What is it like……..

to give birth?

Question asked today in the Guardian by a journalist looking for clues in literature to prepare her for her impending childbirth. She finds there is an odd absence of birth descriptions in literature (well, maybe not so odd given all the things readers of this blog will be familiar with).

The discussion is quite interesting, however, particularly comments that indicate noone can really can convey what it is like, and particularly not what it is like for YOU – only what it was like for them. And that is interesting for philosophers of mind – or is it?

Why did philosophers wonder what it is like to be a bat, not what it is like to give birth? Is birth the ultimate first-person only access experience? How come there is no mention of birth in philosophers’ of mind obsession with pain?

There is a simple answer, of course, which is that there have been too few female philosophers (though that still makes it curious why men philosophers did spend time wondering what it is like to be a bat, not what it is like to give birth). But are there also more interesting answers to these questions? Is there something philosophical to learn from wondering what it is like to give birth?

13 thoughts on “What is it like……..

  1. I’m so glad this question has come up. I had thought of talking to a class about a specific personal example, but decided not to because I was worried I’d make them too unconfortable. I thought of asking about this on this blog, just because so little of birthing is discussed in philosophy!

    The example: As I reach the final days of finishing a book manuscript, it has seemed to me in unexpected ways like giving birth. Once your waters break, you can get the sense that a process has started that’s going to take you along with it to the end. Agency seems something like compromised when so much now is just a matter of what will happen regardless, and one has to respond to that.

    I’m not explaining it well, but I’ve had a similary feeling in these final days, as though agency and observation are very mixed up, and it’s all ending nearly whatever I do.

  2. I’ve always appreciated Amy Mullins’ lovely work on this, and the many papers I’ve heard at feminist conferences about personal and phenomenological accounts of pregnancy and childbirth. It was Mullins who most eloquently conveyed, for me, the philosophically interesting activity, nonpassivity, of childbearing and birth, as importantly disruptive of the artificial natural/chosen distinction. The unchosen is not coextensive with the passive, when we look at such an instructive model as labor!

    Having said that, the most easily remembered acount, for me, is Claudia Card’s report of her sister-in-law’s observation, “It’s like shitting a pumpkin.” Ouch!

  3. I’ve never thought much about what it is like to give birth from a philosophical point of view, but there is one thing that strikes me as significant, based on my personal experience but also on what I heard from other people: the memories of your own experience tend to get blurred with time, and in particular the memories of the pain seem to weaken. I remember that, immediately after I had my first child, I couldn’t stand watching childbirth shows on TV (which had been my favorite kind of TV show for months!), as the memories of the pain were still too acute. A few months later, I already felt very different about it. The second time around this effect was much less perceived, perhaps because the second time around you know more or less what to expect. Anyway, from a philosophy of mind point of view, this phenomenon of attenuation of the pain recollections might be interesting to look into.

  4. Maybe we should be glad that no male philosopher ever wrote “What is it like to give birth”. There is a truly offensive article to be derived by cutting and pasting from the Nagel article (perhaps best read in the voice of a 19th century male Oxford philosopher):

    “I assume we all believe that women have experience. After all, they are mammals, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that mice or pigeons or whales have experience. I have chosen women instead of wasps or flounders because if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all. Women, although more closely related to us than those other species, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (though it certainly could be raised with other species). Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited woman knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life.

    I have said that the essence of the belief that women have experience is that there is something that it is like to be a woman. Now we know that most women give birth. But giving birth is not similar in its operation to any capacity that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine. This appears to create difficulties for the notion of what it is like to be a woman. We must consider whether any method will permit us to extrapolate to the inner life of the woman from our own case, and if not, what alternative methods there may be for understanding the notion.

    Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that [substitute appropriate descriptions here, perhaps involving pumpkins] one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to give birth. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a woman to give birth. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.

    To the extent that I could look and behave like a woman without changing my fundamental structure, my experiences would not be anything like the experiences of women. On the other hand, it is doubtful that any meaning can be attached to the supposition that I should possess the internal neurophysiological constitution of a woman. Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a woman, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like. The best evidence would come from the experiences of women, if we only knew what they were like.”

  5. profbigk, thank you. It is that disruption of the distinction that I was trying to get at.

    Catarina, I will never, ever forget the pain of that experience. My son was born so quickly that I went from mild cramps to full convulsions in a just a few minutes.

