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351 Revelations and Representations: Birth Stories and Motherhood on the Internet by kim hensley owens 22 Idon’tdependondoctors,Nestlebottles,orthegoodnessoftheestablishment.… The woman who has homebirth and breastfeeds a long time, is using the power that Nature gave her. She is free and powerful. —Gabriela, Joseph was born on Oct 6, 1995 and at that time I didn’t know there was such a web-site devoted to this type of issue; it would have been a great help.… The hospital and doctors dealt with my physical problems quite effectively but there was no emotional support in my hospital and no information about what I had gone through. —Joseph’s mother, As the Internet becomes host to websites devoted to parenting and childbirth , sites that invite readers to share their birth stories, thousands of women are posting their stories about childbirth, their initiation into motherhood. Some, like Gabriela, offer sweeping pronouncements and political statements. Others, like Joseph’s mother, announce their gratitude for the space and freedom to write, their need for birth stories and online communities. Although authors and scholars as diverse as Cherríe Moraga, Isabel Allende, Suzanne Arms, and Robbie Davis-Floyd have published about their personal experiences with childbirth and motherhood, until 352 kim hensley owens recentlycontemporarywomenwhoarenot“writers,”thosewhosevocations range from stay-at-home mother to lawyer to bus driver, have not generally written their experiences for the public. But the Internet has changed that, bringing everyday women’s birth experiences into other women’s ken. These online accounts of childbirth entertain and educate; they also reveal aspects of women’s experiences and attitudes toward childbirth, motherhood , and their roles in society. Childbirth narratives, of course, have long been shared by everyday women. They have tended to circulate orally in maternity wards, in childbirth classes, and among female friends and relatives, and they have appeared in letters and diaries. Such birth stories, however, have traditionally been limited in their intended and reached audiences. Written childbirth stories have begun to reach academic audiences through the work of scholarssuchasCynthiaHuff ,arhetoricianwhostudieswomen’squotidianwriting , and Judith Leavitt, a historian whose comprehensive childbirth history relies in part on her analysis of women’s diaries and letters. In this newly digital age, as birth stories have begun to be shared online, they are spreading to far wider and more disparate audiences than ever before. Women now can and do write emails, keep blogs, and post their personal stories on childbirth and parenting websites. Women who write online birth stories depend upon previous incarnations of the birth story—often “horror stories” told to pregnant women—even as they alter that genre in this new medium of the Internet. Because mothers of varied backgrounds are now embracing the Internet as a space to share birth stories, scholars and the public alike now have access to these self-representations. In this essay I extend Adrienne Rich’s claim that women’s childbirth choices and limitations always have political ramifications. Through an analysis of online childbirth narratives alongside responses to a childbirth writing survey, I argue that women’s rhetorical choices in representing their childbirth experiences online are also political, and can have material effects on those who write and read them. I draw birth narratives from five websites—, thelaborof,,, and While these five are not the only sites devoted to birth stories and information , I chose them because they demonstrate the breadth of options readily available on the Internet. In addition to hundreds of birth stories, child,, and offer extensive general information and external links to further information and products. These three sites are clearly sponsored by advertising funds; their birth stories draw readers—potential consumers—to the sites. By contrast, the 353 revelations and representations other two sites, and, each run by one woman, have no apparent corporate tie-ins or external advertising. Unas and provide less generalized information than the other three sites, and both cater at least somewhat to particular audiences. Unassisted explicitly targets women who are intrigued about giving birth alone. attracts mothers with large numbers of children: the site owner herself has seven children, and various websites devoted to large family issues or values link to this site. In2005,afterobtainingapprovalformyonlineandsurveyresearchfrom the Institutional Review Board at the University of Illinois, I wrote to 120 mothers who had posted their birth stories...


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