True liberation needs to keep maternal bodies in the picture

Recent news reports have described the way in which a photograph of two men holding their newborn baby has been used, without their or the photographer’s permission, in an Irish politician’s campaign against same-sex surrogacy. Condemnation of this has been widespread and, I think, absolutely correct. The picture tells us absolutely nothing about whether same-sex couples are less equipped to raise children than heterosexual ones (they’re not). Even so, every time I see that photo there is something that seems to me not quite right.

It’s the face off to the side that bothers me. Is that the woman who has just given birth? How does she feel? Is she hurting? Is she still struggling to deliver the placenta while the camera clicks away? Does she feel a desire to touch and hold the baby, too? Hopefully she is fine, her pregnancy, her labour, all gifts freely and joyfully given. But would anyone care if she wasn’t? Would they have refrained from taking the picture in that case? Would they even know?

The photographer describes the image as one that “shouts ‘love’ from the rooftops”. Negative feelings – longing, distress, isolation – have no place in the story she wishes it to tell. Still, I wonder how many women who have given birth can look at that picture and not feel unsettled by the exclusion of any maternal subjectivity. A baby does not simply exit your body; it breaks you open. It changes you. This does not mean that you are the best or only person who can care for that baby – or even that you should want to be – but it does make the act of giving birth intense, unpredictable and laden with risk. It is not just some dramatic, one-off physical feat – watch, while I produce a whole new person before your very eyes!  The relationship a woman has with what is inside/outside of her body is not something that can be made to disappear thanks to the right camera angle.

This is why to me, the image seems at best tactless, at worst cruel. In seeking to capture something very real and emotionally intense – the couple’s love for their new child – it implicitly devalues the reality and emotional intensity of giving birth. The proximity of such obvious joy with — well, what? We don’t know and we’re not supposed to care – suggests that you can reduce the female reproductive body to a means to an end. But you can’t. People who give birth are still people and their bodies and emotions are worth as much as everyone else’s.

Media reporting on how the image has been used suggests there are only two positions you can take. Either you’re a homophobic bigot who doesn’t want gay couples to raise children at all, or you’re totally entranced by the sight of two men so in love with their newborn. I don’t think it’s that simple. If anything, I think it highlights the difficulty of finding a way of dismantling gender norms while still recognising the importance of bodies that gestate and give birth.

Patriarchy has sought to control female reproduction through institutions such as compulsory heterosexuality and marriage. I don’t think it’s enough to dismantle these institutions if female bodies remain at risk of reproductive exploitation. We need to recognise that challenging conservative stereotypes about the family can, but need not necessarily, benefit women. There is more than one way to dehumanise us. A truly revolutionary politics would be aware of this and be prepared to dismiss both the insistence that family = mummy + daddy + baby and the erasure of maternal bodies in the process of creating new people..

I look at that photo and I think, not just about the confusion and hormone rush of the hours after birth, but also what happens later, the milk coming in, the crash three days in, the month-long bleed. With surrogacy there is a story that isn’t being told and it seems to me, potentially at least, a very lonely one. Every single person, no matter who raises them, leaves another body behind them. We need to ensure that this body remains visible and valued.