I was scrolling through Twitter one day, and I scrolled by a tweet that immediately got my attention. The user @layzchipz posted a tweet that stated, “still can’t get over the fact that men sexualized birth.. and had women change from squatting to laying on their backs which is way more painful.” Wait, what? What do you mean that giving birth was sexualized by men?
If you’re a little shocked right now, you are not alone. The comments were filled with people like me who had never heard anything about this whatsoever. And if you are like me, you probably want to know more about this immediately.
So, let’s talk about it!
In Western culture, it is a common medical practice to have women give birth in various positions that have them lying on their backs while reclining slightly. These positions are called recumbent and semi-recumbent positions. There is the supine position where you are lying on your back, and the bed is angled, so you are sitting at about a 45-degree angle.
There is the lithotomy position, which has you lying back in the supine position with your thighs flexed and your legs in stirrups. There is also the lateral position where you give birth while lying on your side.
We have all seen the portrayals of supine positions in movies and television. You also may have learned about these positions in birthing classes, read about it in books about pregnancy, or have firsthand experience. Our current way of perceiving childbirth is significantly shaped by all this rhetoric and material.
This makes it hard to imagine that child birthing has ever been anything besides a woman lying on their backs on a hospital bed with their legs being held up while someone holds their hand, and a doctor keeps telling them when to push.
Due to this image that I had in my head of childbirth and the dominance of this birthing position, I always assumed that giving birth lying back was simply just the best position.
However, it turns out that may not be the case or the exact reason why women give birth this way.
It is upsetting (even possibly infuriating depending on how you see it) to know that the reason lying back during labor grew in popularity and became common practice for reasons that were not based solely on women’s experiences while birthing.
Shouldn’t birthing practices be about what is best for the health of the woman and child? Shouldn’t childbirth also reflect the wants, the needs, comfort, and safety of the person doing the birthing? I certainly think so!
Early records and depictions of labor actually illustrate women not on their backs. It depicts them standing, kneeling, and squatting. There were even birthing chairs, stools, and hammocks that women would sit in during labor. Also, birthing was typically overseen by a team of midwives as a man seeing a women’s exposed body was unconsidered indecent in many cultures. It was not until male surgeons and doctors got in followed that things started changing.
Are we surprised?
Male doctors were often called in to assist with pregnancies that were likely to involve complications or mortality. In 1598, the French surgeon Jacques Guillemeau first advocated for a reclining birthing bed supposedly for labor and for comfort. However, this bed would not have women lie back completely.
Mauriceau believed that a horizontal position would be more “comfortable” for the woman and more “convenient” for those assisting with the birth. Mauriceau also viewed pregnancy as more of an illness rather than a natural experience, which was a common perspective shared by male doctors before and during this period of time.
The concept of pregnancy became seen as abnormal and something that needed treatment. This mentality and way of thinking contributed to a shift in birthing care and conditions from midwives to doctors in Western culture.
Mauriceau even referred to pregnancy as a “tumor of the Belly.” A woman carries their child for nine months and you want to call it a tumor of the belly, really? This analogy does not sound right to me.
In addition to Mauriceau, male doctors replacing the role of midwives, and treating pregnancy like some sort of disease, scholars also talk about King Louis XIV’s involvement in the popularity of reclining in the supine positions during birthing, which we discussed above.
Here’s where things get creepy…
King Louis XIV apparently enjoyed watching women giving birth. I highly doubt his reasons for watching childbirth were strictly for scientific purposes. King Louis claimed the birthing stool blocked his view and prevented him from being able to see the birth. So, therefore, he insisted that women should be lying back while giving birth.
His lack of expertise in obstetrics and gynecology makes me pretty sure that he had no right or qualifications to this suggestion as his version of the supine position most likely did not provide any form of elevation like it does today. It has been reported that lying back completely during childbirth can be quite uncomfortable and difficult for many women.
Upright positions, such as standing, sitting, and squatting, during childbirth have been reported to have the advantage of gravity. These also help the baby move down the pelvis and increase the size of the pelvis.
Despite the odd way that laying back during childbirth came to be popular, it does not mean that laying back during pregnancy is wrong or should be judged. The recumbent positions are preferred and used by doctors and caregivers because it still remains convenient for doctors to monitor your baby during labor.
I, myself, had just never realized the origins of the reclining birthing or encountered the benefits of other birthing positions.
When it comes to pregnancy and childbirth, there are many factors to consider. This can include your location, the epidural, your body, and the caregiver. Ultimately, pregnancy is a personal journey. Those giving birth have the right to decide what is best, comfortable, and healthy for their own experience.
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