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.
Ina 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.
Though 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.
Early 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)