It doesn't take long to figure out, watching these programs, that childbirth as it is practiced in allopathic medicine, pretty much sucks all the way up to the moment that the twinkly music is played and everyone is relieved to see a ten-toed and fingered baby pick up the wailing rod in the nick of time. The stress of every single participant in the birth is carefully documented on these shows; for me these programs put the reality in reality TV long before I knew to call it reality TV. The decisions made are valiant gestures of seasoned professionals in the face of chaos, danger and sometimes even horror. Everybody's calm until it's time to get the baby out now or else! No mother is a better mother than she who listens to her doctor as intervention upon intervention leads her onto the cutting table. A little suction, a little tugging, a wee bit of shortness of breath and bam! A healthy baby and a commercial break, after which we return to see the family happily enjoying each other with the never-mentioned memory of the difficult post-surgery recovery time expertly tucked away from my knowledge-hungry eyes.
Every once in a while, I'd be lucky enough to catch a midwife on the screen, sometimes she is even doing a home birth. And that's when I started to recognize myself as a potential participant in the process. Here, where the lights are low and the laboring woman is listened and responded to with care and consideration, I saw a place for the woman I wasn't yet aware I was becoming.
An activist? A doula? A midwife? A mom?
All of the above, God-willing.
So now I think I know a thing or two. I've read the books of famed American midwife Ina May Gaskin, I've watched and own a few important documentaries, such as Ricki Lake's "The Business of Being Born," the excellent (now also a book) "Orgasmic Birth," and the beautifully, quietly haunting documentation of the amazing Mexican midwife Naoli Vinaver's third birth, "Birth Day." I have studied and hope to continue to study with the brilliant and inspiring Pennsylvania midwife Joanne Dozor, whose informal classes in midwifery have helped me to solidify much of what I've learned and opened me up to a community of women who are already working in the natural childbirth field as doulas, activists and/or assistant midwives. Since joining Facebook in the beginning of 2010, I've been able to increase my circle of like-minded women by engaging on the "Orgasmic Birth" fan page and group, and befriending the proprietors of great birthy blogs like The Unnecesarean.
And since moving back to Baltimore, I've engaged once again in an intimate relationship with the wonderful Enoch Pratt Free Library, which has helped me to find the two books that are the reason I felt the need to write about Beckee's Birthy Book Club.
The thing is, being Beckee is inextricably linked to my being a black woman. For that, I will offer a not-at-all sincere apology for those of you who think it's time enough for talking about being black in America. If you are one of those who thinks that the end of racism is already upon us but is being undermined by people like me who insist upon dealing with race as it comes (meaning, everywhere and in everything and all up in my personal experience as a human being on this planet), then by now you should have already figured out that this is not the blog for you. Because while I respect your opinion, I do not subscribe to it, and I won't shut up about the things I think are important just because you think you live in a post-race, colorblind society.
And so it goes with my relationship with the midwifery community. In classes with Joanne, the issue of race has come up from time to time, in part (I think) because I brought two black women into the class with me where we were joined by a fourth, which gave Joanne the opportunity to explore and share some of her thoughts about the intersection of race and birth with women who have a deeply personal connection to it. And in my internet travels in the birthy community, no comment thread in which I have posted has drawn up more fire and passion than those that come after posts that discuss or detail that relationship in any way. Like everything else in America, the insertion of issues of race into something that people are not accustomed to viewing from that perspective causes more than a few growing pains in the community.
For me, getting more serious about addressing the needs of an under-served community of black women and families has further personalized an issue that I had already come to call my own as a woman. Naturally, like any lifelong reader, it's led me to do some research into the history of midwifery in America and the history of childbirth in the black community, which in turns out, are two histories that are inextricably linked. The fact that they are linked comes as no surprise to me; many aspects of life that can be characterized as domestic (and midwifery, because it is centered in the idea of women helping women, can be among that number) have strong ties in the legacy of slavery. But here at the very beginnings of what I understand now to be a lifelong knowledge project, I am finding information that helps me to fill in some of the spaces and shed light on a collection of stories that together deeply enrich this community I am starting to see myself as a bona fide member of.
