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The Fallacy of the Perfect Birth

In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) author Helena Vissing writes as follows:

In the idealization of birth, the negative aspects are split off and understood explicitly as the result of an unhealthy and/or abusive obstetric system and implicitly as a woman’s failure to assert and empower herself. In the Orgasmic Birth narrative, we are offered the fantasy that childbirth and motherhood without any boundary pressure are possible. From feminist psychoanalytic perspectives, this has dire consequences for maternal subjectivity. A woman will have a hard time expressing ambivalence and anxieties in a philosophy that understands negative feelings as symptoms of an oppressing system that should be resisted. A childbirth philosophy that places responsibility on the mother, whether directly or indirectly, as in the exaggerated focus on a woman’s potential control over the birth is concerning. A perfect birth is certainly a central and needed fantasy in the female psyche, but it must be reconciled with reality, similar to the maternal task of reconciling the fantasy baby with the real. The fantasy that one can conquer the powers of childbirth through the right mindset and enough resistance to control health care authorities is tempting. Reproductive capacities and birthing skills are understandably heavily coupled with femininity in our unconscious, but we must be cautious of any philosophy that promotes a “living out” of these fantasies because it sets women up for failure and makes it hard to reconcile fantasy with reality. If a woman believes her femininity rests solely or primarily on her birthing capacities, she is at a loss in her struggles toward her intertwined but not synonymous identities as a female and as a mother.

Ambivalence in the Birthing Process

The BirthRight Movement is one of the few forces in the world that sincerely and actively attempt to embrace, honor, and protect female reproductive life. However, the glorification of the birthing process has a caveat in that it may perpetuate splitting, idealization, and anxiety and, in so doing, dilute the maternal subjective experience. I find it likely that it also harbors the unconscious rage against the female body and the mother that is so deeply embedded in our psyche and drives us to control her.
In childbirth, a woman will be confronted with her personal history of genital anxiety and body pride and the intertwined relationship between the two. There is a potential for experiencing intense body pride, the joy of finally feeling the pinnacle of one’s body’s awesome abilities, and the realization of pleasurable fantasies about the satisfaction of delivery. However, these aspects are then contested against the woman’s history of genital anxiety, fears of penetration or damage to the genitals, fears of failing in one’s femininity, and general fear of death. A woman will likely wish for the former aspects to dominate and win, and she may, consciously or unconsciously, be fearful of the latter. I find it plausible that victorious and idealized fantasies are developed as defenses against these primal anxieties. I do not consider such defenses to be a priori pathological; they are on the contrary protective and helpful. The crucial difference is whether a woman can make use of them with increasing consciousness in her development of her maternal identity, or if they become collective unconscious and rigid projections in an ideological fight.

The Fallacy of the Perfect Birth

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2019). The Fallacy of the Perfect Birth. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Apr 2019
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