A Woman’s Biology: Risk and Guilt

A Woman’s Biology: Risk and Guilt

Because of their ability to conceive a child, give birth, perpetuate the species, women have for centuries been honored, sometimes considered saintly, but often buried too soon to live a full and creative life. But precisely because of this biological endowment, this ability to help perpetuate the species, women have also been treated cruelly, taken for granted, sometimes considered evil witches with powers that require control and abuse.

As a former Labor and Delivery nurse, I was fascinated by a recent article that appeared in the New York Times. It’s a personal recounting by writer Leslie Jamison of her C-Section experience, and the research she did concerning this medical procedure. (Posting this after the unethical decisions being made in Texas, only underlines the importance of healthcare for women in any situation related to their reproductive rights.)

JAMISON, A PERSONAL HISTORY  

Jamison starts her piece by recalling the words she used to discuss the birth of her daughter. “When they got her out…”

Jamison writes: “…the day after my daughter’s birth, I found myself emphasizing how much I held her, how I never wanted to put her down. It was as if I felt the need to compensate narratively for that first hour, when I wasn’t able to hold her at all—to insist that we bonded just as much anyway. I found myself exaggerating the part about the not caring if I was numb before they cut me open, when in fact I did care. I told the doctors that I would actually love some more anesthesia in my epidural…as if I were trying to make up for other kinds of pain I didn’t experience – unwittingly obeying the cultural script that insisted on suffering and sacrifice as the primary measure of maternal love.”

Jamison states that even now, 3 years later, when women describe pushing out their babies or having 40 hours of labor, she feels a pang of guilt, a kind of shame, as if her own birth story “wasn’t one that merited pride or celebration, but was instead a kind of blemish, a beginning from which my daughter and I must recover.” She then provides a fascinating history of the Caesarian section. A few excerpts: French obstetrician Jean Louis Baudelocque wrote: “That operation is called Caesarean by which any way is opened for the child other than that destined for it bye nature.”

JULIUS CAESAR–AH, THAT’S WHERE WE GET THE NAME? 

There is an apocryphal story that Julius Caesar was born by cesarean, as his mother survived the birth and went on to bear more children—at a time when it was impossible to survive a C-section. She tells us that in 1925 Herbert Spencer, a professor of obstetrics at the University College London, speculates that it “was called Caesarean as being too grand to have been first performed on ordinary mortals.” He also calls it: “the greatest of all operations, in that it affects two lives.”

But Jamison knows and we know, that for most of history, the procedure saved only one life. The mother did not routinely survive, until the 20th century, because before then, the procedure was usually deployed as a last-ditch effort to save the child, the mother dying, bleeding out, or already dead.

MACBETH, A FORETELLING  

Historically and in literature, the C-section was often associated with the imperial, with the divinity. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the cesarean-born Macduff experiences a birth that is an answer to a riddle: The witches have promised “that none of women born shall harm Macbeth” but in Shakespeare’s creativity, Macduff is exempt from such a foretelling as he “was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.”

Jamison, a modern woman looking back on the history of a procedure she has experienced, makes the comment that Macduff’s exceptional birth might grant him some singular power, but such a birth also relates monstrosity. “Untimely ripped doesn’t exactly summon the epidural and the blue tarp.” Jamison knows, she’s been there.

COLONIAL AMERICA 

Of course, the early history of the Caesarean, a little used and experimental procedure, did not insure life for either the infant or the mother. But neither did natural childbirth. The baby was often fortunate if he or she survived. But in the graveyards of Boston and other parts of the New England states, where our early settlers are buried, you can often find a series of graves for a family. First is the grave of the husband, his dates, which always extend his time of life. Then alongside him are his wives—sometimes two or three. No, he wasn’t a bigamist, but when the first wife died in childbirth or from puerperal fever (see below), he married again, and if that wife died, he married again—eventually not for sex or more children, but for someone to raise his progeny, feed and clothe them, tend his garden.

THE SHAME FACTOR 

Jamison also discusses how the advent of the C-section has been used by some to shame mothers. In his book, Childbirth Without Fear, Grantly Dick-Reed inferred that pain during delivery was a lesson women needed to learn. “Children will always mean hard work and will always demand self-control.” Easy for him to say when he’s standing by the delivery table and not lying on it. 

FINAL THOUGHTS  

Jamison’s article is pivotal and for her, she worked through the angst of her fears and regrets. But the end of the article speaks truth for all mothers, no matter how we have brought our children into this world. Jamison writes: Why do we want so much from our birth stories? It’s tempting to understand life in terms of pivotal moments, when it is actually composed of ongoing processes:not the single day of birth but the daily care that follows…diapers and midnight crying, playground tears and homework, tantrums…If we are lucky, birth is just the beginning. The labor isn’t done. It’s has only just begun. 

For more information on Puerperal fever that caused the deaths of post-partum women, go here https://boomerhighway.org/living-in-the-body-part-2/

Bridget Reyes / A Little Muse Photography

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