The Fem Spot

If I had it to do over…

Posted in Marriage, Personal Essays by femspotter on August 1, 2010

August 1, 2010

That’s a pretty ominous ellipsis, especially given the photo of the lovely lady and her baby bump to the left. No no: this is not one of those essays about a woman who regrets getting married and having a child. Certainly not! The happiest moments in my life have been in marriage and pregnancy. I can’t wait to meet my baby. Today is her estimated due date. She lovingly reassures me that she’s alive and well in my belly with some good, strong kicks. She’s just not quite ready to emerge.

I used to fall in love a lot and get hurt a lot; but not anymore. I wouldn’t do that over because I think I’m better equipped to appreciate the love in my life now having been heartbroken more than once.

But on the eve of welcoming a new baby into the world, I find myself taking stock of the life I’ve led. And while I love where I’ve landed, there are choices I look back and wonder about. For instance, I went to film school and then pursued a master’s degree in English literature. I love writing and making movies, and acting; but they have become hobbies, secondary to the writing that I do here and in my career as a special needs writer. My fantasy is to go back to age 18 and make a different choice in education: to become a nurse and then join the Peace Corps and travel the world helping women in developing nations.

Now, it’s true, that science has never been my strong suit. I would have had to work very hard at nursing to make a success of it. And without the abilities and experiences I’ve accrued to this point in television, journalism and public relations work, I don’t know how good I would have been at marketing myself as a missionary. This work would have required me to swallow much of the pride I have choked on over the past 10 years in learning to get along with others in this world. (Let’s just say that I don’t walk softly.) I have also learned how to work hard at things. When I was 18, I didn’t work hard at anything. I might have given up the Peace Corps when it got too hard. Now I know that it’s the hard that makes something worth doing.

I would have had to become a politician, a grant writer, a beggar rather than a chooser… All of these things, like science, don’t come easily to me.

But there it is: as I travel boldly forth into motherhood, I wish that before I’d done this precious deed, I’d done another. I wish that I’d given something sustaining to women on a larger scale than I do now, making donations to food pantries and spreading information online and buying jewelry from indigent African women’s charities, etc. I wish I’d really been able to help.

This is probably a normal thought process to experience. It doesn’t mean I have any real regrets: as I said, I love where I’ve landed. And it’s good to have a fantasy; I think it makes me more prone to doing all of the little good deeds I can. I should never forget how fortunate I am, and I want to make sure that my daughter too knows how fortunate she will be. She is already loved beyond human comprehension. She is already blessed with much first world privilege.

There is one other thought that creeps into my mind at night between awake and asleep. I wish that before I had deliberately become pregnant – in addition to checking myself thoroughly for and finding the motherhood desire – I had learned what pregnancy and childbirth mean in this modern world of ours. The first course I had taken in pursuit of my master’s degree was about reproductive themes in literature. I read the words of midwife Ina May Gaskin and “Conceiving the New World Order” and “The Continuum Concept” and more. I was given some idea that childbirth had become a pathology and I envisioned going into labor screaming as orderlies wheeled me through the emergency room doors of a sterile hospital on a squeaky gurney. And I knew I didn’t want that experience. I knew that what I wanted to happen between me, my child and my husband would be altogether much more spiritual: a rite of passage.

But as soon as I missed a period, I bought a pregnancy test and jumped for joy when it sprouted a plus sign. And I ran into my OBGYN’s office expecting a feminist greeting. (It is, after all, a practice of three women.) How naive was I? Very. I should have turned around and run away the minute a nurse handed me a document about HIV – my HIV status – and didn’t tell me what it meant. I ran frantically into the hallway trying to find somebody to explain why I had to give an AIDS document to the labor and delivery nurses at the hospital. “And do I have AIDS?” I asked. The woman frustratedly read the paper and told me “no.” As it turns out, by law, I’m required to submit proof of this upon admission to the hospital for childbirth.

How could they have assumed I would know this? How come they looked angry with me when I didn’t? How come what followed was not a patient explanation of things to come, but instead a flood of instructions about cord blood banking and choosing pediatricians their office preferred? Were there kickbacks to be had? Why didn’t they want for me what I wanted?”

Subsequently, I should have left this practice when they told me that the only way they deliver babies is with the mother on her back and her feet in stirrups. Stirrups make me uncomfortable and I don’t think lying on my back works with gravity, I told them. But they didn’t care.

