Sunday, March 17, 2013

Birth pangs

METAL reminds me of childbirth: the metallic smell of gushing black-red vaginal blood, the cold and sting of implements knifing through flesh as yielding as butter.

The passage of 20 years since I gave birth to my older son has not blunted the memories.

Yet, even if I still involuntarily shudder and fight the urge to curl up as if I were the fetus, I recognize that these memories are the better ones. My sons are grown-up and I pursue a life that, all things considered, is as close to the one I desire.

Recent brushes with two young mothers, though, make me wonder how we’ve hurdled the challenge to carry women past the threshold of death-defying risks that constitute giving birth in this country.

Last Feb. 22, my interview with a barangay midwife was interrupted when workers rushed in a 17-year-old from an upland barangay in Cebu City. She had just given birth in a village so remote, it could not be reached by “habal-habal” (motorcycle for commuting in the mountains).

Despite the barangay health worker’s (BHW) exhortation to go to the health center in the lowlands in anticipation of labor, the teen delayed until she was forced to give birth in the uplands. Barangay workers later brought the infant to the health center, where he was checked and found in fine health but hungry.

Things were different with his mother. Initially, the grandmother opposed the transfer, apparently unmoved that her daughter’s vaginal laceration, caused during crowning, reached almost the anus. After the BHW convinced the grandmother that her daughter’s life was at stake , young men had to be rounded up to carry the young mother down the slopes to the local chapel, where the ambulance was parked.

At the health center, the midwife hollered for the teen’s partner to help carry the stretcher past people and furniture. Workers pushed forward a man. Short and thin, he seemed, like the mother, more of a child than a parent of one. The midwife explained that the family had to replace or pay for the materials used in the episiotomy as government stocks were insufficient and irregular.

I learned later that the father earned P100 a day, sorting mangoes by size for selling in Carbon market. The mother was out of school and out of a job. The community was agricultural, where the highlight was a bingo game. For P1, one could win the jackpot of say 20 pledges amounting to P20.

When the stretcher was finally out of the way and I could leave the room, I stopped by the cot where the mother nursed her baby while the father looked on. The lusty infant looked as if he were the only one not bothered by tomorrow.

In another upland barangay, while eating corn with breastfeeding mothers, a teen came to give birth. She came to the health center before her labor was too advanced. Her mother joined her. Her husband was at work but was informed by text.

While waiting for the young mother to fully dilate, the midwife and BHWs assured her that they would just take their lunch in the next room. Some of the women chided the teen for sniffling; one advised the mother to save her strength and leave the crying to the baby. The teen’s mother chatted with the health center staff and visitors, also mothers, about birthing, elections and cut flowers.

I stepped out of the room because the walls were damp from the altitude. Or was I perhaps undone by the young mother’s trapped eyes and the certainty that I had nothing to say?

Would intoning “Agwanta (endure)” have been better than silence and helplessness? Was it better for her to give birth among strangers in a sterile but alien setting? Was it better that the law ruled out a homebirth for her? Was it better to wait until one had one’s fill of childhood, high school, college, singlecraziness and whatnot before letting an infant move into the vacuum?

When we took the “habal-habal” back to the city, the health workers were still clearing the remnants of late lunch. No hurry. The mother was a “primie (first-timer).” Serious labor might only start with nightfall. As with babies, birthing would be the easier labor.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 17, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday main op-ed column

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