Birth Matters by Karen Leslie Hernandez

karen hernandezI don’t talk much about giving birth, but when I do talk about the birth of my daughter and I give details, I am met almost assuredly with looks of disbelief and outright contempt for my birthing experience. In that, I am reminded, as women talk of their beautiful birthing experiences, mine was anything but that.

I also feel that I don’t need to focus on those days that were filled with unorthodox delivery practices and harmful words, when I can just focus on what came after and what is now – I have an amazing, beautiful, grounded 25 year old daughter.

Yet, there is something to it. Something that should be said. Something to share. And, what I find quite often, is that as a former military wife delivering in a military hospital, many other military spouses have similar stories.

On June 25, 1990, my water broke around 9:30PM. My former husband, Andy, was in the US Air Force and we were stationed at RAF Greenham Common in the UK. Our tiny base didn’t have a hospital, so we had to drive to RAF Upper Heyford – about an hour from Greenham Common.

Arriving at the hospital and put into a room, I was told there was no OBGYN on duty, but, a doctor would be in to check on me periodically. I was told that the OBGYN I had been seeing would be in when needed. My labor pains were mild and then after a few hours, increased. I was offered and accepted some medication to “take the edge off.”

The next 7-8 hours are blurry. Walking around, throwing up, contractions, Katy was making little progress. Suddenly a man came in and said my OBGYN was on leave, and he was on Temporary Duty Assignment from another base and he would be delivering my child. I remember thinking, I don’t even know you. You’re a man. I specifically picked a woman I liked (which is not easy to do with military healthcare), and now, you’re all up in my business. I was young though – just 23 years old. Not savvy enough to speak what I needed to say and what I was thinking, and he was an Officer – my husband was Enlisted. I shouldn’t challenge the authority in the room. And, I didn’t have a choice.

At one point, another nurse practitioner I hadn’t met came in and decided she needed to check me to see why Katy wasn’t progressing. Did I mention that the OBGYN I picked told me from the very beginning that I would most likely need a C-Section, because my hips are square and not round, making it difficult for Katy to turn and move down in to place? I told them this from the moment I arrived at the hospital and it was in my record, and I even screamed it at her as she stuck her hand and then arm inside me to see where Katy was.

As my contractions worsened, but I wasn’t dilating as much as I should be, the medical professionals around me noted that Katy seemed to be in distress. Being in the birth canal for 16 hours can do that to a baby. By this time I was somewhat delirious and just wanted her out of me. At hour 17 they came in and said, “It looks like we need to do a C-Section on you.”

Katy was born about 19 hours after my water broke, on June 26, 1990, at 4:40PM – by C-Section. She was facing the wrong way, hence why she was “stuck.”

As the nurses took care of Katy while I recuperated, I was told and asked the following: “She sure sleeps a lot.” “Why is her head so cone shaped? Were you in labor for a long time?” “She is so fussy.” “Did you smoke while you were pregnant? Because she is so cranky and cries a lot for a newborn.” “Be careful when you get home, it seems you had too much medicine to take the edge off and it may affect Katy. Make sure you watch her for bad side effects.” “Are you sure you didn’t smoke? This kid keeps crying.” “Did you drink alcohol?” “You shouldn’t have had meds to take the edge off. That’s not good for the baby.” “Wow. You’re a child, having a child.” “Are you on or have you ever done drugs while pregnant with Katy? She is just so fussy.” “Your husband is out getting formula right now before he comes to pick you up? Oh, you can’t breast feed? Why? I know it’s expensive and right before payday, but you should have thought ahead.”

Encouraging, right?

For the record, I’ve never smoked. I was born with Asthma. I rarely drink, and never touched alcohol while carrying Katy. And, the drugs? Right.

As I recuperated in the hospital for four days and was bombarded with these statements and questions, I remember thinking –  I am an ill-fitted mother. Already. I am too young. My family is so far away. It’s just Andy and I. How will I do this? We have no money. I am failing.

Then it came time to leave. As I was waiting for Andy to get there, with the car seat that hospital staff had to see to approve before we left the hospital, I might add, and as the hospital staff was getting the discharge paperwork ready, they moved me from my room to another to wait. I was in there with Katy, sitting on a bed, and the nurse came in and told me that they were bringing in a woman who had a baby the night before and she wasn’t doing well. Because her baby was stillborn.

I remember thinking, Wait. I don’t think this is a good idea, and then she walked in. She sat on the bed across from me at first, obviously distressed, just staring at me. I wasn’t sure where to look, or to talk, so I just looked down. She then got up and asked if she could see Katy. She began to stroke Katy’s head and tell me how beautiful she was. Tearing up, she started to cry and then told me how lucky I was, and how blessed I was, and how her baby was with God now. “Do you have any idea how lucky you are?” “Take care of that baby. Because you never know.” “My baby died. My little baby died. I don’t know why God took my baby. I had a son. He was so perfect. He is gone.”

Again, I am 23, in a place where I feel I have no authority. No voice. I had to sit in that room for 30 minutes. 30 minutes I witnessed this woman in  such deep, deep pain, while I sat with my cooing baby. To this day, I cannot articulate how horrible those minutes were. The guilt. The anger. The outright injustice. The disbelief.

