MOTHER SUBSTANCE (2)

by on Oct.25, 2012

A few weeks ago Danielle posted a link on Facebook to this post by Anne Boyer, which I found tremendously moving and familiar, and in the process of simply commenting below Danielle’s link it soon became apparent that I had more to say than a comment could accommodate, and that I should take the opportunity instead to submit to you, dear Montevidayans, my extended maternal manifesta, as presented below. In the process of fleshing out this post (which, in my mind, dovetails into an ecstatic endorsement of Lucas de Lima’s new chapbook Ghostlines, its resonance with South American myths about bird mothers, women shamans, and the Anáposo ceremony, along with LdL’s elegiac transfiguration and re-imagination of the archetypal holy trinity, among other things), I became waylaid. First, by a lengthy and consuming visit with my newly-widowed mother. And then, by finding myself the subject of a bona fide censuring over a poem—inspired by the curious outrage over use of the word “vagina” among Michigan congressmen—that was published in the magazine Revolver. I was asked by Revolver’s editors to write a statement about this event, which you can find here:

Poets, much less walking vaginas, are rarely consulted in matters as vital to families as the safety and honor of our capitalist economy. But perhaps poetry—like menstruating, defecating, vomiting, sweating, lactating, emoting, birth-giving women—constitutes a filtering system of sorts, with its own innate algorithms and ethic of protection. By unwittingly violating the decorum of Google and its family of advertisers in my poem’s efforts to pin the ironic ironic vagina on the Elephant (or Donkey—same diff), “Decorum of the House” managed to plumb a few gold nuggets from the bowels of The System…

It’s basically raining vaginas in my neck of the woods, I can only hope the same is true for all of you.

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I was 23 when my daughter was born, 4 weeks early (though perfectly healthy), during a vaginal delivery that was miraculously accomplished without medication or other interventions despite its taking place, due to her prematurity, in an operating room among masked & blue-gowned ghosts. My post-partum nurse was so annoyed by my insistent demands to initiate breastfeeding with my very own brand new infant daughter (who seemed completely out of my hands, as if I had to *earn* her back from the hospital’s custody) that she finally pushed us into a supply closet near to where other nurses had spent what seemed like hours bathing the mother slop from the body of my baby, and essentially “taught me” how to nurse by shoving my baby’s head onto my breast before abandoning me to sit, bloody & throbbing, on a stool surrounded by mops and buckets.

Later, when I refused to let the nurses retire my baby to the nursery, and even brought her into my hospital bed with me to sleep and sustain our nearness, I’d wake to them attempting to remove her to the plastic “crib” and wheel her out of my room, threatening me with various bullshit tenets about the dangers of co-sleeping and hospital liability. Which is no offense against nurses—my sisters are nurses, excellent ones, like many others I’ve met. But this is the way I remember my (mostly glorious and transcendent) experience of birthing my baby in a hospital.

It took about 8 years to pay off the slack not covered by my insurance—which was granted me through my work as a medical secretary—for an event (childbirth) I could have accomplished in the relative comfort and freedom of my own home. That was 22 years ago; there were no working midwives at my prenatal clinic or any other that I knew of, nor were resources or knowledge about birthing alternatives readily available or discussed by anyone I came into contact with. And I don’t mean to insist that homebirth is preferable or safer in every instance, but I would argue that most pregnancies and consequent deliveriesespecially if emancipated from the traditional onslaught of media and medical propaganda—could proceed with success, if not at home then certainly a homier place than a hospital.

One need look no further than The Farm, and its resident midwife Ida Mae Gaskin, for an example of how this works within a larger, intentional community. It wasn’t until the Farm’s 200th birth that they felt compelled by a medical crisis to transport a laboring mother to the hospital where a necessary and life-saving c-section was performed.

Reliable statistics on maternal and infant mortality are hard to come by (although this report by Amnesty International is a good place to start); stats on how hospital births compare to midwife-assisted homebirths are even muckier, varying wildly depending on the agenda of the administering agency. Regardless of statistics, a fundamental reality can’t be overlooked: if childbirth was such a tenuous event, necessitating such extreme technological assistance (at such exorbitant cost), then how could humans have managed to overpopulate, dominate, and inflict profound ecological devastation across the entire planet and its atmosphere? Why are countries with the least access to medical technology (much less car seats, food, shelter, water, etc) so overrun by masses of starving babies?

