Lindsay, of Philadelphia, has spent two years in trauma therapy after giving birth in an environment that left her feeling powerless. She’s one of many women who speak out in the new series “Exposing the Silence.” (Photo: Lindsay Askins/Spot of Serendipity)
“His birth was not what it should’ve been or could’ve been,” said Liza, a 34-year-old New Yorker, her voice thick with regret. “But I didn’t feel like I had any control over it.” She nursed her 20-month-old son Reuben on a Harlem rooftop as she spoke, sun blazing down on them, sharing the upsetting story of her son’s birth as part of a unique cross-country documentary project called “Exposing the Silence,” now a striking photo-essay collection viewable online (including on Facebook and Instagram.)
The project is the brainchild of Cristen Pascucci, a Kentucky-based birth advocate, and Lindsey Askins, a California doula and birth photographer, who are fresh off of a two-month cross-country road trip during which they invited 45 women in 20 cities (and 23 states) to come and share their stories.
Along the way, the moms (who bravely traveled with their total of three small kids) set up shop in donated spaces — houses, offices, the Harlem rooftop — so they could interview and photograph the women. They’ve collected the 45 tales for the digital project, which, Pascucci and Askins say, is meant to illustrate an issue that many people don’t want to hear about: how the moment of giving birth can so often turn from joyous to traumatic, due to OB-GYNS and other professionals forcing a host of unwarranted medical interventions onto women, leaving them feeling bullied, defiled, and defeated.
That’s certainly how Liza felt, despite having a midwife on her side, and a plan to deliver in the birthing center of a New York City hospital. But when labor had not begun after 40 weeks, she was no longer qualified for the birthing center — where labor conditions must fit strict guidelines — and was instead sent up to the hospital’s general labor and delivery. There, she told Pascucci, she was given an IV line for supposed dehydration, setting off a domino effect of non-emergency interventions — all protested by Liza, though her protests were ignored. Eventually, doctors presented her with what she found to be a harrowing choice: C-section, or a vaginal birth with a vacuum and an episiotomy. Liza chose the latter, and the moment of truth still haunts her.
“The part I remember most clearly about his birth,” she told Pascucci with tears in her eyes, Reuben asleep on her lap, “is the resident struggling to get the vacuum on his head while I’m pushing, and [the doctor] standing there with the scalpel in his hand, saying, ‘OK, I’m going to do it now.’ That’s the clearest memory I have of my son’s birth.”
Liza’s experience is the kind that women often keep to themselves, for fear of being told, “Your baby is healthy, get over it.” Still, being made to feel unheard or violated by what’s been increasingly termed “obstetric violence” is not uncommon for women in the throes of childbirth — something brought to light recently by a lawsuit that Pascucci lent support on, regarding a California woman whose doctor gave her a forced episiotomy. It’s also a topic that gets explored in a forthcoming documentary from Ricki Lake and Abby Epstien (the team behind “The Business of Being Born”), called “The Mama Sherpas,” about the rising C-section rate and the idea that births with midwives could provide a solution.
Pascucci, the single mom of a 3-year-old son who does double advocate duty as the vice president of Improving Birth and the founder of Birth Monopoly, tells Yahoo Parenting that the traumatic birth stories she heard on the cross-country journey had many similar threads. “So many women told me, ‘It was like I wasn’t even there,’ while giving birth,” she says. “Often, [the birth story] sounds like a bad dream where you can’t scream — the women were like objects being acted upon, and had no voice in any of it.”
“I felt so vulnerable at that time,” Renee, of New York City, recalled. (Photo: Lindsay Askins/Spot of Serendipity)
Other common themes: pressure to have a C-section, being lied to (such as the doctor, a woman, who agreed to simply do a quick exam rather than break a laboring mom’s water, but then breaking her water anyway), introducing medical interventions with no warning or explanation, forcing episiotomies.
“There are heavy power struggles going on,” Pascucci says. But one of the biggest upsets in the stories she heard was that of moms being mysteriously separated from their newborns for long periods of time — and not getting straight answers about when their baby will be returned. “It’s been the most traumatizing moment for everyone,” she says. “In one case, a doctor told the mom she’d have her baby back in 20 minutes, and [the other medical staffers] in the room laughed.” When the doctor left the room, the others explained that “he always says that,” and that, in reality, it would be several hours. One hospital, she adds, had a policy of keeping baby away from mom for a full 12 hours.
For Askins, who is used to being around generally joyous, empowering births in her work as a doula and birth photographer through her San Diego, Calif.-based Spot of Serendipity, what stood out on the interviews was the attitudes women encountered. “It’s not always the actual situation, but how she was treated — with a lack of compassion, respect, or dignity,” she says. “Plus, what’s traumatic for one woman isn’t necessarily traumatic for another.”
She was struck by something else in their journeys, too: “There were a lot of dads carrying trauma, as well,” she says. It’s both her hope and Pascucci’s that “Exposing the Silence” will help make all those parents feel less alone.