The (Social) Mediated Myth of Childbirth

Curator's Note

Social media can be a platform for expressing a plurality of experience, and yet it too often becomes an echo chamber for dominant narratives. Just as Butler (2007) theorized a performativity, or acting out, of our gender roles, so too is there a performativity of motherhood online. It prescribes many aspects of how we should parent, and starts with how children should come into the world. Carefully curated birth stories, shared in social media platforms like Facebook and Youtube, establish what is a “good birth” and, by implication, what is a “bad birth” (Das, 67). My intention is not to suggest that individual mothers, in choosing whether or how to share their birth stories, participate in further entrenching this dominant narrative. Rather, it has become an implicit cultural norm that births involving medical intervention are not shared online, creating and perpetuating a sense of shame around those common and very real birth stories.    

When preparing for the birth of my first child, I turned to social media for guidance. I read birth stories posted on Facebook, watched Youtube videos, and listened to podcasts where women shared their birth experiences. Almost without exception, the narratives I found described natural, unmedicated, vaginal births. When my own birth necessitated a cesarean section, I felt like a failure because this was not the experience I had seen in the stories shared online. These stories had led me to believe that I was immune from the medical interventions that I should have known were a statistical possibility--according to the Centers for Disease Control, in the United States, 32% of babies are born via cesarean.

Since becoming a mother (now twice over) I have experienced being among a group of new moms gathered behind closed doors, where often the conversation turns to birth stories. There is something that compels us to share the intimate details of our most vulnerable moments. In these circles I learned that my story is not unique. And yet, mine was not the birth story that I saw on social media as an expectant first-time mom.

What would it look like if the diversity of childbirth experience was truly represented online? What would it look like if we shared our truths and supported one another on our individual birthing journeys, regardless of what they look like? By sharing our unique stories we can break the culture of shame that a single narrative of birth can create (Adichie, 2009). I share my own story in the hopes that it might spark a conversation about this mediated myth of childbirth, and empower women to contribute to building a rich plurality of experience online by sharing theirs.



Adichie, Chimamanda. “The Dangers of a Single Story.” TED . London. July 2009. You Tube. Web. 19 Nov. 2010. <‌watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg>.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble : Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 2007.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Health Statistics, 2017,  Accessed May 1, 2019.

Das, Ranjana. “Mediated Subjectivities of the Maternal: A Critique of Childbirth Videos on YouTube.” Communication Review, vol. 21, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 66–84. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10714421.2017.1416807.



Thanks for sharing your birth story with us.  As you note, social media has fostered a normative script for birthing that can leave those requiring standard medical intervention feeling as if they have somehow 'failed' as mothers (before their child is even a few hours old!). As you also note, this script is only one of several that could be shared on social media and diversified stories would help new mothers whose births did not go 'as planned' embrace their experiences as legitimate, important and also worth repeating/narrating/displaying.  

Something perhaps worth noting here:  Butler is much more interested in subverting gender than diversifying it.  Perhaps, social media scripts of "alternative" modes of birthing (and rearing) children were subversive in their early stages.  Indeed, they aimed to reveal the medical establishment's version of motherhood (as a particular form of gendered identity) as socially constructed.  But, once scripts of alternative birthing become the predominantly repeated pattern, repeating that script can also be oppressive and painful (as you note!).  Then it too requires subversion.

I've been thinking about Butler's early reference to drag as a form of mimicry that displaces the gendered conventions in place. More specifically, I've been prompted by your post to wonder how social media could be used to engage in mimicry that reveals conventions AS conventions through performances that satirize, exaggerate and otherwise reveal existing norms of motherhood as plastic (both fake and malleable). 

One example great example was Michelle Tea's pregnancy blog (which was run on xo jane, but seems to no longer exist) and the photoessay of her pregnancy here.



Thanks so much for engaging with my post and for your keen insights re: diversity vs. subversion. I appreciate your observation that what once was subversive may become the norm, and even oppressive, leaving us needing new forms of subversion. It seems to me that what is truly subversive in our hyper-connected and curated moment in time, is vulnerability and a willingness to share even when the story is not neatly packaged or easily understood. Seeing the new post today, which critiques pics of celebs breastpumping makes me even more keenly aware of this- if our norm of "honest" images of motherhood is celebrities who conform to eurocentric ideals of beauty wearing designer clothes, where does that leave the rest of us? 

I love the photoessay you shared! Thanks for that resource:) 

Thanks for starting this conversation. I agree that the publicizing of multiple and alternative narratives and experiences is important. Interesting how, as Shelley points out, these particular narratives and representations were most likely subversive when they first appeared, probably influenced by the second-wave's efforts to wrest back control of women's bodies away from the regulating force of the 'expert' medical industry, but how quickly they become yet another measure against which we judge maternal success and failure. The urge towards representing motherhood in binary terms - good vs bad, valorized vs denigrated - is certainly hard to shake, and, as you mention, has very real consequences for actual mothers. 

Thinking about the maternal in terms of the performative is potentially one way to avoid this tendency towards a restrictive dichotomy. Emily Jeremiah's written on this in her article, 'Motherhood to Mothering and Beyond: Maternity in recent feminist thought'. She applies Butler's theory of performativity to maternal practice (which she identifies as work - a series of processes, repetitions, and acts), to argue for a specificially maternal performativity, that offers with it the radical possibility for subversion and change. She compares the performative mother to Butler’s analysis of drag, both of which, through their performance and potentially subversive rearticulation of norms, offer the possibility for exposing the fallacy of an original; for Butler, this original is the heterosexual, for Jeremiah, the original is the selfless originary mother of both essentialism and psychoanalysis. She's interested in theorizing exactly the kind of mimicry and parody that Shelley's examples enact, I think. 

The other thing that comes to mind, which you might be interested in checking out, is an article by Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser that looks at the proliferation of media reps of childbirth in recent decades. You can access it here: 

I love how you brought in performativity, especially on social media!  Even if things with birth weren't "perfect", whatever that may mean for the individual, there is pressure to conform to the culture industry's notion of perfection.  The homogenous narrative harms all of us, starting from childbirth and these pressures to conform are inescapable.  

I love the Adichie talk, I use it a lot when talking about building an intentional bookshelf in early education classrooms!

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