Sunday Morning ~ The Power of the Tail
Mphamvu za ng’ona zili ku mcira. ~ The strength of the crocodile lies in it’s tail.
~ Chewa proverb
March 21, 2021
Thirty nine years ago today, at 7:29 a.m. I was clutching my new baby boy to my chest. He was nine pounds, two ounces and I was shocked at how my little body grew such a big baby. What a miracle. I’d labored through the night, walking the halls to make labor move along, worried it would stall like my first labor did. I should have rested. It was a long hard night. Images of a rosy future played in my mind as I got myself through each contraction. I imagined my two children growing up as best friends. I pictured them playing together in sandboxes, then on ballfields. I thought about their acne covered faces studying together, skiing together, laughing together. It was a time when we learned of the baby’s sex at birth so my fantasies were gender neutral. Then, as the sun came up on the first day of spring on that Sunday morning, I pushed this robust, healthy boy into the world.
My second child was born on the cusp of an ongoing fight between medical and midwifery birth. I was lucky to find a midwife to care for me during my pregnancy; it was before there were many practicing in our system and I clung to her to protect me. I was terrified of being medically manipulated and felt I needed a human shield. I’d wanted a home birth but had no cash to pay for that. My job as a visiting nurse, paid six dollars an hour, but at least provided health insurance. That meant I would pay nothing out of pocket for the birth and hospital stay, but meant I must subject myself to their routine procedures and (what I considered) torture. In 1982 my baby went to the nursery instead of staying with me. I was in a “quad” with three other women so no visitors were allowed. All babies came out on a schedule to feed. I was woken at 2 a.m. with unannounced overhead lights and four babies loudly rolled in and distributed. Exhausted, we four were startled awake, blood pressure cuffs attached, thermometers inserted, and name bands checked to make sure we were handed the correct child. It was absolutely barbaric. Completely spent from laboring the entire night before, I was nearly hallucinating. When my son was placed next to me, I said, “But he is sleeping!” The nurse (let’s call her Ratchet) said, “You get that baby on a schedule!” and proceeded to unwrap him and flick his feet to wake him. I pulled him toward me, rewrapped him, and when she left, we drifted back to sleep together. I barely woke up when they came to collect him, maybe they thought he’d eaten and burped and went back to sleep. I was scolded for sleeping with the baby there and didn’t see him again until six when they wheeled them all in again. A few hours later, the midwife came in to do rounds and, crying, I begged her to get me out of there. She agreed to discharge me as soon as the pediatrician let the baby go. It felt like prison.
I was so grateful to gather my tortured perineum, hemorrhoids, and sore nipples and take them home to a soft chair, loving husband, my two year old, and my sister who was staying with us. What a relief. My husband was a student and we lived in a cheap rental with no insulation and a wood stove for heat. When we got coats off and settled, my husband hit play on the cassette player and Elton John started singing, “The Greatest Gift”. It was romantic and sweet and I had all I could ever want in the world. My husband prepared a meal, my sister cuddled and read to my two year old, and I fell in love with my newborn and tried to forget the abuse.
I appreciate many medical advances, vaccines for instance, but when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth, we’ve gone so overboard dehumanizing this natural event that I devoted my professional life to changing that. Like so much else in our culture, it’s evolution was based on power and greed. We could have created a system ensuring mothers were safe, shielding them from infection and hemorrhage. Basic measures and education would have reduced maternal and infant mortality. Soap and clean water goes a long way. But the profits that could be had off the backs and vaginas of women were there for the taking. They scared women into believing their babies would die, subjecting them to unnecessary (but profitable) tests, tortured them with straps and monitors shown over and over to improve nothing. “Cause no harm” never seems to resonate when women’s bodies are concerned.
What we have done to women in our system and how we have failed them and motherhood at large weighs heavy on me. How I wanted to be part of fixing this problem. How I struggled as a midwife to resist becoming part of the machine that profits off of maternal anxiety. Always on the birthdays of my children I think about my experiences as a patient in a health care system I always found lacking. Yet, I was part of it, always struggling to make into something I believed in.
I thought about all this yesterday when I got my first dose of Covid vaccine. I’m fortunate that I can drive, have a functioning car, have fuel, and the ability to schedule a time slot. I drove an hour to the massive vaccination site. I parked, donned my mask and got in line. I had my identification, my confirmation number, my insurance card, all ready to hand over. I moved forward in the long line, stepping from marker to six-foot marker. I was met by a greeter who directed me to a woman who handed me a second mask. I put that over the one I wore and went to the next station where hand sanitizer was squirted into my palm. I rubbed my hands together and moved to the table where a volunteer asked my name. I was ready to show all my documentation, but ended up putting all that back in my pocket when he checked me off the list and thanked me for coming. I said, “That’s it? You don’t need any of this?” I showed him my cards. “No, you are all set, move this way” and he pointed to the next station. There, a volunteer entered my information about allergies, confirmed my name and birthdate, gave me my card and information about the vaccine, and pointed me toward the next station. As I moved forward on the floor markers, other volunteers greeted me, their eyes showing the smile the mask hid. I was nearly crying. I thought, see what we can do? See how we can give people the health care they need with compassion! See how this can work? It is possible, we can do this. My turn came, I rolled up my sleeve, got my shot from the friendly nursing student, and moved on to the waiting area, where I was choked up watching the appropriately-spaced chairs fill with people from all walks of life. I thought about Yo Yo Ma playing the cello while he waited. I thought of how all the horrors of the past four years was becoming less vibrant in my mind because of all the goodness I saw around me. This is possible. We’re proving it.
The proverb I chose today teaches that it’s not the head with the real power, it’s the tail. The leader is important, yes, but the power really comes from those in back. We can make this so much better.
Love to all,