Kimberly’s Birth Story
Learning From Our Mother’s Gardens
Episode 8: Kimberly’s Birth Story: Learning From Our Mother’s Gardens
On this special episode, Kimberly Seals Allers interviews her mother to hear her own birth story, discusses the history of medical interventions, the role of feminist movements and the power of our matrilineal birthing line. Special guests, historian Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens and Harvard professor, Dr. Neel Shah, add powerful context to the birth practices in the early 1970’s and how the legacy of enslaved Black women still impacts birth outcomes today.
- Read more about the history of forceps in this article by our guest, Neel Shah, MD, MPP How forceps permanently changed the way humans are born
- Learn more about Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens and her work on her website, https://www.deirdrecooperowens.com
- Purchase Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens’ Book Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology
- Click to watch episode extras on BIRTHRIGHT’S YOUTUBE PAGE!
- Interested in having a doula for your pregnancy, birth or post-partum period? Resources for finding Black Doulas: National Black Doulas Association & The Bridge
- Learn more about home births The Black Home Birth Initiative
- Learn more about having a safe and empowered birth by downloading the free ebook: Birth with Irth: A Mini-Manual to Pregnancy and Childbirth for Black People
- Get full episode details and transcripts (posted by midday) on www.BirthrightPodcast.com
- New episodes are released every other Wednesday! Subscribe now!
- Follow Kimberly Seals Allers on Twitter on Instagram: @iamKSealsAllers
Birthright is funded by the California Health Care Foundation.
Kimberly Seals Allers
So this forceps thing, did you know, that was going to be the process, was my sister born the same way, where they kind of let you, I guess you labor a little bit. And then when they see the baby’s coming, they knock you out and use the forceps.
because you’ll be, you know, you’re saying, oh, the pain is there.
And, but you have to dilate to a certain amount before. They’re going to do anything, uh, with Mike, your sister, they did see a piece of anatomy. They, they clipped me before you even pushed.
I didn’t push.
How did she get out, Ma? You don’t know, either? (Laughter)
Kimberly Seals Allers
Welcome to Birthright, a podcast about joy and healing and black birth. My name is Kimberly Seals Allers, I am daughter of Alma, granddaughter of Mary Jane, great granddaughter of Emily and today I explore my own matrilineal line of birth experiences, with a very special guest, my mother.
Hello. My name is Alma Seals. I’m the mother of three, and this is my Birthright story.
So let’s go back to too… I’m the middle child. So you, I was not your first pregnancy, but let’s go back to when you found out you were pregnant with me, tell me what that was like for you.
Well, I had the fortune, good fortune, I was going to say misfortune because the first three months of my pregnancies with each one, I was always very, very sick. I couldn’t keep any food down. I couldn’t stand certain smells or I would throw up. So the first three months, that’s the way I was. But the six months after that, I was fine.
I could carry on my life as usual.
Tell us what pregnancy care look like. What did your doctor, do you know, how many times did you go visit? Do you remember those types of details? What, what, what was their advice to pregnant women at that time?
Well, I had a private doctor because, um, I was very scared. And, um, I used the same doctor that I used for your sister before you. And I saw, I felt a little more relaxed and, um, but it’s a framing experience. Uh, get a beautiful one because you have a life inside of you. And, um, so you carry on life issues. You will, and you cherish the fact that especially when the baby starts to move. And you can feel the little elbow and you can start identifying the body parts as they move about. It’s very exciting.
We were planning, um, we were planning, in fact, uh, we had, it had been seven years before we even got the first child and, um, that was very difficult.
Uh, we wanted to wait three years and then when we decided to start our family, uh, nothing was happening. And so it was a great concern because your father loves children.
But there was a one doctor that we went to that, um, knew my parents. And so he say sometimes, uh, It’s just so that their training is working on you. Yeah. But they didn’t find anything wrong. And, um, but Dr. Davis did know what was wrong.
