"In Pain You Shall Bring Forth Children" — The Business Behind Suffering In Childbirth
Certain female doctors, extremist midwives, online consultants extol the benefits of painful labor, blame mothers who resort to C-sections and convince them to refuse anesthesia. From Italy, an expose on who they are and why they preach a return to the ancestral nature of motherhood.
ROME — “I was told that enduring the pain of childbirth would be the first test as a mother..."
Ginevra Massiletti, 32, went into labor with her first child last year in the southern Italian city of Cosenza, convinced that childbirth should be a fully natural experience.
"I was in too much pain, but I didn't want to give in to analgesia," she said. "In the end, however, I couldn't take it; I asked for an epidural to feel less pain, but in the meantime I was crying and apologizing to my baby, feeling that I had betrayed him because of my weakness and need for relief.”
Ginevra says she's now over the shock, but “for months, I believed I was not up to my motherhood.”
During her pregnancy, reading various blogs and social pages, she had internalized a belief: that childbirth accompanied by anesthesia to relieve the mother's pain was a second-class birth, and especially that in doing so she would selfishly put herself before the baby.
Ginevra’s is not an isolated case. Indeed, online, in some newspapers, and even in certain health circles, a narrative of motherhood that ostracizes any medical-pharmacological support for childbirth, not to mention the use of C-section, is raging in the name of an ancestral vision according to which the mother's body must do everything on its own. Any “little help” offered by science will have negative effects on the unborn child.
Behind this, there is often also a real business, with courses and consultations, strictly on a for-profit basis.
Lorena Traldi is a self-proclaimed holistic practitioner and teacher of infant massage, which she claims to “have transformed into an integrative newborn massage as it includes some massage techniques learned during a certified course" — without specifying what kind of course, or certified by whom. On her website, she sells €360 classes on how to rid the newborn's body of the trauma of cesarean delivery, which allegedly causes restlessness, desperate crying, fear, anxiety and long-term distress.
How she manages to do all this through a WhatsApp video call remains a mystery. As for her scientific sources: they are simply not given.
On her view of C-section, however, there is no doubt: by being born via surgery, her website says, “the baby cannot experience its physical strength, and its emotional tone will be related to the kind of experience it had during birth; what remains may be the struggle between two opposing forces: the innate instinct to be born naturally, versus a mechanical induction that inhibits it.”
Traldi is part of a team of family counselors, the “With Love” team, which sells products for new parents online, including a €59 baby sleep guide.
A cure — for a price
This ancestral view of motherhood is essentially expressed in two currents: a more “naturalistic" one and an “intensive-mother-centric” one. The common element is the role that pain plays during childbirth.
The latter current ascribes to the pain of childbirth a power free from scientific forms of control: an article published by Uppa, a magazine dedicated to parenting, argues that “the epidural confirms to the woman that her body is a machine that does not work well, that it must be managed by experts, even to do the most natural thing in the world: giving birth to a child.”
The naturalistic strand, on the other hand, blames painful childbirth on the hospital environment, which, they claim, impairs the production of estrogen, a natural analgesic. Non-medically assisted childbirth at home, according to proponents of this current, is the only way forward.
People arguing for this naturalistic explanation include social media pages like “The Midwife of the Soul” or “The Three Moons,” or proponents of women's shamanism such as Francesca Maffeo, who, on her profile, rattles off theories of dubious validity (“If you have frequent stomach aches, it’s because you haven't digested some event in your life”), as well as hundreds of social media profiles behind which there are shamanic coaches, holistic practitioners and naturopaths united by the same intent: selling courses.
The strand of intensive motherhood also has its social media personalities, including professional breast-feeding consultants Antonella Sagone, Martina Carabetta and Marika Novaresio, who help women stop breastfeeding only after making sure, according to very personal evaluation parameters, that “the mother really wants it.” Most of the time they manage to realize this after a quick chat consultation.
