Like many women with countercultural affinities and too much education, when I got pregnant I began planning for a “natural,” i.e. drug-free, childbirth. Considering that up to that point I had greatly enjoyed the medical, reproductive and recreational benefits of pharmaceutical drugs, some might find my choice to forgo them in this particular pain-racked enterprise a bit ridiculous—yet a consistent logic motivated the decision. After all, there are only so many edge experiences an adult can responsibly pursue. Against the statistical odds I went through with it, and came away from the labor with a bright-eyed newborn, busted capillaries around my own eyes, and a deeper sense of how privacy enables us to experience bodily life in its fullness.
When Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition was published in 1959, the second wave of feminism was wind blowing across the water of American life—an energy that was gathering and palpable, if largely invisible. In the decades that followed, however, Arendt was largely indifferent to the politics of gender and sex. She refused outright to define her intellectual project in terms of her gender, and certain arguments, even her general view of social and political life, have been criticized as antithetical to feminist concerns.
In The Human Condition, Arendt argues that some activities are fit to appear to other people, and others not; some belong in public and others in private. The public is, or ought to be, the bright realm of free speech and action, the place of politics proper. Being seen, people and actions are properly open to judgment by others, so as to allow us to decide issues pertinent to our life in common. By contrast, the private is the shadow realm of necessity, where we labor to maintain our bodies and the life of our species. While human actions constitute history in linear time, our unending labor for biological maintenance swings in a circle, a ceaseless cycle.
This cycle and woman have been defined in terms of one another. Arendt alludes to this fact—she associates women’s emancipation with modernity’s diminished concern for hiding bodily functions, for example—but does not question, or even really pause over it. And her implicit argument that what has traditionally been called “women’s work” should properly remain hidden and unseen is sharply at odds with the feminist demand that women’s activities be made visible, so as to be justly valued and compensated. In her attempt to puzzle through the question of women’s work in contemporary life, Adrienne Rich turned to Arendt for guidance and found instead precisely the thinking that she sought to oppose. The Human Condition, Rich wrote, was “a lofty and crippled book” conceived by a “female mind nourished on male ideology.”
I am a feminist, and I love Arendt’s work. Still, those claims about labor and the body have stuck in my craw since I first read her books as an undergraduate. A decade of turning and returning to The Human Condition didn’t help me square my view that the labor that sustains bodily life ought to be valued, and must therefore be seen, with Arendt’s claim that this labor wants, even demands, to be done in private.
Arendt calls the private realm “the realm of necessity.” The language is hers, but it’s a variation on an old binary theme, the song of necessity and freedom. Figured variously as chaos, the animal, the feminine and the shadow realm, human necessity is the umbrella term for those aspects of life not subject to the rational will. In Arendt’s understanding, it especially signifies the immediate reality of embodied life, the thick stuff of it, the part that’s been squicking out Western squares from Plato to the present. To the chagrin of the Platonist, it is an irreducible aspect of our living being.
In its most mundane iterations, necessity is a driving and an equalizing force that compels everyone. We all eat and drink, we shit, we sleep and probably try to get off—you, yes you. With luck, the resources for doing so are reasonably secure and we can meet these demands with dignity, securely and without fear of opprobrium at the salience of our appetites and drives. Fussing over particulars aside, there is not a lot of room for reason-giving or reason-having in this realm of experience. Bodies drive us in some things. We do them because we are essentially beholden—we have to. And, having to do them, we prefer to do them in private.
Pain is the most intense manifestation of this phenomenon. As Elaine Scarry puts it in The Body in Pain (1985), pain brings about “a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.” Scarry links pain’s destruction of language to the fact that, unlike most states of consciousness, it has no reference point—in pain, the whole of the matter is bounded in the body of who feels it. Pain is not an experience that can be shared in such a way that its full force will be adequately communicated to another. It is in this sense a private phenomenon. No accident that, absent some cause that would render it meaningful, one prefers to suffer pain out of public view.