What did he say?
He said, I had a cyst on my ovary and I said, how do you know?
And he gave me some strange answer, which seemed like it was out of left field and I didn’t believe him, so I didn’t do anything. And then eventually he was right. Because they took the cyst off my ovary in 67, 1967.
How did it feel for you to have those nine years when you wanted to have a child and you couldn’t?
It was frustrating sometimes, um, because you wonder what’s wrong. And we looked at the family line. Everybody had children and Aunt Reatha is always very encouraging. She says, you’re going to have children. And, um, but I didn’t dwell on it because that wasn’t helping. And so we just kept ourselves busy. And, and so when we finally, when I finally started feeling sick and I told daddy that I was feeling sick, um, we looked at each other.
And we were afraid to say anything. So one day at work, as I said, I got sick and I went into the restroom there and said, finally, he said, you know, you need to go home. And I, she called a cab and I went home, but, um, And that’s when I was in bed for the two weeks. And then I went to one doctor and then two weeks later I went to the other one but we would look at each other, but we would not say a word to anybody because we felt that if we said something, it wouldn’t happen.
Yeah. It would be a false alarm. So yeah, there’s a lot of suspense there. Yeah. So that’s why, when I speak of child rearing or childbirth it’s, it’s special.
Well, that’s a beautiful story, mommy. Thank you so much.
So I wanted to actually go back again. When you found out that you were pregnant again, were you happy? Where you planning? Or was I unexpected? Take me back to finding out that you were actually pregnant.
As Katrina got to be about two and a half going on three, we, um, decided that she needed some company. And so we tried to have another child and that process took a while. So, um, finally I became pregnant, so we were both very excited. Um, that’s one thing we felt about all of the three of you.
And, um, so. And just as soon as before I’m diagnosed, I’m getting the morning sickness. So that was par for the course. So with each one, I did that, but we were very careful because we didn’t want to get too excited and be wrong.
Then we’d be disappointed. So we always call the doctor and we had an appointment to go in and see him.
So, what kind of birth did you want? Did you want a birth with no pain medications and all natural?
Oh no, no, no. Put me out. But you were different you, um, I think sometimes we learn from a previous pregnancy.
Had you taken a childbirth class to think about breathing techniques?
Did that exist?
Yeah, it may have, it didn’t exist for me and the doctor never suggested anything.
And so, um, when I started feeling certain things like with you, I started feeling as if there was lead in my stomach. And I carried very low because people would look at me and say, oh, it’s a boy. It’s a boy. They said that for the first one they said for the second one, the third one, they couldn’t see.
So, um, but your, symptoms, they vary. So the symptoms that I had for, for the first one I didn’t have for you. And, uh, because for my first one, the water broke at home. So when I call the dog, he said to go to the hospital, but all I did was go there laughing, and waiting till the next day to give birth.
And so I said, I’m not going to do that this time. So I stayed at the house and I just felt like somebody had put some lead in my stomach. I felt very, very, very heavy. So my sister called a check on me, Aunt Reatha and she said, well, you’re going to have that baby. Uh, tonight. She said those are symptoms.
And so, uh, there was something else I don’t remember. That was unusual that I hadn’t had before with Katrina. So, uh, I stayed there and I pushed it to the very limit because I almost couldn’t get down the stairs. We were one flight up in our apartment.
So, um, Daddy took me to the hospital and, um, They took me right away. And you were born within hours. I mean, they probably had time to prep me and you were born was in at least three hours after I got there.
So how was I born?
Um, well, they had to use the forceps.
Kimberly and Alma
So this forceps thing, did you know, that was going to be the process, was my sister born the same way where they kind of let you, I guess you labor a little bit. And then when they see the baby’s coming, they knock you out and use the
forceps because you’ll be, you know, you’re saying, oh, the pain is there.
And, but you have to dilate to a certain amount before. They’re going to do anything, uh, with your sister, they did the episiotomy. They, they clipped me.
