- the pain of childbirth.

Now we all know the Old Testament God, even Milton's God, was something of a hard-ass. But labor pain as punishment? Mere pain seems like petty payback, even for God. (Why, then, did he create Eve with the higher pain tolerance?) Could it be that the real punishment here was not a simple pain, but nine months of marginalization, followed by hours of intense pain and exhaustion, followed by a lifetime of living under the male gaze that sees motherhood as paradoxically both weak and strong, yet definitely as something in the way? This is a much harsher punishment than a few hours of bodily discomfort. But by guaranteeing those few precious, torturous hours, God found a way to put Eve on her guard, to doubt her own strength, to bind her with the double doubt of her very ability to give birth, all this putting her in a position even farther below Adam than she had been in her original "innocence." And Adam, after watching Eve's soft belly deform, after hearing her screams of anguish, after finding her crouched in a warm place with a bloody, blue infant, would certainly never again look at his wife the way he did in that field where they had romped on the day of the fall. Perhaps that is the punishment God intended.

"If a woman views herself as weak, she does not create the image of herself necessary to give birth, for labor is hard work. If a woman views womanhood as strong, but only as long as womanhood does not include childbearing, she is equally in conflict..." -- Gayle H. Peterson, Birthing Normally

Woman's struggle for some kind of equality has led women to separate from themselves what is most feminine -- labor and birth. We must instead recognize the power that labor and birth give us (actual and potential power, for some women may for good reason choose not to have children). The ability to give birth "is a power and strength unique to women alone, and without reference of experience for men [...] out of this evidence comes the recognized birth envy." Peterson's book is the first time I have come across the concept of birth envy, and I was angered and excited by it. It seems like the likely counterpart to Freud's penis envy -- only no one talks about it in those terms. What if birth envy, as Peterson suggests, is the very reason man sought to come up with something for woman to envy back? Such a strong envy of such a fundamental property of womanhood seems a likely trigger for an extreme reaction from men (though still no good excuse for millennia of kicking us around).

Eventually Adam would partially resolve his birth envy by taking charge of the management and procedures of pregnancy, labor, and birth (and even child rearing). Since the Enlightenment rained down its blessings of knowledge, men have scientifically and systematically dealt with their lack by turning the thing to be envied into a thing to be pitied. Pregnancy is a burden, a disability, a vulnerable state, a pitiable malady. Birth is a medical emergency requiring the attendance of a physician, nurses, and myriad life-saving machines and intravenous drips. Through their pity, through their role as savior from the pitiable condition, men bring pregnancy and birth into the realm of male experience.

Where's Mom?

Women have internalized the male attitudes about pregnancy and birth perhaps even more deeply than we have internalized that we are physically inferior, less intelligent, or more emotionally fragile than men. Fortunately feminists of all kinds have stood up against these latter attitudes, striving and creating and keeping it together all at once to show that we are equal in strength, intelligence, discipline, logic. But a woman often arrives at this place of confidence and "equality" by removing the most basically feminine quality from her concept of womanhood. There is room in her picture for climbing corporate ladders, participating in contact sports, or earning doctoral degrees. But none of these things would be possible, she thinks, if she were to give birth.

Feminists of the sort I just described cannot be blamed for arriving at such a flawed picture of womanhood. After three waves (or more?) of modern feminism women do more, say more, write more, take more degrees, and make more money, than ever before. However, the reality of babies as career killers, education killers, even self-definition killers, is still, well, somewhat real. This is no fault of the women who do embrace motherhood and attempt to make a life for themselves wherein that role is only part of the picture.

A junky for literature on "alternative" women's health (don't even get me started on breastfeeding...), I was reading Peterson's birth book when I came across an online article about how mothers simply cannot expect to succeed in academia. The actual act of popping out babies (which Birthing Normally goes into in great detail, with pictures even!) may not seem directly related to a woman's career success, but everything I've been writing here, everything I've been reading in Peterson about attitudes and beliefs, how they affect our ability to succeed at giving birth... well all of this also affects our ability to succeed at life. The author of this article is of the belief that she cannot succeed (read: get tenured) because she is a mother. This is a manifestation of Eve's punishment. As I mentioned above, it would not be enough to rob Eve (or the article writer) of a joyous birth experience. Many of us, denied of such an experience, eventually work through that denial when we see our children grow. The punishment would be only temporary. Eve and her daughters are instead robbed of the hope of attaining a joyous life. Now I do not say here that Eve is robbed of the joyous life itself, but of her hope for it. This is where attitudes, acculturation, bad advice, past experience, the support of loved ones, all come into crucial play. The PhD who wrote the article telling us we can't "have it all" was writing from what she sees in the world. But is what she sees -- her anecdotal evidence of denied tenures and abandoned careers -- really playing out that way because mothers are incapable, or even because men (and childless women) think we are incapable? I think the attitudes of those denying the tenure may sometimes be misguided, but I think any woman who accepts that "that is the way it is," is complicit in her own failure.

