I have finally made peace with my birth story.
It’s been a long journey. I know that my story is not the stuff of which natural birth fairy tales are made. Although I did (unknowingly) labour, and had the support of a wonderful doula, my birth was not ‘physiological’. I had a C-section that was, for all intents and purposes, elective.
I have harboured my story like a secret, and whenever I tell it, I emphasize the parts in which I laboured, and all of the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ that necessitated surgery. It’s not that I am ashamed. But working in the field I do, I don’t want to be perceived as too posh to push. I am also secretly terrified that any obstacle my son faces will be traced back to the moment of his birth, with his mother prone and heavily medicated in an operating theater. My rational mind knows this is ridiculous. I have thrown myself wholeheartedly into the work and play of raising my children. I am not a perfect mother (or human). I am not even confident that I am 100% a ‘good enough’ mother most of the time. But every now and again, I have flashes of maternal competence and I can immerse myself in the sheer joy of my children. Having emerged from the fog of postnatal depression, and having the incredible privilege of watching my children grow, I am able to savour more of those moments that I know are fleeting. Those people really were right: it has gone by so quickly and I want to relive and enjoy many of the moments I may have failed to notice as they happened.
All of this is to say: my son’s birth via C-section does not doom me to the annals of history’s bad mothers. And yet. It has taken me the better part of five years to even begin to admit that I was worried. I am only beginning to shake the shame.
Why is this? In my line of work, I spend a lot of time thinking about motherhood and its (dis)contents. I know that many womxn are pushed into motherhood through a portal of extreme trauma. Time after time, we find ourselves in conversation with womxn who have been brutalised by public or private healthcare systems that then tell those womxn to be grateful that they have emerged from birth with their and their babies’ lives. This is wrong for many reasons. In the 21st century, the measure of a healthy birth should not be whether or not the mother and her child survive. Given everything we know about the effects of the condition of a mother during the perinatal phase, it is shortsighted at best to pretend that being alive means being well. The reverberations of birth trauma carry on well into early childhood and beyond, for both the mother and the child.
In spite of this, I often find myself muzzled in conversations about birth. Inevitably, in any conversation about our broken culture around birth, the question of medical versus non-medical models of care rears its large, all-consuming head. As the conversation devolves into C-section versus vaginal birth, I find myself unable to speak with authority. I had a great birth. Every step of the complicated process was explained clearly. My partner was there. My doula was there. I emerged joyful and high on oxytocin and was able to get my son to latch well, almost instantly. In spite of all of this, I never feel like I can own and express that my birth was a good, even empowering, experience. How could it be, when my baby was cut out of me?
This reduction of the complexities of birth to the single moment in which the baby emerges is one of patriarchy’s great tricks on womxn. We have been divided into camps, and set against one another: epidural versus none, midwife versus doctor, breastfeeding versus formula. In reality, the factors that affect how you feel before, during and after birth extend beyond the moment of emergence. Keeping womxn locked in a limited conversation distracts from this. It also serves the clever purpose of concealing the many structural factors that affect our experiences of birth. By convincing womxn that if they make certain choices, and seek certain kinds of care, they will have the ‘right’ birth, we pretend that womxn have choice over some of the least empowering experiences of motherhood.
A breastfeeding mother who has to return to a minimum wage job six weeks after giving birth doesn’t ‘choose’ to start her baby on formula. She makes the best choice for herself and her baby, given that she does not have medical aid and cannot afford a breast pump. Even if she had the pump, she probably would not be able to convince her employer to give her the two 30 minute breaks she needs to pump as well as provide a clean place in which to pump and somewhere to store her milk. So, starting the baby on formula is the best of a terribly limited set of choices. But instead of talking about the policies and practices that are letting this mother down, we bombard her with ‘breast is best’ messaging, and do nothing to regulate the high prices of formula.
By submitting to this idea that a pregnant person’s experiences of motherhood are solely dependent on her choices, we allow society to neglect its collective responsibility. I am reminded of Ursula Le Guin’s left-handed commencement address:
So what I hope for you is that you live there not as prisoners, ashamed of being women, consenting captives of a psychopathic social system, but as natives. That you will be at home there, keep house there, be your own mistress, with a room of your own. That you will do your work there, whatever you’re good at, art or science or tech or running a company or sweeping under the beds, and when they tell you that it’s second-class work because a woman is doing it, I hope you tell them to go to hell and while they’re going to give you equal pay for equal time… And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country.
My hope for motherkind is that we inhabit our experiences as fully as possible, knowing all the while that these experiences are not happening in a vacuum. I hope we can see ourselves and our broken social mores about motherhood and mothering clearly enough to know what is truly within our control, and what is the baggage of a society that does not see or value us.