Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Birthing a New Feminism

On December 20, 2009, I gave birth to two things: a 9lb. 7oz son and a new feminism. It was the third time my reproductive organs had encountered surgical metal; twice to remove ovarian tumors and cysts and once to remove a breathing boy.

By nightfall, I was vomiting from the drugs administered to my body for my c-section. After an excruciating vomiting episode, my head hit my pillow in utter exhaustion and my newborn began to cry out of hunger.

I looked at my body. Like a meticulous and tedious film director wanting to capture every detail of a flowerbed with a camera, I surveyed every inch of my body. I started at my feet.

My legs were buzzing numb, still, from surgery. To keep from forming blood clots, my legs had been strapped to a pumping machine. Two pieces of plastic swathed my legs. They hissed when they squeezed my calves and lazily loosened after three seconds of tight holds. The noise prevented me from deep sleep and made my legs sweat.

A catheter was inserted. I saw the bag full of my urine with taints of blood. It was a horrendous sight.

The dressing over my surgical incision covered the most tender and vulnerable part of my birthing body, the exit wound of my baby.

An ugly red rash had exploded onto the top of my chest. Its bumps were just as unsightly as they were itchy. A reaction, maybe from the hospital gown? Or hormones?

My left hand was a splotchy mess from a messy IV insertion. Mounds of clear tape awkwardly held in a needle and dried blood itched under the surface. It was hooked to a machine, beeping and regulating my body. Bags of I don’t know what dripped into my arm.

My right arm held Isaiah as I tried to breastfeed him. His desperate attempts to latch on were beyond painful, but with the help of countless nurses and my husband, he drank.

Gulped, really.

My normally brown face was gray with remnants of drugs and fatigue. No food. No water. Only ice chips. My water was taken away when I drank too much too soon and vomited into the pan again.

Later, to help stir bowel movements, an enema was inserted.

And I surveyed my body, every orifice of my body was either plugged, bandaged, bleeding, dry, or fatigued. And as Isaiah drank, my breasts ached with new agony, unfamiliar with this new demand of nourishment and, suddenly, as if my leg pumps, catheter, IV, and surgery scars weren’t enough, I began having more contractions. My uterus throbbed with an intensity that made my eyes close.

The hormones stimulated by breastfeeding will cause contractions. This will help your uterus descend and go back to its normal size.

And Isaiah’s latch intensified.

Never, in all the days of my life, had I ever undergone anything so life-giving. Never had I myself been so life-giving. Every part of my body was simultaneously healing and giving.

But I was in much pain. The lactation consultants were so beautiful and caring, I wanted to weep into their laps.

They gently touched, massaged, and handled my breasts. The nipples, swollen and red, screamed with pain at the slightest touch of a hospital gown. Maya, a middle aged woman from Russia, was sharp, informative, and decisive. Her teaching was fast, her hands careful, but her eyes were business. She recognized the pain, she knew how hard this was. Myra understood that I was thisclose to losing my sanity.

She understood that while the vagina or, in my case, the abdomen, was the door to life in the womb, it was the nipples that were the entry point of survival for my son.

The body, my body became a poem, a poem of survival.

I stayed in the hospital room, save two hours to walk down the hall for a parenting class, for four days straight. My dreams were in neon and my breasts were engorged. What I remember about that period in my life was how unbelievably gentle and kind people can be when you are in pain.

Briefly, like a loose leaf lightly touching a windshield before moving on, I thought about Feminism. Now a mother. Never again like before. Never just I.
My life just took the most radical turn. That morning I had made myself chocolate chip pancakes. Six hours later, I was a mother. Everything had changed in the blink of an eye. And in that change, I came to a realization that there were two kinds of feminism. The Feminism of issues and the feminism of our lives.

I realized the Feminism that is perpetuated in mainstream and mainstream-like media is not the feminism of our lives. It is the feminism of commerce. It is the feminism that picks and chooses the winners and losers, the visible and invisible, and accessible and ignored. It chooses what will sell and what sells focuses on status climbing, material wealth, and westernized independence. Things that bring pleasure, not transformation.

The Feminism that has stepped on the backs of women of color and ignored the backs of trans and disabled women is the Feminism that camouflages itself with diverse panels and collectives but neglects to modernize its definition of social liberation in the era of digital media. It is the feminist theories stuck in the academy with no implored action. It is the round table discussions reserved for annual conferences that result in no true connection or building blocks.

This is the Feminism that has the time and luxury to ask leisure questions such as, “Why don’t you identify as feminist?” and “Where are all the women of color bloggers?" The same Feminism that circulates the energy over the same privileged circle of the educated, the employed, or as I call it, "the Sames;" the ones who stand an inch into the outskirts, banging on the "equality" door but who also ignore the women whose heads are in toilets cleaning their bathrooms or nannying their children.

This is the Feminism of fruitless banter and recycled conversations. The space to bring these issues up could be a hopeful sign of progress, however, the repetition of those conversations and the predictable accusations and defenses serve no other purpose than keeping the pendulum swinging in balance. Aka, the status quo.

