“Okay, this week we’re doing a C-section simulation,” the instructor cheerfully announced to our prenatal class. Amanda and I exchanged a look, as did the other couples in the room – simulating labour had been one thing, but an actual C-section? In our holistic, evoke-the-goddess Birthing From Within class, no less, where most of us were vying for a home birth by midwife?
The instructor conjured the image we’d discussed a few weeks ago, of labour being like a lush, leafy garden labyrinth, where some journeys to the centre are longer or shorter than others, depending on what turns you take, and what obstacles and dead ends you encounter along the way.
“In spite of your best-intentioned birth plan, there’s no telling which path your birth is going to take,” she reminded us in a calm, measured voice, sounding not unlike one of those new-agey meditation tapes. “And just in case you end up in the O.R., you want to be prepared – so that you can re-claim the space and make your baby’s birth by Caesarean the most positive experience possible, under the circumstances.”
Everyone looked dubious. How could having your belly sliced open and your baby ripped from your womb possibly be reframed as a positive birth experience?
“Imagine we’re in a hospital operating room,” she continued, gesturing at our dimly lit, folksy surroundings in the neighbourhood midwifery clinic. “Harsh lights, medical personnel in masks. We’re going to do a role play,” she went on. “A bit of a role reversal, actually. I’m going to need one of the expectant fathers – ”
There it was: the F-word, which she kept dropping in spite of her best intentions to be inclusive. Amanda, next to me, bristled. The class was being held at our queer-positive midwiferly clinic, after all.
“I mean, one of the non-pregnant partners,” the instructor quickly corrected, catching our eye, “to play the birthing mother. I’ve even got a little costume to help our actor get into role.”
She flourished a cream-coloured tee – made of sheer, clingy cotton, styled and sized to accentuate a woman’s curves. The perfect top, if you were trying to win first prize in a wet T-shirt contest. A huge pregnant belly had been spiralled on in navy marker, but the crowning touch was the artistic rendering of two massive areolae in the chest area, each sporting a missile-shaped nipple.
The class tittered nervously. I just stared at the T-shirt with disbelief. I couldn’t bring myself to meet Amanda’s eyes, but I could feel her tensing, beside me. Up to this point, she had quietly tolerated being the anomaly in our prenatal class – the only expectant mom in the room who didn’t have a bulging belly, the only birth partner who wasn’t a man. But the boob shirt, as we came to call it, pushed her over the edge.
“How could I possibly have volunteered?” she railed later, during the car ride home. “If I’d worn that shirt, it would’ve been like target practice. She may as well have stuck neon pasties directly on my boobs!”
Just a week earlier, the same instructor had pulled Amanda aside after class to make sure she was feeling welcome and included, a move which, although well-intentioned, left Amanda feeling more alien and “other” than ever.
It was much easier for me, the pregnant dyke. My bulbous belly gave me instant access to the private club of expectant moms in the room – there was no question what my role was in the coming birth dance. Amanda, meanwhile, was a mom-to-be caught betwixt and between, in a weird no-woman’s land. Not by any stretch a pregnant woman, and yet not really one of the dads, either.
“I’m worried she won’t be able to take the pain,” a tough, muscular dude shared with the group the first night of class, as we were going around the circle discussing our fears about childbirth. “I mean, if it were up to me? I do a lot of martial arts, I’ve broken multiple bones. I’ve got a pretty high pain tolerance, you know what I’m sayin’?”
The other guys nodded.
“I just wish I could do it for her,” he went on, “so she doesn’t have to go through it. ‘Cause I know I could handle it no problem, man.”
Amanda and I exchanged a furtive glance – was this guy for real? His girlfriend, meanwhile, looked ready to slug him.
“How am I supposed to relate to THAT?” Amanda vented after class. “This is why we need special prenatal classes for queers. Can you imagine a bunch of dykes sitting around, having the same conversation?”
She launched right in, saying all the things she hadn’t dared to mention in class: “‘When I think about my partner’s birth, it’s scary, because I too have a female body. I get crippling menstrual cramps each month, which, I understand, is just the tip of the iceberg as far as labour is concerned. PLUS,’” she added, for the benefit of Mr. Martial Arts, “‘I have a realistic sense of just how painful it might be to squeeze a head the size of a grapefruit THROUGH MY VAGINA!!!’”
If nothing else, prenatal class gave Amanda her first taste of parenthood as the “other mother,” and of the unique identity challenge that comes with being a non-biological lesbian mom. The experience of being a mom, but not quite, while filling in for dad, but not quite, either. Having to define a role for yourself, not only within your queer little family, but in the larger, straight world that doesn’t know where you fit, either. A world that’s often more perplexed by your identity than you are. A world that may try, at times, to be inclusive – but, like our well-intentioned prenatal class instructor, also risks missing the mark completely.
Ironically, we were the only couple in our prenatal class who ended up having a birth by Caesarean, bypassing the winding paths of the labyrinth altogether, as it turned out, and parachuting straight into the centre. (Our son was breech and wouldn’t turn no matter what we tried – see my post on Gratitude). Amanda had been so put-off by the boob shirt that she’d effectively tuned out the rest of the C-section simulation. The one class, it turns out, where we should have been paying full attention.
On a positive note, the folks who ran our prenatal class now offer a special LGBT Birthing From Within course, based on feedback they’d received over the years from dykes like us. Amanda’s fantasy of a bunch of queers and their pregnant partners sitting around the circle, shooting the shit, is now a reality, at least here in Vancouver. The organization even approached me and Amanda personally for input as they shaped the new curriculum. At the top of our list: no boob shirt!