“How was your birth?” I asked a friend. She paused, looking at me. It took me a minute to realize she was surprised by the question, as it’s one many people don’t stop to ask.
Amidst the diaper changes and feedings, the sleep disruption and shock of new motherhood, the story of what our bodies did and what happened to them during labor and birth often hovers in the background, large and unspoken.
The first time I was nearby when someone was giving birth, I felt altered. Even though I wasn't in the room, it was a sacred experience as I waited during my sister-in-law’s labor down the hall, pacing with the rest of our family. The air was charged.
I went home that afternoon after meeting my baby niece, exhausted and changed.
Our births are often among the most intense moments of our lives, and they deserve to be told and heard.
The only experience I could compare my niece’s birth to—though her arrival was a much, much happier occasion—was the time I spent huddled at my grandfather’s hospital bed leading up to his death. That experience had left me with a similar feeling, as if the seams of the world as I’d known it had burst open, and I’d gotten a gaze at the vastness beyond. It had left me dizzy, tired and humbled.
My niece had not been there—on the outside at least—and then suddenly she was. Just like my grandfather had been there, until his breath trickled away, and suddenly he wasn’t.
Being on the inside of the birthing experience is even more intense, more detached from the rest of life. No matter how well we’ve taken care of ourselves through pregnancy, how many birthing classes we’ve sat through or how many hours we’ve practiced our breath, labor and delivery usually take on a life of their own. My labor and birth with my son was far more complicated and prolonged than I could’ve imagined it. I’d been induced after realizing my amniotic fluid had been leaking for days and had meconium in it. After being induced, my son was posterior, which meant intense back labor and hours of pushing. By the time he was finally out of my body, I laid there, feeling only the sheer absence of pain. Doctors whisked him away to suck out the meconium he’d ingested. I watched it happening as if through a long corridor instead of a few feet away.
When I finally held the beautiful boy I’d been waiting for, I felt completely disassociated—from him, from the tugs in the numb space between my legs where my midwife stitched me, from everything.
Despite the fact that we were both healthy, it was an event that felt like it had occurred outside the walls of time, and I needed to sift through it, to retell each twist and turn.
I wanted to talk about it. I needed to process what had happened. The mantra I’d clung to in preparing for birth—my body knows just what to do—turned out to not be the case.
So I sat in groups with other new moms, cradling or nursing our newborns, and we shared portions of our birth stories. I loved hearing other women explain what they’d gone through, from my friend who delivered her daughter in an ambulance on the way to the hospital, to a woman who had an emergency C-section, and everything in between. Telling my birth story helped make the surreal experience feel more real. Giving words to it initiated the process of accepting that though it didn’t go as I’d hoped, it was still a story full of strength and love.
Birth stories are never boring. They are full of great love and danger, of both the power and limits of our bodies. They are like snowflakes—no two exactly the same. Our births are often among the most intense moments of our lives, and they deserve to be told and heard.