This is the same Feminism that haunts the academy and academic support offices such as Women’s Centers and elite conference gatherings. The conversation of the privileged becomes priority over decision-making. Consciousness-raising is imperative for transformation, but it cannot begin and end with questions. There must be forward motion, however slight.

Simply putting 50% of women into anything male dominated may alter the demographic, but that’s not necessarily transformative. Putting a woman’s face where a man’s once was, without any sort of critical change, is not equality but appeasement. And before Linda Hirshman takes that quote of mine again out of context, let me explain further.

The purpose of feminism is to end itself. Andrea Dworkin called it one day without rape. Others have other land posts measuring feminism’s victory. The purpose of feminism is to one day find ourselves where we don’t need to fight for human rights through the lens of women’s oppression. Note: I didn’t write that the purpose is to bring down the man. The purpose is not to have a female president. The purpose is to transform the infrastructure that holds kyriarchy in its place. Replacing men with women – of any race, ethnicity, creed, or ability – who refuse to acknowledge the insidious and mutating face of gender oppression is not forward stepping. It’s a perpetuation of history.

And so the question comes: how invested are you in the liberation of women?

Because if you agree that the liberation of all women carries more weight than the identification as a liberal feminist, the feuds over whether feminism is dead becomes irrelevant. The uproar should be about dying women, not a dying Feminism.

There was something so entirely miraculous about those four days in the hospital. I witnessed myself birth life. Bones from my bones. Blood from my blood. Life from my womb, I brought a person into the world. From two, I grew my family to three.

This awesome mystery/reality settled itself in bits and fragments.

My father told me that the birthing woman is different afterward. Her power is different. She herself is different.

My power is different.

For months, nearly everyone I encountered – friends and strangers alike – offered their opinion on what parenting should and would be for me. It was in that hospital room, where Nick slept uncomfortably on the couch without shaving and I, hooked to monitors and machines, understood a profound difference.

Parenting is the responsibility that we both shared. Together. It would be the late nights of feeding, rocking, and soothing that we’d walk together, he and I. But mothering, becoming a mother, was an entirely different bond. To me, motherhood is a yearning helplessness. Yearning to love more, yearning to teach better, yearning to make the world right – however impossible that might be. And recognizing that impossibility often made me cry.

I suddenly had this crazy urge to clean up the world for my son. I needed to organize.

The feminism of my life unfolded in a love story that resulted in the birth of my son. Gathered at my bed was my mother, the woman I’ve thought of and written so much about. The woman who I have processed more than any other human I’ve met. My father kept stroking my hair and muttering concerns over my state.

The feminism I had begun to build was a house of love that no longer shunned my parents out of frustration, but embraced our difficulties and disagreements. Filipino culture was not something I needed to understand to live, it was something I needed to live out.

Nick held the can for me while I vomited. He wore scrubs and, in the delivery room, wore a surgical mask. The shade of the scrubs made his hazel eyes deep green. I saw him between hurls. I saw my son. Our son.

Anything that I would dedicate my life to had to include, even demand, men. It may prioritize the lens of women’s experience for the liberation of all, but men had to be there. Where was I going without my son? What was I creating if not for him? I didn’t want to go where my family would not belong. It no longer made sense to separate myself and be alone. There was no division between the world I wanted to build and my son’s participation in it. I wanted freedom. Mine and his.

The Feminism of issues serves its purpose well. It informs us of the problems. But we’re more than issues, are we not? Isn’t our life worth more than the issues?

The feminism of our lives is the story of love, survival, testament, death, and epitaph. It is what we dedicate ourselves to and what we will pass on as truth to our children. Whether or not we identify as “feminist” is a sandbar to the oceanic movements of feminisms.

In my community, there is so much work to do, so much silence to break, that for the brief minute of a life where I get to use my voice, I am not going to expend my breath on explaining whether or not I identify as feminist. And the back-breaking work of so many women and men who never use the word feminism is not qualified or standardized on the arbitrary use of the word either.

The awareness matters. The intentional work toward eradicating inequality matters. The feminisms of my life matters. The use of the label does not.

Listen. Listen closely. Can you hear it?

The revolution will not be a movement. It will be Birthed.


  1. Such a beautiful piece, Lisa. I love it enormously!

  2. Amen. Great job. Peace.

  3. ...this is amazing.

  4. Thank you so much for this. So beautiful and clear.

  5. I love this post and I want to respond to it on QT soon because what you've said matches some of what I've been thinking recently - and that thinking inspired by you, BFP, BA, and other cis and trans WOC.

    But I wanted to quickly get at this:

    The Feminism that has stepped on the backs of women of color and ignored the backs of trans and disabled women

    I admit I don't know as much as I should about the way "mainstream" feminism has treated disability (beyond not treating women with disability very well), I think it's kind of misleading to say that trans women have been ignored.

