Stories About Birth

Our niece, Bella, born at 32 weeks (2008)

Why not? I figured, wandering up and down the library shelves. I’ve read books about the Bradley Method, I’ve read books recommended by Lamaze, I’ve read What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and I’ve read Ina May Gaskin’s accounts of midwifery at her hippie commune center.

Why not read a book of pregnancy and childbirth reflections by a  feminist too?

So I picked up Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions and trotted home. That was yesterday morning. I’m almost finished with it now, and while I’m obviously enjoying it, the only real surprise is how familiar it’s all starting to sound.

My friend Alex told us about a new mother, an actress, who confessed that she had tried and tried but, she said “just didn’t much like her baby.” In a culture that actually valued babies for their own sakes, and supported new motherhood, one would not need to “like” one’s baby the way one needs to “like” the shade one paints one’s bedroom wall.


A baby needs to be born securely into a safe net of committed relationships. It seemed as if we, as a culture, were cutting those strands, one after the other, and leaving babies with an emotional lifeline made of very few threads—or none at all…. What is lost… in a society where babies are a form of currency, is the central paradox of true parenthood, which should be defined as our absolute commitment to a creature of whom we can claim no rights of possession (55-56).

If you’re used to seeing feminists and anti-feminists as being generally opposed to one another—a working assumption I admit I’ve found useful at times—it’s interesting to hear them saying basically the same thing about birth: it shouldn’t be so medical, it should be more woman-centered, C-section rates are deplorable in this country, it’s hard to find compassionate care.

And I’m not really interested in going down the path of health crusades or How Women Should Give Birth. I started reading about this because the “warm up” contractions I have sprinkled through my day now are getting uncomfortable—not least of all because they offer me a niggling reminder that it’s probably important to prepare for something that nineteenth century American doctors agreed was more physically demanding than surviving a Civil War battlefield.

Not, as Gandalf would say, an encouraging thought.

The truth is that while I’m very much appreciating and absorbing all the information I’m reading, I mostly remain curious and slightly skeptical of the birth picture most books offer as the ideal, the notion that giving birth should be a fulfilling and empowering occasion of deep significance—assuming, of course, that all medical interventions are kept at bay.

I think the strongest emotion I feel about birth is simply curiosity. What does it really feel like? Will my doctors transform in the birthing room into the pushy, rude gorgons everybody complains about? Will I feel powerless because I’m being processed through the mechanisms of a large hospital or will I feel powerful because I’m giving life to another human being?

Will I even have time to notice? Or does the intellectual chatter, the conflicting judgments about the relative merits of things sort of subside in the intensity of the moment?

These are not the kinds of questions you can find answers about in books or even by asking other people. I’m not sure how anybody could predict how another person will feel about her birth “experience”… so I read books and feel curious and then, usually after a long reading jag when I’ve been sitting in one position too long and all my joints ache (because that’s what joints do at 8+ months pregnant), I realize that my feelings about birth are a sort of intellectual/ideological curiosity that has nothing to do with my feelings about my baby or being her mother.

I wonder sometimes if it will be the much more intense version of our wedding, which felt to my introverted brain more like an event to be managed than a sacred rite of soul knitting. The soul knitting had, in many ways, already happened through conversations and commitments—sometimes wordless—the simple acceptance that we would be together. And the soul knitting continued in the same way after the wedding too, as we learned how to live together and what it means to be one unit in two bodies.

It was a happy wedding, I’m glad we did it, and I love having the pictures, but it didn’t feel more emotionally significant to me than many other occasions that showed me who Carl was and what he was going to mean to me.

Maybe I’m just an anticlimactic type of person, suspicious of “events” in general and high drama in particular. On the other hand, I don’t want to miss something that could be meaningful in my hurry to get to the good stuff I do know about: the smell of new skin and the funny, uncoordinated movements of matchstick-fragile fingers.

Mostly I want to be open to whatever the experience turns out to be without attaching too much negative meaning (this intervention means I wasn’t able to bond with my baby correctly) or too much positive meaning (my birth was so fantastic I can’t imagine anyone else feeling good about their birth if they didn’t also XY or Z) to however the details work themselves out. Of course, then you could stress about the potential downside of eliminating all meaning from the experience, positive or negative, and create a total lose-lose-lose to freak yourself out.

Not that I’ve ever gone down that road. Naturally.

I just wonder what it will be like.

And how in the heck you’re supposed to “prepare” for something that everyone agrees is probably not going to go according to plan and definitely not something you can adequately prepare for anyway. I do know that I’m not bothering to write a birth plan, since I have never yet met anyone whose birth followed the plan. Nor am I practicing breathing patterns or consistently doing those stretches and ice cube exercises the books recommend.

I guess we’ll see if I regret that.

In the mean time, I prepare by drinking tea, curling up with books, and trying to be ok with the not knowing and the not being in control. I wonder if that’s part of why so many women become passionate about birth issues—is it a way of trying to bring a sense of order, security, and control to something that is essentially out of our control? It certainly makes me feel better to read books, as though reading books will offer some sort of protective charm when my turn comes.

I do know that—apart from the thrill of seeing the positive pregnancy test and the total surprise of hearing “it’s a girl”—the most illuminating moment of my entire pregnancy actually came in the first trimester, hunched over the toilet, upchucking my dinner.

I don’t know anybody who doesn’t hate throwing up, hate the loss of control, hate the feeling of impending doom in those ten seconds before when you know you have to throw up but you’re hoping against hope that you somehow won’t.

I’d been reading a lot about zen, though, and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe the real discomfort came from trying to assert my will over a complex physical reaction I couldn’t actually control. Maybe the tension was as much in my mind as my body.

Ok, body, I thought, I give up. Whatever you need. Do you need to throw up? Then let’s throw up. I’m here to take care of you.

Call it hormone-induced delirium if you want, but I don’t think I’ve ever in my life been closer to the kind of lotus-scented enlightenment breakthroughs the young Buddhists are always on about. Or, if you want to be more orthodox, the kind of peaced-out surrender Christians are supposed to feel when they “let go and let God.”

Not only did I stop throwing up, but I didn’t much care either way. And the paradoxical feeling of compassionate indifference was so bizarre I didn’t really know how to process it. It was one of those rare experiences you can explain all you want, but it takes a sympathetic soul to actually believe.

Maybe that’s what it’s like.

Or maybe if I can get all transcendent about upchucking then we can just sit back and look forward to the wacked-out and hilariously unsound theories I’ll develop after 10 or 20 hours of mind-altering labor.

That could be fun too.



2 thoughts on “Stories About Birth

  1. YES. You hit the nail on the head. And I am so looking forward to reading about your birth once you’ve got that amazing little girl on the outside. The awesomest thing about having you go through pregnancy is that you are such an introspective person and such a good writer that you come up with some pretty fabulous and eye-opening descriptions of stuff that was, for me, transformative.

  2. Love your zen/puking moment…even though I hate throwing up more than anyone I know. 🙂 You are more zen than me. Go you!

    And I keep meaning to read Naomi Wolf.

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