Mortality and Natality First Hand
The WEIRD tendency to not witness births
When I was a little kid, I read Charlotte’s Web and reproduced some of the pleading messages to spare Wilbur the pig on the fridge with my alphabet magnets. My parents took it in, and decided to simply not discuss where bacon came from with me.
Not a possibility when you live alongside what (who?) you eat, as Ryan Anderson writes in an essay for The Lamp. (For non-Lamp subscribers, there is an unpaywalled version crossposted to EPPC).
I enjoyed the whole essay, and this was the part that stuck out to me as relevant to us here at Other Feminisms:
Our children know quite a bit about the miracle of life, actually. They’ve witnessed goat labor, and it looks exactly as you might expect. They were in the pasture with my wife and me as one mama goat gave birth to three kids, one of which came out with the sac fully intact, spraying amniotic fluid and breaking only upon hitting the ground. They know the entity growing in a womb is a baby: a baby goat when in a goat womb, a baby human when in a human womb. They both kissed their mother’s belly once it started showing that their baby brother was inside. They also know that not all newborns make it. One of our lambs was born with the sheep equivalent of cleft palate, making him unable to nurse at his mother’s teat. We hadn’t built our barn yet, so we brought him into the house to bottle-feed. Shortly before dinnertime, he died on the dining room floor. We didn’t talk too much about it, but also didn’t downplay it. We hoped the experience would convey something of the goodness and the fragility of life. The children knew that we had done what we could to help that lamb, but also that there are limits to what any of us can do. Many people fear and deny death (and, in a different way, birth), but for now our kids seem unfazed by both. They have seen more birth and death than I did in my first few decades.
They also have seen both birth and death within a natural order. For example, mama and dada pig are named Bella and Gordo, but their children are named Scrapple and Ginger Bacon (the latter being a redhead, or red-belly). Our kids look forward to one day eating the scrapple and bacon produced by their namesakes. This isn’t weird to them. They know that food doesn’t come from the store, it comes from the field. When they get older, I’ll share Roger Scruton’s essays on that subject, but for now they don’t need philosophy to understand it. When we slaughtered our lambs the first year, our son and daughter gave them hugs and kisses goodbye, thanked them for being their friends, and then, in a matter-of-fact way, our son said, “I can’t wait to eat you.” They aren’t weirded out by death, or blood, or guts, as the rest of my family from Baltimore is. In fact, they are fearless, sometimes in frightening ways. We’ve seen adults shriek and run from our livestock, but our two-year-old daughter charges in with hugs and kisses, even as she knows to beware “the mean ram” that once headbutted her big brother and the cow that stomped at her mother and (slightly) gored her with a horn. And both of the older children love helping their mother gut and field dress the deer that she bags. They take real pride in her handiwork: “Mama shot the deer!”
I’ve heard more pitches to visit farms, in order to understand the reality of what it takes to eat, and to help us make more responsible choices about what kinds of farming to support. I have friends with chickens, and friends who have gone to pick up their meat share and met the other pigs on the farm.
But, unless you’re raising animals on your own land like the Andersons, you’re much more likely to see the mortality than the natality of life. Reading his essay, I was reminded of the gap between how I prepared for birth and how women did historically. I have been present for only two labors, both of which are my own.
In contrast, for much of human history (and still the case in many parts of the world), women would see and assist at many labors before experiencing their own. (I’m going to pull from Kristin Lavransdatter here, because I love that book so much.) Kristin goes through repeated labors and childbirths, but for the birth of her first child, conceived before marriage, she is ashamed and frightened and initially fends off help.
Her husband, Erlend (booooo), explains to his brother Gunnulf, a priest, and is upbraided:
"Kristin said she didn't need anyone but her maids. They've borne children themselves, some of them." He tried to laugh.
"Have you lost your senses?" Gunnulf stared at him. "Even the poorest wench has servant women and neighbors with her when she takes to childbed. Should your wife crawl into a corner to hide and give birth like a cat? No, brother, so much a man you must be that you bring to Kristin the foremost women of the parish."
