Series: How Welcoming Is Your Childbirth Class To All Families? A Lesbian Couple Share Their Experience
Guest post by Cathy Busha, MSW
This post is the first in an occasional series on CBE teaching strategies that embrace the diverse populations that take childbirth classes. Childbirth educators that want to welcome all families to their classes will find information and resources in the series for making their classes a positive place for all. The second post in the series, to be posted on Thursday, will offer insights on specific things that educators can do, from a LCCE and lesbian mom. Please welcome this guest post by Cathy Busha, MSW. – SM
My partner and I are expecting our first baby in July; she is carrying. To prepare, like many first-time expecting parents, we signed up for a birth class offered through our insurance. Rather than seek a private class, it felt important to us to attend this class because 1) it’s free and our budget is tight 2) it’s at the hospital where we are having the baby and 3) from a social change place, I believe in integration not segregation; the birth class that is offered for everyone should be welcoming and have information inclusive of us, too.
While I have not experienced overt homophobia during our pregnancy, as the non-biological mom, I have experienced moments of invisibility. For example, when we found out we were pregnant, a well-meaning friend said, “Congrats! Anna is going to be a mom!” I didn’t know if the educator or our classmates would have judgment or visible discomfort about two women having a baby. While the advertisements for the class talked about partners, all the images were of heterosexual couples. As a genderqueer lesbian, I had some nervousness about attending the class.
My partner is a Lamaze certified childbirth educator, so I have learned a lot about the birth process through conversations about her work. That said, it felt important to me that we take a class together – to make sure I had a strong foundation of understanding of the birth process and how to support her. While we had been watching videos together at home, I wanted to take a class with her so we could learn, talk about the information and create our birth plan together, as a couple.
As I’ve explored books and blogs and birth websites, it seems the birth world, like the rest of the world, is hyper-heterosexist with rigid gender roles. Heterosexism assumes that everyone is straight: there are no pictures or stories of lesbian births on mainstream birth websites. At best, the word ‘partner’ is used, but all images, examples and stories are of straight couples. I have grown weary of having to translate my role (non-biological mom) from mainstream books, videos and materials that assume all families are one man, one woman.
As for gender roles, on birth websites, women are portrayed with long hair, flowy white dresses, surrounded by flowers, brimming with nurturing instincts. Men, on the other hand, are described as bumbling, strong, masculine providers who may or may not know how to hold a baby or change a diaper, but patiently suffer through their wives’ crazy cravings and mood swings. I don’t identify with either of these paradigms and wondered how I would fit into the birth class we had chosen to take.
I fully anticipated that we’d be the ‘token’ lesbians in the birth class and I was right; however, there was also a single woman in our class who attended with her best friend.
Our childbirth class was two Saturdays with two different and wonderful educators. As they taught us about the “stages and phases,” I felt affirmed and included when the educators said statements like:
- “…partners are continuous labor support for the mom…”
- “…a doula helps the woman and her partner through the birthing process…”
- “…research shows that just holding your partner’s hand during contractions has strong emotional and physical results…”
- “…it is important to start talking to your baby now – the baby can also hear the partner’s voice…”
Then I realized that while both childbirth educators went out of their way to talk about the birth mom and partner, I felt empathy for the single mom — the word partner rendered her and her friend invisible. I wondered how can educators honor and include everyone in the room?
While our educators clearly tried to use inclusive language like partner there were still comments such as:
- “…you fathers will also produce high levels of oxytocin during birth…”
- During hand massage training, “…most of you guys in here have bigger hands then your partners…”
- and “…when the baby is born, everyone wants to look at it and figure out – does the baby look like mom or dad?”
We also did a break-out session, where the pregnant women made a list of what would be helpful from their support person during labor; we support people left the room and were asked to also make a list of what we thought would be helpful for us to do. When we returned to the room to share our lists, the educator said, “Dads – let’s hear your list,” which made the best friend and me invisible again. It felt hurtful and dis-empowering for the educator to use the word “dads,” particularly after working in our small group – where I felt very included and acknowledged by the other support people. It’s no surprise to me, but in working through this exercise in our small groups, it became clear that as support people, our hopes and fears for the birth process were exactly the same.
In the class, we practiced massage, counter-pressure and other comfort measures. My partner and I are very comfortable in public with our sexual orientation/gender identities. As I rubbed her back, I wondered how comfortable this activity might be for a lesbian couple who was less ‘out’ or if someone in the room was openly homophobic.
Overall in the class, I felt we were acknowledged and accepted by the educators and classmates; however, all the videos, print material and photos were of straight couples. It would have been validating to see even one same-sex couple depicted. While childbirth educators should check out the Family Equality Council or Gay Parent Magazine to learn more about the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) community, the assumption that pregnant women “must be in relationship with a man” is what needs to change. Queer families are not the only non-traditional family structures that have been increasing; the solo parent (aka Single Mothers by Choice) community is a growing and vibrant one, too.
Overall, the class was a positive experience for my partner and me. I feel more knowledgeable and prepared to support my partner through childbirth. It may have been easier for us to take a private class, but it was more important for us to connect with other families and develop a sense of community. In meeting our needs, we believe we also helped break down stereotypes and increased awareness. I am eagerly counting down the weeks until I can put into practice everything I learned in class and help my partner birth our baby.
A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Cathy Busha is a Human Services/Social Work Faculty member at a community college in Salem, Oregon. A former middle school English teacher and high school basketball and track and field coach, Cathy has a Master’s of Social Work degree from Arizona State University. The focus of her work includes diversity/inclusion, organizational development and multi-issue community organizing, particularly LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people of color, youth and immigrants. Cathy and her partner moved to Oregon from the Boulder, Colorado area this past August and are expecting their first child in July. She welcomes all parenting advice. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.