Before you even pushed?
I didn’t push.
How did she get out, Ma? You don’t know, either? My goodness gracious.
I can’t deal with pain! That’s why I wanted a doctor! That’s what I was paying them for!
Mommy, the clipping, is pain.
I didn’t feel it. Because that one, I do remember I had started to stand up in the bed and, um, and the doctor said, uh, okay, the head is there. He says, let’s take her in.
And so they took me into the room and again, I just made sure the Dr. Wolf was there. And,
and where was daddy there? Was this a time when men were allowed in the living room with you?
No, They were not.
Okay. So you were by yourself? Yeah.
As he was, he wasn’t allowed in the room where I was a pre-labor, um, or predelivery I know, what did they call it?
And it was a very small hospital, that you both were born in. Yes. And so you got, you know, personalized attention.
And so you were out…
I was out. And then when I woke up, I was in my bed. And it was next morning. And, um, um, but then the next morning, yes, because we went in the evening and I told you, it was about three hours before, um, that you came, but it was very quick. So after that, I think you were born about seven.
I think I was about six something in the morning. Oh, so you didn’t see me? Who did?
I don’t know. I might, I am such a chicken when it comes to pain. I become so….
So you, nobody was worried about checking me, make sure I had all my fingers and toes,
But Daddy was there
but do you don’t even know the daddy went to check me
Right, and you know what… I must have, because sometimes you’re groggy and you don’t remember, but when I, I evidently didn’t because when I got you, uh, in the morning, um, I did unwrap you. Yes.
So when you finally saw me, did you check me then?
Yes, I did.
Thank you. What about skin to skin? That’s a big thing now, if you put the baby…
The knowledge that you have about babies now wasn’t necessarily the knowledge of yesteryear, but out of love, you actually put the child on you. And, um, yes. And you’ll hold them tight.
Was I crying then?
Bottom line, I was a forceps baby. A product of the birthing practice of the time.
Professor Neel Shah
My name is Neel Shah. I’m an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard medical school.
Forceps really changed childbirth all over the world. And the purpose was to save lives. Um, until relatively recently, the risks of giving birth and procreation were really severe. Um, almost everybody until the 20th century knew somebody who died at a complicated pregnancy. Um, Almost everybody knew somebody whose baby was born dead.
And, um, it wasn’t just that, uh, people face the prospect of birth and death at the same time. Um, but you know, in the absence of contraception, they did. So like over and over again. And, um, I read a statistic and preparing the article that, uh, until the early 20th century, the probability of dying in childbirth was similar to the probability of a woman dying. Uh, of breast cancer or heart attack today, was that common.
So, you know, in 1971, when you were born or even a few years prior when your sister was born, um, Things like Twilight sleep were common and everybody thought that’s just how you did it. Like you’re put to sleep. And then the baby comes out with forceps. And you know, the analogy today is that one in three babies are born with a major surgery, a C-section and one in 10 of their babies goes to the NICU and we’ve kind of like, normalized that.
KSA: That’s a valid point Dr. Shah, but it also raises the question of who began to normalize that?
Dr. Dierdre Cooper Owens
I’m Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens. I am the Linda and Charles Wilson professor in the history of medicine and the director of the humanities and medicine program at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. And I am the author of Medical Bondage: race, gender, and the origins of American gynecology, which was published in 2017.
Yeah, that’s a really great question because it brings up the history of when, what we used to call midwifery, um, changed and all of a sudden midwifery that was governed and managed by women, starts to become controlled and managed by men. And pregnancy and birth start to be seen as not just biological functions, so that hasn’t changed.
But what happens is when men are being called in. All of a sudden they’re seeing pregnancy and birth as something that’s, um, traumatic, that something that is, um, a sign of distress, because of course they’re going to be called in for emergency situations. And the intervention that happens is the use of tools.
