some notes on gender inclusivity and birth
by Leona Starnes
I’ve been a birth doula since 2013. Teaching yoga led me into the birth world. As a teacher I was high on those magic moments when being in their bodies helped my students feel empowered. Birth seemed like the ultimate embodiment, a rare moment when so much of what normally occupies our brains is unimportant and we can only show up as we are. I wanted to chase that high. I also, like many caregivers, wanted to help. I want the people I’m working with to feel seen, to know they’re held so they can find their own way into the new land that is birth and parenting.
Doing what I do has brought me into very gendered spaces. The most glaringly bright example comes from the yoga community. I teach prenatal yoga classes at a studio that is marketed to Mammas. I would never tell anyone that being referred to as a “pregnant goddess” should make them feel bad, but I feel uncomfortable with this language. I try my best to be gender inclusive when I’m teaching in a group setting. I try to always remind the people who come to classes that they are strong, they are supported, that their body is holding their baby perfectly until they’re ready to meet them on this side. I don’t have clear answers about when and where we should use one kind of words or another. I do know gender isn’t a binary, and that there are a number of ways binary languaging can be limiting when we talk about birth and parenting.
Pregnancy and birth can be healing, revelatory experiences. The childbearing year, as it is often called, can be (among other things) a chance for families to remember their strength. That could be the strength inherent in their bodies, or their spirit; the strength they find in community, or in faith. I get pretty woo-woo when I talk about birth. But the holy nature of birth is real, just like the physical reality of birthing – the fluids and the exhaustion and the baby at the end – is real. Being denied this experience, which can happen when peoples choices and agency are taken away, is often wrapped up in political systems of oppression. This bias is dangerous and dangerously disproportionate to parents of color and their children, and this deserves many more words shouted from very loud platforms. If caregivers do the work of seeing people, of listening to their wishes and concerns, and validating their wisdom, we allow space in this time of transformation for all people to remember they are strong.
When we set up an archetype of Motherhood we are excluding a lot of people who give birth, whether they identify as women or not. What is motherhood if you don’t breastfeed? If you don’t have a vaginal birth? If you adopt? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we celebrated the powerful legacy of birthing while allowing people to create their own story about what that power is? By idealizing the role of the mother we are also oftentimes reinforcing the separateness, the otherness of fatherhood. What if we created more spaces that were parent centered instead of only female centered? What new ways of feminist caregiving could we explore? Only using cisgendered (not to mention heteronormative, nuclear family affirming) language denies the experience of genderqueer and trans parents. We can respect and lift up women’s experiences of mothering at the same time that we lift up all people who bring life into the world. Let’s bless all new an expecting parents. Let’s expand how we honor the sacredness of creation so it’s not just the providence of women. Let’s revel in our own identity without forgetting that we’re all so much bigger than gender. This is part of how we smash the patriarchy – by birthing a new world.