At this time, I had already begun to work with a doula: a person who assists women before, during and after labor. Her primary function: pain management. But she has also been a wonderful resource for reassuring words and information. She told me, for instance, that the closer I get to my daughter’s delivery, the softer my stool would get. And it has. So, following a threat from my OB several weeks ago that I would have to be induced before the due date because it was estimated that my daughter was a “big baby,” I made a point of explaining that I had been experiencing diarrhea. Well, it turns out that real “diarrhea” has to happen four to five times a day to count as…diarrhea. I received a lecture. What I had was “soft stool,” and I should never confuse the two again. I had only mentioned it hoping that she would make the connection that my baby was well on her way. No need to induce. No need to pump me full of chemicals before my cervix is ready to dilate so that I end up in a C-section giving birth to the behemoth waiting a full hour or more before I could bring her to my bosom. Needless to say, the doctor did not get it.

Then she abruptly performed a pelvic exam, which was surprisingly painful. I groaned and she whipped her hand out of my vagina. “Good!” What? What was good about what I had just experienced? “You’re dilated,” she told me. How much? One to 2 centimeters. So I really was moving right along.

The induction discussion continued: “We only induce mothers on Mondays and Tuesdays. If you don’t want to be induced on the 26th (of July) then you’ll have to be induced on the 2nd or 3rd of August. We’re not doing any inductions on the 9th or 10th and you can’t wait until the 16th.”

She left me alone with my husband to decide. Meanwhile a mousy nurse came in to answer any questions we might have. She explained that they do the inductions on Mondays or Tuesdays so that the babies are born on Wednesdays. Then she caught herself and smiled awkwardly: “Of course, they will deliver your baby any day of the week if you come naturally,” she said shyly.

I was in a machine. I was a cog, a moving part. I wasn’t a mother-to-be. I wasn’t a human being. I felt like a child, or something less independent than a child: a pet. Nowhere in any of the literature I’d read, nor anything that my doula had told me, did “big baby” signal a medical need to be induced. My blood pressure was a constant 110 over 70. Good. My baby’s heart rate was brilliant and strong. Good. I had gained a mere 30 lbs. or so, right in the middle of what was considered “normal.” Good. But the more I pushed natural childbirth on these doctors, the more they resisted. They wanted to plug me into a formula for their success in private medical practice, not encourage me to experience the one and only time that this baby will ever be born with joy and awareness and peace of mind.

Later that day, I bled and was crampy. The OB hadn’t told me that was a possible side effect of the painful pelvic exam. Thank goodness for my doula.

A week and a half ago, I found myself in the office of three merry midwives. Approximately 12% of women in America use midwives for labor and delivery, as well as other gynecological health care. And now, I am one of them. Gone was the briskness of nurses and doctors who didn’t care to know my name. Gone were the threats that failing to induce my delivery would result in a stuck shoulder, a ruptured placenta or a dead baby. Gone were the callous efforts to pound me into a schedule for convenience’s sake. All of this was replaced with what feels like love and happiness. If there is a problem, there is a doctor to care for me. But if all goes well, as it has for the past 40 weeks, a midwife will deliver Ellie from whatever position feels good to me; as my doula smiles and cheers me on; as my husband lovingly strokes my hair and perhaps sheds a tear as we see our beautiful baby, however big, for the first time.

So, “if I had it to do over…” I would have realized a long time ago that the fear-mongering and the routine, indifferent treatment of a pathological birth experience were not for me and I would have visited the merry midwives and shared my smiles and tears with them throughout this precious time. I was ignorant. But I know so much more now; so much that I can be a cultural resource for my friends and family members who approach the prospect of motherhood the same way I did: believing I have no rights and fearing that my body is not capable of doing the things that billions of women have done naturally before me. Movies and television teach us that childbirth is painful. They don’t teach us that women are strong enough to endure that pain.

As I’ve said twice before, I love where I’ve landed.

We have a secret in our culture…and it’s not that birth is painful. It’s that women are strong. -Laura Stavoe Harm

Is motherhood under attack?

Posted in Feminist Theory, News, Personal Essays by femspotter on June 9, 2010

June 9, 2010

The countdown ’til baby for me is just under eight weeks. This time in my life has been a precious experience. There are days when I feel like the most beautiful and powerful woman in the world, and days when I want my body back so I can do all of the things I used to: drink alcohol in moderation, swim a mile with the crawl stroke, have comfortable sex with my husband rather than “Tetris sex,” or even just walk up a flight of stairs without becoming winded. And there are days when I look around the world – my locale, the newspapers, the blogosphere, etc. – and I realize that this exciting time isn’t universal even though it should be. Pregnancy and its resulting motherhood in its best form should be a choice lauded by others, for all women who want it. It isn’t.