There were some statistics in the article as well, but the author used them as prescriptive rather than descriptive. "Look, this chart shows you wont get hired. That's the way they have to do things at the universities." An interesting and somewhat positive statistic was given for men -- having children, even several children, seemed to boost their chances at tenure. The relationship of "kids to tenure" was completely inverted, with women raising more than one child at the bottom of the heap. Men who have children are stable, not a flight risk, probably good teachers. Women who have children? Well, they've just got too much on their minds. How are they going to manage all that?

Some of these statistics must have to do with personal priorities and not just snotty committees. It is likely that a mother may have put some lofty academic goals on hold to enjoy her children. She may be set back several years simply because she has spent that much time not giving herself over completely to her "driven" side (as if raising kids doesn't take drive!). But beyond her small setback due to time alone (less articles published, less conferences attended, etc.), the fact that her body has done something miraculous should not cause her to expect to fail miserably once her time for promotion or advancement does come. She can and should be judged on her merits as a scholar and a professor, not on her familial or marital status. I fully understand why committees have to know these family facts about women (and men) and even use them to weigh a decision. But I'm willing to bet they are keen on attitudes as well as petty demographics.

The saddest part about the "evidence" in this article is that academia, especially once tenure is achieved, seems like a career so well suited to raising children. Summers off with them, the occasional opportunity to travel away from them, an exciting and interesting environment for growing up, and decent pay. The article writer could not recall any such success stories she knew of. I knew one personally. Two children, both born while she was teaching, one before tenure, one right after. She had had a late start at a state school, a miscarriage that set her back shortly after she began teaching, and even lost a job during that rough period. Her resilience, her image of herself as a both a mother and a teacher, and her amazing work as a scholar are all a great inspiration to me. The clincher? Her husband is also a professor, and she has the better job. The article writer was very concerned about women's possible job loss due to brilliant professor-husbands' job offers snatching us away from our incipient careers. I guess she never read about Sandra Gilbert, whose brilliant husband did have the better job, who had three children she left at home with him, and who "commuted" between Indiana and California to keep her position. Nor has she heard of Sandra's friend Susan Gubar, a scholar and single mother who stood in to read a paper for Sandra at a CUNY conference, while breastmilk soaked the front of her blouse. (Their writing on motherhood sustains me!)

So there is no reason for anyone, especially an educated women, to go around writing articles discouraging mothers from doing what they know they can do best. Seriously, what a bitch.

Again, the connection between the "no tenure for you" article and the birthing book might not be so obvious if you've got a penis (which I don't envy by the way -- there are better things to envy in masculinity), but I hope I have made some sense of why reading these things within days of each other set off a reaction in me! (Illogical, I know. Just like a mother.)

If I am accepted to a doctoral program for Fall 2012, I will be about thirty-four years old* when I finish that degree and start my career, hobbling off as it might in the form of adjunct or temporary this or that. This delay (and any subsequent delay) does not affect my attitude about my ability to succeed in academia. Nor does my motherhood, even if it is the main cause of the delay. Now if I can join the pity party for a moment, I pity the mothers who allow negative attitudes (both their own attitudes and the attitudes of others) to dictate not only their birth experiences, but their entire life trajectories. The Eves of the past have suffered enough for all of us, and I think it's about time we cast off that eternal sentence of "pain in childbirth" and all its trappings and potentially pitiable life outcomes, and told the whole chorus of patriarchs (some of whom are in female form) where they can shove it.

*As for my late start, I look pretty young... no one would take me seriously if I didn't wait till thirty-four to introduce myself as "Doctor"!


  1. I like this. And even though I don't have any kids yet (as you know)I agree that mothers have a hard time because of certain other mothers that allow their children to keep them from doing the things they love, or use them as an excuse for not doing things they want to. I guess its easier to tell people you don't have time to better yourself than admitting that you just don't want to.

  2. Even if they want to succeed, I think some women have internalized the victim mentality, which is no more helpful in earning a promotion than it is in delivering a baby!

    I hoped this came off semi-entertaining (and not blindly angry) even though my message is a serious one. You know I'm not a man hater (hence my own envy of their less obvious parts).

  3. When a woman psychs herself out and stalls in labor they call it uterine inertia. Funny there is also a term "career inertia."


I publish all the comments, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unless I have no idea what you're saying. If you want to email me (with only good I hope), I'm at rbyrd [at] niu [dot] edu.