The women arrive, and fill the birthing chamber. They are not exactly a comfort to Kristin.
The women told her to walk around as long as she could bear it. This tormented her greatly; the house was now crowded with women, and she had to walk around like a mare that was for sale. Now and then she had to let the women squeeze and touch her body all over, and then they would confer with each other. At last Fru Gunna from Raasvold, who was in charge of things, said that now Kristin could lie down on the floor. She divided up the women: some to sleep and some to keep watch. "This isn't going to pass quickly but go ahead and scream, Kristin, when it hurts, and don't pay any mind to those who are sleeping. We're all here to help you, poor child," she said, gentle and kind, patting the young woman's cheek.
Rather than prepare for birth with a book, a checklist, and secondhand stories, as I did, the women in Kristin all knew birth intimately. Instead of knowing only two deliveries, as I do, they had lived experience with the full spectrum of labors.
Just as alienation from the lives of what we eat (animal and plant) limits our ability to advocate for them; the more distance we have from birth, the harder it is to advocate for women and children. I know some women who became doulas or midwives when they no longer had young children, and I wonder sometimes if that’s work I would like to do. But I think I need the knowledge they have now more than I will in my fifties!
Where have you had direct experience with any kind or mortality or natality?
Have you made the choice to seek out more exposure to the beginning and end of life? Where did you go to encounter it?
Addendum: I thought the post got too long to sneak this in, but I love Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, which discusses in detail how the Civil War shifted the work of preparing the dead for burial from families to specialists.
I have never borne a child, but I work in healthcare and volunteered at a nonprofit that provided a mentor (me) with a refugee woman giving birth for the first time in the United States. My role was to help these women navigate the US hospital system, help advocate their birthing plan with their doctors, provide transportation to prenatal appointments, and attend the birth to support the women.
My first mentee was a Somali woman with a history of a traumatic birth in her home country (in which the baby died when she gave birth at home) and she also had a history of domestic violence with a restraining order against her husband at the time of her pregnancy. I became one of her key supports throughout her pregnancy and we had many moments of laughter together, especially after being sent home from the hospital because she was not dilated enough and getting a call from her twenty minutes later: “SARAH, LOTTA LOTTA LOTTA WATER!”
It was my first experience attending a birth and I’ll never forget it, especially being able to hold a ten-minute old baby and sing his first song to him. The attending doctor was also the mother’s primary doctor with much experience and tender care with delivering babies and taking care of the mothers—truly a master of his craft.
My second mentee was an Afghan woman, bearing her sixth child. Typical cultural practice in Afghanistan is that husbands do not attend births, however, her incredibly devoted husband wanted to stay by her side while she was in labor and interpret for her since she did not speak any English. At one point, he became distressed during her labor, saying, “I can’t believe I did this to her **six** times!!” When the baby was finally born, the husband turned a visible shade of green and declined to cut the umbilical cord, and gave me the honors instead—which I feel is a rare experience for non-doctor women in America since it is usually the husbands/partners of the mother who get this task.
I’m very glad that I sought out those opportunities to support mothers and babies, and to have gotten the chance to witness the birth of two precious children. I am single and childless, without wanting to be either, so it has also been a good experience for me to better understand and support friends going through pregnancy and early motherhood.
I was 14 when my younger sister was born, and it was the most powerful experience I've witnessed. After watching a 15 hour unmedicated birth, the nurses joked that my parents had given me "the strongest birth control possible." Quite the opposite! Seeing the strength of my mother, the pride and compassion of my father, the support of our entire family waiting eagerly for updates, and the calm resolve of the nurses and midwife crystallized my sense of the magic and meaning of human life and community. The year after her birth I fell into the deep spiral of anxiety and nihilism that seems to plague teen girls so frequently now, and thinking back to my sister's birth was a bulwark against my fear of death and meaninglessness. Now, I especially want to have children and have considered getting certified as a doula.