Why Does Childbirth Make Us Squirm?

Via elephant journal
on Nov 30, 2010
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Why does blood gushing out of a vagina make us squirm?

I reading an article about home births on Elephant Journal the other day and it reminded me of one of my favorite films, Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving.

The film is a beautiful, artistic documentation of the home birth of the filmmaker’s first child.

The first time I saw Window Water Baby Moving was in film class at Sarah Lawrence College.  I remember feeling moved and shocked by how beautiful and gory it was.  I was surprised by how little I knew about such a fundamental aspect of life.  I didn’t even know what afterbirth was until watching the film, and I was taken aback by the strange beauty of something that was simultaneously transfixing and revolting.

A few days ago, I watched Window Water Baby Moving again with Waylon Lewis, founder of Elephant Journal, who had never seen it before. He reacted similarly as my first time, closing his eyes in horror during certain shots. It reestablished my love for Stan Brakhage for his ability to confront us with our humanness.

It’s interesting to contemplate why so many of us are uncomfortable with something so fundamentally human.

Is it cultural or biological? Waylon’s theory is that he doesn’t want to see someone he cares about in pain…but I’m pretty sure there’s a cultural element at play. If birth and death weren’t so hidden from our daily lives, would watching Brakhage’s films be so jarring?

Brakhage lived in Boulder, Colorado and knew Buddhist teacher and artist Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and I wonder if the Dharmic [Buddhist] quality of his films was accidental. His films are fearless, gentle, and ordinary explorations of life with a perspective as fresh as a child’s.

The following Dharmic passage is from Brakhage’s essay “Metaphors on Vision”:

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does respond to the name of everything but which  must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception.  How many colors are their in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of “Green”?  How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye?  How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color.  Imagine a world before the “beginning was the word.”


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7 Responses to “Why Does Childbirth Make Us Squirm?”

  1. elephantjournal says:

    Colin T: It doesn't and never has made me squirm or feel uneasy, indeed, why should it?

    Tamara M: This film documents the least gory birth I have ever seen.

    Karki M: Well, it is a bit of a mess. Aside from that, it's all pretty normal.

    elephantjournal.com You all are so macho. Liberal machismo, I love it. I quaked and cried and oi-veyed and half-fainted. ~ Waylon

  2. liz says:

    well, blood gushing out of *anything* makes me squirm. but i do find the idea of birth to be amazing and beautiful…just not sure that i want to experience or watch one.

  3. helene_rose says:

    Hi Juliana~ Thanks for doing your part to normalize homebirth and for linking the homebirth unveiled piece! The close-ups of the va-j-j and the baby entering the earth plane would have anyone squirming. It's the bigger picture that fills us with the joy and beauty of birth.

    Helene Rose

  4. Juliana McCarthy says:

    Thanks for writing, Helene! I enjoyed your piece on homebirth… inspiring. I was actually born at home. Interesting topic.

    All the Best,


  5. kia says:

    I have not seen this film but I want to now. I did a home birth this year and even before that I was not that squeamish. I am trained as an ecologist and have seen large mammals give birth in the wild. I remembered that in prepping for my own birth process. I think many in our culture are squeamish because it is foreign. Women are whisked away behind sterile medical doors in pop American culture as the norm. Thanks for doing this post and helping to "demystify" the process.

  6. JulianaMcC says:

    Thanks, Kia! I'm totally fascinated by this subject… why sex, birth, and death are so obscured in our culture yet they're the cornerstones of life. So cool that you've seen large mammals give birth in the wild! The topic of animal birth adds an interesting layer to the discussion.



  7. […] Why does blood gushing out of a Vagina make us squirm? ~ Juliana …Nov 30, 2010 … Why does blood gushing out of a vagina make us squirm? I reading an article about home births on Elephant Journal the other day and it … […]