Monday, June 05, 2006

Slave or Free?

It occurred to me, yesterday, as I sat listening to (my senior pastor) Harry's sermon that the things he spoke of applied aptly to women's experience of birth. The sermon was on the topic of boundaries. When I noticed the correlation, I began to jot down notes. Harry asked, via his powerpoint, what was the difference between slave and free? His simple text outlined a few key differences.

Free Individual
has choices
has rights
has ownership
controlled by self

has few or no choices
has few or no rights
can claim no ownership
controlled by others or outside circumstances

Of course Harry was speaking of the condition of our mortal souls and was referencing enslavement to sin, but I immediately saw another context. Harry made the point, if I remember correctly, that we are free to the extent that we have control of ourselves and don't have to be controlled by others. He used the illustration of raising children. If I do my job correctly, my children should be slowly moving from parental control (control by others) to self-control (control by self) . Power and control (and who gets to have them) seem to me just as key in birth as they are in spiritual homeostatis. Women who give birth in authoritative settings are often subject to treatment that is, if not slave-like is certainly child-like. Consider these observations from my labor and delivery nurse perspective. A woman comes to the hospital to give birth. Usually the first thing she needs to do is fill out paperwork, and lots of it, divulging lots and lots of personal information. But okay, its only fair that her healthcare provider know her history. Unfortunately, way more people than her immediate provider has access to that information. Yes, the rest of us are on our honor not to access it unless we have to, but nontheless, its there for the viewing. She is then placed in a room, usually not of her choosing, and assigned a nurse to care for her, also not of her choosing. Lets contrast this so far with the homebirth mother who remains in her own home, and has hand selected most if not all of her attendants. Her personal information is available to a much smaller audience. (Though of course, the same rules of privacy apply in both settings.) Here in the medically conservative midwest, the out-of-home mother must submit to an IV or saline lock, be placed on a fetal monitor, attached to a vital sign monitor, deprived of food and drink, and possibly limited in who can be present with her in the room. She is also stripped of her clothing and given a hospital uniform to wear which immediately marks her as "patient." The staff, even down to the housekeeping staff wear uniforms that mark them as "authoritative others." Back at home,the mother wears her own clothing, and is monitored by less high tech and more intermittent systems of data tracking. The attendants may also be wearing their own clothing, which for me symbolizes a more equitable relationship. She moves about freely making her own choices about how to respond to the sensory experience of labor. She can go to the bathroom without asking anyone's permission, or needing someone to unentangle her from her various tethers. She can walk to her fridge and get a drink or a bite to eat without being told it is not allowed.
These are just a few of my observations. Of course many may argue that no one is really ever "in control" of birth and that these limitations and restrictions are for the mother and baby's protection. So it is when I tell my kids to wear their helmets when they ride their bikes, or put on their seat belt when we ride in the car, after all, life isn't safe, we need to take precautions. By contrast, noone is standing there to tell ME to put on my seat belt. I understand the danger and the protection offered by the seat belt and I make a choice to use it. But I can use it or not use it, noone can make me- though the law might compel me. This seems to beg the question that should a free person be free to make unsafe or even dangerous choice ? My answer is a loud and resounding yes, after all, people do that everyday, when they choose to drink too much or submit to addictive behaviors or not wear their seat belt. Some would quickly say that choosing a homebirth is just that- making an unsafe choice. But I would always, always rather err on the side of making my own choices, owning my own life. I cannot deny my own experience and my experience as a nurse tells me that what goes on in hospitals should not be construed as innately safe. My own knowledge and experience tell me that the body is made for birth and that most times it is best untampered with. What most women don't understand, and that I cannot get away from, is that the paternalistic attitudes that prevail in authoritative settings, can cause as many problems, as they solve.

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