Birthed In Betrayal: One Mother's Transformation Through Trauma

     I was born at Kaiser Hospital in Cleveland, OH.  Despite feeling strong and healthy, my mother was unnecessarily induced and then coerced into undergoing a cesarean section.  This forced birthing experience was traumatic for the both of us.  Distressed and suffering fetal hypoxia, I passed my first stool (meconium) in utero.  Surrounded by the thick, tarry substance, I gasped to take my first breath while still in my mother’s womb.  I was delivered via cesarean shortly after and diagnosed with Meconium Aspirate Syndrome (MAS).

    I was not expected to survive and so, immediately after I was born, my mother was told that I may not make it and asked if she wanted to hold me.  She claims to have said something to the effect of, “You must be trippin’! Get her outta here!!" They snapped a Polaroid of me for Mom, and then I was taken to the nearby children's hospital where I laid alone in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unity (NICU) for the next 7 days, intubated and with wires crossing every which way across my 8lb 10oz body.

1984:  Photo of me (Morgan Jamie Dunbar) on life support in the NICU after aspirating meconium in utero.

1984:  Photo of me (Morgan Jamie Dunbar) on life support in the NICU after aspirating meconium in utero.

Against all odds, I fought for breath and recovered, growing up to become a hell raiser and fierce advocate of natural birth.

     I used to make oversimplified statements about how "every woman is capable of a ‘natural,’ vaginal birth." I championed natural birth over all else and even went as far as to suggest the pain was a divine gift and that the laboring mother “ought to” endeavor to accept such a divine bestowal with open arms.   I didn't make much room for those who had experiences outside of natural birth.  I can definitely admit to discounting the rationale of anyone who, without medical necessity, voluntarily chose a medicated, hospital birth.

     In my opinion women who opted out of this sacred and “natural” rite of passage were “victims.” I was convinced that their “poor decisions” were symptomatic of a patriarchal system designed to remove both power and agency from the birthing woman. In fact, if I'm being totally honest, I’m sure I silently judged those who opted for the scalpel, thinking to myself more than once, "I'm gonna show 'em the ‘right’ way to birth a baby!"

      Countless women are coerced into unnecessary interventions. It's not at all uncommon to hear horror stories about insensitive and repressive hospital environments, where women are robbed of their autonomy and denied their instincts to birth naturally.  I’d heard so many of these stories and had my very own account.  Yet, stories of women coerced and forced to birth vaginally against their wishes and/or presenting evidence are far less common and rarely discussed.

     Fueled by my own near-death experience at birth and the cries of my sistars dishonored and brutalized by modern obstetrics, I decided to fight back against an entire social schematic entrenched in misogyny and the elimination of feminine power.  I was right up there with the Ina May Gaskins of the world until I was gifted a much different perspective out of sheer necessity. 

     After learning that I was pregnant, I did my research and contracted with what I felt was the "obstetric dream team."   My birth team included not one, but three certified nurse midwives, a doula/energy worker, and an on call obstetrician in the case of emergency.  I even arranged to have my therapist present, along with my mother and beloved partner MacNore (herein referred to as "Hooty").  I labored at home for just under 33 hours, with cascading complications, until it became crystal clear to me that my womb was no longer a safe place for my Sun.  Past and apart from the excruciating pain of enduring hours of unproductive active labor with an inflamed cervix and emerging amniotic infection, I knew intuitively that my son and I required surgical intervention.  My staunch philosophy of natural birth “by any means necessary” flew directly out the window the minute I found myself contemplating the kitchen knife drawer and the quickest way to save my Sun. 

     I informed my birth team in no uncertain terms that I needed to be transferred to the hospital for "an emergency cesarean."  One midwife responded by suggesting I just "relax" and to allow her to "ice my cervix" to try and bring the swelling down.  Realizing with certainty that my son and I were in grave danger, I refused this procedure and fought through surge after surge of the most intense active labor contractions to verbalize my rationale for transfer.  I recall having to spend far too much time convincing the midwife that I was comfortable with my decision and that I prioritized a healthy baby over any lesser agenda.  The midwives consulted in another room and eventually agreed to the transfer, instructing my partner to drive me to hospital, unaccompanied by any medical personnel. 

     Upon arriving at hospital a routine blood test was run, confirming the presence of infection.  However, antibiotics were not started until nine hours after admission.  This delay allowed for the bacteria present in my Sun’s amniotic fluid to gestate and develop into full blown, stage 3 “Necrotizing Chorioamnionitis.” 

     As I lay convulsing and covered in ice packs to break my fever, my repeated pleadings for cesarean surgery were denied.  I was told by the attending OB (a close colleague of my midwives and staunch natural birth advocate), “There is only one way to birth a baby and that is to push.”  These words are forever etched into my psyche.  In the never-ending echo of this fateful utterance I am reminded how someone else’s philosophical agenda was forced upon me, usurping both my autonomy and motherly intuition.  I was informed by the attending OB that my Sun had passed meconium in utero, but still she refused to intervene, allowing him to marinate in a poisonous concoction of bacteria and feces laden amniotic fluid.  My Sun’s fetal heart rate worsened gradually over several hours until all his reserves were depleted and his heart ceased beating inside of me.  Only after his heart no longer beat was I finally granted the surgery I had begun begging for twelve hours prior.  I experienced every bit of sensation during the procedure. 