Privacy shelters us as we suffer and also take pleasure in physical life. It is difficult, and probably futile, to parse how much of this is “natural” and how much the product of cultural sedimentation. A number of artists have tested this boundary through willful public performances of necessity. John and Yoko’s “Bed-In,” the work of Tracey Emin, and a bowl-cut artist (name lost to the flow of culture) who recently lived for weeks in a hamster-house museum exhibit come to mind.
The best example of polemical public privacy, though, is perhaps the oldest: Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes, who lived in the fifth century BCE, was an originator of Cynic philosophy. Ancient Cynicism had little in common with the pessimistic apathy that we associate with the word today. Rather, it ruthlessly questioned calcified proprieties and mocked the stricture of truths that occlude living and thinking freely. Diogenes is a kind of trickster figure of ancient philosophy, insulting Alexander the Great, eating in the marketplace, masturbating in the marketplace, concluding a well-received lecture by squatting and taking a shit. Michel Foucault devoted his final lecture course to analyzing Diogenes’ philosophical strategy of scandalia, from the Greek for stumbling block. The Cynic became, in himself, a stumbling block to the lethargic corruption of business as usual.
Diogenes’ cheerful performances used necessity to assert autonomy over the crushing pressure of arbitrary and stultifying mores. By willfully publicizing his bodily functions, he changed what it meant for these necessary activities to be exposed, asserting his dignity as a fact that did not depend on the judgment of others.
Being beholden to necessity is not essentially gendered—men eat, sleep, shit, orgasm and get sick, and, generally, they prefer to do it out of view of others.
We all attend to the business of managing necessity every day, but some events in the course of a life are intensely shot through with it. The most obvious is death, or rather being at the edge of death, when life makes itself known through its impending cessation—or so I would imagine. I know from experience, however, that serious illness or accident also turns the body itself into a scandal, driving your attention to its bare need. Old age perhaps imposes this condition by gentle degrees.
Natural childbirth, though, is an experience of the necessity of human life par excellence. Unlike many other experiences where necessity is felt in its full driving force, giving birth can be lived as something other than a trauma or decline. Necessity can be experienced as an event—an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence with the potential to restructure one’s world.
In the not-too-distant past, to experience this event full-throttle was not an option most American women could choose. In a 1939 Atlantic Monthly article entitled “I Had a Baby,” Lenore Pelham Friedrich described the “unpleasant, upsetting and baffling experience” of being fully anesthetized for the birth of her first three children:
With the first ones, gas and ether were used. I experienced the sensation which has always seemed to me worse than any pain—of struggling for consciousness, going down into blackness, coming up only to know that something big and dreadful is happening, to feel fear, to hear oneself moaning, to sense strange people, with offensive professional voices; then to go way under, and to recover hours later, clean and dizzy, in a strange bed, and be told that a boy has been had.
When Friedrich asked her regular OB to deliver her fourth child without anesthesia he refused her with the words, “I don’t like to see people suffer.”
This childbirth scenario will be familiar to anyone who watched Betty Draper’s terrifying Demerol head-trip on the third season of Mad Men. There was no medical rationale for general anesthesia, which was not routinely practiced in Europe. The laboring woman was made into what Friedrich called a “sterilized package, babbling and unaware,” at the discretion of a wholly male class of professional physicians. The exclusion of women from the process is sad but not surprising, given the modern history of medicine. In Witches, Midwives and Nurses (1973), Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English show how midwifery was discredited and outlawed to justify the professionalization of relatively untrained male obstetricians in nineteenth-century America. With the notable exception of witch burnings, this history mirrors the early modern European replacement of female village healers with church-endorsed male doctors who relied primarily on humorism and bloodletting. The predictable consequences for women’s authority with respect to the birth process are still palpable in many American hospitals, though this history was largely unknown until Ehrenreich and English’s self-published “booklet” went viral, helping to kindle the midwifery movement.
