As I sat (read: stood at the back with a rascal of a toddler) watching my eldest’s nativity, I was torn. I couldn’t help but beam at his angelic face, brimming with enthusiasm for the songs. You could taste the pride flowing around the room, smell the nostalgia in the air. It seems like a rite of passage into established parenthood I guess- the first nativity.
BUT something was creeping into me, taking over me- not like a possession. I mean it was in a church, and I am a committed atheist, but I don’t think that’s how it works.
See, I’m an antenatal educator. A woman who knows, sees, feels, gives the middle finger to the impact of the patriarchy on birth culture EVERY SINGLE DAY.
“What are you on about, Kezza? Birth is a woman’s world, right? It must be…”
NOT. SO. MUCH. I could go with any of a hundred angles here, but this was the most obvious one that came to mind.
Have you ever wondered why so many women give birth on a bed , on their backs, even though it makes so little sense? Even though it’s clear that for the majority of women, upright and mobile labour has significant benefits- she is likely to be more comfortable, it could even make labour more efficient, it certainly provides an easier route for baby, AND importantly, (and this one isn’t ‘proven’ but I know it to be true) she is more able to feel in control of this experience. In terms of how she feels afterwards, I consider this sense of ‘doing’, rather than being ‘done to’ crucial.
So how should she be positioned? Well there’s no blanket right answer, except to listen to her body, but sensible, instinctive options are bouncing on a ball, all fours, or squatting.
SQUATTING. Not very ladylike. And there is the problem.
And so after thousands of years of women knowing that such postures were birthing winners, it’s said that King Louis IVX of France wanted to see a baby being born. There was no way he was laying underneath his mistress awaiting a deluge, and so he had her positioned on a bed in front of him where he could observe the whole thing from the comfort of his throne. Ok maybe he wasn’t on a throne, but if he was, it would paint a pretty accurate picture of the sociology going on here.
“Never mind that you’re getting a human being out of your body love, and you’d fare better moving around, I’d like you to do it on the bed where I have a nice view. Someone bring me a goblet of wine. Can you keep it down a bit? Cheers.”
And so, it’s said that women of the court heard about this, and presumed it was a more civilised, sophisticated way to birth, unlike those nasty peasants who had abandoned their airs and graces. Enter the age of birth on a bed, on her back.
I mean, it’s utterly ludicrous- you see that, right? It’s like asking a baby to learn to walk by doing so up a slime coated hill while people throw things at him from the top.
Of course, this was also massively influenced by the medicalisation of childbirth, but if I explore every factor, I’m gonna lose you. Don’t worry- the key here is that they all link back to that night in Bethlehem.
There was a time, before the Angel Gabriel brought the good news, that birth was a celebrated rite. Not just the arrival of new life, but an acknowledgement of the power of a woman. A moment to notice how entirely fucking brilliant it is that she can create a new person, and that it emerges from her body. Women would labour in temples, dancing and swaying, singing and supported (I’m not saying THIS is what we should all do by the way…).
Men and women were different, but EQUAL. Now I guess I can’t pin the whole of the patriarchy on baby Jesus- of course Adam and Eve got things off to a good start a long time beforehand. You know the root cause of your inevitable agony (*coughs*) in birth can all be traced back to Eve and her apple lust, right? She just couldn’t resist that apple, and we are all paying the ongoing price in childbirth, as is the will of God. Seriously though- we can disregard this stuff, we can deconstruct it and see it for what it is- a convenient perspective for power hungry men looking to assert their superiority, and crush the unbelievable, somewhat mystical spirit of a woman, a mother. She could do something they could not- better associate it with wrongdoing, filth, guilt so she stops being so proud of herself.
We process biblical writings with a pinch of objective salt, but that’s not always been the case. There were many, many years where people like you and me could only rely on the translations of the priests, and under the thumb of their musings and decision making. Who was worth of medical help? Not these dirty women, committers of carnal sin. Leave them to it, lest we feel the wrath of God for interfering with his will.
As above really, there are so many ways in which women have been oppressed by Christianity- wanna be a priest? A Bishop? A Pope? ARE YOU MAD? HOW DARE YOU consider yourself worthy? Show us your penis, then we’ll talk…
Let’s not even get started on witch hunting.
Other monotheistic religions probably have their own versions of mansplained, oppressive norms, but I went to Catholic schools, my son is doing a Nativity, so this is my zone of experience.
Have you ever wondered why there are SO MANY MEN in the nativity story? Particularly the 3 kings, or wise men. Because any woman who has had a baby will tell you that what she really needed soon afterwards was a few privileged chaps and their ideas to pop in.
Have you ever noticed that God planted this baby within Mary, and so she gets no credit for her part in creating life? I mean I’m rusty on some of this, but I recall her positioned as a simple vessel. Isn’t that often how we are treated today, throughout our pregnancies?
And why would you lay your new baby in the place the animals eat from? Wouldn’t you be even a BIT concerned about the chance of them accidentally biting or suffocating him?? Ok that one has nothing to do with the topic really, but I can’t let it go. I don’t see a woman coming up with this plan.
Ok, I’m about done. I’m sure there’s more to say, I’m sure I could have tied this whole thing together more neatly, but if I wait until I have time and space to think more about this, it will be New Year and no one will be interested in this title any more.
Let me wrap up by asking you, next time you gaze upon a Nativity scene, to reflect on some of this. To ask yourself- how did we give our power away? We didn’t come from their ribs, they came from our wombs. We perform miracles every day. Why should we be afraid?
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