Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Birth Story Cipher

The first birth that I ever witnessed was the birth of my first child. When I went into labor with Bella, I had never, in person, seen a woman labor or give birth. No wonder my fascination, during that pregnancy, with the television show "A Birth Story" on TLC. I wanted to know what birth was like, and not in euphemistic terms. My mother advised me to stop watching the show--it would make me worry, she said. (Given the number of women on that show laboring on their backs whilst attached to machines in the hospital, she was right.) 

Secrecy surrounds birth, as most women never attend another woman's birth, and the sagas that women experience bringing their babies into the world are not often given a platform for discussion. It's common for women to summarize their births in a few words: "It was the hardest thing I ever did, but all worth it now that she's here." The nitty gritty details are lost. 

There's no debating that it's worth it. Birth is a moment of intense power and energy unlike any other human experience. 

In the absence of actual birth stories, there are rumors and mysteries and holes.  As a child, I supposed that birth was painful and dangerous. My biblical namesake, Rachel, died giving birth.  Bill Cosby did a lot of breathing and shouting and quoted Carol Burnett:"Giving birth is like taking your lower lip and forcing it over your head." 

When I was twenty-five, Josh and I went to northern California. We visited friends of his from college, a friendly couple living in the woods outside of Boulder Creek, who had recently had their first child. While nursing her round-cheeked son on a comfortable sofa, this new mother shared with me her amazing birth story. She had given birth in her bed at home with a midwife. She told me that animals in the wild are afraid to give birth if they don't feel safe and have privacy. Think about it, she said. Do you ever find that you hold in a bowel movement until you get home from a day of errands? Everything simply relaxes when you're at home. She showed me pictures: holding her newborn hours after the birth outside in the sunny backyard, surrounded by her close friends. It was like no story I had ever heard, and thinking back now, it's remarkable that she shared it with me, given that we were not close friends, and I was not remotely yet thinking about having children. It was precisely because she'd had a powerful experience that she wanted to share it. She wanted me to experience what she had. Think about it, she said.

I still am.


  1. Yes! Like you I was struck, when pregnant, by how little I knew about what was to come, how birth was not something that was seen or talked about save by two friends who had had home births. They described the whole vivid exhilarating terrifying mess so well that I decided to do it too. And I am very glad I did.

    I feel that our society's increased medicalisation and squeamishness have affected our relationship with both birth and death. In Italian villages when a neighbour dies you are go and SEE the corpse the next day, laid out in her bed, rosary tied about her fingers. My husband's family are Irish. All of his aunts from the rural West know how to lay out a body. When one of them died in her chair they didn't call anyone. They carried her upstairs and washed and dressed her and arranged her on the bed before anything else.

    I think sharing the moment of arrival and departure from life can help us to feel its heft, pleasure and pain.

  2. Yes! The beginnings and endings are shrouded in secrets. There's a fear of physicality and animality, though they are essential parts of being human. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. I have attended both birth and death...and while I don't talk much about death with a pregnant woman I may work with, they are remarkably similar. When birth and death are taken on consciously...there can be quiet, respect, tradition, repetition and beauty all culminating in an amazing transition.

    1. Beautiful, Jill. I believe it. Thank you.


Thank you for your comments!