by China Martens
I hesitate to write the story of my daughter’s birth.
When Sprout, pregnant with her first child, came to town, she wanted to create a radical parents support group; she asked on the anarchist-parenting list serv if there were any other anarchist parents in Baltimore. I was a full 20 years older than she was (and probably a foot taller), but I answered her call to be in that group. Never in a million years did I expect the news that came next: Paikea died in the hospital a few days after her birth. Though I went to her as soon as I heard, to tell her I was sorry, this was something I didn’t even know how to respond to. I was the more experienced mama and yet how little I knew!
The following year, Magenta, another mother who sought my advice for midwife choices and resources, wound up having a tumultuous and long labor that resulted in a c-section and posttraumatic stress.
These women had gone on the same adventure as me, with the same intentions as I had. They had read the same books, held the same expectations (to have a home-birth with a midwife), but wound up in the hospital with questions about how and why things happened the way they did. Their birth stories contain great love and strength, great pain and loss.
Concha, a third rad mama, cried to me, for just a moment, in the sunshine. As she stood like a queen of everything free and triumphant, maternal and happy, with the most beautiful baby in the entire world, she told me that she felt like a “failure” for having to go to the hospital, for needing western medicine, for not being able to do it all on her own.
And that is unacceptable to me. If my strong, beautiful, resourceful, and clever sisters feel like some kind of failure because of this, then it must be addressed. Something in the natural birth movement, meant to empower us, is creating a mythology that can work to sabotage individual truths.
Listening to these stories has changed my thoughts on how I interpret my own experiences, just as my own mother’s story of my birth made me know I never wanted to have my baby in a hospital and watching my cat have kittens showed me the kind of birth I did want. I see that I have made some assumptions from my life because things happened as I expected them to. These are not fair assumptions to make. I could have had a tumultuous birth as well. I certainly have had tumultuous experiences in other areas where my natural, alternative, and radical peers did not—so I know what that feels like. A friend told me she had some trouble nursing at first, with her third child. Who would have thought such a thing? The first two had no such problems. All mothers know, and the more experienced then the better, not everyone has the same troubles. Your own struggles may benefit you with the wisdom to be more compassionate to another’s.
I didn’t go to the class at my midwife’s house the week we discussed what to do if we needed medical intervention during labor––because I believed, with the great golden strength of the young, that nothing would go wrong. (Yes, the midwife and her assistant were mad at me about that. But I read about that stuff in a book already; and I wanted to join my friends in a big outing to Denver. I chose adventure over dour responsibility and fear.) I just knew that everything was going to be all right. This attitude, many believe, was what made everything turn out as well as it did. But after talking to Magenta, I see how silly that thought is. She told me that people tell her that it’s not her fault, that her body couldn’t labor on her own and have a vaginal birth. How can that be, when those of us who do have successful natural births take the credit for our bodies’ capabilities? Things could have happened differently and then I would have felt differently.
Now I see there are many places within one’s life to gain or lose confidence and faith with yourself, as well as to lose what you have gained and regain what is lost, multiple chances across the expanse of your life. We need to utilize all that will help us; to challenge all that will harm us; and come up with combinations, variations, and adaptations over time. Pregnancy and birth are heavy. I’m sure every mother has thought about the dangers but, if you are like me, you may hate the hospital so much that you can not imagine yourself needing its care. We need to be prepared for different outcomes and paths, and recognize that taking other routes is not a failure, but is seeking the help we need.
I see now that there are some mothers who feel ambivalence and difficulty when thinking back to their labor, whose stories contain more struggles within them.
When I first heard my friend Magenta’s story, I didn’t know how to handle this kind of power in a woman, a truth telling woman, when the truth was not pretty. I sat in the grass, with my friend in pain before me, a pain I could not fix, holding her wonderful little son, and listened to her story. We discussed our issues with our bodies over the course of our lives so far. We tell our stories, after all, to create changes as well as to understand, and to try to make sense of, the things that have happened to us. I want to learn how to tell a story that will honor all women, all births, all that birth is; to hand something down into the future as well as to change it.
It is only with this understanding that I will now tell the story of my daughter’s birth.
I loved being big and pregnant: my hair was long and alpine green and I lived with my two best friends by the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Boulder. They had migrated here when there were political actions going on, lived in a house of activists, and stayed. I had come to settle and to give birth. Amy walked around town with me everyday. Unemployed, we would make a mission searching for “curly fries” or I would sit on the steps outside our apartment and she would read to me from a book she was exploring (usually some woman-centric, sexuality or magical type thing). Her hair was alpine green, too; she was to be one of my daughter’s fairy godmothers. (I hoped that everyone I knew and met would all become her extended radical family). Olga, my other best friend, had drifted away. She was very interested in mothering topics but we weren’t feeling as close as we used to. She was busy with her job, her band-mates, and a big festival that her band was going to play soon.
I was surprised when contractions arrived while walking in the grocery store with my mother––it was such an ordinary day! Surely this could not be the beginning. They felt like menstrual cramps, nothing like the Braxton Hicks I had earlier that had made me feel more insecure about miscarriages and vulnerable. This small discomfort was the beginning of the birth process?
Getting back to the house, the pinges continued and I decided to time them. I interrupted band practice in the kitchen: “Does anyone have a watch? I think I might be having contractions.” Everyone was surprised, and wanted to know if they should stop band practice but no, no, I assured them it was fine, I didn’t want to be any bother.
Contractions went on into the night. I remember breathing through them and looking at the clock, with mama kitty to keep me company. She had been a roommate’s cat until she found another home for her. But that evening, she ran away from her new home blocks away and returned to sit up all night with me––the best doula ever!