     After my Sun was delivered, I was informed he had suffered severe Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopahy as a result of chorioamnionitis and… wait for it... meconium aspirate.  Since my first breaths taken were with lungs full of meconium, knowing that my attending OB was well aware of my Sun's passing of meconium in utero and did nothing to help extricate him from such a toxic environment leaves me with a particularly foul taste in the mouth (pun intended)...

2016:  Photo of my Sun (Kali Ra Iman) on life support in the NICU, after aspirating meconium in utero.

2016:  Photo of my Sun (Kali Ra Iman) on life support in the NICU, after aspirating meconium in utero.

          One year on from the death of my son, having requested, received and reviewed every page of nearly 2000 pages of medical records, I am still dumbfounded as to how any obstetric professional could have seriously believed that refusal of surgical intervention was warranted or appropriate.  It is poigniantly clear to me that the “justification” for refusal was based on one practitioner’s philosophical agenda, not the cold, hard, documented facts that presented en masse over 45 hours of complicated labor. 

     Thirty-two years apart, my son and I both endured the same complication at birth.  Meconium likely entered my lungs as a result of unnecessary intervention and the stress of unnaturally augmented, pitocin induced contractions. The meconium filling his lungs was likely the result of desperate gasps to sustain life when life saving interventions were denied.  We both lay, floppy and blue, on opposite ends of the birth methodology spectrum.  Yet, our trauma is undeniably intertwined.  In both instances our mother's were silenced by the patriarchy that claimed to know better; Both our mother’s intuition and autonomy overridden by the agendas of a stranger; Both of us were born in betrayal, with our first meal a soupy concoction of shit and lies.

     The only real difference is, my Sun never took another meal by mouth.  His ashes, dispersed across the waters of the world, exist now in each wave as proof positive that, despite the crunchiest tales told about the promise and perfection of natural birth, shit can and does happen… quite literally.

     I'm now hypersensitive to any and all oversimplified and oppressive perspectives concerning childbirth, regardless of from where they are spouting.  Non-inclusive statements echo in centering circles just as often as they bounce off the walls of hospital hallways.

     No person knows better than another when navigating realms of intuition and autonomy.  And that truth is amplified when we apply it to the laboring mother.  It is imperative that we understand the term "natural birth" as a descriptive label and not an edict of morality...  “Natural” may be the preferred method, as it was for me, but it does not equate to the "right" or "better" method of delivery.  Never again will I judge my sistars or think myself superior or stronger by attempting to moralize the birth experience the way I used to. Instead of being "pro-natural birth," I am now pro-autonomy of the birthing mother and pro-honoring of a woman's intuition above all else.     

    Through fierce love I have been granted the full spectrum of human experience necessary to return clarity to corneas clouded with confusion.

   The fundamental issue lies not in “homebirth vs hospital birth,” nor in “natural vs medicated.”  The critical error arises the moment a woman stops being treated as the central party to her birth experience.   And, contrary to popular belief, this can and does happen in any birthing environment, home or hospital, regardless of prenatal promises, or by whom those promises were made.   Indeed, the most flagrant illustration of patriarchy appears when persons charged with caring for mother and child betray those they are entrusted to honor.  

     Patriarchy is a shapeshifter, able to manifest in many of the conventional ways-- Through silencing, coercion, spoliation of medical records and outright obstetric violence.  However, the patriarchy is insidious and can be extremely cunning.   Unbeknownst to us, it silently creeps into the concealed crevices of our splintered sisterhood.  To my dismay and sheer terror, I found one of the most secreted and sinister forms of patriarchy indwelling within our beloved natural birth movement. 

     So many of us have been bludgeoned point blank by the most obvious forms of chauvinism and violence against women.  Given the untold forms of violence aimed at women over countless generations, our desire to fight back is both natural and justified.  Many of us have chosen to take up arms in order to defend against those who might otherwise see us as easy targets. Others of us choose to assert ourselves in the struggle by pursuing certifications and careers in womens’ health.  The natural birth movement is brimming with self-proclaimed women’s warriors and well-intentioned birthworkers in training, aspiring to support their sistars push through and disinfect us all from the muck that’s been piled on for centuries.  This is sacred work.  Yet, we must also stand vigilant of the creeping patriarch that dwells within. 

    When our toil becomes solely a reaction to injustice, instead of justice work, we leave ourselves vulnerable to that same creeping enemy.  When we find ourselves “fighting back,” instead of “fighting for” we are prone to lose sight of the honorable vision that binds and strengthens us. You see, the sisterhood is not impervious to subversion or sabotage.  We must stay attentive and reflect regularly to ensure we are fighting for our autonomy and intuition and not for power to displace one agenda for another.  I have felt firsthand the cutting blade of a sisterhood deceived-- And, as much as I would have scoffed at the suggestion years ago, the fact is, the patriarchy was alive and well within me for most of my life.  I felt emboldened to moralize childbirth because of my own drug induced, meconium-stained entrance into this world-- And so, in the very same breath I championed Women’s Rights, I judged my sisters whose ideals did not align with mine.

     Doubtless, I have more than one good reason to despise the medical industrial complex for the role its played in my own life, but I had little reference for opposing and discounting it to the extent I did-- And I had no basis whatsoever for closing my mind and casting judgment on experiences outside of my own.

     At the end of the day, we are all different. Something I may find solace in can feel restrictive and silencing to the sister right beside me.  Bless us all on our journeys.  Help us to have the courage to look within and root out the patriarchy wherever it rears its ugly head.  Let us learn to honor and make room for the paths of those who do not follow in our footsteps.