The truth is (actually I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s my suspicion), you are more likely to die just walking down the street than you are birthing or being born without medical assistance. Pregnancy is not a disease, nor is childbirth a medical crisis. Occasionally, yes, there are clear risks that can be moderated and overcome by medical technology. And certainly unforeseen dilemmas emerge during childbirth that could result in bodily damage if not death, whether one births at a hospital or in manger.

However, in my experience and from fairly extensive research and training, each medical intervention introduced during labor tends to provoke a secondary intervention, which leads to a third and fourth intervention, and so on, and more often than not a c-section concludes the process. All of this is much more complicated than I’m prepared to go into at this moment, and no doubt is a deeply contentious situation. But at the end of the day, there is nothing more natural or inevitable than birth (except maybe death).

For the first 10 years of her life, I was my daughter’s single mother—like Anne Boyer, barely getting by (never more than a step away from possible crisis or destitution), working, ironically, as a medical transcriptionist while going to school full-time and milking what I could from federal financial aid—and though no one ever threatened to take my daughter away from me, I was constantly made to feel afraid it might happen if I, her mother, asserted anything too radical about my maternal ethic, or showed myself to be too vulnerable or not a good enough capitalist. I was, basically, poor, and a single mother, which states of being, in the eyes of some, pretty much constitute criminal behavior.

Now I’m a doula, and I’ve worked with many pregnant & parent teens who are legitimately poor and often homeless—22 years later, not much has changed. As a doula I feel my primary function is to radically demystify and deconstruct the net of terror cast over the heart of the pregnant woman, to work toward liberating her from it and convincing her that inevitably the mechanism of her instinct will prevail, and is ancient and real and steadfast.

My own mother, married to a doctor, was prescribed both diet pills and the synthetic estrogen Diethylstilbestrol when she was pregnant with me, and aggressively dissuaded from breastfeeding. Post-industrial maternity remains subjected to the disempowering & fiscal-centric authority of the patriarchy, which authority in fact is fake, and seems driven almost entirely, at base, by its hatred and horror of motherhood. This macrocosmic social phenomenon is enforced by the symbolic narrative of most hospital births, in which the act of delivery is assigned to the doctor/midwife, who “delivers” the infant—her puffy red face barely visible from within the bandage swaddle of hospital-logo’d receiving blanket and tiny cap—into the arms of the often immobile (post-epidural, or C-section, plus painfully stitched, post-episiotomy or abdominal incision), IV’d, still-bloody, half-naked-&-humiliated-in-hospital-logo’d-institutional-garb, ill-equipped to leave the premises, mother. Who, also, must consent to all kinds of regulations regarding vaccinations, invasive testing and procedures, certifications, insurance, conditional oversights re: the acquiring of all the proper equipment (car seat, formula, etc—you may have arrived in a Honda Civic, but you basically need at least a minivan to haul everything delivered by the hospital back home), all these performed upon or deemed “in the best interest of” her infant before they are together “allowed” to walk out of the hospital.

Furthermore, a mother typically isn’t given the option of seeing much less maintaining possession of her & her baby’s placenta, which is tossed with all the other bioshit into hazardous waste; nor, in general, is she given any indication whatsoever that she herself is the heroine of the story who quite logically should be the decider of everything.

I seethe to imagine the horrific injustices inflicted upon women & infants during childbirth, and how intimately and fundamentally these abuses impact the quality of motherhood, childhood, and the whole of society into which these infants are theretofore unleashed. When you can’t even say the word “vagina” in mixed company without causing people to recoil or want to arrest you, despite the fact that the vagina is the very portal through which most humans enter the world (unless delivered by c-section, which by all counts is nearing on average about 40% here in the U.S.), compounded by recent political rhetoric claiming ethical authority over the reproductive and sexual experience of the  female body (in terms of access to birth control and abortion, ludicrous assumptions about the female body’s response to rape, etc), how can one deny the extent to which mothers and maternity are systematically reviled? Add to that the fact that the U.S. is ranked 50th in the world for maternal mortality among hospital births (with black women nearly four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women), despite spending $100 billion annually on the medical treatment of pregnancy and childbirth. Yet the dark force of legislative and media manipulation over pregnant women and mothers, alongside a total lack of economic value or social status placed upon their maternal purpose, prevents them from fully realizing the obvious and innate power they naturally possess….. And don’t even get me started on the role of oxytocin in all of this, the so-called “love hormone”—often undermined by its synthetic analog pitocin—the absence of which, in the birth process, it’s been argued, could account in part (if combined with routine circumcision, say, among other factors like enforced poverty, demoralizing and self-annihilating media representations, the institution of standardized market-friendly test-enforced data in place of public education of “the whole child,” the dearth of access to psychological mentoring toward individual self-realization and growth as well as the development of relational tools toward conflict resolution and bonding as a collective, etc etc etc) for the prevalence of dread, anxiety, economic disparity, rape, addiction, greed, personal violence, and war: the building blocks of global patriarchal empire.

