Rachel sips at the red raspberry leaf tea, the cup clinking against the saucer as she sets it down to respond. Her grandmother is already talking again.
When I gave birth to your mother, she goes on, I was not allowed to eat or drink.
Rachels eyebrows shoot up. The whole time?
Thats right. Back in those days, all babies were born in hospitals even healthy babies. Laboring mothers werent allowed a single sip of water.
I was so thirsty my tongue was swollen and sticking to the roof of my mouth. After many hours, I was given ice chips, but even that was taken away when I was caught swallowing some of the ice to stave off the gnawing hunger.
Thats horrible, Todd interjects, dropping down to perch on the Victorian loveseat beside his wife. Having a baby is like . . . running a marathon. What athlete would attempt such a feat dehydrated on an empty stomach?
Nonna chuckles at his analogy. Youre right, of course. But you see, laboring women were not treated like athletes. We were treated like sick patients, like there was something wrong with us. According to the doctors, our condition was best treated with narcotics, opioids, and surgical intervention.
By 2005, the c-section rate went through the roof, with nearly one out of three mothers sliced open for delivery. From the doctors point of view, laboring women were all potential targets for expensive surgery. Thats why they starved us.
Rachel scowls, rubbing puffy hands over the swollen full-moon belly.
But labor can go on for hours or even days, she notes.
Especially when youre lying down with feet in stirrups, pushing uphill, the old woman acknowledges.
Thats absurd, Todd murmurs. Why not let gravity work?
Rachel shakes her head. That position was designed to benefit doctors, not women.
Youre right, Nonna answers. It placed us at a great psychological disadvantage, too. It allowed medical staff to treat us as objects, paying attention only to the business end, as if we had no face, no heart, and no mind.
Im so glad no caregiver would think of using stirrups today, Rachel sighs, rubbing her belly again. Its a wonder women were able to push at all.
The doctors had ways of speeding up labor artificially, Nonna answers. But the drugs sometimes caused uterine rupture, killing the baby or causing permanent brain damage.
One drug, Cytotec, was not even FDA-approved for obstetrical use. Eventually they had to stop using it.
Rachel smiles, her face transformed. So they went back to the natural ways? she guesses.
Not at first, her grandmother answers. At first they skipped the contraction drugs and resorted to the knife much sooner.
Rachel looks down, distracted for a moment by the contracting of her own womb.
Ill go heat the rice bag, Todd offers, trotting to Nonnas kitchen with the handmade cloth pouch. Nonna watches him round the corner, thinking how glad she is for Rachel.
At last Rachels attention comes back to her grandmothers wizened face. Why did the women allow it? she asks.
Nonna sighs, holding out empty hands. We just didnt know better. Our own mothers were knocked out for birth. We thought we were making progress just by being awake. Some women realized things should be different, but it was a constant fight.
I chose a hospital that was supposed to be supportive of natural birth. They still pulled the ice chip stunt. Before I registered, they said they allowed rooming in so I would not be separated from my baby girl.
But right after birth, they whisked her away! I begged for her, but they kept her under observation for four hours. They also gave her sugar water against my wishes, and pushed to inject her with vaccines just hours after birth.
Thats horrid, Rachel clucks. Why didnt women just stay away from hospitals? Have their babies at home?
Well, in Georgia it was illegal.
Rachel laughs. How can birthing a child break a law?
Oh, it was not homebirth that was prohibited, so long as we did it alone! It was homebirth midwives they outlawed.
So women could birth at home but only without help?
Nonna nods. Things were different back in 2007 when your mother was born, she says. For one thing, eight out of 10 lawmakers were men. There had never even been a woman President. Women only earned 70 cents on the dollar.
We didnt have the kind of power you gals have!
She beams at her granddaughter, so young and confident. My next child your Uncle Tim was born at home with an illegal midwife.
Wow, Rachel whispers, throwing a glance at Todd as he tucks the warm rice bag into the small of her back, There was a black market for midwifery?
Certainly. There were always women who refused to be mistreated, and there were always midwives willing to skirt the law to give excellent care. The legal risks were high for those midwives. Once in a while, a baby dies during birth. It happens sometimes, no matter where women give birth.
In a hospital, these deaths were considered a statistical eventuality. In the early 2000s, no one was charged for hospital deaths, even when the damage was clearly caused by uterine-rupturing drugs or overuse of painkillers.
It was extremely rare for a baby to die in a homebirth setting but when it did happen the midwives were charged with manslaughter. In other cases, overdue women were jailed for refusing to have a c-section.
It was actually against the law to disobey a doctors orders! Eventually it was the women who turned the tide.
Through lawsuits? Todd guesses.
That was part of it. Nonna nods thoughtfully. The studies showed clearly that it was doctors drugs and fasting that caused most of the danger signals (like blood pressure drops and changes in babies heart rates) that led to the c-sections. But that went unreported for 20 years!
It was not until women stood up for themselves that things changed. Women reporters talked about the studies on the six-oclock news. Women journalists wrote about the prohibition of home midwifery and the barriers to natural childbirth. Women doctors watched the signs instead of the clock. Businesswomen opened natural birthing centers. Women were elected to office and they legalized home-birth midwifery in Georgia, and later nationwide.
Most of all, laboring women refused to let their needs be sacrificed to hospital protocols and doctors schedules. We had to insist on change!
Nonna sets down her teacup. We insisted on dignity. We did not let doctors push us into inductions or surgeries just to accommodate their schedules. Women who still used hospitals refused the wheelchair and the gown that were presented at check-in.
Women refused to be starved, or to have their veins punctured with unnecessary IVs. Mothers refused to let doctors break their waters or insert electronic monitors in the babys scalp.
When we pushed our babies into the world with our own fierce power, then we refused to let them out of our sight.
Nonna smiles. Eventually even the medical community came to recognize that birth is an act of motherhood, not an act of medical science. Today a laboring woman is not regarded as a body on a table, as if she and the baby needed some doctor to deliver them from each other. Today women are honored as life-bringers.
Jeannie Babb Taylor is a local business leader and author. She also teaches
Sunday school, educates her children at home, and engages in Georgia
politics. To contact Jeannie, E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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