The active and the passive

Active Birth got big in the 70s and 80s. And stayed big. It means upright positions in labour, breathing, low-tech, low intervention birth. It might mean homebirth, or a midwife-led unit. It might infer a bit of a battle with the medics, sometimes. It is the domain of the herbal-tea drinking, extended breastfeeding, middle classes, whose mothers burned bras and fought for equal pay.

Active Birth has an image. It has a meaning, a reason. There is a sense of being an activist.

And if you’re not doing Active Birth classes, what *are* you doing? OK, you might be doing NCT, NHS. You might be finding a private antenatal educator. You might not be doing anything.

But the question is, if these things aren’t teaching Active Birth, does that mean they’re passive? Because the sense of going into birth being passive, rather than active, is a bit scary to me.

Between many pairs of opposites, there’s a middle ground, a shade of grey – the opposites sit at either end of a continuum. But that just doesn’t happen with ‘active’ or ‘passive’ – there can be no shade of grey where you’re doing something a little bit but not very much – because then you’re still active, aren’t you. And if you’re not doing something – be that deliberately or not – then you’re passive.

And so so so many women, and their partners, go into the birth being passive – because somehow being seen to be active is confrontational, or muesli-crunching, or hippy, or, even setting oneself up for failure.

Elsewhere in life, though, passive is just not OK. Many writers on normal birth compare birth with sex over and over again. Would a woman who happily goes into birth so passively be prepared, say, to put up with a ‘passive sex life’? This is the intelligent, well informed woman who has been brought up on More!’s ‘position of the fortnight’, leading seamlessly into a monthly diet of the multiple orgasms of Cosmopolitan and a relationship with a man for whom lads mags were also a staple. This woman has been brought up sexually empowered, to expect something fulfilling, and she’s expected – and expects – to demand something fulfilling and joyful.

When I wrote about Liberia the other day, a wise midwife turned doula quoted the adage ‘you birth as you live’ which seemed so true I wished I’d come up with it myself. Where life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’, birth can be nasty, brutish and mercilessly a whole lot less short.

That adage, though, isn’t working for us here. We’re active go-getters career-wise, in the bedroom – in every part of our life – but then, for some women, active becomes passive at the drop of a pregnancy test.

The woman who remains active even in birth isn’t the one squatting and omming to a background of whalesong during labour, though. Actually, she’s the one who’s questioning her carers, keeping them on their toes, ensuring that whatever advice or suggestions they give are backed up with sound evidence. By staying active – proactive, assertive, she’s sending a powerful message to those caring for her: I am in charge of the birth of my baby, just as I am in charge of my career, or my sex life, or even my wardrobe. She’s empowering herself.

By contrast her identical twin, who is equally active sexually, or professionally, or sartorially, might metaphorically roll over the moment the blue line appears. She is carried away on a wave of ‘the professionals know best’ during pregnancy. She doesn’t quite know why she’s doing the things she’s doing, but she goes with the flow, lets the professionals guide her, and is bemused that her sister is making things so difficult for herself with all this questioning and confrontation.

Fast forward seven or eight months, and the sisters are in labour.  Active sister has booked a doula, and she has carefully weighed up where she wants to give birth to her baby. Let’s imagine she has chosen a local midwife-led unit. Passive sister is going to the hospital because that’s what everyone does. She’s got her partner as her birth supporter – because that’s what everyone does, too, but also because she loves him. She and her partner might even have had a few eye-rolling conversations about Active Sister because they feel that she’s pushing her partner out by employing a doula. Passive Sister also feels that Active Sister is setting herself up for failure.

What happens during the birth? Who knows? It would be a neat conclusion to say that Active Sister has a wonderful, uplifting empowering birth at her midwife-led unit, and Passive Sister feels rather out of control, can’t quite cope but births her baby anyway, leaving feeling rather shocked by the whole process. It would be possible that Active Sister ends up being transferred to the consultant unit as she needs more help in this labour than she anticipated, and the story ends with the two of them tucked up together with their babies on the postnatal ward.

The thing is, though, I don’t think Active Sister *is* setting herself up for failure at all. She’s aiming high, she’s done the research and she’s going to make sure she has the best possible chances of getting what she would like from this game. And regardless of how this birth turns out, she can rest easy knowing she left no stone unturned in her aim to bring about an uplifting experience for herself, her partner and her baby.

And so I think anyone who is actively doing something to bring about a better birth experience, is doing ‘active birth’. And anyone who is just going with the flow is doing ‘passive birth’… and I’d bet my bottom dollar who’s going to report more satisfaction with the process at the end.



~ by Kedi Simpson on March 13, 2011.

2 Responses to “The active and the passive”

  1. A great piece! It makes me think of something I have been obsessed with for quite awhile: Simone de Beauvoir’s enormously gloomy analysis of pregnancy in the Second Sex. Beauvoir sees women (and people) as facing the option of immanence or transcendence… immanence basically means passivity, accepting the roles imposed on you by your body and society, while transcendence is about agency and taking responsbility for your own choices (a la Sartre). Beauvoir is incredibly negative about pregnancy, breastfeeding, etc, because she sees these experiences as examples of women at their most ‘immanent’. In a way I can see her point, since being pregnant makes me (personally, anyway) feel quite weighed down by my body. And it would be a million times worse in a content where the pregnancy was unwanted and birth control was illegal (Beauvoir published her name on a list of famous women who had had illegal abortions). But yeah, it’s very empowering to think that birth doesn’t have to be passive – that the passivity surrounding women’s experience of birth is not a given. Famous Beauvoir quote: ‘the pregnant woman feels the immanence of her body at just the time when it is in transcendence’. So yay to attempting to recover transcendence!
    *sorry long rant inspired by gender theory geekdom*

  2. Interesting then that she was happy to be transcendent re: abortion, but not re: childbirth and breastfeeding.
    I am playing with ideas surrounding birth being a feminist issue more generally, and why so many feminists see a woman’s achievement as fitting into the context depicted by high-achieving men. Making a wonderful job of doing what a woman is biologically determined to do is not seen as feminist. I feel some philosophy coming on – do guide me as my academic background in this stuff is non-existent!

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