The Power of the Birth Narrative

We need to see more positive and accurate examples of birth.

Photo of the author’s birth by Hanna Hill Photography

My birth instructor ended the last class by asking us moms to proudly share our birth stories with the world. We’d just finished a twelve-week Bradley Method course, and all the couples were planning unmedicated vaginal births. She said people usually hear only the horror stories. “Everyone wants to tell you all about the scary and unexpected, but the women who have normal, uneventful, or even easy births rarely go out of their way to tell you that everything went the way they had planned.”

I filed this information away. I was certainly hoping to have an easy and beautiful birth, but I didn’t think I would care to share any information about my experience on my social media feed. I did start to notice that my teacher had been right. The larger my belly grew, the more unsolicited advice I received from well-meaning family members, grocery store clerks, or ladies walking down the street. The curious thing was nobody stopped to tell me how birth was going to be miraculous or even to give helpful tips. Most of the time these women provided cautionary tales, or they just thought I needed to know they suffered a third-degree tear after a forceps delivery or how many times they cried themselves to sleep once the baby arrived.

As shocking and graphic as some stories were, I kept asking myself why people were warning me about something that was bound to happen in a few months’ time. Why hadn’t anyone bothered to share these details before I got pregnant? Why wasn’t I hearing these stories growing up, and why tell me now? Maybe these mothers’ pain was triggered by seeing my big belly, but there’s something about being pregnant that initiates you into a special club. Suddenly I was a woman, a mother — not a young, single twenty-something. Suddenly I had to know the truth about it all.

These stories can be helpful, but we need to start hearing them early and often. Then women can make more informed decisions about if or when to conceive, the kind of prenatal care they want, and the type of birth they’d like. These kinds of choices are more difficult when your due date is around the corner.

It was also true that I had to seek out positive birth stories; nobody was offering these unsolicited. My childbirth educator had been correct: People who had normal experiences — labors that were hard work but without complications, or births that were beautiful and painless — often don’t think of these stories as significant enough to share. They think people won’t be interested in their stories. Maybe we’re taught to feel uncomfortable about sharing our good experiences because so many women don’t have them. We feel guilty for caring about our own happiness, instead of simply being grateful for a healthy baby. We’ve been taught that childbirth is a sacrifice, a punishment for our original sin. We’ve been discouraged from talking about our “private parts,” making some aspects of birth feel shameful and taboo. In short, society doesn’t encourage women to talk about their reproductive lives.

Yet it’s not only that birth stories have been excluded from topics of polite conversation; accurate representation is lacking in pop culture and entertainment as well. I became frustrated at how birth is largely ignored in the media landscape, or it is woefully inaccurate. Novels often describe screams from behind closed doors, and movies show medical staff frantically yelling at the woman to push, who seems out of control and beyond the reach of her blubbering idiot of a husband. A birthing woman is always in pain and unprepared, until suddenly she adopts a delighted face when the baby arrives. The viewer doesn’t see the mother in all her power and glory, nor her postpartum recovery; the story line usually ends after baby comes. This viewpoint enables us to see the baby’s life as more valuable than the woman’s, which has implications for reproductive health care overall.

It also serves to make it so women usually have no idea what birth is like until they are already close to delivering. Hopefully they take a childbirth class or two, because if not, their impression of birth is heavily influenced by the fearful and hyperbolic situations they see on television. Many expecting parents are surprised to learn that most labors don’t start with the water breaking, nor do they know that most first-time moms go past their due dates or that women can stay in early labor for multiple days. Did you know you can bake a cake or go for a walk or out to a restaurant in labor? I’ve never seen that in a movie. (At least we have “Call the Midwife.” Although set in the U.K., the show provides good historical context and shows both the normalcy of most labors as well as some serious complications.) Expectant mothers and fathers would benefit from seeing realistic depictions of birth and the variety of possibilities. It seems such a strange aspect of our culture that almost half the population goes through a reproductive event, yet we don’t talk about it.