Martina Guglielmi, who recently gave birth, recounts relying on one such consultant to stop breastfeeding: “After a quick exchange of messages, the guru asked me for €90 for a consultation that would take place via chat. It was obvious from the start that she was trying to convince me that I really did not want to stop breastfeeding, that it was the society that wanted it. That was a fragile time for me, and meeting her exacerbated the guilt and inadequacy I was feeling. Today I can talk about it lucidly, but it was not easy to realize what I had undergone.”
Health care is not immune
This totalizing and performative view of motherhood is not confined to extremist environments but also takes root in some hospitals.
“During my first pregnancy,” recalls Silvia Licata, “I was followed privately by a gynecologist who also works at the Beauregard Hospital in Aosta. The pregnancy was progressing well, although my health condition was not the best. Since I did not really feel like entrusting the delivery to my body alone, I decided, almost immediately, to ask to schedule a C-section, and I will never forget the gynecologist's answer: ‘Only the pain of natural childbirth unites a mother to a child, but if you still want to surrender at the start, you have to be psychologically evaluated to assess your eligibility to access this procedure.’ I had never heard of this clause, but I relied on the professional referred by the hospital, at my own expense," she says.
“Our sessions were characterized by constant attempts to dissuade me from the C-section, such as: ‘In life, we experience difficult moments and joyful moments. Don’t we remember with more love those who have been close to us in difficulty? The pain of childbirth will allow you to experience a difficult time with your daughter, and your bond will be unique.'”
On the other hand, I was constantly told to stop screaming, because ‘It’s no use anyway’.
“After a series of attempts, the doctor emailed me a self-assessment test for postpartum depression with a series of questions that disturbed me. I remember one question about whether I felt hatred toward the life I was carrying inside. It made me shiver. As I filled it out I could not ignore a question that plagued me: why do I have to undergo this assessment to get a C-section? Eventually, I sent the test, from which I was found to be not at risk for depression, therefore not eligible for cesarean delivery.”
Giusy Rondinelli, 30, filed a complaint with the Prosecutor's Office in Bologna for the treatment she received during childbirth, complaining that she was not given any medication for pain during labor (“On the other hand, I was constantly told to stop screaming, because ‘It’s no use anyway’”) and that stitches in the vulvar area that were poorly applied were removed without warning her while staff held her legs and arms. She also contracted an infection from prolonged contact with fecal material, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder,” explains psychologist Martina Ferrari, who specializes in relationship psychoanalysis, “is diagnosed in 4% of women in Europe. Higher percentages of symptoms, between 24% and 34%, are shown when considering symptoms in partial form. The data suggest to us that medical staff are not trained for the prevention and management of this major pain, which has strong repercussions on the life of the mother, child, and family balance," Ferrari says.
“The perception of intense pain may foster in the patient the use of dissociative defenses, such as distancing from her body, and the feeling of violation of expectations about childbirth due to the presence of a medical staff perceived as hasty, uncaring, insensitive to psychological aspects and abusive, thus unsupportive.”
A pregnant woman holding a sonogram
The ancestral narrative of motherhood is also present in some popular pre-natal courses. Elisa Mercurio, a health worker from Rome, tells us about her experience with the course organized by midwife Valeria Barchiesi for the cultural association “The Nest”: “I attended this course in 2021. The main element is constant skepticism toward health personnel. Some actions were not only expressly discouraged, but almost forbidden. Among them, the first is requesting an epidural, a practice to which tragic consequences were attributed, such as the birth of ‘limp’ babies.”
“‘The anesthesiologist is the devil of childbirth’ is the phrase that stuck with me the most throughout my journey with them. According to their narrative, the only safe childbirth was at home, away from the mechanics of medicalization, described as the supreme evil. In addition, we were also followed by other figures of dubious professionalism, such as a dietician who prescribed a diet of foods fried in extra virgin oil to purify the liver, or a seller of baby carriers, as opposed to the demonized use of the stroller. The course promoted, in the same imposing tones, exclusively breastfeeding even until the child is 6 years old."