Peace on Earth begins with Birth! And, not to change the subject, but the dismantling of the patriarchy—which is necessary for our, and other species’, survival, in terms of global empire and the absolute exaltation of capital and corporate personhood over life liberty and the pursuit of happiness—can only come about through both a willingness to abandon the current system to its inevitable collapse (and the sooner the better if you ask me, which is why, generally speaking, I decline to participate in the “democratic process” of presidential politics in voting for one evil, however “lesser,” than another—not to get too tangential, but no one can convince me to suck it up and throw my support toward a guy who boasts about how much drill-baby-drill he’s accomplished on public lands, and authorizes the use of drones, and refuses to address environmental catastrophe, and with all seriousness claims some practically religious pride in the patriotic murdering of “terrorists,” and almost everything else he says no matter how eloquently he might say it), but that dismantling also entails the radical healing and reinvention of fatherhood.

Additionally, it might be useful to remember that traditional healers have maintained an active, mostly uncertified/unlicensed and underground presence for thousands of years, and continue to exchange and expand the tools and knowledge of their ancient systems and lineage. Young people everywhere are dropping out of college to apprentice on organic farms, or with herbalists and radical doulas and midwives and bodyworkers and acupuncturists and curanderas and anarchist movements of all sorts. The resources we need to ensure our reproductive freedom and consummate health await us regardless of any federal or state legislation. If we could just indulge ourselves with a cold, hard analysis, we might realize that such legislation and its legislators not only can’t dance, they can’t overpower us without our consent.  All we have to do, essentially, is refuse.

These rantings, and more, will be revisited in the coming days when I draw your attention to the revolutionary queer maternity and mystical poetics of our very own Lucas de Lima as introduced in his glorious chapbook Ghostlines. Stay tuned (and, if possible, be patient, since my inner work toward patriarchal demolition involves a re-imagination and biorhythmic realignment of a conventional perception of time.) Until then:

P.S. I have a secret hope that you all will feel moved to share your own birth story, or any story or thoughts, in the comments below to keep the labial flames on high.

P.P.S. HELLO SCORPIO

XO

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2 comments for this entry:
  1. Rachel Moritz

    Sarah, Thank you for this post, its brilliance and heart. I’ve been thinking about what you said, here, “Peace on Earth beings with Birth,” and about these entrances and exits we make–the single unifying aspect of being human–and about how the medical system as we know it interfaces with these experiences. I had my son in the hospital, with midwives, and although many, many moments during that journey involved kindness, compassion and the ordinary heroism of total strangers, I also encountered a basic machine that didn’t honor my body–or my son’s–in what I felt was a whole or organic manner. The experience left some lasting trauma, though it also left a sense of what’s possible when you are lucky enough to find healers and caretakers who treat you with basic respect. After four days of labor, Finn was born via Caesarean. In the chaos that followed, he was whisked away to the NICU because of elevated protein levels in his blood and I was unable to see him for another 5 hours. My partner was able to sit with him, but not after he’d been poked and prodded by strangers. Five hours later, wheeled down the hallway by an angry, stressed out nurse, I found myself barraged by the NICU nurses who all had various opinions about breastfeeding. I felt as if I was at the bottom of a pecking order of women: the new mother, an idiot. While my Caesarean came at the end of a process that involved lots of choice on my part (drugs or no), a doula, some good midwives, and no doubt was the only option for me at that point given my exhaustion and the fact that Finn was tiring too, I felt for some time an extreme loss of the physical experience of my body. I was unable to see the umbilical cord, placenta (though a nurse told us she could find the box in the medical storage room that held them 4 days later; at that point, the whole thing seemed pointless), and I felt a real sense of alienation from my new baby that I know was partly due to the process. Nursing in the NICU late at night, the nurses suggested I cover up my body as I was pretty much naked. Many other moments where I felt just. . .alienated and alone. Are there alternatives to this? Clearly, the option of Caesarean is/has been a lifesaver for many women and their babies. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. In my journey through the bizarro world of Motherhood with a capital “M” that is this American (I should clarify middle-class, white) realm circa 2012, I’ve found equally oppressive as the medicalized state of pregnancy/birth, certain elements of the homebirth, orgasmic birth movement. What I wish is that the systems we have created were more fluid, more aligned with heart and less with capital. On the other end of things, my father died in 2010 in the emergency room of a North Carolina hospital. Who was with him at that moment? Did the nurses hold his hand? Did someone sing to him? Could someone have washed his body, or stopped a moment in the silence after his last breath to notice the space in the room and how it shifted? All of these moments have been part of my imagination in the reality of not being there. Do I think hospitals could be places where peace on earth is possible? I do, really. But I think our culture at large has to shift in huge ways, in all the ways you wrote about. Thank you for the chance to read your thoughts and share mine.

