By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | May 11, 2011 |
By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | May 11, 2011 |
Today’s column is not so much about sex as about one of the more awesome and terrifying potential consequences of sex: babies. Today is my birthday, and at some point this afternoon, my mother will call me and, as she dose every year, re-tell The Story of My Birth. She does this because she feels it’s a sweet tradition and because, insanely, she believes it might encourage me to one day try out the experience myself (I’ll get to why that’s insane in a minute). Between that upcoming cringe-fest and Mother’s day this past Sunday, not to mention various and sundry attempts by politicians all over the country to limit women’s reproductive choices and this depressing Slate story about a home birth gone wrong, I’ve been thinking a lot about how our culture glorifies and mythologizes pregnancy and childbirth as beautiful, wonderful, totally complication-free experiences. The reality is much harder, messier, and sometimes tragic.
I have never had children myself, and while I expect to some day I have never had any illusions about pregnancy being easy or childbirth being even as pleasant as it is in the movies, where women scream obscenities at their husbands for putting them it that position. Childbirth freaking terrifies me. There’s a good chance if I ever go through it that I’ll be a nervous wreck who gratefully takes whatever pills they can give me. Here’s the story that my mother believes will make me want to experience of childbirth someday: Early in the morning on May 11, 1982 she went into labor and rushed to the hospital. My birth was not a long drawn out marathon that many women have to suffer through, it was actually very quick. Much too quick - I came out so fast that I tore everything in my way and my mother barely had time to kiss me goodbye before they rolled her away for the blood transfusion and emergency surgery that are the only reasons she survived the experience. (My mother doesn’t gloss over this in the telling either, she never fails to mention that giving birth to me literally almost killed her. Also breastfeeding me gave her excruciating blood blisters. I have no idea why she remembers the experience with such fondness.)
The tragedy in the recent Slate article is the result of a home birth, a recent trend where mostly upper-middle class white women avoid hospitals and doctors in favor of a midwife and the more comfortable setting of their own homes. Part of this is due to the callous way hospitals sometimes treat pregnant women - making medical decisions for them in the name of protecting their unborn child for example (that part is completely understandable) - but part of it is also a desire to return to a more “natural” way of giving birth. Our ancestors gave birth at home or wherever they happened to be at the time, and it worked out just fine for them, the argument goes. Except that it didn’t - for most of history childbirth was one of the leading causes of death for women. It’s only because of medical advancements starting in the 1900s that the rate has plummeted, and even so it’s depressingly high. Especially here in the US, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, where the current rates are between 11 and 17 maternal deaths per 100,000 births (down from a truly terrifying 1 in 100 in the early part of the 1900s). Around the world, the leading causes of maternal death as determined by the WHO are severe bleeding (25%), infection (13%), unsafe abortions (13%), eclampsia (12%), and obstructed labor (8%) (other direct and indirect causes make up the remaining 28%). Hemorrhaging and deep vein thrombosis are the leading causes of maternal death here in the US. Not surprisingly, these primarily affect women on the lower end of the economic scale, who don’t have easy access to adequate health care, but no one is immune. (I’m seriously setting aside blood for a potential transfusion if I ever give birth, not kidding.)
Add to that all the many complications that can occur with pregnancy, ranging in severity from mild ones that merely make the pregnant woman uncomfortable (yeast infections, UTIs) to severe ones that can endanger her life (gestational diabetes, preeclampsia), and it should be obvious to any one with a brain that pregnancy and childbirth are often difficult, even dangerous work, not the breezy nine months of bliss followed by a few moments of pain, followed by more bliss, that the media largely implies it is. Ta Nehisi Coates over at the Altlantic wrote movingly on this theme a few months ago, when Republicans were just starting their campaign to curtail women’s reproductive options and it’s a theme that needs to be repeated, over and over again, to all the men out there who don’t get it (and the women too, either because their own experiences were easy or because they haven’t experienced it at all themselves).
We live in a culture that glorifies motherhood and pregnancy, and while that’s not entirely a bad thing - mothers on the whole deserve a helluva a lot of respect - it’s not easy or wonderful for everyone. Bringing another life into the world is not just a momentous occasion, it’s also 9 months of difficulty and struggle - financial, emotional, physical - for many, many women (sometimes followed by even more struggle). Most would argue that it’s worth the risks and difficulties. My mom certainly would - despite her experiences I know she’d do it again in a heartbeat. But that doesn’t mean we should downplay those risks and pretend that pregnancy and childbirth are easy for everyone. I’m sure you all remembered to call your moms and thank them on Sunday (those of you that don’t have evil moms anyway), but take a moment, if you haven’t before now, to appreciate just how amazing and terrifying and dangerous what they did for you was. By bringing you into the world they risked their health and even lives, and most of them probably never gave it a second thought once you were born and they held you in their arms (except, you know, once a year on your birthday when they have to hammer it into your head in painful detail, but thanks mom, really).
Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she’s had a little whiskey.