Another example is the much-followed preparatory course “Moms in Motion,” which has thousands of followers and sells €400 labor techniques with "halved pain" (it is not clear how this 50% reduction is calculated) and even guarantees quick births and 0% risk of laceration.
"Moms in Motion" boasts about the resume of its founder, Elena Taddei, a graduate in Exercise Science and Education Science, as well as a lecturer of the University of Florence. Taddei is the creator of a method of obstetrical biomechanics that, with a hint of self-reference, bears her name, "Taddei Smart Birth," but which does not appear published in any scientific journal.
The public success of Taddei's courses over the past two years has been given wide coverage in the Italian press. An interview given by the doctor to Repubblica, however, cost the media outlet a complaint from the National Order of Midwives, which objected to “Taddei's public attitude toward the professional group (disparaging and threatening statements regarding the midwife's unpreparedness and lack of competence in the area of physical preparation for childbirth of the pregnant woman) as well as the inconveniences, complications and difficulties encountered by midwives in the processes of labor control and monitoring with pregnant women who have undergone preparatory courses using the Taddei method, who arrive at the hospital completely distrustful of the health personnel."
Since that day I have been again consumed by guilt. It is as if the wounds have reopened.
Moreover, the Taddei method does not always work. One woman, who asks to remain anonymous, says that "Some time ago I participated in the course of ‘Moms in Motion,’ which I got to know thanks to an article in La Repubblica praising them. I really believed that their techniques would guarantee me access to an almost painless, quick and tear-free birth. I put all the effort I had into it, but the birth went wrong, and after a few days I contacted the coach again to receive explanations.”
“All I got from her was indifference. She ignored me, leaving me to sink into guilt, which I have struggled with for years. Last month, however, I came across the investigation in The Post Internazionale in which that very course was mentioned. I felt indescribable anger but finally put the pieces together: I was not at fault. So, in the wake of this realization, I left a review of the course."
“A few days ago I received a letter of complaint from the coach, demanding a large sum of money, precisely about that opinion that I had every right to express. Since that day I have been again consumed by guilt. It is as if the wounds have reopened. For me, this represents a double violence.”
The Mandala Sect
As can already be deduced from the experiences recounted so far, the declinations of ancestral motherhood are many and, although deeply connected by some recurring elements, all different from each other. Among them, after months of investigation, we have uncovered a particularly disturbing and at times even dangerous one: a women-owned network that identifies itself as a group called Mandala.
The people in this network intend to subvert the logic of the market and emancipate themselves from patriarchy by setting up what they call a feminist solidarity economy.
To join the Mandala, one must be invited by someone and pay a fee of €1,300, with the promise of a fourfold economic return and unconditional affection from the other members of the group: each woman is responsible for bringing at least two others into the network, precisely respecting the pattern of any pyramid scheme.
We tracked down about two hundred Italian Mandala groups, each with its own WhatsApp group chat on which women exchange tasks, prayers, and audio and video messages every day. Blindly oriented toward a return to nature, the "Mandalians" do not believe in vaccinations (not even in COVID-19) nor more generally in medicine and science, portrayed as a patriarchal boot exercising control over women's necks.
The characteristics of the women who join are also recurring: they are mostly people without a job who, moreover, are also effectively prevented from finding one, given the sheer volume of daily tasks entrusted to them by a group that subjugates those who are part of it, thus perpetuating the very condition of subordination from which the participants would like to free themselves.
Before joining this system and retiring to live immersed in nature, Ada Nisticò acted as a co-star in Marco Bellocchio's film “The Traitor” alongside Pier Francesco Favino. Today she posts dozens of posts and videos on Instagram documenting the rituals practiced by her Mandala group and depicting her lying on the ground while other women dance around her and her baby bump, amid flowers, candles and tambourines.
