Labor’s Pains

Photo by Deborah Feingold

It‘s been 11 years since The Beauty Myth articulated the outrageous contortions women put themselves through to conform to some idealized version of themselves. Since that best-selling, critically acclaimed work, author Naomi Wolf has taken on politics and female empowerment in Fire With Fire and adolescence and female sexuality in Promiscuities. She also served as consultant to Al Gore during the most recent presidential elections. In her new book, Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood, she chronicles the pain and disillusionment that surrounded the birth of the first of her two children. She extends her work to lambaste the birthing industry overall, for its overreliance on high-tech equipment and C-sections and for its obsession with high profits and avoidance of malpractice suits, at the expense of the well-being of mothers or their newborns. Wolf spoke with the Weekly recently from her home in New York City.


L.A. WEEKLY: I myself as well as many of my friends have been through pregnancy and birth, but we all had a very different experience from the one you describe in your book. I was trying to figure out why, and I think it goes something like this. My friends and I — and bear with me on this — we take responsibility for our own orgasms. We don’t expect to lie back and enjoy it. We wouldn’t and we couldn’t. And we didn’t expect our pregnancies to be that way. We took active, even aggressive roles in seeking the best possible care from the moment we went to our first prenatal visit, to birthing classes, lactation consultants and doulas. We picked the things we liked, rejected the things we didn’t. Not to say that everything was perfect, but generally speaking, most of the women I know were pretty satisfied with their experiences. That was not the case with you or the women whom you interviewed for your book.

NAOMI WOLF: You live in L.A., right? Birth cultures are different in different parts of the world. You are in one of about three tiny little pods of enlightened, empowered birth culture. The midwifery model has made an impact in small pockets, notably in your area and up in Berkeley. I think the difference is geographic. And what I’m talking about is the mainstream, dominant culture, and what you are fortunate to have experienced was the kind of good, empowered choices that were available to you. One hospital in Manhattan has been changed by the midwifery challenge. But it has been a minority transformation of the culture. You guys are at the cutting edge.

Well, I know from writing about women in poverty that those without health insurance or those who speak English as a second language, if at all, have a much harder time getting access to decent prenatal and birthing care. But what surprised me was that your experience, as a person who does not have to deal with those kinds of hardships, was so terrible.

Believe me, it surprised me too. I grew up in San Francisco. The last thing I expected was that I would have trouble being an empowered self-directed consumer of medical services. I’m a feminist researcher by profession. If it could happen to me, with my repeated questioning and my access to materials and my general background in women’s health, it could happen to anyone. I certainly didn’t expect to find that the birthing industry has adapted to sucker empowered people like me in certain parts of the world. There’s a new kind of façade or cosmetic face of the birthing industry that has come about in order to market itself to empowered, enlightened consumers who want to have an alternative birth experience. And yet the machinery behind that face is the same old profit-driven, not-women-centered crap it’s always been.


Still, I found it hard to believe that someone with a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves on her bookshelf would have that kind of experience, would not just say this is ridiculous, and refuse to stand for it.

Well, I left one obstetrical practice because they were treating me in an insulting way. I was being a feminist. I found a midwifery practice. They treated me beautifully. They respected me. They answered my questions. I found a birthing room. I found everything I was looking for for my birth. I went into labor thinking, “I am with my midwife. I’m going to be in a birthing center. I’m with my husband. I know what I want.” I couldn’t know, because there was no way to know, that in fact the midwives didn’t even have admitting privileges. And it takes a very sophisticated insight into the politics of the birthing industry to ask a question as specific as who has admitting privileges at this hospital. So I thought I was choosing one thing for myself, taking full responsibility for myself, and discovered to my horror that I was experiencing something completely different, and there was literally no way to know in advance.


Talking to people who work at hospitals that serve a mostly poor clientele, just knowing what their birth experiences are like, it really magnifies and takes to the hundredth degree what you’re talking about in your book. These are places where it’s nearly impossible to get an epidural, where labors are induced unnecessarily, where labor and delivery and recovery are all in separate rooms. There is very little respect for the woman and her birth experience. It’s all about processing. When I read your book, those stories kept coming to mind. That, to me, is where the problem really lies.

It deserves another book and it deserves much more in-depth scrutiny. I see that as part of the whole scandal of underserving communities of color and poor communities in this country in terms of health care. To me that’s more the story of what it means to not have a decent health system in this country.


But that was something I wondered about with your book. The problems of inadequate health care and the infantilization of the patient are not limited to pregnant women. The health-care industry as a whole is in crisis. The sad reality is, generally speaking, it’s difficult to get good care. People are treated badly across the board. You must be aware of that.

Yes, of course, I am. But I want to challenge what I think I hear to be some assumptions behind the last two questions you put to me. Whenever there is a feminist insistence on taking some suffering which women have seriously, a frequent thing that happens — and I don’t think it’s generally conscious — is that people tend to ask, “Well, aren’t there worse things that happen?” And of course there are worse things that happen. Are women giving birth in hospitals having traumatic birth experiences the worst thing? Especially at a time like this? No. Obviously it’s not at the top of the hierarchy of needs. Do women in poverty deserve a vast amount of attention directed at improving the services available to them? Absolutely, no question at all. But at the same time I really don’t believe that attention to the suffering women have should be limited to just the most crucial or awful issues. I really don’t. I still do believe it is also legitimate for a woman who’s had a bad experience that was unnecessary, a surgery that was unnecessary, post-partum depression — that’s all suffering that I insist on taking seriously as well. I don’t believe that our attention to what could make the world better for women should be limited.


Naomi Wolf appears at L.A.’s Central Library on Tuesday, November 13, at 7 p.m. For reservations, call (213) 228-7025.



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