While these narratives certainly heighten drama, this version of storytelling prioritizes some viewpoints over others. Where’s the story of the mother going deep inside herself? Where is the calm birth partner, who supports his wife as she calmly breathes down her baby and pushes when she feels the peak of her contractions, with the attending physician ready to catch the baby? Where’s the montage of the laboring mother working hard in the marathon event that is birth? She is silenced because her story often stops when she enters the delivery room and returns back to her only when the baby cries. (Note: Oscar-nominated Vanessa Kirby recently gave the most accurate performance I’ve seen of a woman in labor in “Pieces of a Woman.” However, we are still in short supply of positive birth stories.)

Of course, there are those who say, “Birth is birth. All that matters is that the baby is healthy.” This false idea is pushed by hospitals, medical staff, and even other moms who don’t want women to focus on the sometimes upsetting and painful birth experience. Yes, of course we want the baby to be born healthy, but saying this completely belittles the mother. She is acutely aware of the life in her womb and probably did more praying or worrying than anyone else. She is also the one who has to live with any lasting physical or emotional damage. To say “birth is birth” is to silence women everywhere who value their story, either a supremely powerful or deeply traumatic (or somewhere in between) event that shaped their motherhood journey.

We don’t often hear these stories. We celebrate the children and forget the moms. But why do we tell new mothers to suppress their trauma or their joy simply because they now care for another life? Why do we devalue women in this way? In a country with the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world and where 1 in 9 women suffer from postpartum depression, we must find a way to see women’s experiences and validate them.

I consider my own births to be the greatest accomplishments of my life, partially because I believed in myself and the power of my body. I worked harder than I ever had before and pushed out two humongous babies without medication. I am proud because there are moments when I could have given up, but I soldiered on because I was surrounded with loving support and treated with respect. I count myself as one of those women who says the births of my children were the happiest days of my life. So why not celebrate it? If women feel like they have the space to embrace their positive birth stories, then they will also know they have support when things don’t go as planned, when they are left with feelings of inadequacy or helplessness or searing perineal pain. Although my two births were similar, my postpartum experiences were vastly different. Whereas after my daughter I was happy and home within seven hours, my son and I had to stay in a hospital for eleven days due to complications from a retroperitoneal hematoma. These challenging days are part of my story too. Sometimes we try everything we can to have a near perfect experience, but birth is natural and imperfect. It’s all part of our journey as mothers.

There is a small movement seeking to change the misinformation and lack of representation. Midwives and doulas are becoming more popular choices for women in America, and women are researching their options to become more informed. There are plenty of documentaries, books, and YouTube channels to provide a treasure trove of birth stories, positive and negative. Even birth photography is providing a vehicle to be seen and feel acknowledged. I would have never considered having a stranger take photographs of me during my first birth, but it was the only thing I really wanted to change when I got pregnant again. I wanted a way to remember how powerful and strong I felt during labor. The resulting photos are my favorite ever taken of my family, and they proved immensely comforting when I was struggling with recovery afterward.

As women, we need to tell the world that our birth stories matter. Your experience could help a mother-to-be feel more assured that she too will be heard. But like many life stories, these are yours to tell. If you’d rather deal with your memories quietly, that is your choice. Every woman is entitled to privacy, but if she is willing to share even the devastating stories, we can help reduce the stigmas surrounding birth, including miscarriage and infant loss.

We also need to reduce the discomfort with female anatomy. In sex ed classes, let’s not just name ovaries and fallopian tubes, but how about the perineum and clitoris too? We don’t always have to have these discussions with strangers, but if we can talk about periods, we should also talk episiotomies. A promise to my friends: There is no secret club with me. I’ll tell you about my hyperemesis during pregnancy and my pelvic floor physical therapy, but I’ll also tell you about my amazing water births and my relaxation playlist.

When it comes to reproductive health, knowledge is power. Pregnant women would feel more empowered if they could access accurate examples of birth, and women who have suffered wouldn’t feel so alone in their experiences. I was raised by a mom who talked about her births, who said she was disappointed with her cesarean section and went on to have three VBACs with midwives. I was old enough to remember her trying to turn my breech sister and then walking around the mall to get labor started. My own daughter was present at my son’s birth. I hope she remembers some of it, but at least I have the pictures if she’d like a reminder. So celebrate your birth narrative. Let’s overall talk about our reproductive care more so we can dispel the secrecy that serves to shame and control women.

Writer and childbirth educator. Duke ’11. Feminist stay-at-home mom. Empowering women to make decisions about their births and bodies.

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