My mother and her mother are from a small Caribbean island called Jamaica. Maybe you’ve heard of it. My grandmother gave birth to six live children at home in rural St. Elizabeth Parish. Her own mother or the village midwife assisted with each delivery. Doctors were expensive, far away, and only fetched for in cases of emergency. A woman in labor was not considered a medical condition in need of doctor care. My grandmother birthed six healthy children who grew up and had kids of their own. My mother was her fourth child. Mommy also gave birth to six live children, but in the United States.
I am the oldest, born in the defunct Fordham Hospital in Bronx, NY. My sister after me was born in a Manhattan hospital and the rest of my siblings were all born in hospitals in Miami.
I am more than a little curious to know how a family goes from midwife-assisted home birth to doctor-administered hospital birth in one generation. Immigration and assimilation are two obvious answers, but I think it goes deeper. In rural, impoverished Jamaica my grandmother had no choice. In America, where doctors are plentiful and easily accessible, even for the poor, I cannot imagine my grandmother encouraging my mother to deliver at home under the supervision of a midwife. It was a symbol of “moving on up” to give birth in a hospital, especially a private one. It’s what any old-school Jamaican woman from “de yard” would want for her daughter.
Even in a hospital setting with all its medical technology and procedures available to her, my mother maintained an old-fashioned outlook on birth, particularly that it was a natural process that women’s body were built to perform. She eschewed epidurals and other medical interventions during all her births. All six of us were born naturally, promptly breastfed (for varying lengths of time), and raised with a natural parenting style. Growing up, I remember our meals were always home-cooked and heavy with fresh vegetables. There was never junk food in our cupboards and we didn’t eat fast food except on rare occasions. My mom kept an arsenal of homeopathic remedies to treat every childhood ailment from whooping cough to ringworm. We only went to the doctor for our annual check-up and received the minimum required vaccines to attend school. Chickenpox was considered a childhood rite of passage.
When I became pregnant with my first child, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my foremothers and continue the tradition of natural birth and parenting. So I was beyond surprised by mommy’s and grandma’s reaction to my birth choices. On my decision to give birth naturally at a birthing center with a midwife…“Is that going to be safe? What happens if something goes wrong?” On my decision to breastfeed past six months…“you should add formula so you can get a break.” On my decision to cloth diaper…“why do you want to create more work for yourself?”
I chalked up the rude questions and comments to maternal concern. No mother wants to see her daughter in pain or suffering. I forged ahead with my birth plan, which wasn’t executed according to my vision but achieved the desired outcome. During the first 10 hours I was in labor I kept picturing my grandmother squatting in her bedroom and pushing out six babies. Surely, I could do it at least once! When it was time to push I wanted to squat too, but my midwife, a former nurse, insisted I lie on my back and lean forward. She didn’t respect my instincts and she certainly didn’t understand my need to spiritually connect with my roots. After several attempts to do it her way, I was transported to a hospital at the 11th hour because my baby girl was in distress. When I arrived I was greeted by a black, female obstetrician who took my hand and said, “let’s go get your baby.” A sense of peace washed over me as she led me to the labor and delivery room. Inside, a squadron of nurses were busily preparing trays of medical tools and the feeling of dread returned. The OB examined me, said my baby needed to be turned, and politely asked if I would like an epidural.” I honestly wavered for a minute, bust said no. The OB reached in and gave my baby a quarter turn, and my daughter arrived two pushes later. It hurt like hell, but I’d do it all over again to bring her into this world 100% au natural. The pain quickly evaporated in the euphoria of holding my daughter and nursing her for the first time.
I have never discussed my first birth experience from a racial perspective. I’m not saying that the white midwife was incapable of delivering black babies, but she was culturally incompetent. For example, when she asked to touch my natural hair during an appointment or when she chastised my pregnancy smallness with the comment that, “black women usually don’t have a problem gaining weight,” it put a divide in our relationship and hung a cloud of suspicion in my mind. I think I carried these misgivings into my labor on a subconscious level. Could I have said something? Yes, but it’s not my job to point out her racial insensitivity or reprogram her ignorance. A more aware professional would have recognized what a huge milestone natural childbirth was for a black woman in today’s society. She would have embraced my color by recommending books for me to read or sharing copies of articles by black midwives. After all, among the small percentage of women who are opting for natural childbirth in this country, black women are an even smaller, um, minority.
Overall, I am filled with pride when I recall my birth story. I feel like I have drawn another notch on my maternal lineage and brought my heritage full circle. I can’t help but think about the black women during slavery who gave birth in cotton fields without pain meds, slung their newborns on their backs and kept picking or the mammies who nursed their master’s children. I wholeheartedly believe their spirit and strength is in the blood of every modern black woman. Natural childbirth and breastfeeding is a part of our history that we should embrace. Too many of us are surrendering our bodies and babies to modern science (formula), miseducation (a hospital is the only safe place to give birth), and myths (breastfeeding spoils babies). I am all for a woman choosing to give birth and raise her child the way she sees fit as long as she is making an informed decision. I applaud midwives and doulas like Erykah Badu who are reaching out to the African-American community and providing real birth education and offering alternative birth options.
I am currently preparing for the birth of my second child any day now and my first prayer is to deliver a healthy baby, but a close second prayer is for another natural birth.