An Open Letter to Rebecca Solnit

Photo by Ava Sol on Unsplash

I wrote this letter five years ago as I was recovering from a traumatic birth experience. I was also just deepening into my understanding of patriarchy, feminism, white supremacy in the context of the world we live in. I had just read Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit and it blew my mind. To see rape culture acted out between countries with more and less power, to see rape culture in institutions — gave me the framework to understand what I had been through at the hospital. I truly believe that obstetrics is a corner completely forgotten by feminism. I wrote this then and share it now because not only do I have more strength to be seen in these opinions, but it feels just as relevant today.

Dear Rebecca Solnit,

I recently finished your book Men Explain Things to Me, and felt compelled to reach out.

I have been a proud feminist my entire life, but your discussion of rape and the blazing analogies to power structures blew my mind. It is so powerful how unbelievably obvious this is. You so poignantly shined a light on what I have been looking at for years, yet not seeing.

Before I dig in to my real reason for writing you, I thought you’d enjoy knowing that reading your book immediately changed how I view my place in the world. I find myself being kinder, gentler to myself. Smiling more freely, less concerned with how my sparkle might be interpreted. I embrace my moments of “vocal fry” or “upspeak” and keep talking, because my voice and my opinions matter. On the forefront of my mind is allowing myself to just be. I’m reconciling my feminism with my femininity, and it feels wonderful.

My main reason for reaching out is because a year and a half on, I am still full of rage about the birth of my son, and in many ways it’s poisoning me. I don’t know what to do with it.

A little background. I have been a positive birth advocate since I can remember. My mother has soaring, epic tales of her powerful births and over the years I have espoused these stories to friends and colleagues in the hopes that they act as buffers against the sea of misinformation about what our bodies are capable of. And yet, I ended up with a surgical birth. I can’t stand to call it a cesarean section because it’s an infuriating euphemism. Let’s call it what it is: major abdominal surgery.

When you wrote about the powerful countries raping the less powerful ones, I saw the system of care around pregnant woman. When you wrote about today’s older women who just now realized they were date raped years ago (because a term for being raped by someone you know and trust didn’t exist), I saw all of us women who have been gently or violently let down by the medical system. I truly believe years from now we will have generations of women who will look back at their needlessly long and painful births and reassess the command of the doctors and nurses — being directed to lay on their backs to labor, denied food for hours and hours, or made to drive back and forth to the hospital a few times in active labor only to be told it isn’t active enough. But for today, those are the good births.

There are much worse. Stories of doctors cutting women during labor while they repeatedly say no. Stories of threats to involve CPS when a woman questions an intervention. Stories of women forced into surgery because a new nursing shift comes on the scene and doesn’t know that the batteries in the monitoring equipment are faulty.

And then there’s my story. My baby was breech, as are 4% of all babies at term. I had no idea that this would mean it was near impossible to deliver vaginally in today’s hospitals. I was pregnant with a third generation (at least) breech baby. It’s a variation of normal. But unbeknownst to me, over the past 20+ years, idiotic regulations and recommendations have meant that OBs and midwives have completely lost the skill to deliver a butt-first baby. They don’t even teach it. Meaning unless you fight really, really hard and are exceptionally lucky, you have the option to either have major surgery you don’t need or birth without support.

I bled when the doctor/midwife team attempted for the second time to turn my baby head down (in hindsight there was no reason to try again when the first obviously failed). They said I should have the surgery right then, that afternoon, because the “good” doctor was leaving by 6pm. I baffled them when I refused and began my 3-day observation in what I affectionately called “hospital jail”. Every new shift brought different doctors and nurses who gently worked to coerce me into have the surgery immediately: because my placenta could fall out and within fifteen minutes my baby would be dead and I would hemorrhage.

Being two weeks from my due date I wasn’t in the space to tell them to fuck off, and go home. So I held my own in the only way I knew how. I let them monitor me, and my husband and I stayed in our tiny jail cell. I knew that every day I held off I was allowing my baby’s lungs to more fully develop. I lasted less three days. After a pregnancy of swimming and walking and breathing, being tied to a monitor in such a claustrophobic space drained me quickly. I steeled myself and went in for a surgery that terrified me. And came out with a baby I was not emotionally ready to hold.

I’m not exactly sure why I want to tell you my story. I think partly because I think you’ll get it. There is so much “all that matters is a healthy baby” out there that is used to silence women. There isn’t a space to have dialogue about our mistreatment by practitioners or by larger systems. This year I joined all sorts of breech and radical-feminism-in-birth groups on Facebook, I started a chapter of the Positive Birth Movement for San Francisco, and I’ve tried to become a resource for women who find in those last few days of pregnancy that they are, in fact, totally unsupported. But I realize I’m not much better off than when a year and a half ago. I still haven’t found some secret corner where people will proudly and confidently deliver breech freely, and even in my new extended group of ‘people in the know’ there is so much optimism about having a powerful birth, followed by so much unnecessary intervention that leaves them traumatized. Or not. Or they say everything is fine and they are just happy to have a healthy baby.

This is bigger than me and I would love your help. Even if that just means it’s on your radar. Your opinions get heard and it would mean so much if you kept this in mind.

Thank you so much for all that you do.

Liz Christiano

October 22, 2015

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