birth stories

A writer friend is currently running an online workshop called “Writing Your Birth Story.” If you don’t want to explore your own birth experiences by writing about them, you can read about other women’s experiences at a number of websites, ranging from the mainstream BabyCenter to the bloggy Birth Story Diaries to the extremely loaded Unassisted Childbirth (tagline: “If you want the job done right … do it yourself!”) and Positive Birth Stories (“Our aim is for you to use these real life positive birth stories to encourage yourself to be confident in your natural ability to give birth gently.”).

Most of these share-your-story websites are, well, positive. On the other hand, there are many support groups out there (both in-person and online) for women who are angry, frustrated, disappointed, sad, and grieving over birth experiences that didn’t go as they expected or hoped. The bulk of these groups, for obvious reasons, are aimed at women who underwent C-sections.

The problem with these websites and groups, however, is that they’re simply too narrow. They give the impression that either you have a birth experience that’s wonderful (even if somewhat startling or even scary) or a birth experience that’s dreadful. And there’s a threatening undertow to match: If your birth went well, it was because you did the right things (exercise, diet, acupuncture, coping skills, whatever) to deserve it. If your birth went badly — well, you must not have done the right things.

This attitude ignores the vast range of possibilities for pregnancy and giving birth — most of which are, frankly, random. But who wants to hear that their lives are random? No, no, there must be meaning in everything, and an explanation for everything! And every mom wants to feel good about her birth experience — which means if she doesn’t feel good about it, something must be wrong with her.

One of the midwives I hired for my prenatal and postnatal care with Sibyl addressed this indirectly during a postnatal visit, when I voiced mild regret for not having handled my labor and delivery better. “Oh, nobody thinks they handled their labor and delivery as well as they could have,” she said.

On the one hand, that’s reassuring to hear. On the other hand, why all the guilt? Why do we feel inadequate when it comes to having babies?

Moms who’ve done nothing more than read a book or two, or attend a pro-forma childbirth class, often wind up bewildered by what actually happens when a baby is born. We’re supposed to be able to handle pregnancy and labor and delivery just like everything else we’re accustomed to as confident grown women: with aplomb.

But if I’ve learned anything from having babies, and from talking to dozens of other moms about having babies, it’s that each pregnancy and labor and delivery is different, and there’s always some level of surprise in store.

Nobody tells you this beforehand. Most first-time moms, frankly, don’t want to hear it; they assume and expect that their labor and delivery will be ordinary and doable. Difficult deliveries? Surgeries? That won’t happen to me!

So while we read books and take classes, we think we’re preparing ourselves. But we’re not. Not really. And when we’re told things like, “Healthy baby, healthy mom — that’s the outcome we want,” we just get more confused. Wait a sec — wasn’t the entire journey supposed to be important, not just the final destination?

Moms in America are told that, on the one hand, they’re supposed to strive for an ideal birth experience — be that an unassisted backyard homebirth or a highly medicalized C-section. On the other hand, they’re told that the birth experience doesn’t matter, that the final outcome is what counts. But of course, the birth experience generally dictates the outcome. So what gives?

At bottom, I think, maternity caregivers want moms to feel good about their pregnancies and births, no matter what those experiences are actually like. There’s an obvious societal benefit to this: moms who accept how they came to have their babies will, presumably, take better care of their babies. But this push for acceptance can lead moms to acquiesce to things they really shouldn’t — poor care, unnecessary surgeries, hippie guilt. And it can prevent moms from researching all their options, and demanding the best.

I met a mom recently who had had a dreadful birth experience with her first child — an attempted birthing-center birth that didn’t go well, with the center’s midwives abandoning her to the care of a hospital that then treated her even worse. This mom was pregnant with her second child, and had hired a different group of midwives to attempt a home birth. I asked her what she planned to do if the home birth didn’t go well, and she said, resignedly, that she was just going to go back to the hospital where she’d had her first child. When I expressed my astonishment, she said, “Well, I’d rather go with the evil I know than the evil I don’t know.”

I admired this mom for trying for a better birth experience the second time around. But I was disappointed that, as she said, she was “too tired and too daunted” to research better options than simply hiring a different set of midwives. She was, in many ways, like the first-time moms who are more comfortable hoping for the best than worrying about the worst.

It shouldn’t be this hard. It should be easier to find out what’s available, and easier to find out what’s right for you. And, above all, it should be easier to get good-quality care everywhere, instead of hoping that your midwives know what they’re doing, or hoping that you don’t get pushed around when you go to the hospital.

It’s too easy for us, as a society, to put this burden on moms, by telling them that no matter what their birth experience is, they should embrace it and move on. We should be doing a better job of giving them good birth experiences to begin with.

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