Lenore Pelham Friedrich wanted to know what labor was like, so she went to Switzerland to deliver her baby awake. Wanting the same, I was able to have mine in a hospital with a midwifery practice. The severe congenital defect that I was born with, my driving distance from an ER and the fact that it was my first child, all made the comfort of a home birth seem too risky. Thanks to decades of feminist political and medical advocacy, some hospitals now offer integrated OB/GYN-midwifery practices, where delivery without epidural is supported, or at least not discouraged. If not strictly the best of both worlds, I reasoned, we’ll at least get their essentials.
I must pause to emphasize the deeply personal nature of decisions over where and how to labor. Here, the legal sense of “privacy” that protects the right to terminate a pregnancy by ever-narrower margins becomes germane. I have a lot of reasons for my decisions, and I think they are good reasons. But they are good for me, and this does not imply that they are good for you. They are private, not public, reasons. In other words, this experience is not, except perhaps in extremis, open to the judgment of others. Legal privacy shelters from public intervention as literal privacy shelters from public view. The absolute necessity that characterizes the birth of a child makes clear the absolute freedom every woman ought to have in her decision to bear one.
The most beautiful account of childbirth I’ve encountered in prose is the closing scene of Meridel Le Sueur’s underground feminist classic The Girl. Written at the tail end of the Depression but not published until 1978, the novel is a fictionalized account of events drawn from the lives of the women in Le Sueur’s writing group. It combines a potboiler plot with radical political commentary and bleeding-edge representations of how it feels to be alive, all in a colloquial vernacular that occasionally rises to the level of poetry. In the closing scene, the nameless title character enters the final throes of labor in a makeshift tenement where a public demonstration is also being organized. The women, says the girl, “made a little cave in the corner.” Then, as she begins to push, “It’s the realest dream.”
Through most of my own long labor I made a show of autonomy. I joked with my mother and husband, negotiated the terms of medical intervention with hospital staff, and balanced my body over the rolling waves of pain—between “How could it be worse?” and “Is that all there is?”
As the moment drew near, though, this performance of control diminished to a vanishing point. I requested a Coca-Cola. My rational will drew itself up and moved aside as I felt the force of life itself flow down and through my body, like water falling from a great height. They made a kind of cave around me. I screamed and was gently admonished to move the sound lower down in my body. I bellowed then, and the cry was deep and huge, evidence of a power that seemed alien but must have come from me, a power I could channel but not command.
As my body opened, the pain was ecstatic—ek-static, in the sense of the Greek roots of the word—that is, I stood outside myself. My field of vision was shortened to arm’s length and then dissolved. Borderless, I craved touch, needed skin on my skin and the pressure of hands and elbows to open me up and hold me together. There was a fissure, and for some time I occupied a liminal space between self and world. Hearing voices that exhorted it to bear, my body bore down. Cloudbreak, and return, and then a baby on my breast, looking up into my face.
There is not a lot unique to this story; it lines up pretty nicely with other accounts— from The Girl (“I felt all the river broke in me and poured and gave and opened”), from Friedrich’s article (“something elemental and stupendous was happening and I was in on it”) and from the slew of anecdotes included in Ina May Gaskin’s classic Guide to Childbirth. In the aftermath, writes Friedrich, “you are no longer yourself alone, but a force; the memory stays with you and makes you strong and released.” This is what can come of the experience of necessity as something other than trauma—a liberating intimacy with the immanent force of life.
“They made a little cave in the corner.” This sense of enclosure, of invulnerability through the presence of intimates, goes a long way toward allowing life to come through over the objections of the self-conscious mind. Privacy is not essentially a question of the presence or absence of other people, as all of us who have been “in private” with others surely know. Rather, it is a feeling of being sheltered, of safety in vulnerability and permission to let go.
In my own case there was a happy coincidence of luck and privilege. I was in a room with people who made a cave around me. Sheltered therein, I had no reservation about being animal. This permission made me invulnerable, a feeling that I carried with me when I walked the halls in the hour before it all went down, to the horror of the new orderlies on the floor. (I half-heard a bored desk attendant offer assurance—“She didn’t take the drugs.”)