On her social media profile, a particular space is devoted to the “Blessing Way” ritual, held in a Sicilian forest: “It is a ceremony that blesses the mother-to-be. A spiritual event that allows experiencing the symbolic support of our Ancestors and the physical support of our sisters, mothers," reads the Mamastè website, which hosts dozens of courses dedicated to motherhood.
The site's imprinting is clear from the home page: “Pregnancy is the most spiritual and profound prayer between you and the creator. Childbirth is the most powerful spiritual manifestation of the divine.”
Home birth is a prerogative of all Mandala groups, which often have a midwife of choice who assists and blesses their rituals and helps these women during their home or open births. A presence that, moreover, is almost invisible: “The midwife stands by silently, intervenes only in case of emergency. The mother has to give birth alone,” writes one follower on her social profile. Incidentally, the service of this almost invisible midwife can cost up to €3,000.
Woman in labor
Doctor or shaman?
“Giving birth is like making love,” wrote the magazine Donna Moderna in an investigation published last month focusing on the question addressed to readers: “In Italy, only 0.2% of women choose home birth. A very low figure when compared with 3% in the United Kingdom. Why do you think that is?”
Only two days before that article came out, a newborn was hospitalized in serious condition in Trieste after an irregular home birth attended by a midwife who a few months earlier had witnessed another home birth that ended in the infant's death.
The highest expression of the ancestral drift of motherhood is to be found in certain forms of “natural medicine,” that is, based on “the natural ability of each person to heal uniquely and creatively, according to his or her own needs.”
Among the leading Italian experts of this theory is Dr. Elena Benigni, who graduated in Medicine and Surgery in 2009 in Tarragona, Spain, and, as she says, is “passionate about shamanism, female ancestral wisdom, and homeopathy.”
Benigni organizes paid courses in placental medicine during which women, wearing latex gloves, handle human organic material (placenta and umbilical cord) to make ointments and food capsules to prevent viruses and diseases, as well as necklaces and regenerative shakes.
On her website, the doctor reports the anonymous testimony of one of her patients with a malignant uterine tumor who was allegedly cured by becoming pregnant. Benigni also organizes uterine shamanism classes, for a fee for adult women and free for girls under 15. One wonders what she has to teach little girls.
Another drift of natural medicine to the detriment of women's bodies is the theory of uterine memories. Cynthia Surya, a former fashion designer, now a choreographer, but above all, as she calls herself, a “women's coach,” on the website “Woman Inside,” promotes and sells courses to purify the uteruses, a necessary operation for mental and physical well-being, with steaming and dancing. She even goes so far as to recommend changing partners when these do not work. Therefore, always.
Also worth noting is the website “Alma Respira,” where Aida Cavallo, an energy doula, runs classes on "Roaf breathing and Uterine Memories,” which are tools "to help people open their hearts and get back in touch with their essence, sexuality, and pleasure.”
According to the theory of uterine memories, the uterus is the real female brain. “When a woman does not follow her uterus,” Surya explains, “she becomes ill, with pathologies spanning from depression to raging anger, and later to real problems. The most organs affected are the uterus and ovaries. Just think of cysts, endometriosis, or tumors."
These coaches sell courses on practically everything: maternal guilt, weaning, sleep, breastfeeding, pacifiers, Montessori education, respectful parenting; and so many others which fuel a performative motherhood that is impossible to keep up with, and that inevitably creates frustration and a sense of inadequacy that can lead mothers down dark paths.
Certainly, if institutions and politics provided more mothers, and mothers-to-be, with a viable support network, effective welfare, a better job market and a different cultural outlook, perhaps the pull of ancestral motherhood wouldn't be so strong. Perhaps it would not have become a growing trend that romanticizes the pain of childbirth and the travails of mothers, and that undermines self-determination and security by serving violence and misinformation — and which, while claiming to protect pure motherhood, imprisons it in a web of unprecedented subjugation, which some call maternal love.