I think of that woman every so often. I hope and pray she had other children to bring her joy and peace.

As I write about this experience for the first time, I am not quite sure how to conclude. What I do know is that how a woman gives birth matters. And, having a Godly or spiritual component to the birthing experience is a must.

It matters that Katy and I didn’t have a peaceful birthing experience. It matters that Katy wasn’t welcomed in to the world with love and respect by those caring for her. It matters that a woman whose baby died, was subjected to such an uncaring and unsympathetic act. It matters that as an Air Force spouse, I felt I couldn’t express the wrongs I was witnessing and that were perpetrated against myself and my child. It matters that men of higher rank affected all of my choices. It matters that I didn’t have a choice. It matters that I am not the only military spouse that has had a sterile, unfortunate and unspiritual birth experience.

All of it – it matters.

Karen Leslie Hernandez is a Theologian and interfaith activist. With a focus in Christian-Muslim Understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism, Karen is the only theologian who is a Latina and a United Methodist, doing this type of theological work in the US. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to publish an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. She loves to teach and last year designed and taught an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Karen currently lives in San Francisco, is consulting with the United Religions Initiative, is an Ambassador with Parliament of the World’s Religions, and she also does Domestic Violence Faith Advocacy work across the US.

6 thoughts on “Birth Matters by Karen Leslie Hernandez”

  1. Once again, in describing an experience you came very close to what I, and thousands (millions?) other women endured back in the day when childbirth wasn’t as revered and respected as it is today. Merely something you grit your teeth and got through. Many of us had no idea of the different choices available to us and if we did, as in your case, it would be impossible to access it, no less due to accepted, albeit warped, practices of the time.

    I can relate my own experience, the memory of which had me walking around the house, then the garden, performing any little task, while holding the shaking and pain of the memory in check lest I break everything in sight in outrage. I guess it is what one would call having a primal. It took an hour and a half before I could calm myself enough to sit down and comment on your post.

    What I would like to discuss however, is the attitude of other women towards you in relating your experience.
    “ … I am met almost assuredly with looks of disbelief and outright contempt for my birthing experience.” In that, I am reminded, as women talk of their beautiful birthing experiences … “

    That you had to defend yourself, to other women, is what gets my gall. Ever since I’ve been following the feminist movement, I hear how naturally nurturing and warm women are, by right of our ability to give birth, how we share so much more than what men do – and I had to get the courage to raise this point, the same as it would’ve been if I was speaking against a patriarchal attitude, expecting a backlash of yes-buts. It’s just not done to criticize New Woman. Women stand the chance to become what we’ve fought for, what we are fighting against.


  2. Two of my three children were born in military hospitals, both in the 60’s. I had never seen or met the doctors who delivered my babies. No one was allowed to visit except my husband (not even my mother) and with the first he wasn’t allowed until after the birth. I was 20, thrown into a room all alone not knowing what to expect. I was terrified. There was improvement between the first and the third but not a lot. The third came in less than 50 minutes so I never saw a labor room – I went straight to delivery. I hope things are better for military wives now.


  3. My heart breaks as I read your story. So many women, not only in military hospitals, have been subjected to horrific birthing experiences. I suppose this cruel approach to birthing is one of the most horrible aspects of misogeny and patriarchy. I am so happy to hear that your daughter grew up to be a lovely young woman and that you grew into your own power.


  4. You are so right – how we give birth does matter. I gave birth to my son only three years after you gave birth to your daughter, and even though I gave birth in a community hospital, my experience was very much the same. I had wanted midwives, but none were practicing in my area, so I went to an OBGYN who was known for her holistic methods but was in practice with another doctor, who I ended up having for my delivery because he happened to be on call. The experience was horrendous in many of the same ways as your experience. One thing I learned was the importance of checking on any doctor’s license and also asking other people for their experience if you can. Of course, in both our situations we had no choice of doctor. A number of years after giving birth I had to have surgery and was referred to the same doctor who delivered my son. This time I checked his license with the state licensing board and found out he was under investigation by the same hospital where I had given birth, so I changed to another OBGYN and had a wonderful experience (or as wonderful as you can have when you are having surgery…). Later I ran into another woman who had also ended up having him deliver her child and apparently he was well known for his misogynistic practices. So, the lesson I learned was that if you have the opportunity, ask around and see if you can find out others’ experiences and definitely check licenses with state licensing boards (in the US) or whatever would be a similar governmental agency elsewhere. Thanks so much for your post – what you describe certainly seems to resonate with a lot of women on this blog.


  5. In case this gets erased again, I will make this short: You are SO right. Birth matters. Birthing, caring, breastfeeding, menopause, menstruation…..ALL of the experience of women matters greatly, fundamentally. It remains, now, a seriously patriarchal, male-oriented human society, often in a more subtle and therefore unnoticable form than in the past. Well done indeed for telling your story. I do encourage all women to do the same. I believe we women need to have supportive networks around us, and so many of us lack this in today’s societies, due to the high mobility of populations.


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