The body-being-born: how women conceptualise and experience the moment of birth

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbili...

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbilical cord has not yet been cut. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although there is a large body of literature about labour and childbirth in the social sciences, surprising few researchers have sought to investigate women’s experiences of the moment of birth.

Virginia Schmied and I recently published an article in the Sociology of Health & Illness that drew on interview data with Australian women who had recently given birth. We asked women to recount their birth stories to us, and the data that eventuated gave interesting insights into women’s perceptions and experiences of what we call ‘the body-being-born’. We use this term to refer to the foetus/infant, an ambiguous body at the moment of birth because it is not quite inside but not quite outside the maternal body. When inside the maternal body, this body is technically a foetus; once expelled from the maternal body, it is called an infant. But in the process of vaginal labour and birth itself, when the body-being-born is passing through the cervix, parts of this body (most commonly its head) slip inside and outside the maternal body, moving back and forth as the woman works to deliver the body.

This stage of labour, therefore, is a highly liminal one, involving the two-in-one foetal/maternal body in the process of individuating to become two separate bodies over a period of time.  Women who gave birth vaginally without anaesthetic often described this process as a ‘splitting’ of their bodies, a sensation of their bodies ‘opening to the world’ over which they had no control.

We found that most of the women we interviewed struggled to conceptualise this process, as it was so foreign to their embodied experiences. They also needed to take some time following the birth to come to terms with the idea that the foetus was now ‘my baby’: a body/self that was physically separate from their own, now foreign and strange as it was outside their bodies. As one of our interviewees put it:

The midwife handed her straight to me and I held her, but I had held her for a while, I just was — it was like looking at her and wondering ‘Where did this baby came from?’ You know, despite what I’d gone through, it was hard to associate that she was actually mine and she was out of my stomach … Even holding her for the first few minutes — just, it wasn’t like she was mine, my kid, which is weird …when you think of what you went through, it was really quite strange.

This is a time in which women have to deal physically and emotionally with the disrupted boundaries of their bodies, the significant distortion and opening that has occurred with the birth and the splitting of body/self. There is a sense of disbelief, of wonder that this amazing, unique and strange process has happened to them.

An important finding from our study was that women who had undergone a caesarean section had even greater difficulties coming to terms emotionally and conceptually with the notion that their infant was now separate from them; that they had, indeed, ‘had a baby’. Because they did not undergo the physical rigours and often intense pain of prolonged labour and the experience of actually expelling the body-being-born from their own bodies, and because their bodies were numbed to surgically deliver, women who had had a caesarean took longer to accept the fact that the infant was now out of their bodies. They talked about feeling alienated from their infants and struggling to come to terms that it was actually ‘my baby’. In the words of another of our interviewees:

It was very hard to think that she was my daughter after she was born, because I had a caesarean under general anaesthetic and all of a sudden I’m not pregnant any more. And I wake up a few hours later and you’re presented with a baby. You think, ‘Oh, why isn’t this, why aren’t I feeling any kicks in my abdomen anymore?’ — you know. And there’s the baby and it’s very hard to relate to it.

Virginia and I conclude our article by arguing that the circumstances in which women give birth are pivotal to how they experience the process of coming to terms with the body that was once inside them emerging to the outside. Our findings suggest that health professionals and attendants working with women in labour and childbirth need to allow not only for the physical and the emotional but also the ontological dimensions of how a woman experiences both her own body and that of the body-being-born, and the significant difference that undergoing a caesarean section can make to the woman being able to achieve the transition from two bodies in one to two separate bodies successfully.

My two new books on unborn humans

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Last month both my new books on the topic of the unborn (human embryos and foetuses) were published. One is an authored book, part of the Palgrave Pivot series, entitled The Social Worlds of the Unborn. The other, The Unborn Human, is an open access book that I edited as part of the Living Books about Life series published by the Open Humanities Press.

Both books deal with very similar issues and theoretical perspectives, and therefore complement each other nicely. The Social Worlds of the Unborn has five substantive chapters. The first chapter examines what I call ‘contingencies of the unborn’, drawing on sociological, anthropological, bioethical, philosophical and historical perspectives to highlight the dynamic nature of the ways we think about foetuses and embryos and the debates over the extent of their humanness and personhood. I then go on in the next chapter to discuss technologies for visualising the unborn, such as foetal photography and computer imaging and obstetric ultrasound. These have been particularly important technologies in opening up the uterus to the gaze so that we can see the previously mysterious entities that inhabit this space. I argue that visualising technologies have worked to represent unborn entities as already persons in their own right, autonomous from the maternal body, and indeed as already infants. These images also represent the unborn as beautiful, fragile and vulnerable entities requiring our utmost love and protection, and thus are powerful agents in anti-abortion politics.

In the third chapter of this book I focus on pregnant women’s perspectives on the unborn entities growing within their own bodies. I highlight the ambivalence that pregnant women often feel about this Other body inhabiting their own, as well as their difficulty in coming to terms with their ‘two-in-one’ bodies that depart so radically from the contained, unitary bodily norm. The concept of the ‘good mother’ often precludes acknowledgement that pregnant women may sometimes feel as if their unborn is antagonistic and even parasitic. Yet these feelings are not uncommon in pregnant women, in addition to the more culturally accepted notions of the unborn as precious proto-infants.

The next chapter goes on to examine the dead unborn, including discussion of abortion practices, policies and politics, decisions about the disposal of surplus IVF embryos and the mourning and memorialisation of unborn entities lost in miscarriage or stillbirth. It also looks at bioscientific definitions of the unborn and how working practices in the medical clinic or stem cell laboratory operate to deal with using matter from dead unborn entities. Here again issues concerning judgements about the humanness and status of personhood of various unborn entities are to the fore. I demonstrated that the context in which these entities are created and grow (or fail to develop) is vital to concepts of their value and vitality.

The final substantive chapter examines the concept of the endangered unborn, particularly in relation to how pregnant women are represented as posing a threat to their unborn through ignorance or deliberate negligence. I argue that the increasing humanisation and personalising of the unborn and their representation as precious, vulnerable and as already infants with full human privileges work to position them as more important than the women who bear them, who increasingly as positioned as vessels rather than as individuals with their own rights and needs that may differ from those of their unborn.

The edited book, The Unborn Human, takes up many of these issues. I review the contents of the book in my Introduction (‘Conceptualising and configuring the unborn human‘), showing how each item in the collection contributes to various ways of thinking about, treating, representing, creating or destroying unborn entities. Like the other books in the Living Books about Life series, The Unborn Human is a curated collection of material that is available as open access publications. Some of this material can be viewed via links to the website embedded in the book, while others can be directly accessed under the Creative Commons Attribution licence. This means that all of the articles and other materials included in the book, which range from historical documents to scientific, medical, bioethical, policy, sociological, anthropological and cultural studies articles as well as social and other digital media material such as websites, blog posts and YouTube videos, can be accessed for free (including my introduction using the link supplied above).