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It’s My Body, Not Your Job

By Elizabeth Cranford Garcia

It’s three weeks now since I gave birth to my third (and final!) child, and despite what I know about how long it takes, and how patient I need to be, for that baby belly to dissipate, I find myself near the end of a long, dark tunnel of sacrificing my body for my children, and the light on the other side of a few months of breastfeeding is one I want to sprint towards to get my body back forever!

For most of the last 9 months, I’ve been literally focusing on enduring one day at a time of constant heartburn and severe nausea, telling myself, This is the last time you have to go through this; you can do hard things.

And by the end, when you feel that extra fifty pounds of pressure on your pelvis with every step, and those demands from your children for extra juice or more cheese make you resentful because of those extra steps, you will do–or ignore–almost anything to get this baby out of me.

Including putting up with body shaming. Not the kind where other people make you feel ashamed of the state of your body, but the kind where they roll their eyes at whatever remnants of modesty you want to retain in the process of having the state of your cervix checked, or not wanting 6 nurses in the room while you’re getting an epidural, or not wanting to completely bare your breasts while you’re still pushing out a placenta.

They say things like, “Oh, don’t worry honey, we’ve seen it all!” As if that’s supposed to reassure me, to make me want to just get totally naked and not care. Guess what! You haven’t seen it all! My body is not an interchangeable part on the conveyor belt of L&D!

Of course, the first time around, you’re a novice, and you don’t know that when you put on that ONE hospital gown they provide you with, they’re going to have to flip it completely up every time the fetal monitor slips out of place, which they don’t warn you about, because they’re so used to it. And having spent 30+ years consciously covering yourself, you’re reaction is WTF? But it’s ok! They say. “We’ve seen it all!”

So the next time you get smart, and ask for TWO gowns, one for the top, and one for the bottom. And the third time around, they just give you a gown and a folded sheet, with no instructions. And you’re like, How am I supposed to interpret this? So you keep your shirt on and put the gown on the bottom half. And when the nurse tells you in her nicest, most condescending voice, “That’s what the sheet is for,” but you’re too busy breathing through a contraction to respond, Maybe you should have told me what you wanted first!, you suck it up. And when she says, “It’s ok, we’ve seen it all!” you want to cram that gown down her throat.

And then you get a nurse who does something completely unexpected: she tells you what she needs to do, how she needs to do it, and then she asks, “Is that okay?”

What a concept! Asking permission! Like I’m a sentient, thinking human agent instead of a collection of anatomical parts that need fixing.

A friend recently shared a link to this documentary in the works about birth trauma, and the endless stories of women who have experienced some form of degradation in their birth experiences. Of course, the 4 minute clip leaves you hanging a bit–what exactly happened to this woman? What have these people gone through that leads to PTSD? And to be honest, I watched it with suspended belief, thinking, “Really? You’re equating a nurse checking your dilation with rape? Come on.”

And then I started remembering that feeling of vulnerability, of being the one in the room without a medical degree, and the Subject (or more accurately, the Object) of study, completely helpless and in pain–and the difference it makes when they ask you for your consent before sticking their hands inside you. And I thought, “I get it.”

Having a medical degree, having caught a certain number of babies, having inserted a certain number of catheters into people who can barely reach their nether parts, should NOT absolve you of treating their bodies like cadavers, even if they can’t feel their own legs.

Of course, I am completely ignorant of just what kind of bedside training is available for nurses out there. I tend to think it’s similar to the teaching profession; you can get all the degrees and training in the world, but there are some abilities that are innate. For example, recognizing that the blank stares of your students means they’re not getting this–let’s shift to another tactic, rather than sticking to your lesson plan. Or, they’re not paying attention at all–time to find a guinea pig and use some real world examples. Teaching strategies are worth little if you can’t interpret body language.

Respect for the body must not be merely a matter of avoiding comparison to other bodies; it must recognize autonomy. Making this paradigm shift may come down to changing the vocabulary from the “patient,” one definition of which is “one that is acted upon,” to something less passive, more cooperative. (Though I confess, I’m at a loss for an accurate word; the economic connotations that cling to the terms “client” or “patron” don’t quite satisfy me. Perhaps it is our language itself that is the root of the problem.)

So: Thank you to the nurses and doctors who consider this. Who instinctively know how to approach people in their most vulnerable state–with respect. How to listen. And how to treat people like people rather than bodies.

About Elizabeth Cranford Garcia

Elizabeth Cranford Garcia is the current Poetry Editor for Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, previous Poetry Editor for Segullah, and a contributor to Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets. Her work has appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, and her first chapbook, Stunt Double, was published in 2015 through Finishing Line Press. Her three small children compete with her writing for attention, and usually win.

6 thoughts on “It’s My Body, Not Your Job”

  1. This is one of the main reasons I chose to birth in a different way. I'm a firm believer that women should have the right to choose how the birthing experience goes, as much as possible. So when I was healthy enough to use a midwife instead of a doctor, I went that way because it felt much gentler and less invasive. But everyone deserves the right to feel empowered, even in a hospital, even in a C section, however the birth goes.

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  2. Anybody else here ever work ER? Suddenly gripped by the urge to scream: “We treat your body like a body precisely *because* we know that *you* are more than just a body.” SMH at this refusal to recognize the sense of shared humanity that informs the phrase “we’ve seen it all before.”

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  3. Retired NICU RN, here. Every time I was asked to assist a mother with lactation, I ALWAYS explained what I intended to do, & specifically asked if it was ok if I touched her breast. Every time. It is not just “courteous”; it is “professional”. In the last hospital where I worked, it was taught in inservice as a “consent” issue, which it is. While checking a cervix is certainly not rape, neither it is an innocuous pat on the hand.

    I do acknowledge that when things are not going well in the delivery room, there seriously may not be time to ask permission before touching, but if the health professional has been consistently asking permission before the “emergency” occurs, I can cut them slack in situations where seconds count. Having been there, I prefer a live baby over giving permission, but it does not often come to that.

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  4. It's never bothered me. Perhaps because of the way I was raised.

    So, therefore, in the interest of making sure that I am more careful when interacting with people who have your sensitivity about such things, I would be very interested in specific examples of the kind of interaction that you find most helpful. What is it that the doctors and nurses who "instinctively know how to approach" actually do and say that makes the experience less traumatic and more considerate for you?

    You have lots of negative examples in your piece. I would find it very helpful to read some examples of what you wish those healthcare workers would do instead.

    Thanks.

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  5. I couldn't agree more with what you're saying, Elizabeth. Birth is such an incredibly vulnerable experience; it's so important to be treated with dignity and respect to your body, your privacy, and your choices.

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  6. Oh Liz. I wish you'd had a gentler experience. Could you write a letter to the hospital staff with suggestions? Would a doula have helped? Whether women birth at home, in a hospital, or on a mountain top, I wish for them the birth of their heart. To be treated as a queen (which every birthing mother is). Every time.

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