Q: Dear To Whom it May Concern,

I’ve studied in my particular field of expertise — midwifery — for years and just recently published a paper on the subject of pain in childbirth. In the paper I reiterated the idea that pain in childbirth can be a good thing, for all sorts of different reasons. I suggested that women should be given more information about alternative forms of pain management other than epidurals. Suddenly my paper is all over the internet and in the newspapers, with headlines screaming that I was suggesting that women should go through pain, or ‘put up with pain’. Many women suggested I didn’t know what I was talking about and suggested I shut up. I completely underestimated the reaction to my innocent paper. Why did some women react so violently? Is it because I’m a man? How do i get them to realise I’m on their side?

D.W, Nottingham UK.

A: Dear D. W,

How can statements about childbirth, pain and preparing for motherhood be ‘innocent’? We live in a Patriarchy. As in any patriarchal culture, women’s experience of birth and mothering is strictly controlled, regulated and devalued. For this system to continue to function, women must see their experience of motherhood in isolation, and when we individualize collective human experience, we often feel significant guilt and shame when we ‘fail’ to feel as we are told we should.

It’s not so much that you’re a man, J. W., although that is not insignificant. You spoke in generalities. You made motherhood statements about what should happen for women during and after birth. You spoke for, rather than with, and so you became another powerful voice telling women what’s good for them. I imagine that got a few goats. If you spent any time at all with goats, you may have seen that one goat is very different from another, and all are strong willed.

You may also have provoked anger and maybe even humiliation by speaking about the preparatory function of pain. One of the prevailing psychological myths of our time, is that pain helps to prepare us for more pain. The truth is that it may serve this function, and equally it may not. Pain can also weaken us over time, especially when we also experience powerlessness and a lack of agency. Pain is not a separate entity. It is a bodily lived experience for each woman. Each woman’s experience of pain will be her own. In a world where women are expected to bear and rear children without significant and predictable support, promoting pain as a teacher can be seen as both patronizing and dismissive of many womens’ lived experience.

If you want others to see that you’re on their side, you may need to look more closely at what that side looks like. At the same time, there will never simply be only one side. Your sides also may need an airing. What do you feel about birth, your own pain, caring for children? What has led you to this profession? What is precious to you here? You may need to stand alone and bear your criticism, if you really believe that what you say needs to be heard and is yours to speak.