Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Feminism and stillbirth

I posted this in the comments over at feministing on a story discussing the Missouri law that will give tax deductions to parents of stillborn children (http://feministing.com/archives/008638.html):

My son was stillborn a little over 2 months ago at 37 weeks gestation for no known reason. Needless to say, me, my DH, and my DD (4yo) were devastated including countless other family members and friends. We have suffered financially from this loss. The paying for the 'nursery' bit is not 'upper class'. I'm an attachment parent, I bought little, no conspicuous consumption here, I didn't even by a crib. What I did buy added up, a baby wrap, clothes, cloth diapers(what a cruel joke, I thought this would save me money in the long run). Hell, there are lost dollars for most women in pregnancy discrimination alone. I personally spent 9 weeks on bed rest, which is a similar financial burden. Then there is the burial, the memorial, the missed days of work grieving, lowered productivity and most importantly MEDICAL BILLS. These babes growing inside of us are 'dependents'. We pay for them from day one.

It might sound calculating, but in order to have my son, I was depending on my deduction to pay for my medical bills. If my son had been born, he would've been on S-CHIP (as a family of four, we would then qualify), I even planned for that in all of my planning (for his medical bills/hospital care, etc.). You might think that's crazy, but when you plan a baby for two years on a fixed income (DH is blue collar, I'm a grad student with crappy insurance) you do take into account those deductions. And there are many moms like me, living on the edge of poverty, who are underinsured like me, who do the same in order to be able to have a baby. I certainly don't need to tell any of you the financial burdens that accompany pregnancy, carried mostly on the shoulders of women. It is well established that the birth of a child throws many families into poverty. But it really does start with pregnancy.

Of course, with all that planning, I never did plan for this. As a proud outspoken feminist Soc grad student, I view this bill through a lens of giving women choices. I go to my sons memorial all the time. It cost over $500, $100 of it we had to fork over for a temp. marker on the day we planned his funeral (which I 'm required to do as his 'guardian' by State law). We didn't have the money, but we wrote the check anyway. We were lucky enough to have family and friends help us with the permanent memorial. When I went the other day, as the snow had temporarily melted, I saw unmarked grave after unmarked grave. So many dreams lay there in babyland. It breaks my heart, that some parents didn't even have the scant resources my family has. I felt sorry for myself that we were in such a bind, but there are so many more families worse off than I.

As far as those laws slipped into State legislatures designed to chip away at Roe v Wade and women's rights, I understand your suspicion and worry. My reaction 4 months ago would probably have been the same. I'm for reproductive justice to the core. I believe abortion should be safe and available to any woman, anytime, anywhere, for any reason.

What I can tell you is that bills aimed at giving birth certificates to stillborn babies, or tax deductions to families like mine do not fall into that category. These bills are about giving women choices. They are about recognizing the burdens of women. Stillbirths are still swept under the rug, much like pregnancies themselves were for decades. Nobody wants to talk about birthing dead babies. Even recently (within the last 50-60 years), many women never got to see their stillborn child, they were whisked away, dead, not worth seeing in the eyes of the men who delivered them. No funeral service, a quick burial, and everyone was told to 'move on'. I saw a recent story of this here (http://pubsys.pressofatlanticcity.com/185/story/45104.html). The woman never knew for 40 years where her dear stillborn daughter was buried, and decades later, her children found that baby and bought her a memorial. It is heartbreaking, the hurt this woman must endure, the hurt I must endure, for decades.

The fact is, birth is a process that by definition has two outcomes, live birth and still birth. I can tell you after experiencing both, they are the same excruciating physiological process. Today, many opportunities are given to mothers to help them grieve the loss of their child. Locks of hair, casts of hands and feet, crib cards, pictures (Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep: http://www.nowilaymedowntosleep.org/). Why? Because their births are worth remembering. They are certainly worth tracking statistically given the atrocity that is stillbirth research.

My son's birth was transformative for me, it's one of the only positive pieces I turn to in my grief. My daughters birth was traumatic, it was birth rape, and I was looking forward to a natural water birth where I was treated like a human being. And you know what? I got my completely natural water birth, my son was dead, but I did give birth to him in a loving, supportive setting with my daughter, sister, husband, and midwife all there to support me. It was beautiful. And that is what birth certificates are for. They should be called 'birthed certificates', they are not about personhood, they are not about 'life' or loss, they are about the mother and her birth; whether it is live or still, it is equally harrowing, life threatening, breathtaking, healing, and, in some cases, devastating. Women deserve this respect, that States not only recognize only one type of birth. They deserve the respect of their dreams not being swept under the rug any longer.

As a feminist that has only recently experienced the stillbirth of my son, I've thought a lot about these issues. Obviously as I have a lot to say. And I think I understand feminism even more deeply after considering these issues from my new perspective. What women do is amazing, carrying children is a hardship but many gladly sacrifice, would risk their lives for it. Recognizing stillbirth is recognizing our work, our dreams, our sacrifices, and, through 'certificates of birth resulting in stillbirth', our births are recognized, for no surreptitious reason, only to give us closure, or just give us one more piece of paper with our beautiful child's name written on it that we can hold and remember for years to come. It might not seem like a lot, but to many women it is everything. They may never have another child again, are they a mother if their only child was stillborn? I say, yes, they birthed, they are mothers, only their children never lived. These bills are about recognizing motherhood, in all it's pain and all it's glory.


c. said...

You sum up your point of view very well, anarchist mom. Reading the comments at feministing, I was appalled by the callousness of some of the responders. Seriously hurt and appalled. I'm relieved, to some degree, that you can offer them some insight to what the financial circumstances with respect to stillbirth are. Maybe some of the most insensitive will even learn something.

anarchist mom said...

I hope so too. They were callous, but after reading the rhetoric of the Missouri politician, I can see (barely) why they were callous to that degree. Roe v. Wade has been chipped away, there is NO DOUBT, and that chipping away is harmful to women. I don't see these bills that way, but my nuanced view would not be so nuanced if I hadn't lost my son. I'd rather have him than this insight, I'd give it up in a second, but to be able to share my insight with fellow feminists and make them think of these bills in a different way, I'm glad for that today at least.

Ellen K. said...

Thanks for your perspective. I live in Missouri; I am pro-choice and feminist; I am experiencing infertility (4 years, gravida 0). My response to this bill is skeptical given my awareness of state politics, but I do feel that a one-time tax deduction for stillbirth serves to grant parenthood status where it is often denied (by the lack of a living child) and also helps the parent cover some of the medical and burial expenses.

I was almost amused by some of the comments at feministing that stillbirth and miscarriage are openly acknowledged by our society and that nearly everyone recovers and goes on to have more children. That has been far from my own observation, even prior to infertility.

I am very sorry for the loss of your son.

Krista said...

Thank you for your response at Feministing. I am an intern with MISS in Phoenix, and was prepared to post about the MISSing Angels bill, but someone who has been there can argue it far more eloquently than I. I am sorry for the loss of your son.

Sungold said...

I just found this via your link at Feministe. I hope you've experienced healing, and I hope too that you've found support and acknowledgment among your friends and family.

You tell your story so beautifully, I've still got tears in my eyes as I type this. Please keep telling it. Feminism is not just about promoting legal abortion as a choice (though that's non-negotiable). It's about reproductive rights and justice in every realm. That has to include recognition of what women and their partners go through with infertility, miscarriage, and stillbirth.

I haven't experienced any of these things (I have two healthy kids whom I conceived easily) but human empathy isn't too much to ask of those of us who've had it comparatively easy. Maybe we need to coin a new term: reproductive privilege.