“Oh.” My grandma smiled at the question, thinking of happier times. “My mama had us all at home in the same bed with the same midwife. There were ten of us and I was the last baby. We knew that midwife all our lives. She was a great big lady and she had a good sense a humor, always laughin’. When I got married, she told your grandpa, ‘You treat my girl right. Gladys is my baby too, and if I hear a you mistreatin’ my baby, I’m gonna come afta you.’” My grandma laughed aloud at this memory, her wrinkled face beaming. “My mama nursed us all, too, for a long time. My oldest brother, Louis, the one who died of rheumatic fever at nineteen, I heard she nursed him all the way to five years old. He would go to school and when he came home, mama would nurse him.” My grandmother laughed some more and so did I, thinking of a boy that age still on the tit. I added home birth to my ideal of what sort of mother I wanted to be.
The next time Grandmother Gladys came for a visit I asked her about her birth experiences. She said she didn’t remember. She had entered the hospital and been drugged, giving birth unconsciously. With her third child she went into labor two months early. One of the nurses had roughly pushed her onto the birthing bed, pinched her arm, and said in a callous, irritated voice, “You just couldn’t wait, could you?” It was the last thing anyone had uttered to her before she went under.
After the film I asked Theresa about her own birth experience with me and learned that she had entered the hospital alone and frightened, whereupon she’d been whisked away to a room neighboring other birthing rooms, a harried nurse running back and forth between Theresa and two other women, all of them afraid and calling for the nurse’s attention. Theresa recalled the intense pain of labor, having little understanding as to what was happening with her body, with no one to explain anything or provide any comfort, all the while begging the nurse not to leave her alone as, through the walls, the terrified screams of her neighbors penetrated. I came into this world after some hours of the torture she described to me, pulled out with forceps, silent, possibly stillborn, Theresa had thought. The doctor held me by my feet and slapped my bottom a few times until I let out a small weak whimper. Theresa’s story shocked me.
Marsha wandered through her first days at Tutwiler in a state of disbelief. She met other women like herself who had been imprisoned after having given birth to stillborn babies. Efernia McClendon, a young black teenager from Opelika, Alabama, got pregnant in high school and didn’t tell her parents. She delivered at just over five months and left the stillborn baby’s remains in a drainage ditch. When they were discovered, she was interrogated by police until she acknowledged that she couldn’t be 100 percent sure the infant hadn’t moved before death, even though the premature delivery made viability extremely unlikely. Threatened with the death penalty, she joined a growing community of women imprisoned for having unplanned pregnancies and bad judgment.