The other day, I went back and read all three of my birth stories. One thing stood out very clear to me: the sense of failure.
It's kind of ridiculous. All of my births have been uncomplicated, drug-free, and what pretty much anyone would define as successful. And yet each time, immediately after, I felt I had done it wrong.
I've been reading about natural birth since I was a teenager; it was the very first "crunchy" thing I was into. My mom had all natural births and her birth stories all sounded so wonderful and empowered. I read Spiritual Midwifery as she planned her first homebirth, and there was never any question for me: that was what I wanted to do.
The trouble is, all the birth stories in books like that are so awesome and transcendent and empowering, it kind of got me feeling like just giving birth wasn't enough. I wanted a moment in my life that would make me feel that proud and powerful.
In part, it's probably creative storytelling on the part of the birth books. They know that how we imagine labor will be shapes how we approach it, and they want to make us prepared, not scared. So it's possible that no one's birth is quite as empowered as it sounds.
But each birth did come with its failures and disappointments. With Marko's, I was ashamed of myself for letting myself be pushed around by the doctor; I knew perfectly well her advice was wrong (I was well-educated) but somehow I couldn't argue with her. While my mom, who is often passive at other times, stood up to the doctor who delivered me and avoided interventions she didn't want, I -- who try very hard not to be a pushover in other contexts -- felt at the time that it was important to be a "good patient" and do what I was told. And I also was completely unprepared for the intensity of real labor, so that I had no real coping techniques and spent a good deal of the time panicking. (In retrospect, though, I can clearly see I was sabotaged here by trying so hard to be a "good patient," which I felt included being quiet and still. If I'd moved around and made more noise, I know now I might have looked like I wasn't coping as well, but I would have felt much better.) And of course there was the truly traumatic and upsetting detail that I didn't get to hold Marko right away .... something that still makes me sad, four years later.
Michael's birth was pretty great as births go -- two hours of real contractions, no complications, I caught him myself -- and yet I spent a lot of that one panicking too. I was so sure things were about to get worse, and they never did. I kept thinking afterward, "If only I'd known it would be this easy, I wouldn't have created so much more anguish for myself!" I also wasn't happy with the support I had -- the midwives were more of a distraction than a help. And I spent a lot of the time worried about John being worried. So even though physically it was an easy labor, emotionally it wasn't so good. I felt like I'd had the perfect birth and ruined it by stressing out so much.
And then with Miriam's birth, I had spent so much time preparing emotionally so it wouldn't be so rough, talking through it with John so I knew he was ready too, and then it was stressful for reasons out of my control! At least with this one I don't blame myself -- except maybe a little, for not calling John and the midwife to come over PRONTO so I didn't have to go it alone for so long. But it was very hectic and again, no time to prepare emotionally for having a new baby.
I guess I have this wish that birth would automatically bond me to my new baby -- shouldn't something so intense have that effect? My mother says some of her babies she loves extra much because they were such easy births ("thanks for coming out so easily, little one!") and others she loves extra much because their births were hard ("you're worth the extra work!"). But with me, every time I've met a new baby, they're pretty much a stranger. I don't want to tell my kids, when they're older, that my first thought on holding them in my arms was "Oh, thank goodness labor is over!" Other people talk about having a "birth high" or some kind of ecstatic moment when they first hold their baby -- that's never happened to me.
And somehow a part of me hopes that birth will make me feel good about being a woman. I feel very ambivalent about femininity -- I should write more about this. I want to be proud of being a woman, to see it as a good thing, not just something that gives me more suffering, more sacrifice, and more hard work than a man. So many labor stories seem to offer this -- where the mother digs deep and finds some essential power within her to give birth. They say it's important to remember that labor is something you do, not something done to you.
But to me, labor is something that is absolutely done to me. It is done to me by my body, and it's hard to be on good terms with my body when it goes and does crazy things like that to me! Other women have to find their inner strength to push -- me, I couldn't not push to save my life, my body just DOES that. In labor, I am at my most passive -- hence the unquestioning obedience to the doctors, or hoping the midwife would be the one to tell me I was in labor. I feel like I couldn't make a decision to save my life, I'm just waiting to see what's going to happen to me.
John says that I am reverting to my true nature when that happens, showing that deep down I am a very passive person. I hate that, but I think he's right. I hate my inner passivity because it's what made me so easy for a cult to manipulate, and because it leads me time and again to miss out on things I want because I don't like to ask for them. I work very hard not to be passive, and in general I'm pretty successful, but apparently at stressful moments like labor, that's all peeled away and I'm left with my inner nature .... which is passive. Faced with that, I feel shame. I don't like that side of me, and I feel like a failure because I wasn't something else.
But as I write this (this whole post is an exercise in self-examination; I don't know where I'm going with this) I think maybe my passivity in labor isn't something to fight. When I started pushing with Miriam, and then asked the midwife, "Is it okay that I'm pushing?" she gave me the answer I needed -- "You are listening to your body, so you're doing the right thing." Perhaps my surrender to what my body is making me do is what stands in, in my case, for what other people experience as "digging deep and working hard." It's when I stop fighting, stop "coping," and just let labor happen, that things start to go right. It's scary being that out of control, and that's why I've spent so much of my births trying to "do it right," do it my way, control the process. I look to doctors, midwives, and John to take control and manage things for me, because I doubt my capacity to do it. But what I should be listening to is my body itself, because clearly it does know what it's doing!
Of course utter passivity is dangerous; it's too easy to give in to bad advice and bad help. But I'm beginning to think no amount of prior planning and telling myself "THIS time I won't be passive" is going to help. Instead maybe I should plan with my passivity in mind, surrounding myself with people who are trustworthy (Miriam's midwife was perfect; she has a repeat customer forever) and who are prepared to tell me, "Listen to your body" and "I can't tell you what to do."
I think most of all, I need to accept that each of my births was, in fact, just as it was supposed to be. Each was a success. Sure, they went against my plans, and sometimes they were a little traumatic. But each time, my body did that amazing wonderful powerful thing it does and brought a new person into the world. I need to stop resenting it for making things so hard on me, and start respecting its power.