And now I am finally at the point where I can tell you what two books I think should top your list should you decide to become a member of Beckee's Birthy Book Club, one of which I have read cover to cover and taken copious notes on, and one of which I have yet to make it past the introduction (I started reading it today in the car while I was deciding between getting some exercise and buying toilet paper), but which is already filling me with all sorts of questions I am eager to have answered as I digest each word.
First, the one I haven't read yet. It was written by Marie Jenkins Schwartz, and is called, Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South. I found this gem at the library not long ago, and so far am particularly interested in reading about how the conception and births of slave children were given special consideration after the slave trade went from an international transaction to a domestic one. Once slaves were no longer being brought from Africa, the slave woman's importance to slaveowners rose dramatically, reflecting the shift of the source of slaves to be bought and sold from distant shores to inside of her very own body. It's amazing to me to consider that because a bondwoman's body was not her own, and was in fact a source of wealth far beyond what capabilities for work it carried, the care and maintenance of it became extremely important to her handlers. Much as I have come to see the present-day battle for women's reproductive rights as not solely about the right to terminate a pregnancy but also about the right to follow-through with a pregnancy in whatever manner a woman chooses, this revelation introduces a new concept to the issue of what it meant to be owned and used for a specific purpose, and then discarded. When I think about today's struggle for black women who become mothers, namely that their lives and their children's lives are traditionally undervalued along with the quality of their care, it rings hopelessly ironic that it's possible that the last time black mothers and babies were treated as if whether they lived or died had any import was when a monetary value could be assigned to them. I am also eager to read about how the black midwife figured into this strange relationship between white doctors and black mothers, and how and where her services were being used when the "professionals" were called in to do her job. I have an inkling that what I learn reading this book will greatly inform how I come to view my effectiveness in the community as I continue my training and gain authority in speaking on these matters. And that is just plain exciting!!!
The second book is called Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife's Story, and is an oral history told by Onnie Lee Logan to Katherine Clark. Reading this book has had the effect on me that I would expect after walking around for days and days in darkness, calling for someone to please turn on the light only to discover that all along my eyes were just closed. There is something about someone telling their own story, in their own words, that is sometimes far more illuminating than any amount of well-documented research. The granddaughter of a slave whose ancestral ties to midwifery included both women and men (she had an uncle who trained and worked as a midwife after growing tired of always having to go get one for his own wife who gave birth many, many times), Logan worked as a midwife for 40 years during the 20th century, finishing only in the 1980s when Alabama stopped the practice of licensing midwives and effectively ended the practice and all the community benefits that came with it. A woman of deep, abiding faith, she speaks of her work as only a woman who believes she was born for a purpose and is living up to that purpose can: with indomitable confidence and comfort. What struck me so profoundly about this book was how her personal experiences served as a veritable timeline for the changing attitudes and trends in the midwifery/obstetric community, many of which I was already aware of through the books and films I've been privileged enough to come across. When you read Ina May Gaskin's work, you learn about the climate in which she became a midwife during the 1970s, a time when white women in particular were educating themselves about the possibilities and openly rejecting the obstetric view that prevailed in the middle class at the time. When you read the words of Onnie Lee Logan, you find out that she was also witness to this trend, as she comments on the liklihood that her white clients' births were often calmer and easier than the births of her black clients, because the white women had read more about the process, knew what to expect and knew something of how to create the positive birth outcomes that all women want. Page after page, I was reintroduced to an issue I though I was already familiar with, but discovered under Logan's warm and caring tutelage that I only had half the story. The book is now out of print but is a priceless jewel that in my opinion should be a part of every birth worker's education.
I don't want to say much more because I'm hoping that this can be the start of a discussion for anyone who wants to read these books and really get into them with me. Imagine that! A real book club. So instead I will leave you with a link to an incredible video about a black midwife that was brought to my attention last spring. I didn't mention it before, but this video was a large part of the inception of my interest in midwifery as it applies to the black woman. This, combined with a few conversations I had with friends a couple of years ago as we lamented the lack of brown-skinned women in many of the birthing videos we watched helped me come to the realization that there was a legacy out there just waiting to be picked up and carried into the future to be fulfilled in healthy, safe, positive birth outcomes for black and brown women all over the world.