Tuesday, February 3, 2009

When Activism Called Me

Monday I attended the Fem2.0 Conference. What an amazing gathering of women (and a few men) who were there to network, build bridges and truly demonstrate what feminism means in 2009. I left so very hopeful that our generation (of women and men) will make our country and our world a much better place. We left the conference with a little homework assignment, to tell the story of when you felt the call to activism. When you realized that you just had to say something, that you couldn't be quiet anymore. When you felt that justice needed to be served in some way that just could not be ignored.

As I thought about it, for me it was the first time I truly felt outrage personally. Don't get me wrong, I had been saddened, moved, and depressed about many other issues before this turning point into activism, but it was truly when it was personal injustice that sent me over the edge.

I was raised to be content and complacent. My parents had been members of the ACLU until my father began to work for something of a government agency and enacted a family philosophy of "non-partisanship". My parents registered for political parties to vote in primaries but besides that, no petition-signing, no grassroots anything. "We give to the United Way (and stay out of it)" was their philosophy at this time in their lives. No matter that Mom had walked in Civil Rights marches back in high school and that Dad used to be an academic and most likely surrounded by political discussion a ton when he was younger. They were in a different stage in their lives by the time I surprised them and I did not grow up in a household that felt "outrage" or a call to activism.

When I saw some of the panelists speak Monday, I realized that growing up with outrage must really help a person become an activist at a younger age. I'm not an old lady, but I do think it is interesting that I, and many others, did not feel the call to activism until I became a mother. We discussed that it is a very "politicizing event" at the panel "Breaking the 'Waves': Moms Coming Together for Equality" for many women and yet how to get women who do not have children to understand how this happens? There are so many reasons motherhood empowers women but not all reasons apply to all mothers.

The act of birthing my first child was the turning point for me. It was not worrying about the world I was birthing my child into, although that has certainly come into my sphere since then. It was childbirth. Something that I see many women view as a burden and perhaps one of the most awful experiences of their lives. Well, it was not for me. And here is the story.

Before I found out I was pregnant I had been to each of my sister's three births. Her birth experiences varied and by her third, she had been coached by a friend (from Holland no less) to try to go drug-free. I would never forget her words to me after the dust had settled, "Cynthia, I healed so much faster without all of the drugs, try to not do the drugs..." and so it was. I approached my first pregnancy, at the young (for my circle of friends) age of 26, with the expectation of avoiding as many interventions as possible. The more books I read, and especially Active Birth, Birthing from Within, and Husband-Coached Childbirth, I gained the confidence to approach birth in this way.

Meanwhile I couldn't talk about my approach with anybody. I loved my coworkers dearly, but they all gave me the "honey, the epidural is wonderful" talk and when I hinted at trying to avoid it they smiled and made me feel like I would be eating those words. They finally left me alone and tried to support me, but it was in a way that was filled with doubt and general misinformation about women and our biology. Stories about too-small-pelvises and too-big-babies were constantly the in the air outside of work. When I told my family that hospitals had squatting bars to help women use gravity to get their babies out, your pelvis can expand when you aren't on your back, and so on....men laughed and made jokes about women doing gymnastics during labor. The women were, in my memory, very silent, perhaps smiling along and just letting the "boys be boys." But I felt unsupported. I felt belittled. I felt like nobody believed in me, except my husband, who was amazingly non-chalant about the whole thing. His confidence worried me in a different way--he was so confident that women were designed to have babies that he didn't understand my addiction to birthing books. Well...he wasn't going to push this baby out. It was me. And in many ways I felt very alone with the whole thing.

The day came. And I was a week late. My care providers had given me some deadline before they wanted to induce me and *thank goodness* I went into labor exactly 1 week late. (Baby number 2 would really show the medical community the rebel in me--he went over 2 weeks late and was perfectly fine--and the smallest of my three babies.) The labor was extremely straightforward. My water broke around 2 a.m. and contractions started within the hour. We went to the hospital when I really felt like I was ready to go and sure enough, we arrived and I was progressing nicely.

