The Vaginal Breech Birth of a Justice-Seeker

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. (I'm serious.) (I’m serious.)

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.

Unfair? Hardly.

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.

obstetric-violence-pictureThat 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.

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  1. Sandra says

    While I also work for improving birth conditions and patient autonomy, I disagree with considering abortion a “right.” Babies DO feel pain and don’t deserve to be handled so roughly at birth (like your experience) or before it. The loss of a child’s life through abortion, if we are being honest, really is “the brutality and gruesomeness of death; for the seeming lack of respect for a sacred life. ” Bodily autonomy shouldn’t end at birth (for the mother) and neither should it begin there (for the child).

    • Profile photo of Kathi Valeii says

      I appreciate where you are coming from, Sandra. I really do.

      What we know is that in law and practice once we establish a fetus as a constitutional person, the woman loses every time. Not just where abortion is concerned, but in choices about her wanted pregnancy, and in the circumstances of her planned birth. Pitting women against their unborn babies holds the assumption that women are not the most invested person in the outcome of their pregnancies.

      Even though some women will make choices that aren’t palatable to others, it doesn’t automatically make them “wrong” or “bad” choices. Just as abortion is abhorrent to you, there are others who feel an equal amount of disdain for a woman’s right to choose a homebirth or a VBAC or a vaginal breech birth. They argue that she should not be “allowed” to make this selfish choice over the safety of her baby.

      The point is, once we start drawing lines around which choices women may make and which they may not, we’ve dug a deep chasm for all women. We’ve stripped their ability to make choices about their bodies and their babies and their births across the board. This isn’t about just abortion or just birth. It is about women’s ability to make the tough and personal decisions about their health and the outcomes of their pregnancies that only they and their families will live with.

      • says

        The very thought of abortion horrifies me and makes me shudder. I don’t even like to think about it.

        That said, any system of thought that tries to protect a certain class of people seems to be incapable of doing so without potentially hurting yet another class of people. I’ve seen it in my years as a Family Advocate helping families involved with child protective services. These agencies assume a conflict between the interests of parent and child, not even thinking it may not be so. So I get it.

        While I don’t think I will ever be able to call myself “pro choice,” I believe the best way to promote pro life ideals is to support women. No one should get to over rule a woman about her choices for her body and her children.

        • Profile photo of Kathi Valeii says

          Thank you for sharing your position and your conclusions about autonomy, Dorothy. I think vocalizing the clashing of these conflicting ideas and how you choose to hold them is extremely important.

      • Cynthia says

        Brilliantly stated Kathi. I have been in practice for 44 years and I think the hardest part of my work has been this very issue; who is right? Who decides where the line gets drawn? If one group says breech births are going to far we sell out all breech moms. If another group says 41 week gestations are too risky we sell out all later term moms. If we say abortion is wrong we sell out all women who need to consider the circumstances of their lives. If we say 26 week preterm birth has to go to hospital and forced “rescue” we sell out all women who say I choose to accept the limits of life.

        We have to stand by all women and the choices they make. That is not to say we are standing by women, disturbed and unbalanced who choose to kill their babies at birth or who are incapable of informed and able consideration. It is to say that under normal and understandable circumstances we need to stand next to each other as we choose what is true and real for us as individuals; informed and willing to risk our hearts as we make the decisions that inform our lives.

        Thanks for the great post.

        Cynthia L. Caillagh, TM, CPM, LM
        Wisconsin, USA

        • Libby says

          Cynthia, thank you for acknowledging all that you did. Appreciating your post from my perspective as a student midwife.

    • says

      Many people have difficulty accepting that the power of reproduction is in women only. And each woman has that power for herself. Only that individual woman knows whether a child should be born or not. It is a decision that only a mother can make. No mother takes that decision lightly. Pregnancy is direct contact with that which is spiritual. Deciding our children’s future is deeply humbling and sacred. No other human being can come between us and our unborn children. If you don’t want to abort your child, then don’t. What I do with my child is out of your power.

      • Profile photo of Kathi Valeii says

        “No mother takes that decision lightly. Pregnancy is direct contact with that which is spiritual. Deciding our children’s future is deeply humbling and sacred.”

        You’ve touched on something so brilliant, here, that often gets lost in this conversation. Thank you for reminding us of the enormity and sacredness of these choices. And why only women are positioned to make them.

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