Centre for Cultures of Reproduction, Technologies and Health

Notes on Motherhood, Pregnancy and Childbirth

CORTH Blog: 08 January 2021

Marycarmen Rubalcava Oliveros is a feminist and Mexican Political Science graduate from UNAM. Part of the IJRA scheme of the University of Sussex at CORTH in 2019. Interested in sexual and reproductive health and rights, motherhood, public policies and gender, with an intercultural perspective.

Notes on Motherhood, Pregnancy and ChildbirthTranslation: 'For a loving, conscious and safe birth'

I never had the benefit of not thinking about motherhood; first, because I did not have a choice, and after because I choose to do it. Since I was little, I have heard about women being not only naturally prepared but also wanting to become a mother. The thing is, every time I heard it, I was not allowed to say otherwise, and I was afraid to ask. The idea floated in the air, and that was it. If I was neither a doctor nor a biology professor, I could not talk about it.

Later on, I decided I wanted to talk. I was astonished by the debate about whether or not someone wanted to be a mother. I thought one position was better than and incompatible with the other. I was wrong. I realized both had the same source: a personal decision regarding our future and the right to decide over our own body. However, I also understood it was an experience shaped by the community we live in, the values we share, and the information we learn.

There is a gap between what the cultural and social experience is and what biology and scientific discourse declare. But, before going any further, I would like to point out two things. First, motherhood cannot be automatically translated into a father-mother relationship since it would deny the existence of non-heterosexual relationships, other arrangements, and other networks of social and emotional support. Second, giving birth does not make someone a mother in as much as being a mother is not a result of giving birth.

However, this gap, this disagreement between the biological approach and the cultural-social experience, made me realize there are far more questions than answers to our understanding of motherhood, pregnancy, and birth. So, I decided I wanted to learn more about it. Rather than rejecting motherhood, as I did before, I chose to advocate for a desired, healthy, and non-violent maternity. It is this purpose that drives me through all my research.

Today I will describe what I consider to be some of the key elements of my analysis of pregnancy and birth practices in the context of motherhood. To begin to do this, I had to ask the most relevant question: how do we understand pregnancy and birth in western-modern society, with an emphasis on Latin America and Mexico. This concern led me to three related matters. First, the weight of the medical system in our society; second, obstetric power; and third, the hierarchical relations within the system. I still do not have all the answers, nor am I sure that I ever will, but I would like to present some of my findings on this topic.

How do we understand birth in western-modern society? Well, there is not an easy answer. There is not one single way of understanding birth. Nevertheless, I found that the bio-medical approach was the most common form of comprehending and attending pregnancy and birthing. What seems like a triumph because the more technology and science is used, the more civilized and modern society is. However, the notion of maternal health is limited to "the doctor is the only one who knows, and technological intervention is the only thing that can cure" (María González in Camarco, p.102, 2008). Except, pregnancy and childbirth are not only biological events.

This medical approach is neither good nor bad by itself, but it is not enough (to describe what actually happens) and, without a doubt, it is worth questioning. For example, what are the social and power dynamics within the medical type of care? Gabriela Arguedas (2014) studied this. She analyzed the doctor-patient relation regarding obstetric violence in hospitals in Costa Rica and a few other Latin American countries, and she introduced the concept of obstetric power. She identifies it as a form of violence that has two parts: The first one regards the attitude towards the body of the pregnant mother. Following Foucault, Arguedas observes that in the western medical system, pregnancy and childbirth are processes of alteration and disorder, and the doctor must cure them. Secondly, mothers are thought to not have the credibility to speak nor the influence to decide anything because they do not understand science, if they want to achieve some degree of well-being, they must show docility. In consequence, they live their pregnancies and childbirth only as bystanders (Arguedas, 2014).

The concept of obstetric power has a lot of value because it illustrates the effects of how we define birth and how we act upon that perception. This notion brings me to the last element I would like to discuss: how concepts, practices, and groups are formed into a hierarchy (Catherine Walsh, 2010), not as a separate consequence but rather an idea wrapped around the others. Institutional medical care appears to be the normal thing to do, and as such, it denies other types of care, even if they have existed for centuries.

In reproductive issues, there is a sort of double hierarchy, one regarding knowledge, and the other resulting of men being at the top of the social status. Certainly, other factors play into this form of organization, for example, race, age, class, sexual orientation, etc. This hierarchy, reinforced not only by scientists but by society, is seen as the natural order of things. We learn, and we see the world through this arrangement, and everything that does not fit the biomedical-modern criteria, is not worth listening to, recognizing, or understanding.

I am not rejecting medical care. It is not that simple. But I am against a structure that naturalizes inequalities, discrimination, and violence. Although there is no recipe nor a single set of instructions to assuage this problem, I find that, if we want to rethink the system, we should acknowledge how it acts and what its outcomes are, while also recognizing the diversity of people, knowledge, and beliefs that ultimately make up that system. As Catherine Walsh (2010) says, we should not stop at identifying diversity, we must learn how to re-build from diversity. As I said earlier, my research is still an ongoing proposal, and I intend to devote more time thinking about motherhood, pregnancy, and birth. However, "la maternidad será deseada o no será" (motherhood will either be desired, or it will not be), and that will continue to be one of my guiding principles.

I want to thank Maya Unnithan, Rebecca Ashley, and Frida Ericka J., who have helped me throughout my investigation. Your feedback and questions have challenged me to go further with my research. Additionally, a huge thank you to Mayra N., who has been there for me through thick and thin, thank you for your guidance.


Arguedas, G. (2014). La violencia obstétrica. Propuesta conceptual a partir de la experiencia costarricense. Cuadernos Intercambio Sobre Centroamérica y El Caribe, 11(1), 145–169.

Camarco, M. (2008). La discusión discursiva médico-obstétrica en el proceso reproductivo de las mujeres. Ensayo y Error, XVII(35), 95–115.

Walsh, C. (2010). Interculturalidad crítica y educación intercultural. In J. Viaña & L. Tapia (Eds.), Construyendo Interculturalidad Crítica (pp. 1–18). Instituto Internacional de Integración.