Dividing Women Against Themselves
“It’s almost like the mother is discarded”
This is the mid-week edition of Men Yell at Me, your favorite newsletter for flyover politics and stories about the places where our personhood meets our policies. This week’s newsletter is about maternal mortality and our cultural attitudes that see a mother in opposition to her children.
This week, NPR published a story about maternal mortality review committees that examine the causes of the deaths of postpartum mothers.
A nurse midwife, Karen Sheffield-Abdullah, who investigates the deaths, told NPR, “We are so baby focused. Once the baby is here, it’s almost like the mother is discarded. Like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. The mom is the wrapper, and the baby is the candy. Once you remove the wrapper, you just discard the wrapper. And what we really need to be thinking about is that fourth trimester, that time after the baby is born.”
Everything in our culture works to divide women from themselves.
In 1965, Life magazine published an image of a fetus at 18 weeks. The picture was taken by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson using an endoscope. The photos were almost immediately politicized and used to project the narrative of the fetus as a sovereign being trapped inside the body of a mother. Nilsson, when he discovered what was happening with the images, tried to revoke their usage. But it did little to help.
I grew up with Nilsson’s images as weapons of culture. Pastors showed them in PowerPoint slides. I saw them blown up larger than any newborn infant and plastered on anti-abortion protest signs. I saw them in books depicting the origins of life, which my mom let me peruse before she was about to give birth to one of my younger siblings. And each time I saw them, the images told a story, which was used to divide mother against child.
In her book Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture, and Mothers’ Bodies, Rebecca Kukla writes that ultrasounds have publicized the interiority of a woman’s body, that they look toward the fetus
and away from the mother. Doctors and politicians, to assess a pregnancy, look inside, at the cells, and neglect to look outside, at the mother. Kukla notes: “At the level of policy, the insides of the pregnant woman’s body are coming to have institutionalized public status quite distinct from that of the mother, and potentially in conflict with hers.”
Projecting the interiority of a woman as something outside of herself transforms her body into a political space, one where religious leaders, political leaders, and men gesticulating over dinner tables have all tread.
On October 19, The Guardian published a series of images of fetal tissue before 10 weeks. The images when shared online caused critics to call them fake. They seemed to contradict the Nilsson images. What they showed were simply white masses, spreading out like ice on a window pane. Nowhere were there eyes or a heartbeat. Instead, it was just tissue. An indescribable white mass.
One of the doctors quoted in the Guardian story notes that when people receiving an abortion look at the tissue, “they are stunned by what it actually looks like. That’s when I realized how much the imagery on the internet and on placards — showing human-like qualities at this early stage of development — has really permeated the culture. People almost don’t believe this is what comes out.”
"Projecting the interiority of a woman as something outside of herself transforms her body into a political space, one where religious leaders, political leaders, and men gesticulating over dinner tables have all tread."
Fetuses are not separate entities from the humans they inhabit. Dividing a fetus against a womb, a mother against a child, sets up a dichotomy in which the birthing person will always lose. As a culture, we value potential life more than the actual woman sitting before us.
Study after study has shown that abortion leads to an increase in the quality of a woman’s life. When motherhood is a choice, women benefit. When motherhood is forced, no one benefits. Because motherhood is a continuation of the divide. So many women are forced to see their lives as a split in two – themselves versus their children. Where the things they want and hope for and seek to attain stand in opposition to the needs of their children. This is the natural extension of a reproductive health-care policy and maternal-care policy that sees birthing people as mere vectors for potential life.
I remember going to the doctor after my second child was born and talking about how tired I was. How I was crying all the time. She took down a medical textbook and opened up to a page on depression medication and breastfeeding. “Nothing is conclusive, and you are taking a risk,” she said. I didn’t go on medicine. I wish I had.
Years later, when I ended my marriage, a pastor and my ex-husband told me I would ruin the children. Both of them emailed me studies on the disastrous outcomes for children of divorce. I thought I was ruining my kids too. But I couldn’t survive in that marriage any longer. Five years later, I realized those studies were garbage.
The reality is the best thing for my children is to have a healthy, happy mother. It’s bad for children to see their parents miserable. No one told me that at the time. Instead, I was told misery was a virtue. That you just hang on and hang in there. The NPR article notes that so many women die because they were unable to make it to their six-week checkup. They had to work; they had other children to care for. They were being forced to choose anything other than themselves.
When the scale weighs the mother against her child, the mother always loses. Sometimes she chooses to lose. Or so it seems. When you are faced with the choice between hitting yourself with a rock or throwing that rock at your kid, and you choose yourself, that wasn’t free will. But the culture lauds these maternal sacrifices when they are really tragedies. These choices are a false binary. There is always another way. And often choosing the mother is choosing the child because the two are inextricably linked rather than existing in opposition.
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A lot of these sentiments in this newsletter are explored at length in my book Belabored. In the chapter titled “Conception,” I wrote:
But we routinely insist on dividing woman into parts. Legs. Ass. Thigh. Baby. Allsold separately. It’s incorrect—an error that disregards the biological fact that the body of the person carrying the child and the child itself cannot be truly separate. But sometimes facts are less important, and less powerful, than stories. After all, to divide the world into light and dark, baby and mother, is to exert control over the forces of creation. Let there be light. Let there be babies. Let us divide a body into two parts, pregnant person and child. Let us weigh the value of each so that woman and child are in opposition rather than in harmony. So that instead of symbiosis, there is discord. To divide is to conquer.