By now, most people who have been acquainted with me either in person or on social media know that I have personally experienced a traumatic childbirth. I'm sure many of them wish I'd just shut up about it already. It was my first personal birth experience. In a very large part due to that experience, for the last six years, I've been a birth professional. I've pursued and achieved credentials from various organizations, professionals, and institutions. I've walked the walk and talked the talk of empowering women with education. Helping women in this glorious time of their life has been some of the most enjoyable moments of my life. Yet, it is time for me to step away from the model of childbirth educator and doula that I have been following.
Over the years, I have gone through many stages of healing my own trauma and coming to a place where I can use what I experienced in a productive and positive way. It has taken a lot of hard work, and will take more. Upon taking the work of a birth professional, I have made it a point to read op-ed pieces, studies, and news reports pertaining to pregnancy and childbirth. I've kept up with advocacy organizations and their various approaches to making the birth climate in the US more friendly to women and mothers. Honestly, it has been utterly exhausting on the emotional and physical levels.
From all of this reading, interacting, seeking, and doing, I have learned quite a bit about how women communicate with one another. In the most general sense, I have discovered some really troubling trends, especially related to how we discuss the topic of childbirth and share our stories and information. I can no longer surround myself with the qualifying, judgment, and blame that I see coming from women on every side of the discussion of childbirth and empowered women. I'm seeing too many women hurt by mindless comments, too much hypocrisy, and too many speaking from a place of hurt either knowingly or unknowingly without the access to resources that they need to process this hurt. I know that in order to make real change in regards to how we become mothers, there must be change in how we are initiated into and experience womanhood. A woman who has not tasted empowered womanhood will not suddenly become an empowered mother upon becoming pregnant. This issue goes so much deeper than the choices we make or do not make during the pregnancy and birth experience. It is woven into our lives as women.
Advocates for access to childbirth options are making grave mistakes in how they are communicating with the women they are hoping to reach. Some are so zealous with their beliefs on how women should birth, that their whole campaign is based on assumptions about women and mothers - assumptions that equate their personal beliefs with the "right" way to birth. Under this guise they speak of empowerment, yet many mothers cannot be heard or acknowledged for fear or attempted avoidance of being judged for their choices or the way they gave birth or chose to give birth qualified against this "ideal" in one way or another. Women are hiding. The truth is every childbirth option is a valid one. Each and every woman is faced with unique circumstances and history as she prepares to birth. Every birthing option has the potential to carry great beauty and satisfaction to a mother. The key is empowered decision making and unconditional, respectful support.
Two pieces written over the last two weeks hit it home with me, that even the movement that hopes to change this less than optimal environment for mothers and babies is broken. The first was an article written for Time by Mehera Bonner titled "Why Having an Epidural Should Count as Having a Natural Birth". Bonner states, "By classifying Cesarean and medicated vaginal births as unnatural, mothers who prioritize natural delivery are potentially put in a position of feeling inferior if their birth plan is unexpectedly thrown out the window. An unplanned emergency C-section is stressful enough without worrying that your birth experience was somehow less legitimate and authentic than you’d hoped." In various birth circles on Facebook, I read comment after comment from birth professionals pointing out a few minor flaws in the piece that really doesn't retract from the overall point. What is the threat of this mother asking for validation and acknowledgement for what she was able to accomplish and the work that she did to get herself there?
Next, came "An Unnatural Birth: In Praise of the Cesarean Section" written for Jezebel by Laura June. This piece hit me in the gut as I hear and read it so much in mothering circles. June writes, "It took me months to come up with a better, more accurate, and more honest response to the, "I'm sorry to hear about your C-section" comment, but I've got it down now, and I need to, because I hear this fairly often. It is always, always, delivered with genuine caring and disappointment on behalf of my subpar birthing story. Like my well-worn "My face just looks like this" response to "You look like you're having a bad day!" or "Why aren't you smiling?" comments, my response to the C-section question can come off cutting, even rude—even though I don't intend it that way, not really.
"Actually, it was fantastic," I say now. "I slept well the night before, checked into the hospital, she was born healthy in about fifteen minutes, and I healed up in a few days."
It's all true: it was a wonderful experience. But it's not what a lot of people expect (or maybe want) to hear about a C-section birth." Why offer condolences for someone who isn't asking for them? Who am I or anyone else to feel pity for a mother who simply states that she gave birth via cesarean. A cesarean is not an automatic bummer. Trauma is created either by the circumstances leading to the cesarean, how one is treated by those who should be guarding their safety, deep fear, or tragedy. I've seen several cesareans that were wonderfully satisfying and family oriented. There are "natural" births that are also extremely traumatizing. Do we qualify these mothers by saying that somehow their birthing choice was less than? Can you imagine having to withhold plans, not connect with other mothers around birth, or not sharing your birth story because of this qualification and judgment?
I can. I will share my story far and wide, but how it is received or if it is heard is always a hit or miss. In fact, I think I make many uncomfortable when I share it. Laura June writes many statements in her piece that qualify my birthing experience as well. That, if I open myself to it, though I have a feeling it wasn't at all her intention, can make me feel judged, unheard, and ashamed. For example, "Every birthing experience where the end result is a healthy mother and healthy baby is equally awesome." The end result of my birth experience was considered a healthy mother and healthy baby. There was no part of that trauma that was awesome. The only awesome things about it was the miracle of life, hearing my daughter cry the first time, and seeing her gorgeous face. Blanket statements like that negates the feelings of many mothers who have experienced birth as trauma and can result in feelings of guilt and wrongdoing. June says, "If, like me, you don't get to decide, don't feel bad. It really doesn't matter, you will likely remember the day as one of the best of your life, and your baby will be amazing." Some of us could only wish that our having no say in the matter of how we birth could have left us feeling amazing. Tit for tat.
I cannot any longer participate in advocacy for mothers in the same ways I have been doing. For my sake and the sake of my family, I must change things up. The bitterness, pain, backbiting, and unthinking from woman to woman cannot be allowed to go on. I'm calling it out right now, and dare to say we have all been guilty. Empowered womanhood does not project these insecurities. It honors women for educated decision making, provides opportunities for growth and exploration, and supports women right where they are. From now on, that is my path. For my three daughters who may or may not ever be mothers, I recognize that womanhood is not a competition of degrees. It is Divine.
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, weightlifter, yoga and movement instructor, chakra reader, and Reiki practitioner.