I look down at my newborn child. His pink lips are wrapped around my nipple, sucking. His tiny hands grab at my shirt. He's all instinct and unformed nervous system. He's something precious, but somehow not altogether human yet. He sleeps mostly and lacks any ability to explore the world that is so new to him. He's three weeks old and entirely dependent on us. He can barely see.
But then he opens his eyes.
They transform and illuminate his face and make him more part of this world. And he instantly becomes something different to me. He's looking now. He has intention. He's searching. And he finds my eyes. I feel myself smile and hear myself say, "Hi there baby. I'm your mama." And I wonder if he somehow understands. A bitter tear escapes my eye.
But the tear is not what you think. It's not for a welling up of love for this new being. It's for another baby I've never met.
I have been living and working in Western Kenya with my husband, working for an organization that studies anti-poverty programs. A week earlier, I came home to find my husband just putting down his phone. He had a grave look, a look that made me instantly ask what was wrong.
"Mary's sister just died." He said solemnly. (Mary was a young Kenyan colleague and friend.)
"How?" I responded.
"Complications from childbirth. Just three weeks after her baby was born."
We stood there looking at each silently both thinking the same thing. Both of us fighting back tears. For the unfairness of it all, for the father taken from the greatest joy to the greatest sorrow in the blink of an eye, for the relatives who will frantically and awkwardly try and fill the void, for that child who will be searching for a nipple that is no longer there, who will grow up wondering what she was like, what life would have been like were she there.
And it's damned unfair.
We are privileged. All of us reading and writing blogs. Specifically, I'm thinking of us so-called mommy bloggers. Of course we know this, but we rarely pause to consider it. It's easier that way.
We live in a world in which we are allowed to have ideological debates and philosophies about the birthing "experience." A world in which we are permitted righteous indignation at the medical establishment that pushes us into interventions we'd prefer not to have. A world that allows us to choose to have our babies at home, in bathtubs, or hooked into pain numbing devises. A world in which we obsess about shaping that moment but never fear that it could kill us. Or our children.
Mary's sister is not the first I've known to have perished in childbirth here in Kenya.
On my way out of the office last year, I paused to make small talk with one of the young guards of our office who was always playful and warm with my son.
"Do you have any children?" I asked.
He kept a polite smile on his face as he said the unthinkable, "I had one, but he died in childbirth at the district hospital."
Later that year, I stopped a neighbor on her way to a funeral. After the required greetings and pleasantries, I learned it was for a young woman and her baby, neither of whom survived the trail of childbirth. I can barely fathom the scene at that funeral.
This is not the 18th century. This still happens all around the world, and with alarming frequency. Of course it's almost all preventable. It's a symptom of poverty, sexism and culture.
It's from young girls forced into early marriages who pelvises strain to carry and deliver a baby; women too poor or isolated to get pre-natal care or be attended at birth by a trained professional; women who are cut off from decisions about how to spend their family's meager income and not valued enough that it be spent on their care; from countries too poor to provide health care.
I know all this and yet it's an abstraction until I consider my infant son learning to see and finding my eyes. And my heart splits apart when I think of another infant opening his eyes, searching for that other pair of eyes that are no longer there, never hearing those words, "Hi there baby, I'm your mama."
If you're moved by the cause there are places that work to alleviate maternal mortality: www.familycareint.org, www.fistulafoundation.org, http://
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