Wednesday was a vagtastic day! It was a day that started with me witnessing my sister push life into this world through her vagina, and ended with Ashton Kutcher posting an article on facebook in which I’m heavily quoted, about vaginas, of course. Pretty rad day for a sexologist! Vagina, vagina, VAGINA!
Watching my little sister give birth, holding her leg with one hand and shoulder with the other, was an experience that gave me all the feels. And not necessarily the feels I thought I would have. I’ll try to explain them, in no particular order.
1. Vaginas are awesome. All I can think about is the “I Was There In The Room” monologue from the Vagina Monologues, and the introduction: “Eve Ensler was present for the birth of her granddaughter. She was in awe of vaginas before that moment; she’s in deep worship now.” I had a similar transformative experience. It’s no secret that I think vaginas, vulvas, and clitorises are pretty damn neato. But now I’m just like- HOLY SHIT! Honestly. Holy fucking shit. Wow.
I have seen the Vagina Monologues approximately 60 times, and I cry every time during the birth monologue. Every time I’ve seen a birth video in class, I cry. Even that old show “A Baby Story” on TLC made me get teary. So I figured I would cry seeing it in real life, up close and personal, and with someone I love. But I didn’t. I was too busy being stunned silent by the electrifying realization that the human body is a remarkable machine. Holy fucking shit. Wow.
The line where I always cry during the birth monologue is
We forget the vagina- all of us.
What else could explain our lack of awe?
Our lack of reverence?
I never understood why people hate on vaginas so hard. They belittle them, hurt them, condemn them, treat them like they’re repulsive. I’ve dedicated my career to trying to end this. But seeing what the vagina can do- it literally tears and bleeds to bring life, LIFE, into this world, it makes me doubly infuriated that they are shit on by society at large- by, frankly, all of us. (and I’m crying typing this… damn). It’s an important question Eve asks. How in the hell do you explain our lack of awe and reverence? Because I can’t think of any other way to describe what I witnessed other than deserving of roll-out-the-carpet, bow-down-and-give-thanks awe and reverence. Holy fucking shit. Wow.
2. The medicalization of birth makes me uncomfortable. It some ways, I’m glad my sister could get medication to make her comfortable. She was even able to sleep through several hours of the labor. But when she wasn’t asleep and was balled over in excruciating agony, and 10 minutes seemed like hours, I was so thankful for the medical technology we have. I kept thinking of how people 10,000 years ago dealt with this suffering without any drugs. Yay modern medicine!
But at the same time, the medicalization just seemed cold and lacking a human component. A lot of the staff we encountered just treated her, and her life altering experience of giving birth and becoming a mother, and baby Ethan’s life altering experience of… becoming alive, like just another day at the office. They just seemed like they were punching a time card. Like an “Oh, another delivery, and then I’ll take my lunch break” kind of attitude. There was a relentless parade of random strangers walking into the room for something- a tech person taking vital signs, a med student introducing themselves, someone coming to make up the tray of instruments the OB will need during the delivery, and on and on and on. After she gave birth she couldn’t sleep for more than 10 minutes at a time because of the constant interference of people just needing to check “see patient in room 211” off their to-do list.
My favorite was when she just got admitted, and she’s in pain and scared because, OMG this is actually happening!, and she’s mostly naked, hobbling to the toilet while my mom and I have one arm each trying to help her get to the bathroom and someone walks in and announces “I need your driver’s license and insurance card”. My sister winced and tried to reach for her wallet on the table, and I’m like “Can she get her damn clothes on first??!!” It’s like, c’mon. Could you possibly have a shred of compassion for fuck’s sake?
When the anesthesiologist came in to give an epidural, my sister was in the midst of a contraction. The doctor shoved the clipboard in her face, needing her to sign the consent form, while my sister is, you know, having a contraction and thus a little too preoccupied to take the clipboard, read, and sign it. It was a 40 second contraction, and the doctor couldn’t even wait. She tried to be patient for a second, but then would move the clipboard closer. My sister would moan in pain. The doc would try to be patient for another second, and then moved the clipboard closer to her face again. This happened 6 times in 40 seconds. If your day is so busy and getting your paperwork done is so important that you can’t give someone literally 40 seconds to writhe in pain in peace, you might need to revisit that course on bedside manner. And humanity.