Right. So you have all kinds of tools and blades to forceps that really gains traction in the 19th century or the 18 hundreds as gynecology and obstetrics is really being, um, formalized as a quote unquote formal medical branch, um, for both of them. And you start to see in the antebellum era, especially.
A lot of, you know, these kind of pioneering discoveries, but they almost always involve the use of tools or surgeries. So all of these kinds of things start to happen with male intervention.
Irth ad Promo
Dr. Dierdre Cooper Owens
Everything about the medical experience changes even in terms of the architecture of hospitals. So even the psychology of going into a place that looks like a mall. It literally looks like a mall, right?
Where you have gift shops now! When all of those kinds of things, the psychology, even for the birthing person is, Oh, you know, this, this is almost like going, you know, going to the Galleria. Um, it, everything becomes commercialized and corporatized by the, the, especially the, the seventies and the eighties.
It’s interesting that there have been waves of what is “in” in terms of birthing practices, but the commercialization and the business side of birthing seems to have remained constant. Once it shifted, it never went back.
So when you look at the world of pregnancy and childbirth, now, you know, now going on 50 years since I was born, almost, what if, if you could ever do anything differently, is there anything you like, you know what, maybe I would try that now, or that’s interesting… I see people doing different things is anything that you see going on in the pregnancy and birth world now that you’re like, oh, I wish I had that when that was available to me when I gave birth?
Hmm, no, because, um, the doctor that I chose. Uh, I used the same doctor and the only one that had a different doctor was Jeffrey.
Uh, and special circumstances there, but he was a gem. So I was blessed. I really felt that I was blessed on both ends because I had home, uh, support from home and I had the support of the doctor. So that, that gave me a lot of comfort.
You know, there’s sort of this tension between comfort ,like what I think your mom may have wanted and control. And in childbirth, you can’t have both as absolutes. You can’t have complete control. You can’t have complete comfort. There’s some kind of balance between the two, but, I think most people they’re not expecting either. They just want to be able to kind of see, to control on their own terms rather than have it taken away from them.
I appreciate that perspective Dr. Shah. What I love about my mother’s story is that she was clear about the birth that she wanted to have, even though it involved an unnecessary medical intervention. In fact, there have been many times in history when women themselves have contributed to the medicalization of birth with their own personal desires and even with feminist initiatives. Much of it, much like my mom’s experience, was centered on the desire to not have pain in childbirth. I touch on this in my book, The Big Letdown. On page 33 because it’s an interesting history. Here’s what I wrote.
EXCERPT OF BOOK
Dr. Dierdre Cooper Owens
The folk who tended to be put into Twilight sleep tended to be upper-middle-class to very elite or wealthy white ladies. Right. That’s the term that was used to describe them because doctors were so afraid that their kind of nervousness. Um, their sensibilities around pain would be so great that they couldn’t take it. So by the, you know, by the ninth, you know, into the 19th century, into the 20th century, you start to have, um, more of a reliance on putting women into,Twilight, Twilight sleep and I’m using very historical terms. So this is why I’m not saying birthing people yet, because that hadn’t been a part of the lexicon. You start to see that happening. early seventies, the late sixties, early seventies.
And I think we share that in common, right? You start to have, you know, so there are kind of like two schools. My mother was other, I want to have, you know, go to the Lamaze class and I want to have a natural childbirth. And so she was really resistant to being put under. Um, but I do know four steps we used.
So she, she had the epidural, she couldn’t really feel anything, but she was still conscious, um, by the 1970s and eighties, that’s when you start to have the real heavy reliance on sedation. Right? And it kind of cuts across, um, you know, the class dynamics and the race dynamics. So there’s no longer this sense that, Oh, you know, childbirth is going to be easier for this group because there’s big business also in using medication and sedating people and having surgeries and all of those kinds of things.
And so it’s literally it’s this business, um, around birth, that starts to predominate in the seventies and the eighties.