Things slowed down slightly when I went throughout the whole hospital triage experience...to make sure I was in labor. Hi. I am 41 weeks pregnant, I told you the waters broke at home (and my husband could vouch for that) and now am having contractions on top of each other. Let me have this baby. But no, I must lie down and have the monitors strapped on for at least 20 minutes. I complained, "I know you have hand-held dopplers!" Well, we just need to do this and then you can get up. But then I had to go to the bathroom. Quite graphically and specifically, I HAD to poop. There was no "excuse me, can you please remove these things and let me get a robe on..." no. I had to go and the nurse said "but you can't, not right now, wait! I have to get the doctor!" and off she ran. I said to my husband "Kevin, get me a trash can!" and I emptied my bowels right next to the bed. The nurse and doctor came in and, now I know, they were really worried I was pushing out the baby without the expert there to catch.

Finally convinced I was in labor, we moved to a labor and delivery room and I complained again about monitors. One nurse was very frustrated with me but slowly the staff realized that I was going to challenge their norms and not cave. Before too long, a new nurse, who turned out to be a certified nurse midwive on duty teaching the RNs more about the midwives' model of care, came into the room. I said "FINALLY someone who understands what I'm going for" and my mother cried and thinks Nurse Lisa was an angel from heaven. To this day I wonder how things may have gone if she wasn't working that day. She was experienced with different labor positions and we had to use many of them because they realized baby was acynclitic so I needed to be flipped from side to side to get baby into a more optimal presentation. I pushed for 2 hours and it was hard. HARD hard. My husband was always right there with me and so supportive. My mother and sister stood back a bit but were supportive, in their own way.

When baby came out I felt such relief. Not only relief, I felt fantastic. I wanted to tell the world that I did it and that every woman should feel as great as I felt in that moment. I had done it. I had birthed a baby without medication. I had only a tiny tear that needed only "one stitch" if it even needed it at all. And Marcus was 9 lbs 15.7 oz. Only after baby #3 who was also 10 lbs did I feel like I could even say that number. 10 pound babies. My body makes 10 lb babies. Still somewhat shocking to read. I was an 8.5 lb baby and my husband is not massive. There was no predicting that.

And one of the first thing people asked right after that was "if you knew he was that big, do you think you would have tried to go natural?" and that is what really fueled the fire in my belly. Not only was I on a birth high that left me talking a mile a minute for days (and now years) about the power of women's bodies, but I was asked to question my approach again? AGAIN? After such success? What is WRONG with people? What is wrong with our society? Why should I even wonder how else I would have approached the birth when I had just proved was that my body could birth a 10 lb baby the first time around? If anything, this proves that women should never know, or even think they know what size their babies may be!

The more I read about childbirth in America (such as Birth as an American Rite of Passage, Our Babies, Ourselves, and Ina May's Guide to Childbirth), the more I became outraged how few women ever get to feel the way I do after a birth. So many never even get the chance. The worst thing is, they don't even have the kind of care that supports a birth that will make them feel this kind of empowerment. Birthing my first child changed my life and my perspective on the world. Not only did I become a parent, but I gained the confidence to question every social norm that comes my way. I feel like I have the intelligence and the tools to do so. Sometimes I see women who are 10 years older than I am still in a place that I was when I was 25. Is this kind of thinking something akin to "wisdom"? Because I didn't plan to have any wisdom until I was much older. I am so frustrated to see young women look towards childbearing with fearful eyes. I have head older women say they want to avoid the entire birth experience altogether, if they have to have a baby, they would prefer the elective cesarean to keep it under control.

It is this control that makes me want to tell the world that childbearing is one of the most important feminist issues in America today. Our women have been told that staying in control is of utmost importance. But in staying "in control" we are actually not encouraged to feel outrage. If we stay in control, then that means we are fitting very nicely into society as it is today. We are so busy with work and family that keeping it together is truly essential to our existence. But if every women could feel truly empowered once in her life...if every woman got a chance to follow her instincts and prove the naysayers wrong, well, what could women achieve? What could their sons and daughters achieve when they hear of her transformation?

To be very clear, I believe childbirth can be empowering no matter how the birth turns out. The key is having the mother be a partner in her care and not simply a patient. I am not anti-doctor or anti-cesarean. Women and babies are saved every day by modern American medicine.

The women for which I advocate are the women who do not know they can ask for better in a hospital setting. A woman who may be told to lie on her back and agree to the hospital staff's norms of monitoring her and her baby. The woman who feels so much pain from staying on her back that she must have an epidural to help her stay there. The woman who now cannot feel her contractions or move around to help her baby move down...who is then told the baby has "failed to progress" or that the baby's head is too big (cephalopelvic disproportion) and that she must have a surgical birth. When that woman's baby is born he could be be ten pounds and the operating room will breathe a collective sigh, "well no wonder, your baby was 10 pounds!" The woman will be happy her baby is healthy but she will also have to recover from surgery which will not be the most pleasant introduction to motherhood.

