“Most Often People Would Tell Me I Was Crazy”: Defending against Deviance Ascribed to Alternative Birth Choices

Melanie Bayly, Pamela Downe


Childbirth-related discourses and practices have fluctuated over time in Canada. A medicalized model currently dominates, but there is increasing plurality in how birth is conceptualized and enacted. From a sample of twenty-one first-time mothers who were interviewed about their childbirth-related experiences, we explored how women described and defended their alternative birth choices within the broader social context of medicalized birth. Data were thematically analyzed and explored in relation to theoretical work on stigma and deviance, since these concepts emerged as salient to women’s narrated experiences. Findings illustrate that mothers who make alternative childbirth choices are often marked as deviant and may elicit moralizing judgments from others, which largely stem from perceptions of risk and/or safety. To counter or avoid feared and experienced deviance, women managed information about the birth of their child through passing, covering, normalizing through reframing, and condemning the condemners. This information management allowed women to present themselves as responsible, competent mothers in the face of deviance. Although previous research has demonstrated birth-related stigma in relation to the choice to birth at home or unassisted, our findings suggest that ascriptions of deviance may also extend to women’s choice of midwifery and doula care despite their increasing prevalence as part of maternity care in Canada. Since these birth options are progressively available and used, and have some empirically documented benefits for mothers, further exploration of how they and other alternative childbirth options are perceived, experienced, and morally valued by women and the general public is warranted.

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We are grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for its ongoing support of the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement.