In Defense of (All) Birth Stories

It’s a strange time to give birth.

One in three babies today is born via cesarean section, an almost sixty percent increase since 1996. Induced labor has doubled in the past two decades. But home births are on the rise, too. So are water births, elective cesareans, childbirth education offerings, vaginal rejuvenation therapies, and, amidst all this, a palpable air of confusion, finger-pointing, and fury.

In just the past month, an international analysis published by the Public Library of Science suggested that babies born by C-section are more likely to develop obesity later in life. Meanwhile, the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology published a study suggesting that hospital births are significantly safer than home births, and the Committee on Obstetric Practice and the American Academy of Pediatrics released a joint statement challenging the efficacy of water birth.

What’s a mother-to-be to do?

That was the question that propelled the two of us to compile Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, published last week by FSG. The book’s thirty contributors speak to the uniquely bewildering experience of giving birth in the twenty-first century, a time when American women are offered unprecedented information—and choices—about how to prepare for childbirth. We may go into labor armed with birth plans, but birth, as our authors attest, rarely goes as planned. The best preparation for birth, we hoped to show, is storytelling. We wanted to reflect, not label; celebrate, not moralize.

But what we’ve quickly discovered is that the issue of birth is so fraught that even stories put people on the defense. Cheryl Strayed’s Labor Day birth story, “The Lavender Room,” is a prime example. Within days of the essay’s publication in Slate, nearly seven hundred comments appeared, many of the commenters either slamming Strayed for allegedly glorifying natural birth (some going so far as to accuse her of putting her baby in danger for using a birthing center instead of a hospital) or attacking each other over their views about childbirth. One of the first comments goes: “Torturing yourself for 43hrs doesn’t give you any special status or mean that you love your child more. 43hours to push out an 11lb baby???!!! [sic] Come on, use your head.” It’s pretty much all downhill from there, with accusations, anecdotes and uncited statistics flying fast.

We all know how these online riots go. They’re not pretty. But this one had us shaking our heads with particular disappointment. Only a small percentage of commenters pointed out that Strayed never once expresses any superiority or moral position, only tells her own story. It’s a personal story, about picturing her son’s face, enduring the pain of contractions, watching a crow alight at the window where she labored. Why attack a birth story? And why view a birth story as an attack?

The charged climate isn’t just limited to Internet free-for-alls. We saw the same defensiveness in a review of Labor Day in New York Magazine. Reviewer Jessica Grose complains that she was “disappointed by the overwhelming sameness of the stories within. Whether or not the women involved had natural childbirth (and the majority did), with one or two exceptions they are all still marinating in the same birth culture….And it’s a didactic, judgmental culture.” Basically, she wishes that more of the essays in the anthology were free of the turmoil so many of our authors express about their birthing choices. Grose is careful not to point the finger at those choices, but writes, “I’m blaming the editors for not trying harder to find a more diverse set of views and experiences among the essayists.”

While we are not in the habit of responding to reviews, we feel a need to address what we see as a misrepresentation of the facts and a misinterpretation of the book’s very premise. To start with the numbers, if you tally the “natural” births in Labor Day—something we saw no need to do until writing this—a total of eight fall under that fraught category (i.e. no pain relief or medical induction). That leaves 71% who do end up receiving some medical intervention—pretty close to the 83% Grose cites as the percentage of women who receive epidurals or other pain relief during labor and delivery in the U.S. She writes, “It’s damaging to perpetuate a one-size-fits-all approach to having babies.” We find this baffling. In fact, most ways of birthing in our country are represented in Labor Day—from scheduled caesareans to inductions to water births to a propulsive birth in the back of a car.

But the dispute over numbers misses the point. Or, it may be the point. If women today don’t recognize our own attitudes or experiences in a birth story, we are quick to become agitated, reaching for numbers that will support our values. Knee-jerk reactions like Grose’s—and the hundreds of comments on Slate—reflect the same “didactic, judgmental culture” she justifiably attacks.

This divisiveness is discouraging, but not surprising. One of the reasons we wanted to put together this book is because we saw that far too much of the current conversation about childbirth involves boasting, blaming, and preaching, which can lead to feelings of defeat and shame. As we write in our introduction, “Too often, we mothers are guilty of perpetuating this sense of inadequacy ourselves.” Our authors write about this culture because they are part of it–just like Grose and all of the commenters on Strayed’s essay—and are struggling with the questions and concerns that Grose, perhaps inadvertently, dismisses.

We chose the form of stories because we wanted to push past the current impulse to defend and attack. We also write in our introduction, “These stories bear no moral, espouse no one method or dismiss any another. They simply do what great stories do best: tell one particular experience so vividly that any reader can find herself in it.” Yes, 83% of women receive pain relief during labor and delivery, but what are the stories behind those births? No data can reveal the emotional and psychological experience of an individual mother. As Dani Shapiro writes in her Labor Day essay, “the inner life of a woman about to give birth is a world textured and complex and all its own.”

Writing about pain, another contributor, Sarah A. Strickley, says, “Most of the choices with which we are presented in childbirth are secondary to the one most important in practice: We must be prepared to labor alone, even in the company of others, even with the brilliantly blinding help of loved ones. Perhaps the debates regarding childbirth are so heated because in the end it’s one woman’s experience, not a shared cultural phenomenon. It’s you and your pain; it’s you and it’s your baby.”

We may be alone in labor, but why continue to isolate ourselves postpartum? Our hope with Labor Day was to emphasize connection among mothers rather than difference, and to open up rather than close down conversation. That’s what we aim to do with this article and beyond. Grose concludes her review by saying, “There is no way to do labor ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’” We couldn’t agree more.

Let’s try to talk about birth with less accusation and more empathy. As far as we’re concerned, when listening to another mother’s birth story, there’s one appropriate response: “Wow.”

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