  2. Sarah Fox

    Rachel, thank you so much for sharing your experience and thoughts about these complicated issues. My sister invited me to attend the birth of her fourth child, Colette, who was born by c-section after she resisted all efforts to spin her out of a breech position. Despite the fact that her dad and I were mobile and dressed and perfectly capable of tending a newborn baby, Coco–like Finn–was whisked away just moments after she was born. I stood looking at her through the window of the nursery where she was stationed in a line of about 5 cribs, screaming her head off, without a single nurse or other adult in contact with her or the other babies. MADDENING and heartbreaking! Talk about a harsh initiation! I’m sorry you and Finn and J had to go through so much separation, confusion, poking/prodding, and ultimately that sense you describe of alienation, powerlessness. I couldn’t agree with you more that efforts to control how birth happens–whether through hospital regulations and interventions or inflexible and ranting orgasmic homebirthers–equally deny a woman her maternal right to intuitively oversee and direct her own pregnancy and birth process. It is just so disempowering, so much relentless static and judgment and enforced panic and dread, so toxic for every one of us. And yes, most of it seems tied to capital, and thus is heartless, and certainly can’t be fluid or unpredictable.

    My father passed away this past summer, and his death is a potent illustration of how these threshold experiences (birth & death particularly, which feel so similar in so many ways, and having participated as witness to both I’ve come to realize they’re essentially the same process) can enact and emanate a sublime medicine, broadly and deeply distributed. My father was a surgeon and spent the better part of his time in a hospital–as a doctor, and later as a patient. He endured countless surgeries and other interventions, and for the last few years of his life ingested dozens of pharmaceuticals a day, as treatment for his long struggle with rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease. I often stayed with my parents during and after these medical crises, and watched my father’s physical, mental, and spiritual health deteriorate in response–most of all when he was forced to spend any extended time in the hospital. He literally went temporarily insane, suffered hallucinations, horrific anxiety, and rage. Despite his total commitment to medicine, he was able to communicate, at a certain point toward the end of his life, that he never wanted to go back to a hospital again. He died in his own house with his wife, all six of his children, his best friend, and even his dog surrounding him! In fact the last week of his life was basically a continuing festival–the house full of people, singing, laughing, children, and all manner of magical events and animal and plant helpers. In his death, my father became more like a “medicine man” than the rational surgeon he had once been, his healing fully diverted from the physical body. He was the poet of his death, and of our experience of his death. I wish everyone could have an opportunity to engage with family and dying so intimately. I’ve never been present at a hospital death, but my sisters (nurses) and brothers (doctors) have, and have shared many poignant stories of singing, hand-holding, praying, and being overcome with feeling and amazement beside/with death. I think it’s likely that your father was not alone in that North Carolina emergency room, and that he benefited from a beautiful, unfathomably intimate care.

    Money and bureaucracy really fuck everything up, don’t they? But, I’m optimistic about the future of peace on earth–in hospitals, hotels, houses, and all the other places. I’m an idealist, but somebody’s got to do it. I found a little notebook on my father’s desk after his death in which he had written–in the shaky handwriting that characterized his last year or so, and in what context I have yet to guess–“why not be a mystic writer?” As the prime antagonist of this very objective for most of my life, my father’s posthumous curious utterance is as grand a permission as I can imagine to take it to the hilt. Because, why not? XOXOXO