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My mother’s first memory of me was the sound of my voice.  She said I screamed so loudly as I was carried away from her and down a hallway that a nurse remarked she had never heard a newborn cry with such strength.  We need our mothers and our mothers need us.  I was trying to make that clear but to no avail!  In Toronto hospitals in the 1960’s, all babies were immediately separated from their mothers and kept in nurseries.  Figuring out when to use my voice has been the focus of my life ever since.  My writing is the result.  Like my first howl, it comes from love.

 

To give birth is to be at the heart of life where the distinction between inner and outer dissolves and what was hidden comes to light.  Unbounded, every cell pulses to the thrum of the world and a woman knows who she is because she is in touch with every part of herself.  Yet fear of birth is everywhere, in our families, our popular culture and in the very “health care” systems we rely on.  It shrouds our collective mind so that what is meant to bring us into wisdom, thrusts us instead into shame.

Women have shared their birth stories with me ever since I gave birth almost twenty-two years ago now and the crazy thing is that it’s the women who have had births that deepened and enlarged their sense of self who are usually the ones most hesitant to tell their stories in public.  I know the feeling.  After a woman has told of being induced, for example, and she describes the pain she felt from it and the relief the epidural gave her and the hours and hours she lay numb on her back and how she waited to be fully dilated as her blood pressure and contractions and her baby’s heart tones were constantly monitored and a catheter was inserted into her and she wasn’t allowed to eat and she was filled with I.V. fluid and then her baby went into distress and was born through a caesarean section, it feels like the wrong time to share how I went through none of that and felt the strongest and most beautiful I ever had after I gave birth.

Women’s stories of the suffering they have endured in birth need to be told and heard.  It is vital to them and vital to us as a society.  They are stories that demand healing and action!  Along with these though, we need to hear of women’s joy.  We need to share how our bodies can bring us into pleasure and strength and faith in ourselves and our world.  I think these are actually the more dangerous stories.  They challenge.  They challenge our mothers and perhaps even our grandmothers.  They challenge the idea that our bodies are a source of an inherent weakness.  They challenge our collective idea of women.  There is camaraderie in suffering.  To declare that you live outside it is to stand alone.

Malala Yousafzai, the fourteen year old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban, is finding her voice again.  The world watches.  It was her strength that made her a target, not her victimhood.   A spokesman for the Taliban explained that Malala’s writing was “obscene” and needed to be stopped.   To claim that feminine intelligence is dirty has been the way of the patriarchy for thousands of years. The Taliban’s tactics are brutal, and proudly public, but the same impulse is expressed in more subtle but no less destructive ways in how birthing women are treated in much of the world.  Most women either give birth without the medical safety net they need, or they suffer obstetrics’ assault.  Either way, we are hurt.  So are our babies.  Some of us die.  My midwife, Mary Sharpe, who is now the director of the midwifery education programme at Ryerson University, calls the situation a “global crisis”.  She writes,

The incidence of medical and surgical interventions for birth is increasing at an alarming rate.  In many settings, induction of labour and epidurals are the norm and caesarean birth rates range from 30% to 70% with a corresponding rise in maternal morbidity.  In under-resourced areas of the world, equitable access to midwifery and obstetrical care is still not possible, and the United Nations’ Fifth Millennium Goal to reduce maternal mortality by three quarters has not yet reached its target…efforts to improve infant and maternal mortality by moving births to institutionalized settings are in fact replicating the worst in Western maternity care; women give birth in crowded facilities, are separated from their family and loved ones and birth alone in a dehumanized, assembly-line fashion. 

This is taken from Joyful Birth, a book I contributed to that was put together by Lisa Doran and Lisa Caron.

While much of the world looks in reverence to the United States’ high tech medical system, it is not serving birthing women well.  The U.S. is one of four countries in the world where the maternal death rate is rising.  Perhaps obscene is a good word for this.  Ina May Gaskin, a world renowned American midwife and author, has created The Safe Motherhood Quilt Project to bring women’s unnecessary deaths into public awareness.  She said in a television interview recently that, “We let so many maternal deaths go invisible in these United States and a half to two thirds of the maternal deaths that take place aren’t reported to the CDC.  That’s very shocking because in most industrialized countries there’s a huge effort to identify every single death so that you can say, “OK, how do we reduce it next year?”   According to the number of maternal deaths that have actually been documented, the U.S. ranks somewhere between 40th and 50th in the world.  The highly medicalized approach to birth by American obstetricians is not working.  Out of fear of life and the intimate human connections that are a natural part of it, medicine tries to control birth and many women feel safe in its tight hand.  Salman Rushdie wrote, “Repression is a seamless garment” *  Despite feminism and the sexual revolution, we wear our constriction so comfortably in the West, we barely notice it.

So my words are for you, to speak to the fear you can’t help but absorb and to feed the faith that is your birthright.  We are the knowledge and strength we look for outside ourselves.   Denial of life’s power, its unfathomable intelligence to bring us into being and sustain us, has been acted out on our bodies and minds, and those of our children, over many, many generations now.  Unspeakable violence is our legacy and the impulse to heal it demands that words be found.  A coherent story must be told, not just of the suffering, but of the rightness in embracing all that we are.  All our lives depend on it.


* Salman Rushdie, Shame (1983) from the first, unnumbered page of Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery.

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