When I was newly pregnant, I got hooked on birth stories. My first fix was a library book, and since we lived at the time in a literal log cabin in the Appalachian foothills, that book was my social media, connecting me through time and space to other over-sharing women, minus character limits and selfies (though I’ve seen my share of graphic birth photography).
I found (and still find) birth stories utterly compelling. They represent a perfect narrative exposition: serene beginning, followed by pivotal conflict involving potential risk and unforeseen trials and climaxing into an intimate triumph and tender resolution.
I loved them so much I had to self-moderate. They became reward-reads for grading Italian tests or doing dishes. I found more books. At work, I read sites like Birth Story Diaries, which offers a list of sub-genres, from home birth to hospital cesarean, ranging from “very modest” to “very graphic” depending on your level of curiosity and/or morning sickness. When we moved to Belgium halfway through my pregnancy, my birth-story addiction came along, and I quickly sought out midwives specializing in home birth.
Although you already sort-of know how a birth story will end, the details of each woman’s experience become infused with vivid significance. Even a simple scene change (“I went to the bedroom to be alone”) would normally carry little dramatic weight, but in a birth story, it’s heavy with the shifting states of consciousness that labor entails. And in nearly every account, plans get changed and expectations defied, for better or worse.
As a self-absorbed, compulsive researcher, I always try to get to know my future before it happens. I often dream up remote possibilities, then make meticulous plans related thereto. I find this fun and soothing. Especially when it comes to something scary. Especially as told in Ina May Gaskin books, and especially her 1975 “manifesta,” Spiritual Midwifery, in which contractions are “rushes” and birthing mothers “get high” on the “psychedelic” vibrations of their labor pains. Pretty groovy.
Can you tell I’m stalling here? The truth is, while I was eager to add my entries to the great birth-story compendium, I’ve just never been able to write them down. They aren’t terrible or embarrassing or traumatic, except in the usual ways. They aren’t boring either. I’ve been able to talk about them, often with unexpected thoroughness in response to the casual questions of mere acquaintances. Because I’m still fascinated by birth. But it’s different now.
Technically, the births of both my children didn’t go “as planned”. The first was nearly a home birth (and as lovely as a birth can be: candles lit, bath drawn, St. Hildegard von Bingen hymns on repeat), but at the very end, we transferred to the hospital down the street because our daughter was trying to come out ear-first or something. I’d review the transfer as bewildering and the doctor a bit aggressive.
Our son trumped her by exiting “sunny-side up” (an adorable aphorism for the ever-excruciating posterior position, or when the back of baby’s head is against your back instead of your belly) and apparently going in distress. This prevented me from getting into the tub (my saving grace) and necessitated the synthetic birth stimulant Pitocin, and eventually, a last-minute, half-effective epidural from an off-duty anesthesiologist who TOOK HER SWEET-ASS TIME getting to the hospital. But the delivery was expertly, and almost lovingly, overseen.
Both times, my midwives (from the Bolle Buik, in Flemish Brabant province) were always professional and caring, and both times I dissolved into inexpressible rapture at the sight of our beautiful, perfect, healthy new child.
It’s not about being disappointed by the medical interventions. I’m grateful for those, even if they weren’t the plan. And I think even if those experiences had been the complication-free, natural home births that I envisioned… I think even then, I would have had trouble becoming the full-fledged birth-story-teller I thought I’d be.
I’ve tried. It starts fine, but the narrative becomes confused, and just as the drama mounts, my handwriting and grammar both break down.
In part because I can’t fit those experiences into language. And in part because, even if I could, I just cannot tell the story in the tradition of my favorite, classic birth story.
Listen. Contractions are not “rushes.” They are contained explosions. You are probably not going to remember (or want to) sing or make out with your partner while they’re happening. Visualizing your cervix and/or vagina as a blooming fucking flower is not very likely to help you while they’re happening. And you are almost definitely NOT going to have an orgasm during delivery.
Just… don’t expect that.
Don’t think that opening to the pain will somehow make the pain feel good. It’s pain management, not pain transmutation. I think I sort-of thought that if I tried hard enough to accept the pain that I could thereby overcome it, and my vagina would turn into a literal daisy. Uh-uh.
If it hurts like Hell, that’s not because you’re doing something wrong. It just does that sometimes.
I support natural birth, and I’d try it again. The books, stories, techniques–they can all help a woman to be less scared. And, being less scared helps a TON. Trust me, there was a huge difference between lying in a warm bath in a candlelit room at home, and lying on a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV with chemically enhanced super-contractions. And much of that came down to how scary that second scenario felt to me.
If you’re expecting, do read birth stories, if you like. And not just the happy home birth kind, but also the unexpected intervention kind. I still think they’re helpful, and always engrossing. Read away. Get a midwife, try a natural birth. Hell, give a home birth a shot, as long as you have a low-risk pregnancy, a qualified midwife, and you otherwise plan ahead. Trust your body, open to the sensations (read: spectrum of discomfort to agony), and experience nature’s Mother Initiation Process for all it’s worth, if that’s what you’re into.
Finally, for the love of all that is Good and Holy: get yourself into some warm water, if you can. And if you can’t, make sure the obstetrics anesthesiologist is not just ON CALL that day. You know, just in case.
Hey mommas, what surprised you the most about childbirth?