Learning the history matters. The historical context of birthing matters. The personal and matrilineal history matters. Dr. Cooper-Owens has a powerful example.
Dr. Dierdre Cooper Owens
So I learned about, uh, French born gynecological surgeon named François Marie Prevost
. And I mentioned him in the book, but there, there just, wasn’t a lot of information.
Harriet Washington, the author of medical apartheid wrote a, wrote a bit about him. Once again, doesn’t have a whole lot of information. And so as I started to give a lot more public talks about the legacy of medical racism. I needed something that was really concrete. Right. I wanted to show people that the legacy of medical racism is about a structural or a systemic issue, and it’s never about just one person.
Um, and so I wanted to, to kind of expand the conversation beyond James Marion Sims. And so as I started to read more about Prevost who is known as the father, Of the C-section provost was born in France. He goes to med school in France in the late 18th century. So when the 1780s, nineties, so in 1799, once he gets his medical license, he moves to Haiti, Frances, most profitable colony, as we know in the very late seventies, uh, 18th century at the turn of the 19th century. Haiti is still a slave holding island. Right? So there, there are enslaved people there. Dr. Prevost begins experimental surgeries on enslaved, Haitian women trying to perfect the C-section. He leaves a year later, he goes to another former French colony, but this time a part of the United States. Louisiana. He settles in a little town called Donaldsonville, right outside of Baton Rouge. And in the 1830s, he is noted as the second American to quote, once again, “perfect” the C-section on enslaved women in Louisiana. The really interesting thing about this, that a lot of folks don’t necessarily put the pieces of the puzzle together. Dr. Prevost’s work. Right. This kind of experimental surgical work, trying to perfect. The C-section on these enslaved women had a lasting impact in the state of Louisiana. So literally from the 1830s until the contemporary moment, Louisiana had been for quite some time from slavery to freedom. The state that had the highest number of C-sections performed on black women.
So those numbers are sometimes dipped from, you know, number one to maybe number three, but it’s almost always been since the 1830s until the 21st century, which is today, Louisiana has been one of the top States in the nation that continues to rely heavily on the use of the C-section with black women and black birthing people.
Such a powerful story that is still impacting birth outcomes in Louisiana today where Black women were 4 times morelikely as white women to die while pregnant or within 42 days of childbirth, from complications like blood loss, cardiomyopathy and heart disease. It’s a powerful legacy. That may take generations to undo and correct. On a more personal historical level…my mother has never had a birth without medical intervention. My sister has had 3 C-sections. I have had 2. Perhaps, the birthing history really matters in so many other ways.
Dr. Cooper Owens, have things improved? Please, tell us things have improved.
Dr. Dierdre Cooper Owens
I often tell this story, another I’m historian of slavery and history, you know, historian of medicine, Charlotte, that who wrote a really great book called working cures, um, in the early two thousands. But we decided we’re going to co author this piece for, uh, the leading journal for public health folk.
So the American journal of public health, and it’s basically just a kind of commentary on the status of. The black maternal health crisis and kind of, how do we get here? Where were we? And so we put in something that for us is just quite simple that, um, the, you know, the kind of black, maternal health crisis that we’re in now in the 21st century, the stats kind of rival those of the 19th century.
During the height of slavery. And I remember one of the reviewers is just like, this cannot be true. You know, you must cite. Where’s your evidence. Oh, Oh, don’t worry. We have a couple of pages. We can give you evidence. Here are the footnotes. Right? And you want to say so badly that at the, you know, with the demise of slavery becoming illegal, um, chattel, slavery is not a thing anymore that somehow black birth rates just increase in their less complications.
And that’s simply is not the case. And in fact, you’ve had, since the 1980s, you have had public health folk, even in the Reagan administration. And this is the thing that always blows my mind. Even during the Reagan administration in 1986, an office of minority health was created literally because black birth outcomes were so poor.
