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May 02, 2008

The joys of childbirth, someday all mothers will share them

Cynthia Can you remember that moment - your newborn in your arms, the warmed hospital blanket covering you, the wonder and joy of it indescribable - and, all these years later, still enormous?  I've been thinking about those moments all evening – mostly because tonight I saw a bit of a new film called  A Walk to Beautiful that's going to be on PBS in mid-May.

It's about what they call a secret epidemic in the developing world. Young girls are married off or abducted at the age our kids are moving from Brownies to Girl Scouts and getting pregnant in huge numbers - giving birth, often, with no help at all.  Instead of the joyful amazement we knew, they know only suffering and shame. 

Their child bodies aren't ready to give birth, and often tear, badly, leaving torn tissue behind that causes them to leak and lose control.  It's called obstetric fistula -- and it's pretty gross, which is why it's been such an unheralded problem.  You can't really call it a disease because, as the Ethiopian Ambassador to the US said tonight, it's not an illness caused by bacteria, "It's a condition caused by man.  And by man, I mean men."  It's so bad that many of the girls don't go to school because the walk to class is dangerous and long; on the way they risk abduction leading to pregnancy and the prospect of a life shattered by fistula.

Cindy_2 Why am I talking about this?  Well, stay with me a moment.  I have written before about the memory, just after the fall of Saigon, of holding my infant first born son in my arms in my quiet New York apartment and watching the struggle to rescue, from a plane crash, more than 200 Vietnamese orphans "Operation Babylift" had been trying to get out of Vietnam.  The contrast was so stark: me with my beautiful boy -- those rescuers with either traumatized, injured infants, facing danger, and for some, death, at the same age.  The two are, for me, connected forever.

That's why tonight was so painful, I guess.  There was no way I could look at the girls in this film, making their way to the Addis Ababa hospital where they were to be treated, essentially put back together -- could listen to the stories they tell and the fears they expressed, and not think of the bent parallel to my own cherished childbirth memories.

In some way, all the stories about miseries in Africa, of what the humanitarian relief communities call the "flies in the eyes" photos, hold nowhere near the power of this film as a way to remind us of our own blessings – and our responsibilities. Because most of us know what it's like to give birth in a safe and loving place, well-nourished and educated about the process, the brutality of what these girls live through seems so very close and haunting.  In the end - beyond compassion and a deep desire to help, what remains is the knowledge that, as Bob Geldof once said, "We live on the lucky side of the world." And there are ways that we can help them. Because it is birth - or the accident of where that birth takes place - that leaves these girls stranded in such misery, and us with such a very different understanding of what being born is all about.

Original 50-Something Moms Blog post 

Cynthia Samuels  also blogs at her own blog Don't Gel Too Soon

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