    Mary Daly, Robin Morgan, Germaine Greer, Janice Raymond, and Sheila Jeffreys come to mind as cis women who have actively maligned and attacked trans women, and done their best to actively exclude trans women from feminism. Vancouver Rape Relief pushed for a judgement in BC to verify that it's legal to discriminate against trans women. Lesbian feminist gatherings in Australia are held at secret locations to keep trans women from attending. MWMF had an active "No trans women on the land" policy which was informed by the transphobic exclusion running through feminism for two decades (since Beth Elliott's expulsion from the Daughters of Bilitis in the early 1970s) at the time it was instituted.

    Sorry, just, in some ways I think ignoring trans women would have been a step up. Not comparing to how women of color and women with disabilities have been treated.

    That was longer than I wanted.

    But aside from that, thank you again for writing this, and congratulations on your son. :)

  6. Thank you. Thank you so very much.

  7. Anonymous10:03 PM

    I so see this essay as an opening in a whole anthology. I just read it, and see it in print, in my head. It resonates like that. I just feel somewhere in my writers bones, like how old folks feel rain, there is an anthology, or anthologies ripe and full and desired, to be birthed, on this subject. - china

  8. You have written well many times before, but this is by far your best post.

    The journey of your thought process and the very astute observations you make along the description of your very personal path - make for compelling reading.

    This is a warm, compassionate and open-eyed assessment of things.

    Thank you so much for writing it.


  9. Anonymous3:52 PM

    Although I enjoyed your article and agreed with some of what you have to say, I do have a few questions for you.

    Firstly, the idea of feminism being birthed: What are the sterile/infertile/voluntary childless women supposed to make of your assertion that feminism must be birthed? Does this not relate to the late Pope John Paul 2nd's theological position that all women are mothers whether or not they have children and therefore must be defined as mothers and live/work only as mothers? What about women who do not wish to be defined as mothers or who have no interest in birth either literally or metaphorically?

    Secondly, exactly how does this birthing/maternalism/matriarchy differ from paternalism/patriarchy?

    Thirdly, you state that you and your father agree on how your "power" changed after giving birth. However, you do not state exactly what that power was to begin with, nor what ithat power became.

    Finally, I am quite prepared to believe that your experience of giving birth was profound and life changing (and congratulations to you both). However, I am wondering if the extra medical complications you experienced were actually the point here. Not all women experience such a level of post-partum physical incapacity as you did. Perhaps the "yearning helplessness" you identified as maternal feeling was simply an encounter with powerlessness.

    Power/powerlessness is the issue for feminism of any kind. Who has power, who doesn't, how power is used etc.

  10. In this personal narrative, birthing clearly takes on biological definitions of providing new life, but I don't consider reproducing alone to be the only way people birth. I've written about this on other sites where this essay was reposted, but I believe that all people have the capacity to birth; that is, create a new life, new way of being in a profound, intimate experience. My experience was birthing a child. That is not the same nor the standard of what "birth" means for others. I've defined it as something that gives contractions, something throbbing its way into your life that pushes you to a greater sensitivity and awareness of what is sacred and divine.

    There is a clear difference between individuals who do have children and those who do not, but I do not use the word "birth" to exclude individual who cannot, choose not, or do not want to have children.
    I don't equate birthing with superiority. I equate it with awesome transformation.

    I don't use the word "patriarchy" or "matriarchy." I've written about and used the word kyriarchy - a neoligism by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, a feminist theologian - which is greek for "lordship" and recognizes the shifting blocks of oppression. The label of "oppressor" is not reserved solely for the white Christian, propertied man who oppresses. Kyriarchy recognizes the role of "lordship" and greatly expands the perspective beyond gender. Any type of system that recognizes one group of people or characteristics as superior to another is oppressive, regardless of its term.

    In this essay, I refer to power as a sense of self, personal presence; my very ability and capacity to exist and express and feel.

    The "yearning helplessness" was my trying to express the overwhelming emotion of love which was felt at the same time I was realizing that it was impossible to do everything perfectly for this child. As a new parent, I felt it was a powerful paradox to feel the need to protect, provide, and care for my child, but I realized that it is an impossible task to do it all and there were going to be more mistakes than I was prepared to deal with.

    I felt physically incapacitated, but I never felt more powerful. Never in my life had I ever felt so confidant that I could do anything I set myself upon.

  11. Wow - this post is amazing. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  12. "The "yearning helplessness" was my trying to express the overwhelming emotion of love which was felt at the same time I was realizing that it was impossible to do everything perfectly for this child."

    I'm not a mother, but I think I know the feeling. I volunteer with disabled children, and sometimes, when I look at them, I will be struck by two things simultaneously:

    a) this is a person of incredible value and beauty, simply for being human, and also for their unique traits, many of which I may never understand fully

    b) this person is vulnerable - if I chose, I could cause them incredible suffering and they'd be powerless to stop it, and furthermore I could cause them harm without even realizing it, by misunderstanding them or getting caught up in a bad situation

    I think of it as my duty, as a caregiver (however briefly), to be aware that I am fallible, but at the same time have a very important duty to this person, because of the extreme power differential and their own personal value. I have made mistakes, I know I will make further mistakes, and I do my best to minimize my mistakes, repair any harm they cause, and avoid repeating them.


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