And, you know, in the 1990s, David Satcher as, uh, uh, black, uh, surgeon general, like, Hey, there’s all this medical racism, let’s try and solve this thing. And it doesn’t happen until April 20, 21, where you finally have the CDC saying, you know, um, medical racism, like racism is a public health crisis. And maybe we need to look at this.
And so the numbers have just remained and dismal and, um, infuriating. Because as we know, this is one of the wealthiest wealthiest nations, and for whatever reason, the only thing that tends to save black women and black birth and people’s lives are when they have providers who look like them at every level.
So for Black women our history is still our present. But I think we are at a critical juncture for a turning point. What do you think Dr. Shah?
Dr. Neel Shah
I think what we’re hoping for though is that people have. Expectations that are honored around childbirth that are about more than just emerging from the process. Unscaved without injury. Like people want support, they want dignity, they want empowerment. And I know that’s what your podcast is about. And I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be able to get that.
Pause and transition:
I close every episode by asking, what is our birthright? Dr. Cooper Owens, what do you think?
Dr. Dierdre Cooper Owens
Our birthright is to have, um, The best quality of life and care that we can. And in whatever ways we define it, there are some things that for me are universal. I think we should have universal equitable healthcare, um, so that people live without complications that are unnecessary, that could have been prevented.
But I also want us to live in joy. So whether it is naming your child, Something that is unique or joyous or connects you to a familial past. I want, um, our families to continue to be tools of community uplift, um, models of excellence. And I don’t mean that in a kind of politics of respectability way, but models of excellence, where kinship and community is important.
And to my Mom, what is our birthright?
Well, I think it should be a yes, special. I was going to say glorious experience, uh, simply because you have the privilege of bringing a life into the world.
As Alice Walker said: “In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.”Knowing our birthing history collectively and individually is an important dialogue for us to have with our mothers but it can also unlock. Knowing that I came into the world with tools & devices and now I create multi-media and technology tools to dismantle the same systems, feels like my birthright–the roots of my creativity. And for that knowledge I am grateful. Thank you for my wonderful mother, Alma Seals, for sharing my birth story with me and all of you. Not only did my mother birth three children, she was with me for the birth of my daughter, Kayla, and was the first person to hold my baby when I couldn’t. If you don’t know how I became a mother, well it was certainly unplanned and one of the things I often say and write about is that is all of that uncertainty the onething I knew was that I could be a good mother because I had a good mother. And I thank my Mom for giving us a wonderful childhood of family dinners, parties, Scooby Doo cakes and roller skating. I love you Mom!
If you want to hear wayy too much about what I like as an infant, my mother’s challenges with formula feeding me check out our videos extras on the BirthrightPodcast YouTube page. You’ll also find extra footage of Dr. Cooper-Owens and I talking about examples of joy in slave narratives of medical history and how she finds joy while studying the very sad and dark medical history of Black women, including some inspiring slave narratives she uncovered in her book research.
Ultimately, stories matter and your birth story matters. Our mothers stories matter.
My name is Kimberly Seals Allers, daughter of Alma, grand daughter of Mary Jane, great grand daugher of Emily and Mother of Kayla. And it is my hope and my determination, that through the work I am doing and countless Black women are doing to reverse our narratives and reclaim our birthright in childbirth and breastfeeding that Kayla’s story will be a very different one. Thank you for joining me on the Birthright podcast.
Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, author of five books, and maternal and infant health strategist. She is the founder of Irth, as in Birth but without the B for bias, a doctor and hospital review and rating app for Black and brown parents, designed to address racism and bias in maternity and infant care. Kimberly is also the host of Birthright, a podcast about joy and healing in Black birth. A former senior editor at Essence magazine, her most recent book, The Big Letdown–How Medicine, Big Business and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2017. Kimberly’s upcoming book, Birthing in Colour: The Black Mother’s Guide to Pregnancy, Birth & Breastfeeding will be published by Pinter & Martin in 2022.