On an ordinary October day in 1998 I was attending an educational conference. As I sat in a classroom with many other women watching a new video depicting the history of childbirth, I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to experience. After viewing a series of pictures of women giving birth from ancient times to the current day in America, a photo appeared on the projection screen revealing an old-fashioned delivery room, one typical of those used in the ‘60s and ‘70s for childbirth. The woman was flat on her back, strapped down. My heart started to race; tears came to my eyes. Suddenly, it was twenty-nine years earlier.
On March 4, 1969, my husband, my mother and I walked into Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas, Nevada. I was excited to be in labor and about to give birth. It was actually my “due date,” a rather unusual occurrence, I later discovered. My labor hadn’t been long or difficult. My pregnancy had been totally normal.
In those days there were no tours of the hospitals, no childbirth classes, no mention of La Leche League groups by my doctor. Luckily, a girlfriend recommended I read Dr. Grantly Dick-Read’s now classic book, Childbirth without Fear. Pumped up by his solid belief in women giving birth naturally, I approached my baby’s impending birth confidently, never imagining what lay in wait for my child and me.
After being told at the check-in desk that I was probably in false labor, I was put into a wheelchair and taken to a labor ward, which consisted of several women sharing a large room with only drapes hanging between the beds. I was handed a gown to put on and told to get into bed. Shortly thereafter, and without asking my permission or even whether I felt the need, I was given a shot in my thigh. Next, the nurse checked my cervix and discovered that I was 9 cm dilated, almost ready to start pushing my baby out.
They had no time to shave my pubic hair and give me an enema—standard protocols of the time. Instead, I was rolled into the delivery room, moved to a flat table and instructed to put my feet in the stirrups. To my surprise, my legs were then actually strapped into the large stirrups. I was even more surprised when the nurse strapped my arms down to my sides. I started to get scared. This wasn’t the way I had imagined it! I had planned to give birth naturally thanks to Dr. Dick-Read. I was looking forward to feeling and watching my baby be born, to having her placed in my arms and feeding her.
My doctor came in and broke my bag of waters. I had one pushing contraction. I remember being worried about my husband. I hadn’t seen him or my mother since I was whisked away in the wheelchair. “They” wouldn’t let him or my mother be with me. I was 17, alone and scared.
The next thing I knew the nurse tried to put a mask over my face. I turned my head from side to side trying to avoid the mask. I didn’t know what it was and she didn’t tell me. Three hours later I awoke to my husband telling me that we had a baby girl. He was very excited. I looked around the room and then slipped back into unconsciousness.
I woke again several hours later in the middle of the night. A nurse was bringing babies to the other mothers in the ward so they could (bottle) feed them. I sat up in bed even though my bottom hurt a lot and readied myself to see my baby for the first time and to nurse her. The nurse didn’t bring my baby. This process occurred several more times; each time the other mothers were brought their babies and my baby remained in the nursery. When I asked why my baby wasn’t being brought to me, I was told “she doesn’t need to eat.” They didn’t bring my daughter to me until I threatened to go get her; almost twenty-four hours had elapsed since she was born.
I remember feeling numb and dazed for the three days I spent in the hospital. Something didn’t feel quite right to me, but everyone was acting like everything was perfectly normal. What I later came to realize was that I was in a state of shock. Not only had I been an unwilling participant in the “knock ’em out, pull ’em out” standard of care practiced in many hospitals during that time, I had missed the most important event of my and my daughter’s lives. My labor records showed that my doctor had used forceps to pull my baby from my unconscious body. The episiotomy he cut extended to a third-degree tear. He had manually removed the placenta.
When I later thought about having another child, I would tell my friends that the birth was not going to take place in a hospital. I didn’t know then what the alternative would be, but a hospital was no longer an option. I had always felt disappointed that I didn’t have the natural birth I’d planned and distressed that my daughter had been kept from me for so long. However, as the years passed I began to realize that anger and fear were just beneath the surface as well. Why? I have taken years to process the events of those monumental days in March 1969. I’m only beginning to fully understand their impact.
I have come to understand that the hospital staff and my doctor not only stole some very precious moments from me and my daughter, but that their actions left permanent stains on our lives and pain in our hearts. As much as I love my daughter, we have always had a wall between us—our relationship has been difficult. I believe this has been, at least partially, because we missed the prime opportunity to bond: not only for the first two hours after birth, but for almost the first twenty-four hours!
I have a deep sadness in my heart because I was not the first one to hold my infant daughter. My scent was not the first smell she smelled. My voice was not the first voice she heard. I wasn’t the first one to feed her. I was not able to love and comfort her after her ordeal because I was unconscious.
I now know that what I experienced at the educational conference was a flashback. I had, without warning, been taken back to the scene of a crime—a rape. My daughter’s birth contained all the elements of a rape. I was taken to a strange place and told what to do. My clothes and personal possessions were taken from me. I was forced into an uncomfortable position and bound. I was threatened (it’s hospital policy, don’t make trouble). I was drugged and knocked unconscious. I was sexually assaulted: My vagina was cut and a man’s tool (forceps) was inserted into my body. I was robbed. That which was most precious to me, my baby, was taken from me. All this was done against my will.
Like most rape victims, I dried my tears, stuffed my pain and proceeded to get on with my life. Like many rape victims, I didn’t report the crime nor did I seek help. I also didn’t have a clue how profoundly or for how long these acts of violence would affect my life.
Not surprisingly, when I found out that such a thing as a midwife existed, I could hardly contain myself. When I discovered that the practice of midwifery was legal in the state where I lived, I decided to change careers and within six months was serving as an apprentice midwife. To this day I continue to feel a deep, abiding need to protect mothers and their babies.
A psychologist would probably surmise that I taught endless childbirth classes, attended scores of births and advocated for midwives and mothers in an effort to heal the experience of my daughter’s entry into the world. I would tend to agree. But what would a psychologist recommend for healing from a birth rape? I believe the jury is still out.