Birth trauma is real. For twenty-five years it sat like a tumor in my chest; I couldn’t cough up that last bit of fluid. It was trapped there, and I didn’t even know it, because it was my normal; in some ways it still is. Still, one day it moved to the side just a little bit.
I was sitting with a group of sisters, watching an innocuous birth film full of kiddie pools, empowered women, and beautiful stories. My heart felt full as I watched what we hardly ever get to see - babies moving, unencumbered by drugs or fear, making their way out of their mamas, welcomed with the energy of peace.
Voices slowed around me as I watched one woman give birth with the “assistance” of a reformed obstetrician who had reportedly progressed beyond the confines of the medical model of childbirth. Only he hadn’t. Because as this beautiful woman gathered all of the power of the universe in the moment of restitution, when her baby’s head was on the perineum, her “caregiver” reached toward him, seemingly to begin head traction. He was pulling on the infant’s head. Mama suddenly yelled “DON’T” or “NO” – I can’t remember which – and my heart started thumping quickly as I watched that disembodied glove continue its manipulation. So close to her sex, opened boldly and magnificently; so close to little ears and lips painted pink in the dim light.
And at that moment the little stone in my chest that had obstructed my breathing for so many years moved just a little to the left, caused an avalanche, and I could feel those dull latex hands on my own tender scalp. Suddenly all of the times that I had said no, and had it fall on deaf ears -all of the times that I had said “No” or “Don’t” rose from my chest to my throat and I choked on the words. My heart turned over with sickening thump.
Tears dripped onto the blanket that I clutched tightly around me as I waited for some sort of justice; surely it would be brought up in the recollection of this woman’s birth. This “birth assistant” would be spoken to, embarrassed; it would be acknowledged that both woman and infant had been violated – this would be part of the film.
But it wasn’t. And Mama felt good about her birth. There she was, a few weeks later, cheeks rosy and smile wide and honest. Her baby was bundled in her arms, perhaps breastfeeding, or simply being rocked and comforted. She told her birth story, but that word – “NO” – was left out somehow.
In my mind I was transported back to the birth of a beautiful baby named Dallas – a baby born to a mama who fought as hard as she could to keep him safe against hospital protocols. At home, before she panicked and decided to go to the hospital, we hung out and folded what little baby clothes had been passed down from her sister. We listened to rap music, and her dark eyes shone with pride as she talked about how she was going to have her baby “naturally” – they had told her there was a birth tub even. I hung cedar in the doorway and brushed her shiny black hair as she ate tater tots and rubbed her belly.
Once the hospital doors whooshed open and enveloped us, there was no turning back. She closed her eyes against the onslaught of fluorescent noise. I wanted to take her by the hand, back to her little townhouse where the lights were weak and her heart was strong. She let go of my hand, and that was it.
After negotiating with nurses to let her walk, keep her “off the monitor”, to let her have something to drink (only ice chips of course), to let her wear her pants under her gown because she was sixteen and embarrassed by stretch-marks, I sat down in the corner, numb. Through blurry eyes I watched her sleep; I wrung my hands and watched the monitor as her contractions wandered in and out like the bustling nurses and interns. The first time one of them slipped a glove on and parted her legs she woke with alarm, and I heard familiar words – “It’s okay.” “Just relax.” I also heard her say no. What right did she have to say no?
None. Not there. The monitors beeped and swooshed and she went back to sleep. By the third time she didn’t even wake up when the nurse apologized for cold fingers, and I winced as I watched a gloved hand reach under the blanket, probably feeling for baby’s head. When we were alone again I pulled her hair back from her face, warmed her tiny hands in mine, and covered her legs back up.
Later on they shook her awake and told her to push – her baby was ready to be born. For a second I saw her dark eyes flicker and when they told me to hold her legs back I could not leave her side; I didn’t want to let go of her hand. The nurse rolled her eyes at me and, after twenty minutes and an episiotomy, Dallas was born. I watched, anesthetized, as they wrapped him up quickly and put him in the warmer, where he was suctioned endlessly. His black eyes caught mine and I spoke to him with my mind. “I’m sorry,” I told him. “There is love here – it’s just a few feet away.” And it was. His mama lay there, watching and waiting.
A few hours later I stumbled past the grass in front of the hospital and into my friend’s car. I cried myself to sleep.
I had, even at that point, seen many births like this one. I have heard many women say “NO,” or “DON’T” – words meant to stop, to remind the other person that attached to this body is, indeed, a human, but these words are meaningless so much of the time.
So many of us said no when we were children too, and no one listened then either. We learned to go to sleep, to leave our bodies, because we couldn’t make it stop. For some of us this began the moment we struggled to take our first breath. Rough hands pulled on our heads, objects were shoved down our throats as we gagged and choked until we stopped even believing in the power of our own voices. We entered this world believing that our mothers were too weak to push us out, that we were too weak to breathe on our own, that not even our fathers or our months of practice breathing could protect us from hands that do not recognize us as human. We did not learn what it means to be alive. Compassionate. Gentle. Loving.
That doctor – all of the doctors – They didn’t learn it either. Maybe they were pulled out of their mamas too, just like I was. And maybe, like me, they carry that around in their own chests, and it obstructs their breathing like it does mine, especially in moments of fear. Maybe no one listened to their “No’s” or “Don’ts” either and they would surrender just as easily.
Birth trauma is real, for everyone involved. The soul of a human being is not meant to engage in an order that systematically destroys confidence in the most fundamental, instinctive process there is. The denial of women’s power to give birth, strapping her down, rendering her helpless and unable to assist in the journey of her own baby, is the most basic and absolute expression of misogyny and gynophobia. This is not fixed by hospitals fixing up their rooms to look more “cozy”, or with the purchase of birthing balls or pools or bars that can be affixed to hospital beds. These are objects made to exacerbate her failure – if she has access to props and she still cannot give birth properly, what kind of woman is she? There is no possibility of success.
Even when there is felt success (a healthy family), it is illusory, because the process of birth is orchestrated so perfectly, so beautifully, that it is not meant to be tampered with in any manner at all. No hands. No instruments. No monitors. Women, with no intervention, can give birth easily and safely.
After all, how could possibly cause more harm than we already have? We live in a world where women and infants are, at the best of medical-model births undermined over-managed, and at the worst - brutalized and sexually assaulted. Hospital hallways (even in Canada) are lined with portable carts filled with bottles of formula ready to shove in a baby’s mouth at the first sign of their mother’s failure to feed them.
Failure. No. Don’t. We need to stop closing our mouths and ears against these words and take back our births, for the sake of the memory of our bodies and those of our children and of their children and theirs.