Here are just a few of the pregnancy and motherhood related issues at large in the world today:

  • Maternal mortality is on the rise. According to the Los Angeles Times and others, the maternal mortality rate in the United States has doubled in the past 10 years putting this country’s death rate higher than 40 other industrialized nations. Two women die from pregnancy-related complications every day in the U.S. And while that may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the 11,000 or so babies that are born here each day, it’s still a scary number when you picture the faces of moms-to-be whom you know. “For each death, experts estimate, there are about 50 instances of complications related to pregnancy or childbirth that are life-threatening or cause permanent damage.” What are the causes of these complications and deaths, a third of which experts say are preventable? Obesity, increases in age of expectant mothers, increased implementation of cesarean sections, increased elective induction of labor by medicines, and over-reliance on electronic monitoring devices are being blamed as the main culprits of maternal death.
  • Is it okay to fat shame a mom-to-be? The New York Times reports that growing obesity among pregnant women is linked to higher risks of birth defects, cesareans (risky for moms) and even death for newborns. While this rise in obesity has been met publicly with disdain from the healthcare industry and subsequently a rebuttal argument of obesity support from those under attack – accounting for everything from the prevalence of high fructose corn syrup, trans fat and other additives found in inexpensive foods to even the perils of dieting and being too thin, etc. – in the case of pregnancy, obesity may have more to do with a failure on the part of the mother, putting her unborn child at risk due to her obesity, than her right to maintain her own body the way she wants to or is even able. It must be tricky for doctors to address this issue with their patients because conventional wisdom suggests that moms-to-be shouldn’t try to lose weight during pregnancy. (I had to drop out of Weight Watchers when I conceived because the program no longer offers a pregnancy plan.) But a doctor can’t tell an overweight woman not to have a baby, can (s)he? Wouldn’t that be tantamount to the pro-life argument: you can’t do with your body what you will because of the rights of your unborn child?
  • Abortion might mean eugenics for some. According to Womanist Musings, “(a)n anti-abortion group in Atlanta is targeting Black women by putting up billboards stating that Black children are an endangered species.” The New York Times also reports that some activists consider Planned Parenthood to be a racist organization that promotes elevated abortion rates among black women, with blacks accounting for 13 percent of the U.S. population yet 40 percent of its abortions. While Womanist Musings writer Renee upholds the validity of this fear while negating its foundations in a provable truth, she – as a womanist – asks for white pro-abortion activists to get involved in standing up for the rights black women share to elect abortion procedures. It makes me very sad indeed to think of a racist telling a happy expectant mother that she should abort under the guise that she’s better off without her baby, when really they mean that we’re better off. But I am sickened by the idea that some activists are telling women that they should keep their unwanted pregnancies because it’s their duty to their race.
  • Men think pregnancy is ALL ABOUT THEM! According to CNN, dads-to-be run the risk of postpartum depression too. Okay, I’ll buy that. But they don’t run the risk of maternal mortality, fistulas, varicose veins, back spasms, incessant heartburn and much, much more due to pregnancy. So sack up, dads! Now, it is true that the males of many species can act as incubators for embryos during the early months of fetal development. But only seahorse males have the unique privilege of being “pregnant dads-to-be” simply because of their inherent anatomy. While transsexual human males have given birth successfully, their pregnancies are due to inherent female anatomy (though, by choice, these men are known as “males”). Why would a cis male want to serve as a fetus incubator? Is it that he just can’t stand that females have one power that he doesn’t? Why does science need to find out if this unnatural occurrence is possible when there are so many other challenges it could be conquering: Alzheimer’s, autism, maternal mortality, etc.? By the way, guys, early scientists believed that women were “just incubators” and, until a couple of hundred years ago, didn’t believe female anatomy played any special role in conception and delivery of newborn babies. We know better today. I happen to believe that our reproductive anatomy may be the one cis privilege women have over men. So back the fuck off! And just because your wife has given birth, doesn’t mean you have the right to tell me how to run my pregnancy “the right way.”
  • Feminist mothers are under fire. I recently read more stay-at-home mom hatred on a radical feminist blog. One writer posted something about moms being too preoccupied with baby stuff “to do the reading.” What the fuck does that mean?! Do women who go off to careers or jobs every morning outside the home have more time during the day to read than moms providing in-home childcare? Do childcare workers also fail “to do the reading” too? Is it the baby stuff or the mom stuff that cuts into women’s “intellectual development?” (Apparently, I’m standing on the precipice of ignorance because of the major time-suck my child – wanted as she is – will be for me!) Intellectual development like exercise is something we make time for. And there are many fine activists who are also mothers. Crystal Lee Sutton (the real “Norma Rae”) died in 2009. She had three children and worked as a union organizer in North Carolina during the 1970’s, that lazy bitch!
    Furthermore, an overview of Elisabeth Badinter’s new book “Conflict: The Woman and the Mother” (Badinter is of course the heir apparent of Simone de Beauvoir because she’s, ya know, French) reports that Badinter “blames feminists for inventing the idea of women as victims, putting men on trial and making maternity itself a political act.” (And she’s a feminist because…?) Badinter also thinks that women are being socially pressured into unsafe situations: “The ‘green’ mother, she says, is pushed to give birth at home, to refuse an epidural as the reflection of ‘a degenerated industrial civilization’ that would deprive her of ‘an irreplaceable experience,’ to breast-feed for both ethological and environmental reasons (plastic baby bottles) and to use washable rather than disposable diapers – in other words, to discard the inventions ‘that have liberated women.’ Which of any of those green alternatives is unsafe? Home births are controversial in the U.S. but not necessarily less safe than hospital births. As I mentioned earlier, doctors are considering what caused the rise in maternal mortality here. Funny they aren’t looking into washable diapers, right?!
  • Pregnancy choices are dwindling. What I mean is this: women may not feel empowered to give birth the way they want to. And really, shouldn’t we be calling the shots? Isn’t how you give birth just as important as why and if you give birth at all? The choice to deliver naturally is in the same league as the choice of whether or not to deliver at all. Now, if your birth plan calls for an elected cesarean, a premature induction of labor, a preemptive episiotomy and the biggest, badass epidural you can find, go for it! Enjoy your “twilight sleep.” (That’s an Edith Wharton reference not a condemnation.) But if you’re like me and you want to have a natural birth unless there occurs a medical emergency, you should have that right too and not feel pressured by your obstetrician to lie flat on your back and throw your feet up in the stirrups like a cowgirl. You should be allowed to stand or squat or roll on your side or face the mattress on all fours…whatever works for your body and your baby. And you should be allowed to choose your place of birth: hospital, birthing center or home. Medical organizations in the U.S. oppose home births claiming they’re risky for moms and babies alike – but we must be skeptical about this stance since healthcare in the U.S. is centered on a capitalist, for-profit model. It is currently legal to hire a midwife and conduct a home birth in 37 states, though no state prosecutes mothers for electing to give birth at home. In Britain, Canada and Australia, to name a few, midwifery and home births are much more prevalent than in the United States. (Incidentally, it is very difficult to find reputable statistics about the (un)safety of home births. Please feel free to chime in if you have any.)