  6. Adam Smith talks briefly about a man’s ability to sympathize with a woman in childbirth in A Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

    “When I condole with you for the loss of your only son, in order to enter into your grief I do not consider what I, a person of such a character and profession, should suffer, if I had a son, and if that son was unfortunately to die: but I consider what I should suffer if I was really you, and I not only change circumstances with you, but I change persons and characters. My grief, therefore, is entirely upon your account, and not in the least upon my own. It is not, therefore, in the least selfish. How can that be regarded as a selfish passion, which does not arise even from the imagination of any thing that has befallen, or that relates to myself, in my own proper person and character, but which is entirely occupied about what relates to you? A man may sympathize with a woman in child-bed; though it is impossible that he should conceive himself as suffering her pains in his own proper person and character.” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, VII.iii.1.4)

  7. emkas’s quotation from Adam Smith seems quite apt, especially regarding David Chalmers’ comment #4 above. There seem to be relevant and interesting issues here regarding the nature of empathy and perhaps the importance/role of personal narratives in certain discourses. Yes? No?

  8. jj, I of course remember the pain, but I don’t remember it *physically* as I did in the months following my first delivery. (Perhaps you still have the physical memory, I suppose there can be a lot of individual differences there.) What I am trying to say is that there is a weak sense in which even (some of) those who have had the experience of childbirth don’t really ‘know’ what it’s like anymore, phenomenologically speaking. It’s really otherworldly.

  9. i think I know what Catarina means. i’ve thought about this before, too. I can remember *that* I was in pain; I can remember how i reacted to the pain; I can remember thoughts I had about how painful it was; but I can’t remember the pain itself. it’s weird. but for me, this was the case very quickly: within a week of the birth, I’d say.

  10. ProfBigK–I believe the “shitting a pumpkin” analogy was originally created by Shulamith Firestone, in her landmark book, “The Dialectic of Sex”. It (“shitting a pumpkin”) certainly reflected my own birth experiences.

    The experience of giving birth will very likely vary depending on the social, personal, and medical circumstances. For me, giving birth was very different in my first child’s delivery (with epidural) and my second child’s delivery (without any drugs at all).

    One thing that struck me then was that women themselves had not been very open with me in describing what it was like to give birth. I think the convention was that mothers ought not to scare soon-to-be-mothers with graphic descriptions of labour and delivery. But I would have preferred to have had honest descriptions so that I could have been more prepared. I went into my first labour and delivery having been told that it would be a lot of “work”. Ok, I thought, I can work hard. I had not been prepared for the pain.

    Since that time, there have been quite a few autobiographical anthologies published, which describe quite clearly women’s experiences of giving birth.

    In retrospect I do not clearly remember what the whole experience was like, except for two things: 1) It was like being swept along, powerfully and inexorably, by a force that was taking me to a destination whether I liked it or not (perhaps this is similar to what JJ was getting at?); and 2) it gave me a ne plus ultra standard of pain by reference to which I have always been able to compare every other discomfort I’ve experienced (and they have always been lesser).

  11. This is just too inviting. I thought I could swear off commenting here, but I just can’t stay gone.

    When (ok, IF–it’s only happened 2 or 3 times) men ask me what it’s like, I just compare it to experiences that they can relate to. Obviously, theories of mind go on about how everybody experiences ‘true green’ differently, so I’m sure everyone experiences ‘tooth extraction with nova caine’ differently. And trying to relate to giving birth with an epidural as ‘extracting a 4 kg tooth from your nether regions with nova caine’ probably requires a leap of imagining. My friends seemed satisfied with that leap.

    Labour contractions without an epidural were like the pain fom a vicious stomach virus, giving way to the pain from a dislocated hip, which was popped back into place and then popped back out again about every minute for 4 hours. I have no comparison for the actual delivery. I’d say the pain was 4-5x worse than the ‘continual dislocating hip’. Maybe a quarter of being drawn and quartered? The way it feels to have one’s leg ripped off by a horse? (Then again, my daughter tells me my experiences with most types of pain are much more intense than hers. Might be that recessive ‘ginger gene’… they say it drives us all crazy ;-))

    I have a friend who lost a leg when she was run over by a car. She said that was more painful than delivering her daughter, but not by much.

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m not really surprised that many men would rather wonder what it’s like to be a bat. David’s comment is spot on. Sure, some men wonder and some men care, but the more we know about others’ suffering, the more we’re required to examine our own capacity for empathy.

    Tell me again why secular ethics are a separate branch of the discipline, and don’t come up in first and second year mind classes?

  12. pain is a subject that i focused on in philosophy for years and found particularly difficult to study. most of the texts were philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, neuroscience, medical, etc. many of those texts held interesting insights but didn’t quite “get it.” i don’t remember a single one mentioning birth.

    on the subject of pain + experience, i think elaine scarry’s body in pain might be one of the best books on the subject. and i find it rather significant that it was written by a woman.

  13. Definitely food for thought, to say the least.

    Would you be able to add a button under “Share this” that would allow one to share a post via Google Buzz?

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