Amy Jenkins: Give birth and feel the power

I can see why - and how - Rachida Dati went straight back to work

Friday 09 January 2009 01:00

Rachida Dati is a top-ranking minister in the French government. She fought her way up from humble immigrant origins to become Nicolas Sarkozy's protégé. She beat several white male candidates to the job and some would say they had a superior claim. She's clearly a smooth operator. Even after an operation, she knows how to operate. What's the first thing you do? Why, call in a hairdresser, of course.

Dati left hospital this week less than five days after the birth of her daughter by caesarean section. And there she was in our morning papers, so slim and cool and composed – and so beautifully coiffed – on her way to the Elysée Palace, wearing black, meaning business.

At a time when she might be forgiven for languishing at home in a soft pink bed jacket (she looks like the kind of woman who might own a bed jacket) graciously receiving bouquets of flowers and staring lovingly into her newborn's (frankly oblivious at that age) eyes, Dati is striding around with important government papers under her arm.

But was this really because an important judicial reform was being announced by the President and she felt she had to be there? Wasn't it really to show France and the world that she's as strong and as hard as any man

And Rachida Dati has more reason than most to present an image of inviolable strength. She is the daughter of African immigrants, and as a protégé of Sarkozy's, vulnerable to accusations that she's been put in place as a symbol of cultural integration – that she's there because of her looks, her sex, her darker skin. In addition, she's single and not letting on who the father of her child is.

But, as far as I'm concerned, this idea that you have to recover from birth in a matter of days is part of the same cultural phenomena that says the ideal woman should have the body of an elegant 14-year-old boy plus breasts. She should be lean, firm, strong and invulnerable. She should only be momentarily detained by an event such as giving birth. She should be like this because messy truly womanly things like fat and childbirth are associated with weakness – and also – not to put too fine a point on it - disgust.

I suspect those Dati pictures and the interest in them was all about our unhealthy desire for women to somehow triumph over their womanliness ... even as we know they must always fail and wait for them to do so. It's a pity though because a straightforward birth isn't actually a very debilitating event. I know from experience that you can easily be up and around the next day and lots of women are.

In fact, a birth that goes well is the opposite of debilitating – it's very empowering. You feel great that you got through it and you're flooded with adrenaline and a feeling that you could conquer the world. Soon after giving birth myself, I remember reading a newspaper report about a couple whose baby arrived prematurely the day before an elaborate wedding they'd planned. The woman got up from the labour ward, left the baby in intensive care, and went on with the wedding. It was nuts – but, having just had the excitement of giving birth myself, I could absolutely understand it at the time.

So I'm a bit torn when I see those pictures of Rachida Dati. On the one hand I want men to know that giving birth isn't an illness or a disability. On the other hand I don't want women to have to be so like men that one day they'll find a way of giving birth at their desks in the office.

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