Hierarchies of Otherly Knowledge


Launch of Birth-Knowledge-Generator web project, in cooperation with graphic designer and programmer Christoph Knoth and illustrator Inga-Marie Ruxton

A few weeks ago a woman was laughing about me because I work on the topic of motherhood without being a mother myself. In her opinion I was missing the experience. Apparently I can only gain this competence through pregnancy and giving birth. The reaction of this woman was actually a reoccurring theme for me. Whenever I talk about my project I explain that I am not a mother myself but collaborate together with a mother. We therefore cover both perspectives. And I also have a mother of course – this justification machine always starts instantly. The woman who was laughing about me finally gave this justification machine a right to exist.

It seems to be weird when a human with an uterus who does not have children, never tried to have children and possibly never will have children, works on the topic of motherhood. At the same time I am also missing the medical legitimatization. I am neither a doctor nor a midwife. The only entitlement I have: to be the child of a mother.

There is an obvious hierarchy in relation to motherly knowledge and the birth experience is of course part of it. This knowledge hierarchy is especially interesting between medical professionals and somebody who is pregnant. The dependencies are reciprocal and multilayered. I was allowed to follow the dynamics of this relationship from the perspective of doctors (and a few midwives) at the conference of the »Association for Gynecology and Obstetrics« in October 2016. The relationship to the patients is very complex and the doctors do not necessarily assume a simple supremacy. Medical knowledge and medical apparatus appear usually cold and impersonal. To reach the patients fully, personal mediation is required. The interest in this personal mediation grows. This can be certainly related to the growing competition with midwife-run birth houses as well as the diversity of lifestyle procedures surrounding pregnancy, which are sold additionally to the standard care.

The outstanding aspect of obstetrics in relation to medicine is the positive connotation. Most doctors treat disease and try to postpone death. Obstetrics, the Latin word for midwife, helps life to enter the world. The process of giving birth is a natural body function. All the medical procedures and prerequisites often related to it seem like an oxymoron to the word natural. Knowledge about birth stays a closed book to most people in the Western world until they are in the situation of giving birth themselves. Accordingly a lot has to be learned in a short period of time. It is not the rule anymore to give birth at home and therefore it is unusual to encounter a birth as a medically untrained person. We usually give birth in houses specifically designed for this purpose, only surrounded by people who received professional training. The empirical knowledge of giving birth is only accessible to a small number of people. The options are minimized to medical training or the decision to give birth to a lot of children. My grandmother gave birth eleven times and I am certain at least the 11th was an experienced one. When I started to work on the topic of motherhood I realized how little I know about the functions of my own uterus. Doctors and midwives are therefore in a privileged position.

At the conference I went to, with very few exceptions (midwives) mostly doctors – specifically male doctors – were invited to speak. Most speakers were enthusiastic about their topic, which was contagious to me. The days after the conference the medical knowledge was spilling out of me and for the first time in my life I could relate to the desire to become a doctor. I was positively surprised about the active advances among the doctors to make the system »birth« more approachable, to appreciate the midwife profession more and to accompany the psychological aspects of birth in greater detail. Yet, the other extreme was also present – fear of the midwife as competitor, obvious birth lifestyle marketing and lack of understanding for psychological needs during pregnancy.

Apart from active obstetrics, reproductive medicine was heatedly debated.

I wanted to make my experiences accessible to others. However, to just write about it and evaluate the conference in the form of an article seemed too simple. I wanted to tackle the medical knowledge and to create continuously new encounters between the described oppositions. Together with graphic designer and programmer Christoph Knoth and illustrator Inga-Marie Ruxton I therefore developed the web project Birth-Knowledge-Generator.

I do not understand this project as a condemnation of gynecology and/or obstetrics. I am also not planning to just rip quotes out of their context. For me the most important aspect is to give birth related knowledge a new context and a new sensuality.