All women remember the births of their children for a lifetime. Many contemplate how the birth progressed and why things happened the way they did. I can very easily imagine how my birth could have gone differently--I have heard and read of countless stories that read as the above paragraph. But it did not happen to me. I found my voice during the birth of my baby. I am not alone in this outrage and I will no longer feel like I cannot discuss my approach with people in my community. I am proof (times three) that my way can work. It may not work for all women, but women deserve the information to approach birth in a confident, empowered way. The outrage I felt at being so doubted has led me beyond birth activism, but that was the beginning for me. My priorities have shifted and I am so grateful that I am the person I am now. I can make a difference and I do, one woman at a time.


TheFeministBreeder said...

I was a feminist long before I was a breeder, but becoming a mom completely changed what my idea of feminism was. Having an unnecessary and traumatic c-section the first time is what drove me into serious activism, and getting my VBAC is what inspired me to spend my time and money working to empower other women to have their own best birth. I sometimes feel silly thinking that I knew what "womanhood" was before I had children because I certainly did not. Before I had kids I thought breastfeeding was gross, and that epidurals were the greatest invention ever. Now I hate epidurals and think breastfeeding is mandatory.

I blame some of this on the fact that I had no mother growing up, so no woman around to explain motherhood to me.

But I see so, so, so many young women today with the same "breastfeeding is gross" and "sign me up for the c-section!" mentality. I've seen a lot of them on Fem 2.0. And it makes me very, very sad. It has also made me stay away from that site.

I'm glad there are moms like you on there though. Perhaps I didn't dig deep enough.

Possum said...

Thank you for sharing your first birth story. You've inspired me to post mine. It'll be up soon - just got to dig it out of deep storage somewhere in the documents folder of my 'puter. I seem always to have been on one soapbox or another, but I have certainly felt a focusing and clarification of my issues since I became a mother.

Tori, Jessie, Ria, and Kitty Kat said...

I felt chills as I read this post. I don't really have IRL friends who feel as strongly about this subject as I do... especially the bit about birth changing and empowering women (or the possibility of such), but that is totally what I have felt in my life. When I was told I was crazy for thinking about home birth (BOTH times!) I kept on course and delivered 2 of my 3 daughters in the comfort and safety of home. The last one was supposed to weigh more than 11 and a half pounds, but came out a diminuative (by comparison) 10 pounds 4 ounces.

It's really lovely to read your thoughts and feel a kindred spirit somewhere (other than Mothering forums... I LOVE them, but don't have the time lately). Thank you!

Cynthia said...

I wanted to thank you three ladies for commenting back because I too felt like this discussion was overdue in contemporary feminist discussion. I went searching for blogs with women saying they found feminism through birth or mothering and was surprised at the lack of connection between the two. Not that many women don't have the connection...but do they feel comfortable talking about it? Labeling it "feminist"? Anyway, I just so love having you out there. Besides my activist friends locally it makes me feel like I *MUST* continue to represent our line of thinking at things like Fem2.0. It is true, most of the women at things like this are not like us. But I insist on using the excuse that most of "us" cannot come to a conference that is so far away from home with a nursing child etc etc. (I must say, babes in arms would have been totally fine at Fem2.0.) Next year I may not be able to go, but I will try my best since I am so close to DC. So much of it is simply joining our voices...beyond MomsRising (which is great) but into something that resonates even more with younger women. We were *just there* and yet now somehow we are different? Modern woman + child = old fashioned homemaker or Lipstick Jungle? Hardly. I see young women looking for mentors who are twice their age but not finding the click. What I see that it is that we are this special generation in between...the one that knows about Facebook and blogging..that will have to educate and bring us all together. It is so funny how I am like an enigma to 1) childless feminists or 2) social conservatives. I know my mindset is totally normal for a good chunk of women our age group! So you are not alone. I and others are out here. You make me look forward to blogging more, you help my energy stay up though my little guy insists on staying up until 10...

Tierney O'Dea said...

Hi Cynthia:)

Thank you so much for posting your story. I'm 19 weeks with my 1st - reading all the books to have a drug free birth, and yes - I have encountered much skepticism. It's nice to hear a similar story that ended in success.