Also it was startling when random people came in, introduced themselves, and then looked at or touched my sister’s genitals without asking. Like “Hi, I’m Dr. _____.” And then their finger was in her vagina. I know it’s your job but, no. Unless there is a medical emergency and touching them will save their life, doctors should still ask first. How hard would it be to say “Hi, I’m Dr. ____, is it OK if I check how many centimeters you are dilated?” But that might take 15 extra seconds, and evidently taking 15 seconds of a doctor’s time is a lot to ask.
There was one nurse who was exceptionally awesome, patient, and attentive. And I told her I thought so :)
3. It was a real treat to be around people for whom sexualized body parts can be discussed without so much as a hint of shame or embarrassment. Cervix. Vagina. Rectum. How to wipe the scrotum when changing his diaper. How to bring the baby to the breast. How to squeeze the nipple to get milk flowing. Penis. Foreskin. All these things were discussed extensively with us by doctors and nurses, and there was nary a snicker. No “who-ha”. No “private parts”. No awkwardness. Not even subtle awkwardness from people who are uncomfortable but try like hell not to show it because they know it would be unprofessional, which I’ve seen before. None of that. Everyone just acted like it’s all totally normal. Because it is, and it was so refreshing.
4. OMG circumcision. My sister made a decision to not circumcise Ethan. But the assumption was that she would, by everyone. And remember, there were a lot of people coming in and out of the room, asking questions, filing out charts, and all of them assumed there would be a circumcision.
Pediatrician: So when you circumcise him later today…
My sister: (shaking her head no)
Pediatrician: Oh he’s getting circumcised tomorrow?
My sister: No, not at all.
Circumcision was even on the list of things that needed to be done before being discharged from the hospital. Granted, it says “if applicable”, but I got the sense they didn’t mean applicable, meaning if you chose to, more applicable meaning if the baby has a penis, because it couldn’t apply to vulva-bearing babies. Argh. I’ll save my rant on routine neo-natal circumcision for another day.
5. Breastfeeding is perfectly natural but not naturally perfectly. In fact, it can be really really challenging. It’s hard enough, I’m now extra annoyed that people make it that much harder for moms by giving them shit for breastfeeding in public.
6. I’m ever more convinced that the United States needs to get on board with the rest of the industrialized world and require paid maternity leave. He feeds every three hours, sometimes for an hour. That leaves 2 hours. In that time, my sister needs to change him, use the bathroom herself which is an ordeal because of the pain and swelling, and try to find time to sleep, eat, and do other life things. I don’t know how many weeks/months/years that’s supposed to go on for, but how the hell is someone supposed to do that, and work?
7. Vaginas are awesome, but the people they are attached to are awesome too. I am so proud of my sister! She is so strong. Mothers don’t get enough credit. I’m also finding a new appreciation for my own mother.
On a personal level, this experience was incredible. Getting to support my sister and have the women in my family share this moment is something we’ll all never ever forget. On a political/policy/professional level, it just confirmed what I already suspected. I always believed that the vagina’s ability to give birth was incredible in theory. I always thought routine circumcision was wrong as a matter of principle. I always supported destigmatizing breastfeeding and promoted paid maternity leave as a part of my personal ethics of compassion. I’ve always thought that many doctors could really stand to improve their bedside manner (I actually wrote a research paper on this in grad school as bedside manner relates to sexual health and medicine). But SEEING it all was totally different than believing it in theory. And I am so thankful that I got to SEE it. It’s literally the most ordinary thing in the world. Births occur every few seconds. But this will likely be the only time I’ll get to be a part of a birth, other than my own, so for me, it was extraordinary. And for Ethan, it’s the single most important thing that will ever happen to him. I’m still in awe.