Could this necessary self-abandon have proceeded if I did not feel sheltered? The body has a sense of fear or safety, precognitive and wholly prior to our rationalizations. To feel vulnerable to the eyes of others, to their designs or interventions, is to want to maintain some semblance of control. The illusion of sovereignty that we cultivate in public is precious, not easily relinquished. The ambition to maintain it is antithetical to the necessary labor of childbirth. Apropos of nothing, my cousin, in her second trimester, told me her fantasy of hiding away to give birth “like an animal.” It makes sense when you think about it: not wanting a hungry bear to eat the baby, not wanting to be seen so deep in suffering.
Lots of my friends now have had babies, and their birth stories run the gamut. Sometimes the body will not open up, and what follows is mundane (emergency C-sections are mundane in the U.S.) or grisly or tragic. Too often, the “bad labor” stories are the ones that also involve a callous doctor, a hostile nurse, a coldly clinical setting or lack of support—things that make a body feel afraid. The need for privacy, for a sense of being sheltered, of being secure and among intimates, has been largely ignored by mainstream obstetrics.
There are some practical fixes that would foster this sense of security in the clinical setting. First and foremost, there should be a way to dim the lights. This would seem like a no-brainer, but many hospitals have you under fluorescents through the whole ordeal. To the extent that it is practically possible, the room ought to be less clinical, the bed out of the direct sightline of the door. And for God’s sake, there must be a way to block the view of the machine to which the laboring woman is tethered, which registers the time and intensity of each contraction along with a host of other statistics of vitality. Damned if that thing didn’t make me nervous. Looking at it as the labor progressed, I became a number-crunching monitor of my uterine performance, unable to go with the flow of pain and release that coursed through me. Nothing really got started until my mother gently chastised me to turn my attention to the other side of the room. That these suggestions tend to be out of line with maximally efficient surveillance raises the question of whose prerogatives determine the experience.
Giving birth afforded me a fresh perspective on Arendt’s distinction between what should be hidden and what should be shown. This binary of private and public remains deeply problematic regarding questions of domestic work and caregiving. But from another angle, privacy is not so much a question of what is fit for appearance to public eyes as of what cannot fully transpire in view of others. The idea that privacy is proper to the realm of necessity need not be based on shame in the body. Privacy can also shield interests that are literally vital, so as to give them their full weight.
As so often happens when one returns to a beloved book after a change in life, passages that I previously overlooked in The Human Condition now glow with significance. “The non-privative trait of the household realm,” Arendt writes, “originally lay in its being the realm of birth and death which must be hidden from the public realm because it harbors the things hidden from human eyes and impenetrable to human knowledge.” Her gestures to secrecy and mystery, hiddenness and sacredness, connote the potential amplitude and importance of the human relationship to the force of nature, of life. Some things should be hidden not because they are shameful, but out of respect for the sheer magnitude of their force. Arendt argues that only by knowing this force in its profound intensity can we really appreciate the kind of freedom we realize in the public world.
Ultimately, Arendt’s distinction between private and public is both untenable and real. The plasticity of our experience and the demands of justice for the people who feed mouths and clean up shit preclude a neat distinction between what should stay hidden and what should appear. Even so, when the exigencies of life unbind the self, exposing sovereignty as the fiction it is, the human animal hides itself. There, in the dark, one is at liberty to suffer. Life becomes palpable as a force—and, at the extreme, so does the edge of death. Arendt counted both romantic and charitable love among the phenomena that rightly belong to the private realm; she maintained that in full view of others, love and caritas become shallow and disappear. I will spare you the tired discourse on the Kardashianization of late modernity and only say that private matters have become public in new and previously unimaginable ways, ways that induce new forms of pleasure and power, which may come at the expense of other, older forms.
This new power and pleasure manifest the brightness and the shallowness, the virtuosity and ephemerality attendant to public life. For me, the sheltered abandon of a fully felt labor affirmed the potency of another pleasure, the delight of another power, no less potent or delightful for the fact that it hides.
Image credit: Amanda Greavette