In the morning, Olga had to go to one last band practice before the show. She asked me if it was all right, if she had time, she didn’t want to miss the birth. I told her it was fine, there was time. Amy, however, who hadn’t been interested in being present at the birth, stayed and paced around like a nervous father––afraid and excited.
I had painted a large mural on the wall to welcome the baby––a tree with flowers and birds. I had an antique crib I had dumpstered. My mother slept on a guest mattress and read a Tom Robbins book I lent her, Jitterbug Perfume. All our plain things had been painted on, even the lampshade. I had planned on having my daughter at home the way cats do, the way witches do, the way anarchists do—and here in this progressive town, even though home-birth was illegal, it had been easy to find a midwife. I attended a class with her each week.
When we called the midwife, her husband answered and said to get lots of rest while I could, to drink miso, and call back when I was further along, that he would wake her then since she was resting from another birth. I didn’t want to call until the time was really coming close. I know some people like to have lots of people around them but I feel more comfortable being by myself. This was my birth. It was good to have the midwife’s support but I just wanted to birth in peace.
I had a book that told me how long each stage would take and I believed in it as a guide, as solid as a map. Birth takes time. It’s not like on TV, how there is a scream and panic and off to the hospital.
How surprised I was then, by the intensity! I roared like a lion. (Later I wondered what the college boys who lived upstairs thought.) I have never known sound like that, sound from within, strong powerful deep—the roaring was part of the pushing, one and the same. It was an inner body experience, I like to say, kind of like tripping—a veil came down as I felt my hips shift and the baby moved down. I wasn’t as composed as I thought I would be. I had gone to take a shower and wound up delivering a baby on the floor by the toilet, with one of my socks half on and half off, not wanting to move. My mother came behind me and cradled my head, held my upper body, as my feet pushed up on tip toe. My midwife’s assistant arrived and said I was crowning. It was going to be the first baby she ever delivered.
I yelled, “I am dying, I am dying, I am dying,” for birth is like lovemaking where you try to say something once and find yourself repeating it over and over.
“You are not dying,” she told me and I was glad she was there. When my daughter came out, it was suddenly very calm and silent––from this whirlwind, my newborn arrived. The midwife’s assistant placed her on my chest.
“My baby,” I said, and looked at her, wide-eyed, looking back at me––us seeing each other for the first time. I just knew, from that moment, that it would always be right. I loved her very much. To take a shower felt incredibly lonely; I wasn’t used to being alone without her in my body and I was so glad to get back to her, in my arms, back on my bed. “She’s beautiful,” said the midwife. Yes, she was.
I have a photo of my best girlfriends grinning on both side of me, holding my baby, in my bed. We looked so young. At the time, 21 years old didn’t feel so very young to me. We had done a lot of things; we knew what we wanted. Natural childbirth, like anarchism, gave me a belief in my own powers outside of the establishment, the possibilities of humanity to live without exploitation but each to their own, in cooperation.
Days later, I took my daughter to a doctor to look at an eye infection she had developed that wasn’t responding to a breast milk remedy. The doctor tripped out on the fact that I had a home birth and hadn’t had the baby tested with the “prick the foot and bleed” test (given the information, it seemed like a bad test anyway). He sent Child Protective Services to my house. Unlike so many others’ experiences with Child Protective Services, mine turned out well. The social worker looked around at the crucified clown on a cross, the artwork, drum set in the kitchen, two roommates, mattresses on floors. Then, she looked at me, my child, and my mother and said, “Clearly this child is loved,” and left.
Years later, I would have other battles of doubt and struggle, other initiations and changes in my life, contractions and tears, and I would grow and learn even more. Birth is not always about just trusting in nature and learning to let go. I have always advised my friends to fall down the steps like a drunk––they get hurt less that way––and don’t be afraid. Or I have said that, pardon the crass comparison, it’s like taking a shit. And going to the hospital makes you get scared and constipated and then they all start working on you and the trouble begins.
I’ve learned about how things can go wrong. Sometimes we will have trouble but that doesn’t mean we are weak or inferior. Human beings are more complicated than that. We are body and spirit; we are good times and hard times. All of this makes us what we are––exactly who we are, experienced, marked, marred and born of it.
As beautiful as the natural birthing movement helped me feel, and as empowering and revolutionary to define my own path while joining in an older heritage, there are always other stories, other ways. It’s kind of dumb to take credit for the fact that everything went well because life can dish out many things. Why take the credit for the good when they say not to take the blame for the bad? Is it some kind of female machismo to brag about how you can handle the pain of childbirth? For me, it was the one time I could join in with that, never being very good as a girl before, not being able to do flips off the swing, or cartwheels, or show off agility on the monkey bars. My body has never felt like a close companion of mine. To become friends with it through having a child was an amazing experience.
My birth story is one of my happiest stories. A punk rock mom fleeing from LA once confided to me, “When I feel down, I watch the tape of my birth and then I feel so strong that I can do anything!” There are many different stories. We share things in common as women, but we also claim so many variations. Birth experiences, like sex experiences, can encompass so much diversity: pleasure, joy, liberation as well as enslavement, disappointment, and devastation. Not every woman experiences things the way some others say that she “should.” Our experiences have to be turned around to emphasize that we’re normal, rather than used to demonstrate that we’re a failure in someone else’s system. Prepare for everything, not just for something going “wrong.” Preparing a hospital back up plan might help with that outcome; if you need western medicine, honor that path. Focus your positive energy, make the decisions for yourself, gather support around you. And then what comes next? That’s your story.
There is never really an end to that tale.