My paper ‘Liberating the Pregnant Body: disempowerment and disembodiment in maternity care’ on my new research project on a care ethical view of maternity was enthusiastically responded to by the audience of the Global Carework Summit in Toronto last week. One response came from a mother present together with her baby. She responded as a carework researcher and a mother. She had never realized, and was now stunned at, how little she had thought about the pregnant body with regard to carework, even during her own recent pregnancy. Like myself she was amazed at how it is largely lacking in philosophy, sociology, and political (care) ethics.
Symbolically, for 9 months a group of committed researchers cooperated closely to write a grant proposal for a research project into ethical controversies in the mother-midwife relation during childbirth. This CARE-study (Controversies surrounding Autonomy and Responsibility: a care-Ethical study into the mother-midwife relation) is now granted, which means that a young and gifted researcher, philosopher and midwife Rodante van der Waal, is funded to perform her four year PhD study. Next to an empirical research into the advancements of respectful maternity care, the project involves a philosophical study into the ontology and history of pregnancy, childbirth and midwifery care. The project will be performed at the University of Humanistic Studies (Utrecht, The Netherlands) under the supervision of prof dr Carlo Leget. I am proud to be involved in this as co-supervisor.
The research network Concerning Maternity has organized a third international conference on the 7th of May, where we will analyze and explore the lived experience of both pregnant and maternal subjectivity, as well as that of midwifery, in order to consider the question: what are pregnant and maternal subjectivities and how can maternity care attune to them adequately?
With Stella Villarmea (Spain), Mavis Kirkham (Scotland), Jonna Bornemark (Sweden), Lisa Baraitser (UK), Beatrijs Smulders (NL), Bahareh Goodarzi (NL), Neske Beks (NL) and others. Chaired by Rodante van der Waal, PhD student, philosopher and midwifery student (NL).
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During the last days of March I had the honor of giving the key note address at the colloquium ‘Quelle place pour les proches dans le soin?’ organized by the Swiss Network of Ethics of Care (SNEC), in Lausanne, Switzerland. I learned that the French word ‘les proches’ and the Dutch word ‘de naasten’ are more adequate to indicate those who are relevant for clients, patients or residents than the English terms ‘partner and family’. In care ethics and many other disciplines the idea gains ground that these close ones cannot be ignored in health care. Fot this it takes a critical look at how health care is usually organized. Many examples were given of ‘les proches’ being ignored, informed too late or misinformed, etc. A field of often painful and irrepairable experiences that requires professionals and institutions to become more caring, also in the wider relational network.
Matrescence is the term coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael in 1973 for the fundamental changes women go through when becoming mothers. She compares it to the other, common, and well described transition to adulthood: adolescence. In this Ted talk reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks reinvigorates this term for her own practice. She tells that postpartum women are calling her, saying that motherhood ‘isn’t supposed to feel like this’. They feel discomfort and wonder whether they have a disease. ‘Matrescence’ to her is helpful to describe the transition to motherhood, e.g. the normality of it. It is amazing how little we know about it in common life as well as in academia.
The same amazement is expressed in this Dutch TV-show by brain researcher Elseline Hoekzema, neuro endocrinologist Peter Bos and pedagogue Marian Bakermans, who researched both mothers’ and fathers’ reaction to becoming a parent. At delivery women do have a head start to fathers because of hormonal changes during pregnancy. Their brains show substantial differences that remain for two years, and never disappear completely. However, if fathers are (substantially) involved in babycare, they can easily catch up in becoming attentive, responsive parents. This is not what a few days of father’s leave can help accomplish, I think.
Interesting: women who are mothers are still quite ‘terra incognita’ for research, and what traditionally has been reduced to a gender or hormonal difference can now be refuted: it is an involvement in practices of care that makes the difference.
Click here to read the article that I recently co-authored with colleague Merel Visse on responsibility in care. We believe that care ethics offers various important critical views on caring responsibility that mutually complement each other. However, by drawing upon the phenomenology of Jean-Luc Marion we believe these views can still be complemented by looking more at the passive, fragile, decentring aspect of responsibility. If we take it more literally, as being a response, it comes second to something else, to something that has preceded it and to which it responds. Responsibility might be less a one-person-task, a personal assignment, an individual burden, if we look at it this way.
Reading this book is a fun and enlightening experience of recognition as well as astonishment. Cusk is a masterfully reflective, funny, sharp, and affecting analyzer of the lived experience of becoming a mother. It is both in similarity and in contrasts that stories like these are clarifying one’s own experience, carving out space for new understandings, and helpful in finding words for the transition into motherhood. Cusk’s own experiences and choices, e.g. how she objects to ‘routine medical procedures’ and experiences the first days after caesarian section as unreal, offer a mirror for mothers and all parents. Here is an adequate illuminative quote:
Full-time paid childcare was what I, with the blithe unsentimentality of the childless, once believed to be the solution to the conundrum of work and motherhood. In those days fairness seemed to me to be everything. I did not understand what a challenge to the concept of sexual equality the experience of pregnancy and childbirth is. Birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed. Another person has existed in her, and after their birth they live within the jurisdiction of her consciousness. When she is with them she is not herself; when she is without them she is not herself; and so it is as difficult to leave your children as it is to stay with them. To discover this is to feel that your life has become irretrievably mired in conflict, or caught in some mythic snare in which you will perpetually, vainly struggle.
Red Clocks is a disturbing but all too probable dystopia: a fictional frightening American society for women in which only a few subsequent presidents have successfully passed laws that restrict reproductive freedom to a minimum and reverse women’s rights to an abortion. A pink wall has been built on the American-Canadian border to prevent women from having an abortion there. Illegal abortion is considered murder. Soon single parent adoption will be prohibited too thanks to the ‘Every child deserves two’-law. Women in this society struggle with every aspect of motherhood: having given it up, trying to become one, trying to get rid of it, trying to survive it. Women’s lives are found to be interwoven along the lines of these struggles and ancient knowledge becomes the target of a modern witch hunt. Sacrifices in this world are all over the place, but – not surprisingly – mainly brought by and expected and demanded from women. Intriguing! See a review in the Guardian here.
It keeps astonishing me that this is not a headline every day: “800 women died today when giving birth”. “Today again 800 women died when giving birth.” They die because basic care provisions are not available to them. Watch this movie by the White Ribbon Alliance that informs us about this.