Expect the Unexpected


Angelina and Giselle prepared their tubs. Christina Aguilera scheduled an elective C-section. Kate Middleton broke ground by asking her prince to stay in the delivery room instead of heading to the links. As choices of when, where, and how to give birth have become more numerous and more stark, mothers worldwide are preparing for labor with one common thing in their diaper bags: birth plans. Such plans have become as ubiquitous as stretch-mark creams and layettes, and as the first decision many make as parents, they’re charged with meaning. What began as an expression of personal preference has quickly come to represent a declaration of our philosophies, our politics, and our identities—as mothers and as women.

The story of birth in the twenty-first century is undeniably different from the one it was thirty years ago, when What to Expect When You’re Expecting first empowered mothers-to-be with essential guidance through the forty weeks of pregnancy. Since then, thousands of new books—and documentaries and articles and blogs—have sought to prepare women for the final push of pregnancy, their labor day. A vast and diverse industry has grown up around birth, from “boutique” labor and delivery suites that offer mani/pedis and vaginal-rejuvenation therapies to “alternative” birthing centers that provide the chance to labor without drugs or medical intervention. A generation ago, our mothers went into the hospital with a comb and a nightgown; we go in armed with our birthing ball and pump, our iPod loaded with rain forest sounds. They took a Lamaze class—maybe; we take classes in breast-feeding and infant care and prenatal yoga, where we do our Kegel exercises in obedient unison. They expected to birth on their backs, with their husbands cheering on from the hallway (or the nearest bar).

We, on the other hand, are encouraged—by doctors and coworkers, family and friends—to tackle our labors as we might a new job, to make detailed birth plans, to hire doulas who will advocate for these plans, to train our husbands as our partners and coaches and cord cutters. Oh, and do we want that cord to be cut right away, or after it has stopped pulsing? Do we want eye ointment administered? Do we want to delay the first bath? With these choices comes information, a tidal wave of statistics and warnings: often contradictory, sometimes frightening, always addictive. On the one hand, many doctors won’t allow patients to attempt a vaginal birth after having had a C-section (VBAC) and warn that going beyond forty-one weeks or having a larger baby endangers our babies and us. On the other hand, natural-birth advocates warn that epidurals will lead to Pitocin, which will lead to other interventions; that C-sections cause infection; and that episiotomies are akin to genital mutilation. Today, women are told they can have babies well into their forties, yet anyone over thirty-five still falls into “advanced maternal age” and is encouraged to undergo extra tests, which bring added anxiety.

Armed with all this information, with countless choices, with squat bars and whirlpool tubs and “walking” epidurals, we are meant to feel empowered. We enter a heady zone of birth preparation; here, it seems, we can bring the uncontrollable under our control. But more often than not, our plans prove somewhere in between irrelevant and useless. (Angelina never got to use that birthing tub. When her baby presented breech, she had a C-section.) For the lucky few, birth goes beautifully—short, free of complication, perhaps even sublime. More often, our labors tackle us, rather than the other way around; our deliveries are not always as we imagined or wanted. We may be left feeling disappointed, embarrassed, having failed to meet our own and others’ expectations. Too often, we mothers are guilty of perpetuating this sense of inadequacy ourselves by making a fuss about our “successes,” earned or not.

Under such pressure, prepared to the hilt, are we really any better off than our mothers? And if not, where do we turn?

To stories.

In the summer of 2005, we—Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon—sat on the patio of the Storm Café in Middlebury, Vermont, overlooking Otter Creek. We’d met just days before at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where we were working as waiters. That night, with three other new girlfriends, we were taking a break. We talked about newly minted husbands and newly minted M.F.A.s. And, of course, about books and babies. We wanted both, badly, soon. But which would come first?

As it turned out, our babies beat our books down the birth canal. And for a while, as we gestated, the only books at our bedsides were books about babies: what to expect when you’re pregnant, and in labor, and beyond; what to do to soothe round ligament pain; how close your contractions should be before you call your doctor; whether you needed a bassinet or a co-sleeper or both. Bookstores, we found, were filled with pregnancy journals and parenting bibles, month-by-month manuals and gear guides that were little more than product catalogs. But the shelves were virtually empty of artful, entertaining, unvarnished accounts of labor and delivery. That was what we wanted, we realized. We wanted the extraordinary, the ordinary, the terrifying, the profane, and, sure, the sublime, too. We wanted the truth.

So Eleanor sent out a missive to her friends. How did it happen for you? Did your water break? Did you get an epidural? What did it feel like? Would you do it again? The e-mails came in spades, and in detail—mucus plugs, episiotomies, an entire sheet of Christmas cookies thrown up into a sick pan. These were the stories she needed to hear, and, of course, the friends who were writers told the best ones—the most insightful, the most reflective, the kind that invited you right into the delivery room to take a peek over the nurse’s shoulder. When Anna sent along a four-page essay about her daughter’s recent birth—comic, poignant, pee-soaked, and starring Manhattan’s most eccentric ob-gyn—the idea occurred to us at the same time: These stories need to be collected and shared.

The time seemed ripe. Was it us, or was there a new baby bump featured in the checkout line each week? The reality-TV industry produced birth story after birth story (one too many for Eleanor’s queasy husband). But behind the world’s fascination with airbrushed bellies and dramatized labors, we sensed a more urgent narrative forming, a conversation about the choices available to mothers in the twenty-first century. We watched as “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” became the most circulated article in the history of The Atlantic, as Time magazine made “Are You Mom Enough?” a catchphrase, and as Mitt Romney unleashed binders full of outraged women into the Twitterverse. Ours is an era in which mothers can be CEOs, DIY homemakers, or combat soldiers with equal zeal (and self-consciousness); we can be tiger mothers or “attachment” parents; we can argue for self-sacrifice in one breath and for selfishness in the next; we can call ourselves feminists and we can call feminism dead. We can do and be almost anything—including paralyzed by the sheer number of possibilities.

With Labor Day, we wanted to give expression to the epic questions—of parenthood, fertility, marriage, work, equality—that shape the birth experience for this new generation of mothers and mothers-to-be. To our delight, the writers we approached—poets, fiction writers, memoirists, playwrights; friends and strangers alike—delivered birth stories that do exactly that, and so much more. As the essays rolled in, we laughed. We wept. We groaned in recognition, and gasped with surprise. Each story brought with it new struggles and new triumphs. We found ourselves as immersed in our fellow writers’ birth stories as we had been in our own.

It’s an elemental, almost animalistic urge—the expectant mother’s hunger for birth narratives. Surely our mothers and their mothers nurtured the same craving, a craving as old as storytelling, or childbirth itself. The writers featured in this anthology might even suggest that pregnancy brings the privilege of a higher emotional frequency, tuning us into the stories of other women. “I felt porous,” Rachel Jamison Webster writes of her pregnancy, “strummed by the nerves of the earth. I could feel a friend who was hurting or rejoicing across the country, and I would call and drop into the moment mid-conversation. I felt connected to everyone I loved, especially to other women, and I felt—and still feel— awed to be a portal through which another would enter her life.”

Many of the conversations we drop in on in this book are in uncanny harmony with one another. Dani Shapiro, like Rachel Jamison Webster, feels surrounded by her ancestors as she gives birth. Ann Hood and Marie Myong-Ok Lee, both given Pitocin without permission, watch in exasperation as the items on their birth plans are derailed or just dismissed. Gina Zucker and Phoebe Damrosch bask in the triumphant pleasures of their postlabor meal. Mary Beth Keane and Edan Lepucki find themselves struggling postpartum with lingering doubts and regrets about their long, intense labors. Nuar Alsadir and Danzy Senna are both haunted by the feeling that their induced babies, now children, know they were born too early. Susan Burton and Claire Dederer hold the details of their birth stories close, too precious to share. Arielle Greenberg and Heidi Pitlor write about the heartbreaking loss of their babies late in pregnancy, as well as the joy of the births that followed. (While we don’t want to reduce them to their darkest moments, we feel it’s important to note that certain details in these essays, as well as in those by Amy Herzog and Rachel Jamison Webster, might upset some new and expectant mothers. But these essays also bear witness to the extraordinary resilience of mothers, without which the story of birth would not be complete.)

Other stories reflect collisions, of experience and perspective. While pregnancy eases Dani Shapiro’s anxiety, for Lauren Groff it brings on depression. While pushing comes as naturally as breathing to some of us (Phoebe Damrosch, Amy Brill, Anna), for others (Rachel Jamison Webster, Sarah A. Strickley, Eleanor) it requires learning to use muscles—including mental ones—we didn’t know we had. Joanna Rakoff and Jane Roper must disprove the (male) doctors who tell them they won’t have the strength or stamina to push out their babies, while Ann Hood and Heidi Julavits make transformative connections with the people who help bring their babies into the world. For Nuar Alsadir, seeing her baby’s face for the first time presents a disconnect with the face she’s imagined; for Lan Samantha Chang, it’s instant recognition. And while Edan Lepucki and Joanna Rakoff both labor in the shadow of their mothers’ legendary childbirths (one a home birth, one propulsive), Dani Shapiro and Sarah Jefferis resolve that their own childbirths mark a departure from motherhood as they’ve known it.

And so this book is born: a cacophonous, collective baby. The true stories in these pages are as varied as the women who crafted them. Here are women of diverse cultures, colors, and sexual orientations, women in the big city and women in the country. Here are women intent on giving birth naturally and others begging for epidurals; women who pushed for hours and women whose labors were over practically before they’d started; women giving birth to twins and to ten-pound babies. Here are women giving birth at home, in hospitals, in tubs, on the bathroom floor, and, yes, in the car. Here are women facing agonizing complications and loss— infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth. Here are women reveling in labor, fearing labor, defeated by labor, fulfilled by it—and always amazed by it. 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.

In Labor Day: True Birth Stories for the Twenty-first Century, we put aside our birth plans. We don’t prepare, but reflect. We remember, regret, rejoice, and reveal. We tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth—what wasn’t washed away by the amnesia of oxytocin, anyway. As distinct as these thirty truths are, they are bound by the common thread of the most universal experience there is, the oldest art in the world. We hope these essays reach you with the same simple but profound sense of anticipation and celebration in which they were conceived—by a group of women sitting around a table. We might have been any women at any time in history, sitting around a table, or a quilt, or a fire—dreaming about babies, telling our own stories, and discovering ourselves in one another’s.

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