When I found out I was pregnant, I excitedly booked an appointment with my OBGYN and skipped merrily into her office where I was greeted by one automaton nurse after another shoving paperwork I didn’t understand into my face. The two big questions: do I want to elect a cesarean section and do I want to bank my baby’s cord blood? I hadn’t give either any thought. I mean, I’d assumed I would give birth vaginally because that is, after all, how birth happens. What they were telling me, in essence, was that I could elect to forgo all of the hassle of nature’s greatest surprise and declare upfront that I wanted to deliver my baby “painlessly” and according to schedule so that I didn’t miss a day of work beyond my planned maternity leave. And as to the cord blood, they were telling me that the hospital where “we like to deliver” only works with one private bank. For weeks, my husband and I tried to find a public bank we could give Ellie’s umbilical cord blood to for the good of the many and the integrity of our checking account. No public banks in our area are currently accepting blood. I have been guilt-tripped by the established medical machine into feeling like a lousy mother because I am throwing my daughter’s cord blood away.

I hired a doula. She’s going to help my husband and I experience this birth as a rite of passage instead of an emergency pathology if possible. When I talked to my OB about working with a doula, she asked rather abruptly, “She’s not going to tell me how to do my job is she?” I muttered “no” under my breath, lamenting that this doctor couldn’t look me in the eye, remember my name or think about my birthing experience beyond her role to play in it. Under the advice of the doula, I asked what position the doctor was comfortable delivering my baby in, and to my dismay, she told me that she’s only comfortable “the normal way” with me on my back and my feet up in stirrups. I was heartbroken and didn’t want to tell the doula that my voyage of discovery was going to end “normal(ly.)” How I wish medicine could be there for our risks and emergencies and leave us alone to find our inner peace. I should have made better choices or stood up for my wishes or felt empowered to choose earlier in my pregnancy…but I just didn’t know any better until now.

So, as I mentioned earlier, there are some days when I feel like a goddess and other days when I feel like I’m doing just what every other mother-to-be does and I and my baby are nothing special. Western medicine has a plan for us. It, like other feminists, has rules and expectations. My pregnancy and motherhood are violating somebody’s idea of how they should be.

On those goddess days, I fight back assumptions and shaming. But today I feel defeated. It’s time to do yoga.

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