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Philosopher calls for contributions on childbirth to break down unhelpful taboos

Bringing new life into the world is no easy feat, but how much do we really talk about and how much remains a taboo topic?

Tanja Staehler, a Professor in European Philosophy at the University of Sussex, wants to break down unhelpful barriers and is calling for mothers, fathers and midwives to share their experiences to help make communication that bit easier.

From thoughts on pregnancy, IVF, abortion, miscarriage or childbirth, to sharing advice for others, the submissions will all be considered for inclusion in her new book and shared on Birthsite, a website containing general and philosophical resources on birth with an emphasis on emotions, care, embodiment and communication.

Professor Staehler explained: “Taboos still exist around bodily experiences like childbirth and sex. Often we can get into difficulties feeling like we don’t have the right words, or because we’re not comfortable speaking about bodily, gendered and intimate experiences.

“But childbirth can be daunting and even scary, so this lack of communication is a big problem.”

She hopes that the stories shared will help ease conversations that many can find difficult, and break down the expectations that can be hidden within our society.

Professor Staehler explained: “I was partly inspired by the debate that started when Keira Knightley penned an essay criticising the societal expectations placed on Kate Middleton to look immaculate just hours after giving birth.

“These expectations, and the idea that people could judge new mothers on their appearance not long after they’ve brought another life into the world aren’t healthy, and they contribute to a single narrative of how childbirth ‘should be’.

“I don’t think that we should judge individuals but instead listen and see what emerges from different voices and different stories.

“This is how we can dispel that unhealthy narrative and show that there are many ways to experience these phenomena and that we should feel able to talk about all of them.”

Professor Staehler is encouraging anyone to get in touch who has something to say about the phenomenon of childbirth. After a review process, she’ll then share various narratives on her website or within the pages of her new book, Pregnancy, Birth, Being with Infants: Phenomenology of a Strange Experience, which publishes next year.

The different perspectives offered will help Staehler examine birth from a philosophical perspective, considering concepts such as Heidegger’s distinction between fear and anxiety, to Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea of ‘object’ and ‘subject’, which notes that we are aware of either being looked at or doing the looking. In healthcare, but especially when it comes to childbirth, we want professionals to attend to us as objects as well as subjects.

Professor Staehler explained: “Philosophy can be used as a tool to help us better understand our experiences, particularly when they have been stressful. With these submissions, I’ll aim to show how these concepts can help us to map our feeling and experiences.”

Professor Staehler has previously worked with the Royal College of Midwives to develop a training module to help midwives communicate with women and their partners during labour.

Drawing inspiration from philosophical thinkers such as Sartre and Heidegger, her module, co-delivered with speech communication expert Dr Alexander Kozin, helps midwives understand how to better listen to patients; when to observe and reflect and when it’s better to be silent.

Over 700 midwives have taken the module to date and have commented positively on the conceptual clarifications and examples of emotions including anxiety, shame or wonder. The Royal College of Midwives have since commissioned a second, expanded edition which will go live later this year, containing additional material on body language as requested specifically by midwives themselves.  

Submissions and thoughts on childbirth can be sent to Tanja at T.Staehler@sussex.ac.uk. The formar and length of pieces is flexible –anything from a sentence to a letter or an essay (up to 5 pages), and contributions can be anonymous or named.

Following a review process, experiences will be published on Birthsite and/or within the book Pregnancy, Birth, Being with Infants: Phenomenology of a Strange Experience which publishes via Amazon Direct, in early 2020. If contributors would like their stories considered for inclusion in the book, please submit before September 30th.


By: Stephanie Allen
Last updated: Friday, 16 August 2019

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