Friday, January 26, 2007

Bad Birth Stories

For whatever reason, in recent months I've read and heard traumatic birth stories in numbers far outstripping the "nice" ones. Some of these people I know personally, some I've never met. Some stories I know to be the full truth, some have gaps. But the reality of all of it is that these are women who are hurting. This massive exposure (I'd say the bad ones average out at about 1.5 per day versus the approximately 1 really awesome story a week) has led me down quite a few thought paths, some of which I'd like to put into some sort of more material, word-and-sentence, form.

The medical establishment disrespects women. Doesn't even want to KNOW about women, not really. Sure, they will measure the LH surges and figure out where hCG comes from, but I can't help but think that it is motivated more out of sheer human-curiousity than out of any kind of desire to understand women - real women with real babies growing in their real uteri - any better. A woman is more than the sum of her hormone receptors, vital signs, weight, income, and race. A woman is more than these things EVERY DAY OF HER LIFE, but in labor, she is more than these things by far. She has (wooo-wooo alert) a power beyond the understanding of medicine behind her. The power of millenia of moving forward, of evolution, of moving towards perfection. I ask you, would this movement toward perfection KILL her? Well, maybe if you gave her mother drugs that crippled her skeletal system. Maybe if you told her that white bread tastes better, canned vegetables are wonderous things, and all you really need in life is some meat and A1, and she fostered a body deprived of all the fuels that it really needs to thrive. Maybe if you gave her enough drugs that it short-circuited not just pain but pleasure, not just suffering but memory; that made of the process a lie. That attempted to remove from the picture anything not understood to be absolutely necessary, and left only the contraction, as if that was the one and only thing important to the process.

Maybe if, in other words, you messed with the system.

Because that is what it really is. It is a system that nature has developed, and it has been a long hard process to get here, and it is being messed with. THIS is what almost every traumatic birth story I've read has in common. There are stories with midwives, with doctors, with transfers. With all kinds of disrespect. But at the beginning there was lack of trust in this birthing system that nature has given us. Oh, and what a beautiful, complicated, WONDERFUL thing that system is! The complicated part doctors get, and most midwives get, but the BEAUTIFUL and WONDERFUL parts are so often lost in these stories.

At the heart of all the disrespectful behavior is this lack of belief. No, you don't see it written large across the face of every traumatic birth story. But in every traumatic birth story it is THERE. I haven't read a single one in which it wasn't. Whether the midwife was impatient, or the hospital absolutely needed that monitor, or the doctor at transfer held a grudge because a mama believed in herself and was finding that belief crumbling, or the nurses laughed in the face of the mama who thought she could do it without the medicine, it is THERE.

It is human nature, I think, hold other humans as far more important emotionally than events. Certainly there are birth stories with horrible outcomes that read sweetly, that in the rememberance the kindness of others shines through and makes of the memories something shining and glowing and perfect despite the traumatic FACT of what happened. People are greater than fact in our minds. We almost don't care that we tore, we care that the doctor looked at us kindly, explained everything that was going on, and took care of things with gentleness and respect. Or the outrage of that doctor doing anything otherwise will stay with us FAR beyond the impact that is left by the fact of the tear itself. Sometimes we can't ekke these things out very well, and in our minds, we are scared of tearing or of getting an IV or of placing a phone call to the hospital or whatever-of-a-million-things was traumatic the last time 'round - but most of the time, what we are really scared of is the human actions that were accessory to it.

And that is the most painful thing of all when I read these stories. That there are human beings behind these things that we fear. We go to the hospital, before we know better, because we think that these human beings can save us from the process of birth. Because we've been led to believe that this process is inherently pathological, that it is a curse, that it is - for lack of a better way to say it - a disease epidemic unto womankind, and that we NEED to be saved from it. But we aren't saved from it, not even close, because at the hospital there are human beings, just like us, who used to think that they could save us from childbirth but after a while, seem to exist in a somewhat resigned "at least we're trying" state, finding a reason for their vocation in a dozen procedures a day, bouyed by the occassional "success" story, the occassional life saved.

For every woman who experiences the rough end of that belief set and decides that the next time will be different, there are 200 who experience it and believe that the system has saved them. That it was bad, but not as bad as it probably would have been. They have bought, hook-line-and-sinker, the lie that women are incapable and need the system for their own good.

This is a system blinded by the disrespect for women that has been so endemic to our culture for so long that we've forgotten what respect looks like. (Brief foray into politics...) When is the last time you heard a MALE congressman being told his father would be proud? And yet, oh, how heart-touching, everyone said. Heart touching my fucking ass. The very fact that everyone seems to think that this is not just OK but laudable is just another symptom of the fact that WOMEN DO NOT COMMAND THE SAME RESPECT AS MEN. And anyone who thinks that they do needs to be hit upside the head with a frying pan. It is written in big bold letters across every social interaction in our culture. Across the medical literature.

Across birth.

And yet...

I feel that in some of these cases, these traumatic stories have become so very important to progress. The birth story of Janet's first child is gut-wrenching, but just look ( at what she has turned her experiences into. I feel like there would be a hole in the birthing world, almost in womanhood itself, without her voice and the voices she has added to the chorus. Even for those women who experience a traumatic birth and do nothing with any more impact than follow it up with an absolutely glorious birth that was everything they ever thought they couldn't do, the world is richer for their experience. Their lives are richer for that experience. The lives of their children are richer for that experience. In this sense, every traumatic birth story can become a victory story. And I hope that they ALL do.


~L~ said...

Wow. Rant on, pretty sister.

You've captured the essence of how I feel about modern birthing today. The medicine saves lives, oh yes it certainly does. But the same medicine used in truly life-threatening situations should not be applied across the board-- that fosters a system that feeds on itself. That fosters the lie of which you speak.

First, do no harm. Right?

Great entry!

Louisa said...

I got deeply shitty at that "your dad would be proud" comment too.
So fucking patronizing.
Nice work mama. I guess embryology stimulated a little catharsis eh?

*d* said...

*insert happy tears here* Love seeing the thoughts rattling around my preggo head in an organized form.

rubyslippers said...

right on. i wish there was something we could do to help women to WANT to be treated with respect and to be honored for their amazing and magical ability to give birth. i see so many women who are so afraid of their own power that they don't even question what "the authorities" think is best for them.
good to keep this dialogue going--the more of us who are speaking out about this--the more it seeps into the mass consciousness.

emjaybee said...

Sigh. I have one of those stories, and you've nailed it.

Amen to another point you made; one of my clearest memories is of the one person at that hellish hospital who treated me kindly, the young Indian doctor who came to take out my c/sec staples and who was so gentle and sweet to me that I wept, because I was cringing and expecting nothing but more of the pain and callousness I'd had up to then. I was so traumatized that I cringed like a beaten dog anytime someone touched me.

I don't think it's a coincidence that a whole year later, when I first visited a doctor again, my normally low bp skyrocketed and gave her concern--but when I took it later away from the dr. office, it was low again.