I have two children, and their births are my most cherished life experiences. Reading Labor Day, the thoughtful and thought-provoking new anthology edited by Anna Solomon and Eleanor Henderson, reminded me powerfully of why those experiences mean so much to me.
I still struggle to put into words what those nights were like. They were not just moments of my life that I recall with stunning, crystalline detail. They were also passages from one world to another, and somehow in each passage I was able to glimpse through the seam of this reality to something bigger and more breathtaking. What I saw and sensed changed me forever.
Grace's birth, my first, was a story of resistance. It was about my gritting my teeth and stubbornly laying in for the stay. Part of the resistance was that she was posterior, but it was also about my own fears, anxieties, and utter lack of preparation to be a mother. I was in battle against myself, I know that now: I was holding on, not ready to embrace a new life (mine, not hers) and identity. I was not ready to face the end of a phase of my life, the multiple deaths that are contained in birth. The inexorable force of a baby descending the birth canal went to war against my own quite powerful subconscious, and I was in labor for 40 hours, at 9+ centimeters for three hours.
I cried and I screamed and I begged to be put out of my misery: I distinctly recall telling my midwife, completely seriously, that I'd like her to put a bullet in my head and just cut the baby out. The pain was both incendiary and incandescent. It was a crucible through which I had to pass, the heat so extreme that I was rendered molten. It was an animal experience, a raw, passionate, and terrifying introduction to a ferocity I had never imagined I possessed.
I delivered Grace myself. At my midwife's instruction, I reached down and put my thumbs under her armpits and pulled her onto my own chest. My daughter was born and I was born a mother at the exact same moment.
What is more miraculous than the female body's ability to create and bear life? Seriously, what? We take it for granted, in many ways, and perhaps we have to because otherwise the blinding truth of it would be too much to bear.
Labor Day is a collection of beautiful writers telling their personal birth stories. The voices are humorous and honest, candid and brave, all imbued with wonder at the revelatory marvel of birth. I loved the book and admit I was taken aback at some of the responses to it. The criticism that Labor Day privileges a single model of birth made me think hard. Does the book do that? Does the world? Do I?
It is true that I had a strong point of view about how I wanted to experience birth. I wanted to deliver my children vaginally and without an epidural. I made specific choices in support of my desire, namely switching from an obstetrical practice to a group of midwives at 28 weeks and delivering at a smaller local hospital rather than a big city one. I went home from the hospital at 4 centimeters, though I'd already been in labor for 24 hours, because I feared "starting the clock." So, yes, I was pretty committed to having natural deliveries and, twice, I was fortunate that my desired outcome came to pass.
Since reading Labor Day, and the articles that criticize the book, I've been asking myself: do I judge women who approach birth differently than I do? The honest truth is no, I don't. I find myself wondering about the genesis of the judgment that so many seem to feel about this topic. Are we actually judging, or do we feel judged in the absence of any overt action and view by others?
I'm beginning to suspect it is the latter. There aren't many other subjects as fraught for women as this one -- the other place I see this phenomenon is in the Mommy Wars between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers -- and it is impossible to fully articulate the depth of our desire to do right by our children.
We want desperately to do the best we can. Our intentions are as unerringly good as they are ferociously felt. It is hard, therefore, to hear something that makes us doubt the choices we make. Sometimes, listening to someone talk about her experience makes us feel defensive about our own. I genuinely believe that most people don't judge the ways that others navigate the emotional, complicated, deeply personal terrain of motherhood. Perceived judgment can still slice deeply, but I think we need to remember that the root of what we sense may be in our own sensitivity and not in the mind of the other.
The stories in Labor Day made me laugh and made me cry and many of them touched me deeply. Thirty individual voices joined together in a benediction of one of this life's most miraculous and seminal experiences. No matter how it happens, a mother and a baby are both born in the extraordinary experience of labor and delivery. Birth itself is as mysterious and as brilliant as phosphorescence in a dark sea. Most of us are so transfixed by the magical glimmers in our own lives that I don't think we are passing judgment on those of others. Let's try to remember that when we feel judged, it may well be coming from our own sensitivity and desire to do the best we can. And then let's remember the transcendent glimmering that we glimpsed as we made the glorious, gory passage of birthing a baby. Finally, let's read Labor Day not for what it's not -- a polemic on what people should do -- but for what it so gorgeously is: beautifully told personal stories of the majesty and triumph, as well as the terror and fear, of giving birth, no matter how it happens.