One of my favorite short stories is “Giving Birth” by Margaret Atwood. For whatever reason, long before I became a mother myself, this story has fascinated me, and I’ve returned to it again and again, writing essays about it in college, in graduate school, even including an analysis of it in my master’s thesis. Perhaps what has captivated me is its portrayal of the sea change that happens to a woman once she gives birth, the inner transformation that occurs, one simultaneously subtle and earthmoving.
There are moments when I so completely enter this alternate reality of motherhood that I feel like I’ve always been here – and other moments, when I’m struck by the sudden and total shift in my life, that I feel knocked off balance. This happens to me most when I leave the house. The other day I met a friend for coffee at my favorite haunt, a place where I regularly used to spend large chunks of time, writing and grading for hours at a stretch. This was my first time in the coffee shop since having Julian – in fact, it was my first time away from him at all – and it honestly felt bizarre to be there, sitting at my usual table, ordering my usual drink, looking around at the other customers who were all unaware that the world had changed.
Moments like that, when I run smack into remnants of my old life, reveal to me how much has shifted in my tiny universe – and how much the outside world has stayed relentlessly the same.
This is how Atwood’s story ends, hinting at the transfiguration that has occurred in the life of Jeanie, the woman who just gave birth:
After that the baby is carried in, solid, substantial, packed together like an apple, Jeanie examines her, she is complete, and in the days that follow, Jeanie herself becomes drifted over with new words, her hair slowly darkens, she ceases to be what she was and is replaced, gradually, by someone else.
Already I can feel that happening to me, the new words layering themselves, a new self emerging, the “someone else” whom I am turning into. Most of the time life moves at such a crawl that we remain blind to its constant change, but there are some experiences, like becoming a parent, that strike like lightning and, in just a flash, we are utterly altered.
The experience of giving birth was like that for me – so much so that it’s taken me literally weeks to get to place where I feel I can begin to write about it, to attempt to funnel its vastness into words somehow. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to cram all my thoughts and memories about Julian’s birth into one blog post – and that is proving impossible, so instead I’m going to start a series of several reflections on giving birth. I’ll do this thing piecemeal, starting here.
Ricki Lake Made Me Do It
I used to be terrified of the idea of giving birth. And it’s no wonder, considering how birth is typically represented on television and film: the screaming woman lying flat on a stretcher, flanked by a pit crew of doctors who are whisking her down the hall in a panic, as if babies just sort of shoot out like torpedoes after five minutes of life-threatening labor. And once they arrive in the room with the fancy medical equipment, then the woman screams some more, and (if it’s a romantic comedy) yells angrily at the inept, doofy husband standing by her who is weirded out to be in the Land of Lady Parts, while the male doctor and his entourage of female nurses efficiently deliver the baby – and if it’s a drama or something historical, then there is only one male doctor and a lot of blood and somebody dies, usually the mother. Whatever the genre, the message is clear: giving birth is a painful, abnormal, dangerous EMERGENCY.
How can women not be spooked by the idea of labor with representations like that?
This harrowing image of birth was amplified by snippets of birth stories I’d hear from real women. I was particularly disturbed whenever anyone talked about “tearing” during labor, as if she had to somehow split open to let the baby escape, as if giving birth was akin to being disemboweled.
A big shift happened for me when I watched the documentary The Business of Being Born a few years ago. Along with a wealth of information about the medicalization of childbirth in the US, the film has a bunch of footage of actual births – and they were nothing like what I’d seen on TV. No panic, no sense of emergency, no screaming (not much, anyway), and perhaps most striking, these women seemed in charge of their own labors. They were the furthest things from passive patients; they moved around, changed positions; they seemed to dive calmly into the pain and hard work of labor, rather than struggling against it. Some of the women even delivered the babies themselves, catching them as they slid smoothly out of their bodies. For the first time, it really hit me that giving birth is a natural process that the female body, my own included, is engineered to accomplish.
After seeing the footage of those live births (and trying not to be distracted by all of Ricki Lake’s crazy hats), my terror about giving birth dissipated and was replaced by gritty anticipation. This heightened once I got pregnant, as it began to dawn on me that the little being growing rapidly inside of me was going to have to come out, one way or another. At that point, when I thought about my impending labor, I had a kind of rush, like something I used to feel before a basketball game, or a big race. I felt like flexing and shaking out my muscles, putting on my game face and saying: Let’s do this.
