I don’t classify the birth of my daughter as traumatic, but some people have done it for me. I remember when she was about seven weeks old and an acquaintance of mine, then childless, pulled me aside. She had heard that I had to transfer my planned home birth to the hospital. She gave me a look of pity. How traumatic that must have been, she said.
I shifted my daughter to suckle my other breast, feeling myself teetering on the edge of a deep abyss. One that I had just so recently pulled myself out of. I took one step backward and said what I had been reflecting on. What I was finally beginning to believe. My birth was perfect, I told her. It required more out of me than I knew was possible. It softened me more than I knew I could be softened. I’m grateful for it.
She gave a tense smile. The conversation had clearly ended. Somewhat awkwardly.
I stood there, surrounded by the gravity below me. My mind was absent. Stomach nauseas. Legs shaking. I swayed my hips to soothe my daughter.
For six weeks I had been witnessing the shame. The shame of being a crunchy natural mama who could not give birth in a crunchy natural way. The shame of having spent nearly 10 months swooning over the goddess beauty of my pregnant body but being unable to cross over the way I had imagined would be so easy for me. The shame of having to answer a hundred people who wanted to know my birth story, some whose faces fell as I told them about going to the hospital, others whose “I told you so” looks broke my heart.
The birth of my daughter had upended me and all the values I held so dear. Rather than a warm tub in my living room, my birth found me lying on a hospital bed, numb from the waist down, grateful to feel her crowning head with my hand. It left me with a two-inch scar on my perineum. It left me with a child whom I adored more than anything else I had ever known, but whose entry confused me. I was just beginning to put together the edges of this puzzle and this acquaintance came along to reflect the voice that told me I had failed.
I thank her for that. Because she reflected something huge for me: Painful things happen. But the most painful thing of all is our minds’ fixation of what should have been.
Many Shades of Birth
Before I gave birth with the mercy of an epidural and pitocin, I pitied women who chose that medicine. I saw C-sections as a secondary form of birth. I held up the idea of home birth, in a tub of warm water, as the most ideal, most natural form of welcoming another human that could possibly be. I was not alone. All around me midwives shared reports on how few of their charges were admitted to the hospital as a way to sell their services. Natural-birth proponents recited the facts of the ill-effects of anything other than natural, vaginal birth. Meanwhile, I didn’t notice the women who had experienced the many other shades of birth, quiet in the corner.
Here is what my birth taught me: 100% of women do what must be done in order to have their baby. There is nothing else but that.
No Place for Ideal
Ideals have no place in childbirth. This is a time when we are being dragged through the dark by our hair, feeling incredible physical pain, sitting in a storm of feelings about our bodies or our capabilities as mothers, facing our ability or non-ability to ask or receive help. We arrive on the other side with vomit in our hair, shit in our beds, and blood on our skin. Our child is there, crawling to us covered in sticky white goo. We become mamas to them not because of the type of birth we had, but because we are meant to be their mamas. We venture into the unknown and return to the known, wholly different.
Home birth isn’t the only way. Nor is the hospital. Each of us has our individual karma (which, to be clear, is not a form of punishment, but a word that simply means “action” in that Newtonian sense — all actions create more actions) that is expressed in all parts of our lives, but more intensely in the intense parts. Our job as the makers and breakers of karma is to accept what happened in birth and all parts of life.
In the days that followed my daughter’s birth, I felt powerless, lost, and out of control about what had happened. I had to give up my values to welcome my daughter. The values of being pure. Of denying what Western medicine offers us. Before my daughter came, those values had felt like the most important thing in my life. But they were replaced.
Identities create communities. They help us fit in and feel wanted. They keep us safe. But it turns out that safety is somewhat overrated. Identities can keep us small, when what we are is massive. There is no end to what we are.
I had gone into my birth as an experience of “should.” But birth is an experience of “is.” And that was her first gift to me. Because I looked beyond my identity in my passage to mamahood, I can see beyond this identity in how I raise her. We still live a crunchy, natural life, but I don’t deny her the experience of tasting candy from a piñata at a friend’s birthday party. I don’t hide her the experience of her own expansiveness in the name of “should.”
The Birth Unplan
We are taught to plan before birth. We are taught to write down what our limits are, when we would choose one route over another. Sure, write it down, but know that birth is impossible to plan. In this experience we face the edges of what we thought we were, and see what we really are.
I love listening to other women’s birth stories, taking them in without “should” or judgment or pity. I love this because the messiness and the gore is the stuff of the human experience that this child has been born into. When we accept the beauty of life at its very entry, we see ourselves as acceptable. Or even, perhaps, magnificent.
Join me and a group of your sisters for MamaStory, to digest and process, to regain your narrative around the birth of your child. We start May 22 at 7:00 p.m. CT. If you carry some discomfort or aversion to your childbirth story, join us to learn what it means to gain radical acceptance of what is.