Let's just cut to the chase:
Ina May Gaskin! On Mothers' Day! What better way to spend the holiday meant to celebrate motherhood than with the woman who spearheaded the movement to put the power of birth back into women's hands? She was slightly scattered, technologically stumped, wry, smart and relatable. Everything you could ever want in a midwife, or an activist. She spoke plainly about the state of obstetrical care in this country and its unfortunate formal beginnings, about our innate understanding of how to give birth, about what keeps women from having the experience they're entitled to and what we can do to change things. She gave her own history: what brought her to midwifery, what's kept her there, and supplemented with photos of hippie caravans and Monday Night Class. She showed a video of an elephant giving birth and the bald soon-to-be-dad two rows in front of me unabashedly mopped his face of tears as his pregnant partner sat by, empowered in a totally unlikely way. Would an OB-GYN show you such a clip, pointing out how the elephant relaxed her jaw? Probably not.
During the question and answer period, someone brought up the truly abysmal US maternal mortality rates, especially as they relate to women of color. Amnesty International reports that
Despite representing only 32 percent of women, women of color make up 51 percent of women without insurance.
Women of color are also less likely to have access to adequate maternal health care services. Native American and Alaska Native women are 3.6 times, African-American women 2.6 times and Latina women 2.5 times as likely as white women to receive late or no prenatal care. Women of color are more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than white women. In high-risk pregnancies, African-American women are 5.6 times more likely to die than white women.
This translates to 80 of 100,000 black women dying in childbirth, versus 13.3 per 100,000 white women. Despite having the highest cost of care ($86 billion per year in hospital charges), the United States ranks 49th in morbidity.
As Ina May talked, I considered my own experience with birth. It was charmed, to be sure: short labor, discomfort that I felt confident in working through, encouragement from a watchful, hands-off (if surprised) midwife and a perfect baby born gently into water and dim lights and low voices. This was a privilege so many mothers will never know. While I was being attended by sweet ladies who brought me tea -- one of whose own babies could be heard running around the birth center -- women all over the country were being ignored, bullied, guilted. Some were fearful for their lives. All because of reimbursement rates and turnover goals and sexism and tee times and a confluence of so many other nasty, stupid things. In most of the country, mothers in my socioeconomic standing would've been given one option for which they should be grateful: the doctor to whom you're assigned and the nearest hospital. And if you question the doctor's c-section rate? If you say you don't want an induction or pitocin once labor starts or dare to present a thought-out birth plan? You risk alienation, humiliation, a pat on the head.
So many women I talk to are called to birth activism because of their own negative experiences. They want to save others from the trauma of unnecessary surgery, of the degradation that comes with having your own body autonomy unceremoniously taken away while your motherly instincts are trampled. This is obviously not my deal. I have, however, seen the TV shows and the movies depicting shrieking, sweaty, bed-ridden lunatics. I've read the studies. I've heard the stories. By contrast, I want everyone to have MY experience, whether it's in a hospital, in a field or in her own bed. Every woman deserves respect and attention and these two basic things are the keys to maternal health.
If you forgot to give your mom a gift this year, or if you like to plan ahead, make a card and let her know you've donated to the MAMA campaign in her honor. Help make midwifery available to low-income women!
* I take such serious issue with the conventional punctuation of this holiday. Some people have more than one mother! Some people want to celebrate more than one mother!