Skip to content

My Rant About Giving Birth In America

September 1, 2011

I learned a few things this morning when I woke up at about 3:00 am. And never went back to sleep. First, my family is adorable in the middle of the night. My cat’s idea of “nocturnal” involves snoring loudly, my dog, well he’s just plain adorable all the time. My husband reacts to restless motion from me by wrapping his arms around me in a vice grip so tight I have to sort of push out to make room for circulation. This morning, I felt like if I could just give in to the trio of breathing, I would drift back off… But it never happened.

Lewis the Dog, asleep, with "Abominable Snowman Toy," on his big dog bed. (RIP, Abominable Snowman. Sorry you got torn limb from limb. You were well-loved.)

When I gave up on sleep and came out to the living room, the cat decided to follow me and fall asleep on my feet. (It’s really hard to be annoyed when there’s a very soft cat sleeping on your feet.) I decided to give in to Baby Fever and catch up on The Baby Project at Of all the things I have been doing to deal with Baby Fever, this activity is definitely one of the healthiest. A bunch of women have been blogging about their experience with pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood for the past couple months. The project is almost over, so catching up meant reading a lot of birth stories. These are always full of suspense, despite the fact that all the highlights are pretty obvious going in. But aside from the obvious evolutionary fascination with the propagation of my species, what fills me with suspense is the fact that each story is so very different, despite the fact that most of the events are exactly the same. The personality of everyone involved in the birth of a child changes the story. That is part of what really gets me about your run-of-the-mill media coverage of pregnancy. Magazines don’t tell you this stuff. [Yes, I am one of those people who finds NPR completely fascinating, often noble and frequently comforting.] Why is it a healthy outlet for me? I get to read all about pregnancy and babies and even see pictures of teeny tiny babies and I still leave the blog going “Whoa. I better slow the f*** down and be careful about this decision.”

We all know that when US Weekly covers Beyonce’s pregnancy, they’re not going to tell us that she has acne for the first time in her life, that her feet have grown three sizes or that the personal trainer specializing in pregnant famous people is on call 24/7 to make sure her face never looks fat. (For the record, I made all of that up, in case that wasn’t obvious, but I just love the idea of exercises for the fat face problem.) Here’s another thing they’re not going to tell us: giving birth is dangerous.

Women get really sick and sometimes die growing babies and giving birth. All the time. In the United States. In fact, women in the US are more likely to die giving birth than women in 49 OTHER COUNTRIES. Here’s what Amnesty International has to say about those stats from the United Nations:

“Women in the US face a greater risk of maternal death than nearly all European countries, as well as Canada and several countries in Asia and the Middle East. Despite the 34% decrease in global maternal mortality between 1990 and 2008, with 147 countries experiencing a decline in maternal death rates, the US was among just 23 countries to see an increase in maternal mortality.”

Yes, that’s right, I might be safer giving birth in the middle east. Did you see that one coming? The middle east is dangerous, right?! Well, apparently they’re better at handling the dangers of childbirth than we are. And did you read that last sentence? We are one of only 23 countries in the world to experience more maternal deaths. When I mention home birth, some people look at me like I’m nuts. But you know what? Hospitals are not doing so well. “Between 2003 and 2007, the average maternal mortality has been 13 deaths per 100,000 live births, approximately double the low of 6.6 deaths per 100,000 live births recorded in 1987.” You know what the goal is? 4.3%. Know how many states accomplished that in 2010? FIVE. It is about TWO TIMES more dangerous to give birth now than it was for my mom. (I was born in 1984. At home. Zero complications.)

Here’s the brutal truth: I am not as worried as I could be, because that 13 per 100,000 number is an average skewed by the jaw-droppingly high statistics among women living in poverty, Native American women, Hispanic women and women in other minority groups. The next time someone calls this country “post-racial America” just because we elected a black man to the White House, you can bet I’m bringing up that little tidbit. I am a middle-class, well-educated white woman. I know how to look for and how to pay for quality health care. I have no problem yelling at doctors, and I have no problem demanding that I be involved in every decision. I will yell, kick and scream, if necessary, until I get something resembling the care I want. If I spoke poor English, how do you think I’d fare when a doctor asked me if it was ok to do an intervention like administering petocyn or oxytocin (drugs means to speed up contractions)? If this incredibly strong, brave woman felt alone and afraid when she woke up from her emergency C-section, what do you think it feels like for a single mother who is also an immigrant still learning English? My literacy skills are good enough to figure out how to fill out the massive amount of paperwork I would need to file in case my family required financial assistance for medical bills. My mother, mother-in-law, sister, husband, step-father-in-law, mom-in-law’s best friend the maternity ward nurse, [insert friend or relative here], would all have the know-how and the guts to stand up for my rights and my wishes in case I was, oh, distracted by giving birth or, maybe unconscious from pain or blood loss or both.

