Someone recently asked me what drives me in the activist work that I do. The obvious and immediate answer is injustice. As I sat and thought about the root of that, sure, I considered my own birth experience and the heaps of injustice that surrounded that experience. The way I was made to feel like a piece of property, an inept container that would eventually squeeze out their product; a pain in their ass with my obnoxious desires and inconvenient emotions surrounding the experience.
But injustice for me roots much deeper, further back than that one experience. My hospital birth most certainly catapulted me into birth work, and subsequently, activism, but an innate passion and restlessness has plagued me ever since I can remember.
As a child, I recall never being able to let things go. I’d see a sack of puppies weighted down with a brick and thrown into the creek on “Little House on the Prairie” and cry myself to sleep over the image for weeks. I peppered my dad with questions about it, and whenever I saw a live trap at my grandpa’s homestead I became plagued with worry that he would do the same thing to whatever critter he caught. And, again, I’d beat the issue into the ground with my dad until he became so exasperated at my unwillingness to believe that my grandpa wouldn’t do such a thing that he’d yell at me and I’d sit in the backseat on our ride home, a sharp gaze out the window, and let the injustice of the world well up so far into my chest that it’d spill in hot, bitter, silent tears down my cheeks.
When I was a young teenager, I started a ritual of spending the months of hunting season each year in a vow of silence. It wasn’t quite as spiritual as it sounds – I had selective silence; I choose only not to speak to my dad and brother who hunted during those months. When I came home one afternoon to a bloody deer sliced neck to groin and hung by the back hooves like a trophy in front of the garage, I slammed my car door, stormed into the house, and screamed, “I HATE YOU!!” at the top of my lungs. I then barricaded myself in my room where I sobbed the heaviest of sobs for that deer; for the brutality and gruesomeness of death; for the seeming lack of respect for a sacred life. I can still feel the ache in the bottom of my soul that consumed my entire torso that day.
And then there was the Baptist High School I attended. My poor dad. He taught there and had to endure my angst-induced challenges. Like the time, my senior year – the year I was just eighteen and readying to vote in my first presidential election. It was 1993, and I was ecstatic to vote for Bill Clinton. As an emerging young adult rising out of a religion where one of the basic tenets involved being staunchly Republican, this felt like one of the most overt, subversive acts. And I enjoyed being vocal about it.
My government teacher, a sixty year old man, going on eighty, with his rotation of polyester blue suits, and few remaining strands of thinning strawberry blonde hair, smoothly greased over his shiny bald patch, had offered extra credit for those of us willing to volunteer at the Republican Headquarters. My hand shot into the air, and I immediately retorted, “Do we receive the same credit for volunteering at the Democratic Headquarters?” I thought he was going to choke, hunched over his podium. He straightened up, fidgeted with his papers, and stammered, “uh, uh, n-n- NO!” And I slapped back, “WHY NOT?”
The bell rang and I stormed out in the fiery heat of the unbalanced power; the coercion, manipulation and prescription that I could barely take any longer. I remember how hot my face burned as I walked briskly through that carpeted hall, past the computer lab, past the offices, into the main, tiled hall where my locker was. The chaotic sound of hundreds of voices muttering to each other between periods, a backdrop to the buzzing in my own head.
I threw my books into the tall metal box, slammed the door as hard as I could, each echo a small sense of satisfaction. I walked briskly to my dad’s room, where I could barely make it in to shut the door before exploding into tears. All that was so unfair in my small world hiccuped out and my words bounced out in frantic bursts. Over and over these little injustices piled into a mountain I didn’t have the energy to scale anymore. I broke under the futility of it in the middle of that year. I told my parents I would drop out or transfer to the public school. They saw my sincerity and swiftly obliged.
Maybe it was the way I was born – barreling out of my mother’s vagina ass-first. How the doctor panicked, yanked, and broke my arm.
Maybe because I just had a little sling slapped on me like it was no big deal; maybe minimized because babies “don’t feel pain” or because the doctor fucked up and didn’t want to own it.
Maybe because my mom’s recollection is summed up in phrases like, “I don’t really remember..” and “the doctor had to…” The way she willingly handed over her agency the way so many women did and still do, because “that’s how it’s done.”
Maybe because in clinging to my own agency, my newborn was ripped from my arms on his first day of life as I trembled and my lip quivered and that nurse screamed at me, “Babies die from group B every day!” before stomping out of the room with him under her arm.
Maybe because, how, at the first birth I attended the doctor paraded in and offered mom a pudendal block as the baby was nearly crowning so she’d shut the hell up; how defeated she felt after his comment following nearly an entire day in his absence sludging her way through a posterior labor.
Maybe in the way I’ve educated and prepared couples through class after class – how we spent more time mobilizing a defensive strategy than understanding and lavishing in the process of birth.
Maybe the way I began to dread the stories of birth, knowing they would be laced with, “I didn’t want them to, but they had to,” and “they wouldn’t let me,” and, “I’m just glad we’re all healthy.” How women have coined those phrases as almost a Happy Birth-Day ritual. A celebratory initiation into new motherhood through trauma.
Maybe it’s the way routine human trauma is scoffed at and dismissed. The carriers and holders of human life reduced to baby-pumping machines. The process of gestation, obligatory; the event of birth, necessarily sacrificial.
Maybe all of these things strung together on a line, bruised and bloody, tear-stained and limp, hang as a constant reminder of my need to resolve the mess.
I have come from a misshapen understanding of the complexities of birth as a basic unfairness – a problem with the system’s staunch routines and their inability to leave room for women’s desires and experiences. But I’ve come to realize that it’s not about “women’s experiences;” not really.
In fact, I’m beginning to loath that phrase. It conjures up ideas of women as petty brats at a spa who want be spoiled… Maybe it’s the phrase and the context; more likely it’s the way it’s been abused by woman-haters as a catch-phrase to exemplify a woman’s selfishness, her highest esteem over that of her baby’s.
As though a woman’s aspects of health outside of the physical should be summed up and minimized by the word “experience.” As though the emotional repercussions of physical, emotional, and mental abuse are just mere feelings a woman had on that one day, in those few moments. Like she just needs to grow some balls and suck it up and carry on. She’s alive, her baby’s alive. Why can’t she just be grateful?
The injustice in birth is so much greater than a little unfairness; more than a need to make room for women’s experiences. The unfairness, the minimizing of the routine abuse of women, the cognitive dissonance are not THE issue, they are symptoms of a much more invasive and troubling problem. They are the symptoms of a critically ill global society that values women as mere vessels, and that has established a social structure that holds pregnant women as its slaves.
That a woman can be forced to carry a pregnancy, that she must grovel, beg and still not be heard. That she might say “no,” and be looked in the eye by a white-coated man as he penetrates her and says, “you need to do as I say.” That if she challenges him she may be visited by armed police officers or protective services; that she may be physically forced to comply with medical orders or have her baby taken away. That her intentions may be questioned, her heart challenged, her intelligence scoffed at. These are the chains that rub the skin of the pregnant woman raw.
This isn’t about making room for experience.
This is about enslavement.
This is about ownership.
Through socially accepted violence and control over their reproduction, pregnant women have become shackled to the confines of their bodies and to the bedposts of labor wards.