by Kinyofu Mlimwengu
After having my children naturally, I really got how marvelous the woman’s body is. My experience of giving birth was one of enjoyment and empowerment – unlike all the stories I had been told in my lifetime. It was life changing for me because it confirmed my ability to give birth with ease. I was also inspired by the act of breastfeeding and took it upon myself to spread the wonderful benefits with any pregnant woman I encountered and queried every new mother. When I realized how much misinformation was out there and how many women refused to consider doing what I thought was the basic best, I decided to put myself in the position of teaching. I became a breastfeeding educator and a postpartum doula where I was able to provide hands on support.
Further enlightenment had me realize that the woman’s birth experience was a potential factor in whether or not she decided to breastfeed. As a result, I became a childbirth educator and a doula and developed a passion for encouraging normal birth. Ten years later I saw a pattern depicting varying levels of belief and conviction during a woman’s birth experiences. Even after taking childbirth classes, some women were unable to fully implement the birth plans they created. I began to wonder where the disconnect was and became charged with the desire to make a difference. I also realized that the time to learn about childbirth was not in the last trimester as most childbirth classes were designed. In fact, the first trimester was still too late. Because women had received negative impressions of birth all their lives, a certain level of reprogramming combined with actual practice would be necessary to establish trust and confidence in their bodies. The women who were already thinking outside of the box regarding her body, was the woman who was able to live into her birth plan. This realization moved me to the next segment of my journey.
Enrolling myself in school provided an outlet for me to research areas around womens health and autonomy. Feeling empowered as I learned about feminism, I became both curious and disturbed as to why literature on natural childbirth was so limited. On my way to researching the historical beginnings of childbirth activism, I was sidetracked by the protests of women wanting to suppress the pain of childbirth as experienced by their recent entry into the hospital. Previous to this, women birthed at home and utilized many home grown techniques which deemphasized pain. As normal childbirth was becoming a thing of the past, the women’s health movement of the 1970’s began to focus on other reproductive injustices dealing with the consequences of illegal abortion, lack of safe birth control, biased medical perspectives of women, lack of knowledge of one’s body, and degrading doctor/patient interactions.
The situation of illegal abortion forced women to identify alternative means. Most women resorted to a process that could potentially result in botched abortions, damaged wombs or loss of life. In response, others utilized self-help techniques to safely end their pregnancies. It was my discovery of these self-help techniques that made me realize how much power we had – and lost. The power gained, lay in our ability to handle our own business, given our knowledge of our bodies. The power lost, was revealed after abortion was legalized and women were no longer compelled to continue to utilize self-help techniques. Instead, they gave management of their bodies over to doctors. The woman, in her perceived victory, walked unquestioning to the doctors office for her every bodily concern. It was at this juncture that I began to see a fissure in our autonomy as women and the growth of paternalistic disempowering gynecological and obstetric care. The fissure was subtly padded in the assimilation of women’s internal power.
Thirty years later, theoretical skeletons and rampant misconceptions of womens reproductive capabilities are voiced by prominent yet ignorant individuals.
Thirty years later, the choice to have a safe abortion is more a question of access for poor women, women of color, women who live in rural areas and women who live in pro-life states
Thirty years later, normal birth is almost a thing of the past as one third of women undergo major surgery to have their babies.
Thirty years later, 75% of babies receive breastmilk at birth and less than 50% still receive it by 6th month birthday.
Is this what triumph looks like?
Have we really come a long way?