I was pregnant three weeks after I was married. It was unexpected, delaying my undergraduate graduation for longer than I care to admit and derailing my plans for graduate school until a later season in my life. I was just getting comfortable in my feminist skin, full of enthusiasm for equality and full agency for women in our society.
I still remember the day I called to let my internist know I was pregnant. I was coldly informed by the office staff that the internist would not need to see me again until after I had delivered the baby and had an internal medicine issue; they suggested that I call an obstetrician’s office. Just like that, I was severed from the only healthcare provider I had seen since moving to Virginia to attend college. Instinctively, intuitively, instead of calling an obstetrician, I asked a fellow student, who was expecting her third child, if she had ever heard of midwives in the area. It turned out that she delivered her children at home and could recommend her midwife.
Finding a midwife, in my mind, was an expression of my feminism. I felt fully empowered to birth on my own terms, with a caregiver who treated me like a friend—a neighbor, a sister—rather than a number shuffled from specialty office to specialty office in a cold and impartial way. It was a step that began, perhaps unconsciously, with my earlier reading of Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day. The way in which Naylor’s colorful character embodied feminine wisdom had not left my mind more than eight months after finishing the novel. In addition, just the year before, my aunt, a labor and delivery nurse, chose to deliver at home unassisted. The newly blossomed feminist in me was drawn to these strong women who were questioning the politics of birth and bucking against a patriarchal model of care. They both exemplified full agency in their womanhood.
Years later, when pregnant with my fourth daughter, I traveled to Richmond to lobby for the legalization of home birth midwives in Virginia. In my mind, it was a clear matter of Choice. Women deserved to make their own choices about where and with whom to birth. It seemed a logical feminist issue, but when I approached female Democratic General Assembly members, who typically supported pro-choice measures, I was shocked at their unwillingness to see home birth as anything but a throwback to the dark ages. Instead, I humbly found myself working with politicians on the other side of the aisle—often white-haired conservative men—and linking arms with religiously conservative women. It was a stark lesson in gender politics and the ways in which women can unite whether they identify with feminism or not.
Later I would write a paper that a professor nominated to a national communication organization for an award. It was a project that involved feminist narrative research and women’s stories about birth, in particular birth with a midwife. The professor was an academic feminist legend, a nationally known scholar who had devoted her career to feminist communication; she was shocked when the award committee didn’t take my project seriously. I was not. When researching, I have found very few scholarly books or papers on choice in childbirth. Most of feminism rests on issues around choice in pregnancy and sexual orientation and inequalities in pay and violence against women, still extremely important issues. But, what about the eighty-five million women who give birth in America? Isn’t full agency in childbirth an important issue to embrace in feminism?
Today maternal mortality is on the rise and our minority sisters are 4 times more likely to die in childbirth—no matter economic status or education level. There is feminist work to be done around childbirth. I’ve had the fortune to work, as a grassroots organizer, with women who are bringing awareness to the inequalities in childbirth, and the importance of a woman’s full agency in the birth experience. Women like Jennie Joseph, Ina May Gaskin, Juliana Fehr, and many nonprofit organizations like the International Cesarean Awareness Network, Every Mother Counts, Childbirth Connections, Midwives for Haiti, and the White Ribbon Alliance. I can’t stress strongly enough how important it is to come together over this issue—whether conservative or liberal, gay or straight—women advocating for better birth options is an issue that embodies what feminism is all about.
Would you like to contribute a birth story? We’d love to hear about your experiences in childbirth, in particular whether or not you experienced full agency throughout your maternity care.