Study for Hope II by Gustav Klimt, 1907
I remember the first time I realized there was a “right way” to have a baby.
I was twenty-four year old shop girl with a belly that no longer fit into the clothes I had carried from college. The little girl inside of me had been wanted, sought and waited on. But the state of pregnancy was unnatural for me. I carried it apart from myself. Other women rejoice over the journey of pregnancy. I felt it with bewilderment of a native population confronting the first onslaught of an occupying force. That baby asserted herself with nausea and elbows and the stretched canvas of my body.
Every morning I breathed into the cold outside and reminded myself that my daughter, a spirit with a will and a hope and a way, would be found at the end of my nine month long commitment.
In my years of retail, I found that few things make people more impertinent or entitled than seeing another human being behind a cash register. Perhaps it is a desire to return to a British master/servant relationship? I mean, what is a society without a class of people that can take the abuse of its wealthier citizens? Amiright? The stories are numerous, hilarious and disturbing. (Like the time a woman used me as a sounding board while she talked about the sexual proclivities of a man she was with “three boyfriends before this one”. And then only bought a necklace that was marked half off.)
Never was this distasteful impudence more evident than the months I was pregnant. Men and women alike thought that my role as size retriever made them experts on me and the pregnancy I was gulping my way through. They told me what I should eat, what I should wear and the best exercises. One woman told me her husband had kept her from tearing during delivery because he had been so diligent about massaging and stretching her cervix. Al the while, he nodded enthusiastically beside her.
By far, the most advice I received had to do with the actual delivery of my baby. There were cash register screeds against elective c-sections, dressing room tirades against epidurals and shoe fitting soliloquies on the beauty of the at home water birth. I was told time and time again that women were having their babies the wrong way. Hadn’t I seen the documentaries? Wasn’t I concerned about severing our mother-daughter bond before it even began? Hospitals are traumatic, doctors evil and –gasp! – I could never have something as precious as my baby in a place that was built to make money!
Here is the thing, I didn’t think these women with their banners of self-righteousness thrust up in the air were all wrong. I still don’t. I can appreciate the beauty of the moments they gleamed on about as they tried on dresses. I think there are valid points to be made about necessary changes to the way our medical system approaches birth, death and everything in between. In between the lines of anger and smugness, I could see that these women were trying to gain control over a beautiful thing that has been threatened in one way or another for years. And honestly, at the end of the day you could decide to have your baby in a watermelon field under the new moon while druids dance around you. As long as it is what is best for mama and baby, I simply don’t care. (Although if you ever do that…please invite me. It has been so long since I enjoyed a frolic with real live pagans.)
I did (and do) have a problem with their certainty and condemnation. I listened to women slash at their sisters in motherhood. When discussing epidurals, one customer said casually, as if anyone with sense would agree, “How can a woman bond with her children if she didn’t even feel them come into the world?” Indeed.* They proclaimed the superiority of letting nature run its course throughout the duration of labor. Each one did her good deed in teaching this little shopgirl the wheres and whats of modern morality. Then they sauntered out of the store into their air conditioned cars which drove them to their educated children who they then took to a home full of food in a country with hope.
Choice, and the need to condemn the choices of others, is often a privilege reserved for the wealthy.
Wealth is not measured in valets and vacation homes. Wealth is having carpet on your floor instead of dirt, wealth is opportunity instead of necessity, wealth is speaking and not being silenced.
Our sisters in Zimbabwe are not wealthy, our sisters in Zimbabwe live from necessity to necessity – if they live at all, our sisters in Zimbabwe are being silenced.
Zimbabwe is one of the poorest countries in the world. Depending the the method you use, Zimbabwe's average annual income ranges from $150 to $480. (One report put it as high as $2,180.) It costs $50 to have a baby in a hospital. Most women can’t afford to have their children in Zimbabwe's inadequate hospitals. However, some scrape together the money and make it to the hospital, their bellies full of the baby ready to born.
"Why?", the proselyting woman with the venti cup full of indignation cries, "Why would they take themselves from nature? Where are their birth pools and sense of womanhood? They don't need all that intervention! All that clinical noise. Don't they know any better?"
Currently the maternal mortality rate in Zimbabwe is 50% higher than the Sub-Saharan Africa average and three times higher than the global average. According to UNICEF, its infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births is 43. In a country rife with AIDS, corruption and ignorance, hospitals are most Zimbabwe women’s best worst chance of a healthy delivery. They don’t have the luxury of sanctified opinion.
A recent news story made a horrific and verified claim, a hospital in one of the country’s poorest regions was charging its female patients $5 per scream during child birth. The hospital called the incredible charge a punishment for “raising a false alarm”. The women that could not pay the fine were detained within the walls of the hospital until their families raised the money. Each day’s detainment added an additional fee to the initial charge.
This, my friends, this is womanhood under assault. This is the destruction of the natural order of things. This is evil and excess and corrupted profit. These are women betrayed into silence and fear. That is what it looks like when the core of who we are as women is belittled and violated.
The ills of one society should never blind us to the flaws of our own. We should each be outspoken about the changes we want in our home, town and nation. Our ability and desire to speak up, move out and motivate change is one of the things I most love about being a woman. But I can’t help but feel that in this moment, in this discussion of birthing rights, in this cause, some of that energy could be spent on behalf of women that have literally lost their voices.
I admire each of you - the ones that labor at home, in the hospital, at birthing centers and in tubs, pools, standing up, laying down or crouched on all fours. No matter how you do it, birth is a beautiful, sacred, world moving thing. And my star in heaven, isn’t it amazing that so many of us are given the ability to choose how we will participate in the rite of giving life? That we get to gather knowledge and hopes and put them both to work? We should continue to educate and inform and enlighten. There can always be changes made for the better. But we have to leave the judgment, the anger, and the smug condemnation behind. Choice is a birthright of elevated circumstance. Let's begin to celebrate the choices of others and their right to make them.
And then, after the joy of discovering the diverse ways we achieve the same great hope, let us go to work. There are women and children waiting for us. They need us to yell and write and sweat on their behalf. They need us to make choice a matter of course, not a matter of circumstance. They need us to help them create a place where they scream life into this world. And, I hope soon, we will all discover that we need them, too. Our sisterhood of ideas, hope, inspiration and voice will be an echoing, incomplete thing until all are gathered in.
*I am the proud recipient of two smack my face and hand me a brownie epidurals. They were positively delicious. It did not affect the bond I have with my daughters one whit. I fully love them each at least half of the time.
How to help? There are so many ways. Just one? I think giving women economic freedom can go a long way to giving them complete freedom. Microfinance is one way to achieve that. Watch this documentary on it to learn more.
One microfinance institution that has been very well reviewed by Give Well is The Small Enterprise Foundation. They specialize in helping women.