Photo courtesy of Jamie Kenney

Actually, Joking About Women Being "Too Loud" During Childbirth Is Messed Up

If you've watched pretty much any comedy that involves a birth scene, you've heard "the joke." A woman is in labor, although from the sounds of it you'd think you were looking at a raging, horrifying (but still attractive, because Hollywood) beast. Her agonized screams fill the delivery room and the people around her are varying degrees of annoyed or uncomfortable. Cue laugh track. But joking about women being "too loud" during childbirth is messed up, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, there is no such thing as "too loud" in childbirth. This is a tremendously personal and intense experience — you, therefore, decide the appropriate volume and the sky's the limit. That's to say nothing of the fact that birth can also be extremely painful and uncomfortable — you know, on account of the giant baby head emerging from a delicate, sensitive, and not at all baby-sized area. Vocalizing pain is a very common, too, and a natural, sometimes uncontrollable instinct. During both my labors, I found that making noises, loudly, helped me manage my contractions by forcing me to control my breathing and focus on something other than the pain. And, fortunately, no one gave me crap for it. (OK, my husband laughed a little during my first labor, but that's because the noises coming out of me were genuinely funny. I mean, I sounded like a woodpecker having a particularly powerful orgasm. I couldn't control this noise, and I was laughing, too.)

Photo courtesy of Jamie Kenney

It's fine to recognize that, sometimes, birth is really funny. Hey, you're probably going to poop in front of someone and, if there's one thing I've learned from my children, it's that poop is funny. But as with all humor, the questions "Who's laughing?" and "At what/whom?" are important. The idea of making a joke about laboring mothers being "too loud" (again, not a thing) takes the humor away from the person who could use it the most and, instead, makes them the butt of the joke.

Essentially, the joke hinges on two things: women's pain and women behaving incongruently with the way we expect them to. Both are problematic.

In a world where minimizing women's pain has real life consequences, maybe let's not minimize women's pain as a joke.

To be fair, yes, we laugh at men's pain, too. What sophomoric comedy wouldn't be complete without a "getting hit in the balls" joke, right? Indeed, from Punch and Judy to YouTube, we seem to take a perverse delight in other people's pain (the Germans have an amazing word for this: "schadenfreude"). There are lots of theories as to why this happens, but let's just agree that, yeah, even though it doesn't reflect the better angels of our nature, pain can be seen as funny and in some ways this kind of joke is to be expected. But context is important, too. And in the context of women's pain not being taken seriously —even by doctors, which leads to delayed and inferior treatment — laughing at a woman suffering (particularly in the context of a medical setting) is less hilarious. Birth pain in particular is often written off as "normal" when it can be anything but. Postpartum health issues are often overlooked, either dismissed as "normal" or not even examined or questioned. In fact, a 2016 study from Ireland shows that a majority of new mothers suffered from treatable or even avoidable health problems in the first three months after birth.

Photo courtesy of Allyson M.

In a world where minimizing women's pain has real life consequences, maybe let's not minimize women's pain as a joke.

The second premise of the "shrieking like a banshee during childbirth" bit is another standard in comedy: we laugh because, LOL! Ladies don't act like this! Ladies are demure and dainty and pretty and put-together and polite and if they're not all of these things they're failing at being women. They should take up as little space, physically and socially, as they can. To this I say, ha! And no. And a few other choice words of the four letter variety.

Don't let anyone tell you it's unnecessary or that you deserve to be the subject of ridicule.

Childbirth is raw and painful and, oh, I'm sorry, is my pain inconvenient? Is my coping mechanism not to your liking? Have I not been thinking enough about how to make you feel most comfortable? Sorry, I was focusing on how to get through this but, hey, your precious comfort comes first.

In her excellent blog post on the subject of having a loud birth, Australian midwife Dr. Rachel Reed writes:

The idea that there is a ‘right’ way to behave or worse, a ‘wrong’ way to behave is unhelpful and judgemental. It seems that being quiet and ‘controlled’ is considered to be the best way to birth. How many times have you heard a woman’s labour described in a positive way because she was ‘so in control and quietly breathed her baby out’? In contrast, the loud woman is encouraged to breath (ie. stop screaming/shouting) and focus. This happens often in the hospital setting where midwives attempt to keep a woman quiet so as not to ‘frighten the other women’. These women are often described as ‘not coping’ – when in fact they are coping just fine… but loudly. It is those around them who are not coping.

She goes on to hypothesize:

Perhaps we (society/culture) are afraid of the primal power expressed during birth – here is a woman connected to, and expressing the immense power and strength of woman. The response is to shut her up and encourage her to act like a ‘good girl’ so as not to upset anyone (including herself).

My response?

Look, is everyone going to be Hollywood-level screaming when they give birth? Probably not. It's Hollywood, after all. They make things dramatic for a reason.. If you happen to go about birthing a child quietly (or just not too loudly) that's totally cool. But if you are loud, either intentionally or naturally, that's totally cool, too. Don't let anyone tell you it's unnecessary or that you deserve to be the subject of ridicule.

So stop making this lazy joke, people. For one, it's hackneyed AF and it's rooted in some really horrible premises that hurt women.

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.