I would love a nice, calm home birth. There are far fewer drug-resistant bacteria in the home. I also just have really terrible memories of hospitals. The sliding doors at the entrance to a hospital raise my heart rate. But if I end up in a hospital with an epidural, that anesthesiology bill alone might cause more sleeplessness than the newborn. And we have insurance. It’s crappy insurance, but it covers maternal/child health care. An emergency C-section is not something anyone can prepare for, fully. But this just bugs me: the very facts of my whiteness, my education and my background give me confidence in my family’s ability to figure out how to pay for the medical care we deserve.

There is a lot going on here besides issues of class, race and gender (if men gave birth, I have a strong feeling that mortality rates would drop like a rock); this is about the rise of the non-emergency C-section which, in case you did not know this, involves cutting a woman open from her stomach, pulling a baby out of a uterus the surgeon has just cut open, and stitching it all back together. If this is right for you–go for it. Just look at a photo first, because I really don’t think it’s possible that 30% of American pregnant women plan C-sections and fully understand what’s going to happen. I think they’re smart enough to understand, let me be clear on that. I don’t think hospitals explain it.

I get to hear a lot of birth stories, because I get to hang out with a lot of kids and moms. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard bitterness and anger in descriptions of doctors who said nothing but “We’re going to give you a little something.” I am scared for myself, honestly, but I just know I’ll be ok. I’m mad, really really mad, that childbirth is, on the one hand, an illness that must be carefully monitored by doctors in hospitals, instead of a natural, healthy process and also no big deal when a woman in labor tries to tell someone that something is wrong. I am angry that we are still treated as overly-emotional, hysterical, untrustworthy patients.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2011 8:41 am

    When I became pregnant, I made myself the promise that I would go into this remembering that I was not ill, and that I was the one hiring the birth professionals to work with me not for me. They were there in case I needed them, not to cure me or heal me of any malady. I think when pregnancy/birth becomes overly medicalized, it can be a tricky field to navigate.

    Some things I found that helped me: I used a midwife instead of an obgyn. I found that the midwife had more time for me, I wasn’t rushed in/out of appointments and felt no judgement when asking even the most inane of questions (that i’m sure they’ve been asked a million times over).

    I researched the shit out of things so I knew what was going on. Reading and researching lead me to make various “alternative” decisions (such as opting not to do the glucola drink, and instead i monitored my own blood sugar in a more realistic setting at home) as well as a variety of different choices for when the baby was born.

    I also had a birth doula. I found that was one of the best investments in my entire pregnancy, and was beyond pleased with who I chose. I also am aware that my pregnancy was extremely low-risk and I had a super “text book” labor/birth, but I feel that more women can experience those things if they’re able to take control of their own pregnancies/bodies…it’s just an extension of reproductive rights in my opinion!

    • September 1, 2011 12:18 pm

      I agree passionately with all of that! I am already researching and made the decision that barring bankruptcy, we will pay for a doula. They visit before and make tea! They coach you during! They visit you after and bring meals! They will take photos if you want them to! They let the Dad or other Mom focus on the baby and not feel like the responsibility to support the woman in labor falls all on their shoulders! I love the whole idea.
      I’m so lucky that local moms talk to me so freely, too, because I’ll know which midwives are respected at our local hospital that has no birthing center. One mom said that no one entered or left her room until well after the baby was born. I want that midwife! That is a huge deal at Yale-New Haven! I have heard horror stories from women with a Yale ob/gyn, including a mom who begged for more time to push but was talked into a c-section that they then botched (sutures were too tight). It was her first kid and all they said was “Legally, we can’t let this go for more than X hours.” They acted like she was passing a kidney stone instead of giving birth to a baby.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: