Birth Stories: On Books About Having a Baby

March 16, 2011 | 4 books mentioned 15 5 min read

I was born at home in Santa Monica, California.  The night before, when my mother entered the early stages of labor–light contractions at irregular intervals–she ate at least two cannolis: for energy, and because she feared she wouldn’t get any otherwise.  The next day, as her labor increased in intensity, she did laundry, occasionally leaning against the washing machine to ride out a contraction.  Eventually, she moved to the bedroom, where my father lay.  He had the flu. My mother’s water broke in his face.

My head was born a good while before the rest of my body; the midwives couldn’t get my wide shoulders out of the birth canal, and they feared my bones would have to be broken. I’m thankful my mother was eventually able to push out the rest of my body without intervention.  I was born in the caul, meaning the amniotic sac remained intact over my body, something rarely seen.  Some might say this means I possess intuitive powers, or that I’m very lucky, or that I will never drown.  I’ll take all three.  My placenta was also rare: the veins didn’t follow the normal pattern…or something…this part of the story has always been cloudy.   I do know that the midwives stored my magical placenta in a glass punch bowl on the dining room table (I’ve got pictures to prove it), and they took it with them when they left.  To show it off to their colleagues, I’d like to think.

Ten years after I was born, I watched my mother give birth to my sister at Cedars-Sinai hospital.  Less than two years later I was there when she gave birth to my brother.  These two events are fused in my mind. I remember how quiet and focused my mother was as she labored.  I remember how petite the doctor was, and how loud she yelled to the nurses to help her hold up my mother’s legs during the pushing stage (broad-shouldered babies are my mother’s specialty, apparently). I remember the smell in the room–not like vagina, not exactly, but something just as private and potentially shameful. I remember being embarrassed, months later, when my mother announced to a dinner party that all I’d had to say about the birth was that it smelled of vagina.  I remember a male guest asked, “How does she know what a vagina smells like?” and that my mother replied, “Well, she has one, doesn’t she?”  I remember the table erupted in laughter, and that I was mortified.

My favorite part of my nephew’s birth story is when the nurses at my sister Heidi’s Orange County hospital marveled at her dedication to a natural birth.  They said, “We don’t see this here in Newport very often.”  To that, my sister grunted and replied, “Well, I’m from L.A.”

I think, the most important thing I’ve taken away from Heidi’s story, and from the memories of my siblings’ births, and from the story of my own, is that childbirth isn’t scary, but amazing.  It’s totally bonkers and totally normal.  “I’m my most powerful when I’m giving birth,” my mother has told me. I remember that.

Now that I’m pregnant myself (26 weeks along at the time of this writing), it’s becoming increasingly clear that the stories women hear about childbirth affect their attitudes about it.  I’m not freaked out about giving birth, whereas other women I know are terrified.  I’m certainly not some hippie bad-ass–seriously: I’m a wimp and I get my hair colored regularly–I was just raised in a particular way.  My mother passed onto me not only a confidence in my laboring capabilities, but also a desire to be educated about what lies ahead.   The birth of my child might turn out differently than the ones I’ve described, but at least I’m going into the experience with a positive, informed attitude.

covercoverIna May Gaskin, the rock star of all rock star midwives, devotes much of her Guide to Childbirth to first-person accounts of giving birth.   She explains in the introduction:

“There is extraordinary psychological benefit in belonging to a group of women who have positive stories to tell about their birth experiences…So many horror stories circulate about birth–especially in the United States–that it can be difficult for women to believe that labor and birth can be a beneficial experience.”

Gaskin’s book provides what should, ideally, be passed down orally from woman to woman, family to family. Such stories can give a pregnant woman that same confidence and curiosity that I was raised to have.  Other books, like The Birth Book by William Sears, M.D. and Martha Sears, R.N., use a similar technique; between passages of information, the Sears couple includes italicized, first-person accounts from mothers, and fathers, who have been there, and can speak personally about their experiences.

coverThough oral storytelling has been valuable to me as a pregnant woman, so have these books.  Since I love to read, this shouldn’t have been a surprise.  Except it has been. You see, my usual preference as a reader is to buy new; I don’t even much care for used bookstores so obsessed am I with owning literature unsullied by previous readers.  But with my pregnancy, something changed.  Midway through my first trimester, my aforementioned sister Heidi (whose son is now 18 months old), gave me a teetering stack of books, many of them passed down to her from our mother.  The most meaningful, Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way by Susan McCutcheon-Rosegg, is the same spine-cracked copy my mother read twenty years ago, when she was pregnant with my sister Sarah.  This book didn’t come out until 1984, three years after I was born, but my mother studied Dr. Bradley’s techniques when she was pregnant with me. Sometimes, as I’m reading about relaxation techniques or the effacement of the cervix, I imagine my older sister reading these same chapters, and before her, our mother, who remembers all this information from the last time around, when I was inside of her, floating in the womb.  My other siblings might read them someday, too.

coverEarly on in my pregnancy, my friend Laura, who started a blog when she got knocked up, lent me the one book she read and cherished when she was preparing for birth:  The Pregnancy Book, also by the dynamic Sears duo. This book’s cover is creased, and a few pages are dog-eared, but I don’t mind.  Part of my enjoyment in reading it is seeing which pages Laura marked: what questions to ask your doctor; an explanation of Kegel exercises; how to negotiate maternity leave; and the section on birth defect tests.  During her pregnancy, Laura received  an inconclusive prenatal test, as well as confusing information from the medical staff, which caused her a lot of anxiety.  To see certain lines about these tests underlined in The Pregnancy Book is proof that she and her husband Ben read and re-read this section multiple times: for information, for answers, for solace.  By reading these same sections, I participate in that experience with her, a year later.  It’s friendship as echo.

No two labors are exactly the same, and the human body is a capricious, unpredictable machine.  As I hear more and more birthing stories–there’s an incredible wide range of them–and read these borrowed books, I wonder what my own labor will be like.  I’m curious about the narrative of my labor: where it will be textbook and where it won’t be, where the surprises and frustrations and beauty will lie.  I wonder about that final moment, when my baby is brought to my chest.  In one video I’ve watched, the woman says, “My baby, my baby, my baby.”  In another, the woman says, “Thank God it’s over.”  My friend Laura reportedly said, “I don’t know what to do”  when the nurse gave her her daughter.  It must be the fiction writer in me that loves to consider this moment ahead of time, even as I know I can’t, that it’s impossible.

So, in the meantime, I read and ask for these stories from others, and I look forward to the day when I can tell my own child his birth story.  I’ll tell him it every year.  On his birthday, of course.

(Image: tiny foot from limaoscarjuliet’s photostream)

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Edan,
    Congratulations on being pregnant! I hope it’s been easy so far.

    I love reading your essays in The Millions, and found this one interesting too but I just had to comment.

    I had two babies (now teenagers) and the labor and births were very different’ experiences, though they were close together, I was as healthy, and my body, of course, was the same body.

    A lot of childbirthing books focus on what you can do, what you must do, etc. as though it all depended on your efforts and will. What bothers me about that is that it can turn into disappointment and blame, if things don’t go as planned.

    My experience taught me that even a healthy, fit, informed and prepared woman can have a very difficult labor. I found it important to let go of personal responsibility–for my cervix, in my case, which took so long to open that I was in very painful labor for three days! He was born vaginally, and healthy, and it all turned out alright, but I think I would have felt like I’d failed if I had believed that it was all up to me.

    My daughter, by contrast, was born in an hour and a half. I guess my cervix had learned something the second time around.

    Good luck, and I look forward to more of your wonderful essays!


  2. Thank you for that lovely essay.

    I am 34 weeks pregnant and have pored over several of the books you mentioned, especially that of Ina May Gaskin. (Another I’d recommend is The Birth Partner by Penny Simkin, which has been incredible informative for me and my husband.) Without the benefit of a living mother (she died when I was 12) to tell me stories of my own birth, I have looked to my close friends and other women’s positive birth stories.

    Sure, I understand that anything can happen. But surrounding myself with empowered, positive, beautiful and natural birth experiences has helped me build confidence in myself to prepare for the birth I want and accept the birth I will have. I’m also not a “hippie bad-ass,” but have fully embraced the knowledge of our power as women and the wisdom of those who have done this before.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing.

  3. Thank you, Karen and Sara, for your comments and insights. Karen, you make some excellent points, and I have definitely tried to prepare myself for that unpredictability…the last thing I want is to blame myself for the birth that happens. Thanks for sharing your experience with me.
    Congratulations to you, Sara!

  4. I am Edan’s Mom and I was very moved by this essay. it is gratifying to know my daughters are carrying on with natural mothering from birth onward.It is a wonderful adventure and has been my life’s work.Your birthing experience is your own and there is no blame if nature can take its course from the start and only accept intervention when it is really necessary. Happy pushing!

  5. I also highly recommend Lisa Harper’s A DOUBLE LIFE: DISCOVERING MOTHERHOOD, just out. It’s a beautiful, novel-like book of nonfiction, full of scientific information and the emotional story of life changed by having a baby.

  6. “A lot of childbirthing books focus on what you can do, what you must do, etc. as though it all depended on your efforts and will. What bothers me about that is that it can turn into disappointment and blame, if things don’t go as planned.”

    Thank you for this, Karen. Both of my sons were born easily, within hours, no drugs, with a midwife at a birthing center. That said, the many women who felt they “failed” if something went wrong and the whole idea that a good birth is something strive for , like winning a race, gets out of control in liberal white America. I’m all for fighting the rising C-section rates. I just wish that birth hadn’t turned into a competition. It’s not. It’s a gorgeous private moment. And for me, it was also terrifying and painful. I mean, there are books that talk about a painless birth! I read them! Um, those women with “painless” birth? They “win”! Sheesh. I remember this one arrogant blogger, Spike, eons ago- and I only wish her well and am glad things turned out OK- but she was insistent on a home birth even though she lived in rural Texas. Her son almost died and spent two months in neo-natal care, all because she “knew” birth was natural and the “medical establishment” was blablabla. My husband would be dead without anti-biotics. Many babies and mothers would be, too.
    Edan, i wish you the greatest birth experience. Giving birth to my two sons were the most important God filled moments of my life. I’m prouder than no other moments and never will be. Happier, mysteriously blessed. And I’d feel the same way if I had a C-section.

  7. Edan, I grew up across the street from Patrick in Oneida and it has been good to see what you two are up to these days. Congratulations on your good news. I myself am expecting, with only three weeks to go. I am one of those women who has fears and anxieties about giving birth, but your beautifully written essay has given me a whole new, healthier perspective on the experience. Thank you for your philosophies. Best of luck to you and your new family. Sincerely, Emily

  8. Thanks for the feedback, everyone. (You too, Mom!)

    Paula, I totally agree: “I just wish that birth hadn’t turned into a competition. It’s not. It’s a gorgeous private moment.” That’s so true, and I agree that this shouldn’t be about being a superhero or one-upping other mothers.

    Congratulations, Emily! I’m glad my essay could offer you a different perspective on the matter. I highly recommend these books, and if you ever want to chat about things, get my email from Pat!

  9. In this doula and Bradley Natural Childbirth Educator’s opinion, you have picked some of the best books that have been written on the subject! Others I would recommend, Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering, by Dr. Sarah Buckley and (I will shamelessly plug my boss’ book,) Doula’s Guide to Birthing Your Way, by Jan Mallak and Teresa Bailey. For breastfeeding, Breastfeeding Made Simple, by Nancy Mohrbacher, Kathleen Kendall-Tackett is my absolute favorite, (wish I had it 10 years ago, when I had my first!) There are some great websites too, like, and The Midwife Next Door, ( who writes even handed, sane, and the most thought provoking articles on birth that I have ever read. For Breastfeeding, Dr. Jack has some wonderful (and free) advice and helpful videos, ( Good luck on this amazing and awesome journey. It is a great time to have a baby!

  10. I am Edan’s mother-in-law. I just want to say how excited I am about becoming a grandmother. I remember reading everything, too, about birth and the development of the baby. I was excited about the upcoming birth and couldn’t wait to see the baby. Labor was definitely hard work, but manageable and exciting. I pushed a long time and then they put Patrick right on my stomach. I cried and Art cried, too. We were so happy! Enjoy this moment of your life-it’s very special.

  11. For those interested in the development of our society’s very different takes on childbirth, I highly recommend Tina Cassidy’s fascinating book, Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born ( There is definitely a bit of a midwife bias, but Cassidy thorough research and engaging writing style makes the book a must-read for any woman who wants to know what’s really behind today’s birthing fads. I read Birth when I was pregnant with my daughter, and it really opened my eyes to the context of the childbirth industry and the fascinating history of childbirth. Do yourself a favor and check it out!

  12. An excellent new book about natural childbirth was just published by Harvard Common Press:


    The beautifully written narrative and very useful information and anecdotes not only prepare a woman to give birth but leave her feeling empowered and even excited to do so.

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