Rocking the Birth Dogma Boat

Tell me I’m a good woman

February 19, 2012
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It’s been a while, and I am healing.  I have a new job, splitting my time between qualitative research and administration in an innovative center I am proud to belong to.  My bosses respect me, solicit my opinion, challenge me and ask me if I am being overloaded with work.  I’m thanked when I stay late, and paid overtime.  The hours are predictable, and the work is mostly interesting and challenging but doable.  My sister got a new puppy, and I am helping her address her wedding invitations tomorrow.  I have had the weekend off, and I am writing this with a drink in my hand.  I’m designing my thesis project and I am excited about it, and a little scared and overwhelmed, but mostly curious.  I’m doing participatory qualitative research with elderly women with intellectual disabilities, and  I want to do a good job, and do it ethically.  I want to say something new.  My man and I laugh, fight sometimes, and value each other deeply.  I sleep through the night every night.  A paper I wrote was just accepted at a conference, so I’m going to Canada in April to present it.  I’m slowly building a new career, starting again in a new world, making my name, just like I did as  new CPM. And this time I am doing it more consciously, strategically, lovingly, with dignity and self respect.  I want to be a change agent without feeling like I’m disappearing into the cause.  I want to go out on a limb for women without feeling like I’m one long birth away from falling over the edge, becoming unrecognizable to myself and my family, passion crossing over into mental illness like so many of our giants and grandmothers.  I want use my talent for controversy and challenge effectively, and I remind myself that I am worth it.  I’m starting to land.  I still feel like myself, only lighter….

I’m doing well, and most days midwifery is less of a gaping wound.  But it lies below the surface, and sometimes I wake my boyfriend up in the middle of the night.  Tell me I’m a good woman.  And he does, no matter how many times I ask.  Tell me I’m a good woman.  And that is what I want to write about now, being a good woman.  What is that? What are our unspoken assumptions behind this monolithic term? And what is our legacy, old history unaddressed determining our present? Tell me I’m a good woman. 

For me, this question pulls at my scars, and voices all the ways that midwifery has hurt me. I am no longer endlessly available-am I a good woman still? I have left this fight, and I am no longer willing to wear myself to the bone for a concept.  I value sleep, and I value myself above ill-defined yet critical needs that no one person can meet.  I try to think realistically before I say I can do anything.  Am I still a good woman?   I climbed down from the limb I was perched on, and I go to work every morning without gearing up for a fight.  Would a good woman have been stronger, fought harder with no thoughts of her own weary body?

And this wound is deeper than me.  I look at our legacy, what the midwifery world told me a good woman was: endlessly available, selfless beyond reason, emotional and never calculating, mostly invisible, mostly voiceless, ready to believe that a pregnant belly represents her highest potential for fullness, quiet and calm and marginalized.  But also white, Christian, or some new age version of black and white Christian spirituality,  able to work unpaid or for very little pay, dedicated, in the sense that she doesn’t have to go to work tomorrow for a paycheck and so can stay up soothing other women’s brows and holding other women’s hands all night.   And mostly when we picture this,  all the hands and brows in this picture are white, upper class, married to men.  Somehow this vision of the good dedicated woman is white, straight, Christian, married to a man, upper class.

And this is so problematic, on so many levels.  I think back to all the midwifery meetings where people who couldn’t come to a meeting at 10 am on a Wednesday, due to having jobs, were said to be choosing to be less dedicated, where when race came up at all, white women said that they weren’t racist but women of color should choose to come to the meeting if they cared about birth and their health, or, worse, about their civil rights.  This image of the good woman-dedicated, in the sense that she has enough disposable income to not need to be at a job at 10 am on a Wednesday, and willing to go out on a limb for women-in the sense that she is in enough of a position of privilege and power to choose the relative marginalization of unregulated home birth midwifery-is the enemy of inclusion.  So not only does the good woman hurt personally, it excludes.  It defines goodness by whiteness, by economic power, by class, and by invisibility.

And in this world where women still make 70 cents to the dollar, having the economic power to be “dedicated”, to stay up those nights, make those 10 am Wednesday meetings, work for little or no pay, well, being dedicated for so many women means being married to someone with the earnings to support you.  I know a few women who could financially support another person.  I know many, many men in this position.  (and let me be clear that this is not to knock men, or to say men work harder, but just to point out the deep structural inequity within which we try to be good women)  So the image of the good midwife, which I took as the image of the good woman, is white, straight, wealthy, married to a man, and impossible.  Not to mention anti-woman.  Yet I strove and strove and strove, like my immigrant great grandparents strove to be Americans, always a little out of reach.  I know this, and the image still haunts me.    Am I a good woman still?

Closing the wound, and backing away from a world that was so abusive to me, valuing myself enough to walk away from a world that was so abusive to me means redefining what it means to be a good woman.  It means finding my own terms, imaging a world so loving of women that we have better choices for what it means to be good.  This is not an individual fight, or an individual problem. This is all of us, men and women, waking up to a world where tell me I’m a good woman means tell me  I am strong, tell me I am worthwhile on all the days of my life, tell me I know my own worth, tell me that my all is enough, more than enough, and I am more than the children I bring forth. Tell me I am a good woman, and tell me what those words would mean in an inclusive, equitable world.  It is late and I cannot imagine the equitable world where the story of the good woman supports all women.  I can’t imagine what a good woman would be in a profession committed to addressing our scandalous legacy.

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