That is not to say that I didn’t have any anxiety about the process – I did. Well, one primary fear, really: I didn’t want birth to be something that happened to me. I wanted to be like one of those Zen goddesses from Ricki Lake’s documentary who just seemed to deep-breath babies out of their bodies. I didn’t want to be the screaming woman flat on her back while a slew of medical professionals buzzed around, extracting the baby. (Spoiler: I will save the full birth story for another post, but I would end up being pretty much a mash-up of these two images.)
Before watching that film, the idea of having an unmedicated birth sounded crazy and, well, a little show-offy to me. The whole “did you do it naturally?” conversation seemed like a maternal pissing contest. I had the simplistic notion that medicated births were smooth, seamless, and relatively painless, while the “natural” births were more difficult, longer, excruciating, and more dangerous. As it turns out, for many women (and I must stress that I am not saying all women), the opposite is true.
So, starting with that documentary, my perspective on birth began to shift so much that, three years later, I was choosing to pursue an unmedicated birth myself. Even though the scheduled c-section/tummy tuck combo is all the rage with celebrities these days, I wanted to really experience labor. I wanted it to surprise me, coming on whenever my womb and Julian had reached some tacit agreement that “it was time,” and then I wanted to feel my body contracting, my baby descending; I wanted to know fully what it meant to give birth to a human being.
I also wanted to avoid the cascade of unnecessary medical interventions as described in The Business of Being Born. When normal, low-risk birth is pathologized, when it’s seen as something that must be treated, the “treatments” can actually end up interfering with the natural process of birth, resulting in the need for an emergency c-section. In many hospitals across the country, women are routinely put on a drug called Pitocin to speed up their labor, often for the convenience of the doctor and hospital, rather than for the good of the woman. Pitocin, an artificial version of the hormone oxytocin, increases the strength and frequency of contractions, which in turn makes labor FAR more painful for the woman, who will typically and understandably opt for an epidural, which can then slow down labor even more, so dial up the Pitocin … and anyway, this dance of medications goes on until the mother is exhausted and the baby is either born or put into distress from the intensified contractions, at which point a c-section becomes necessary.
Well, I wanted to avoid getting on that rollercoaster to begin with – I wanted my labor to progress naturally, so I could hopefully avoid getting an epidural. While I wasn’t afraid of the pain of labor, I was totally creeped out by the idea of being paralyzed from the waist down while trying to push a baby out. I know that epidurals are common and safe and many women love them – but this neurotic girl didn’t like the idea of not being able to walk or move or feel.
So, yes, I’d watched Ricki Lake and I’d read Ina Mae, and I’d drunk the natural childbirth Kool-Aid. I believed what I was hearing, that unmedicated birth can be a richer and often less harrowing experience for many women. And I entered into labor feeling extremely prepared, almost to the point of smugness. I knew what kind of birth I wanted, I’d read all the books, I’d made a detailed birth plan – I was ready.
And all that preparation, all those breathing exercises, the mantras, the various laboring positions – all that was whisked away once I was thrown fully into the excrutiating pain of back labor, pain so intense that I vomited with every contraction, pain that only ebbed and never quit between contractions. Pain that crescendoed for eleven hours.
My main motivation for having an unmedicated birth was that I wanted to be fully present; I wanted to see what my body was capable of. Well, I certainly got to experience that last part; I now know the depths of my physical strength and power. But if I’m completely honest with myself, there is a part of me that wonders whether being fully present to the painof a difficult labor actually prevented me from having that ecstatic, triumphant, epiphanous experience that I’d read about and wanted.
Now, on the other side, and with many weeks insulating me from the fresh memory of how agonizing my labor was, I can say with little hesitation that I am glad I went the “natural” route, and that I will choose to do so again in the future. But I can remember another me, the me immediately after giving birth, who felt traumatized by the intense, excruciating, relentless pain she’d endured, the me who is like a ghost in those first pictures, as pale as her newborn son. She’s looking around in a daze after returning from a place behind words, after having her eyes clenched shut for hours, and, as language slowly returns to her, she’s wondering: what just happened to me…?
I had a beautiful labor, yes, but beautiful in the way that looming mountains are beautiful, or God is beautiful – a terrible, overpowering, dangerous kind of beauty. A beauty that rattles your bones. I was not one of Ricki Lake’s Zen goddesses. I was more like a crazed warrior, like someone plucked from Greek mythology who descends deep into the horror of the underworld and returns, after hours of torment, with the most precious boon.