Saturday, September 6, 2014

Three births

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. 


The Sojourner said...

Somebody on a Facebook babywearing group asked a question about vernix today (that sounds like the opening of a really weird joke) and it made me remember when J was first born. All the natural birth books tell you not to worry if your baby doesn't cry, because if you have the nice peaceful crunchy birth, why would your baby cry? They'll probably just crawl up and latch on and you can admire them in the glow of the unicorns trotting by!

I did everything "right"--no drugs, he went right on my chest, the nurses draped a blanket over us and left us alone--but he just lay there and cried and cried. The post-birth high lasted about 2 minutes before I started to worry my baby didn't like me or I was doing something wrong because why was he crying so much?

I didn't even realize that was still bothering me until today, and now I'm making a conscious effort to sort of let it go. Maybe he was just angry about being evicted. Maybe he hurt his neck coming out all cockeyed.(My back hurt for WEEKS from having his little skull grinding up against it for 6 hours; imagine how he felt!) Maybe the evil hospital fluorescents hurt his eyes. Who knows?

I won't say it doesn't matter, because obviously it does or it wouldn't still bother me 9.5 months later, but I am trying not to feel guilt about it. I don't want my son growing up with somebody who holds herself to impossible standards of perfection, you know? I want him to learn that it's okay to be sad and to integrate our sad memories with our happy memories and...I don't know, I'm just rambling at this point. Bloggy group therapy!

I hope you manage to do that integration thing with your own feelings and memories.

Julia said...

Caveat: never been pregnant or given birth.

It annoys me that women are made (by whomever) to feel like "failures" in labour or birth. What is this about? I'm sure it never used to be this way!
I mean, I don't understand why anyone cares whether someone had an epidural or not. If baby and mum are fine in the end, what's the big deal about her using gas-and-air or nothing at all?

Sheila said...

I can't really blame anyone else for "making" me feel like a failure. I think it's more my own ridiculously high expectations. I certainly don't judge *other* people for having epidurals or even elective c-sections if that's really what they want -- why don't I give myself the same kindness? Can't figure it out.

Sojourner, I think lots of babies cry! The womb is nice and warm and cozy and the outside world is a big shock. But I know how those feelings sort of sink into you and stay with you when you're having a baby. A little-known effect of oxytocin is that it sharpens memory -- in order to help us bond of course -- but the result is that birth and the moments after it are very clear in our memories for the rest of our lives.

My main memory of Marko's birth is hearing him cry from across the room as he got his lungs suctioned out, while the OB was manually cleaning out my uterus. It's such a traumatic memory, separation from the baby that had been INSIDE me for nine months, coupled with a sense of dehumanization, powerlessness, and pain from what the doctor was doing to me without even asking. I wish I could let this go, but the way the body works, it appears I just can't. I do try to focus on other memories, like when I finally did get to hold him -- though he and I were both so tired we didn't take much interest in each other by that point. Sigh.

I don't know whether I would recommend people to tell women less positive birth stories, or whether that would just scare the heck out of us. I do think every woman is going to have to process her birth after the fact. It happens fast, we're not really prepared, and yeah, it's traumatic. Nature of the beast, I guess.

The Sojourner said...


I think that in a lot of cases it's not so much a matter of women being made to feel guilty by third parties. Some of us have this preconceived idea of how *we* want the birth to go and if it doesn't go that way it can be upsetting. Kind of like how some women start planning their wedding when they're 5 years old and others are all, "Meh, let's just go to the courthouse; it's being married in the end that matters."

I don't go around making people feel guilty for having epidurals or not breastfeeding or whatever other parenting choice I disagree with, but I also try to avoid saying things like, "At least you have a healthy baby!" or "The most important thing is that your baby is getting fed!" or things like that, because moms' feelings also matter, and sometimes the best thing to do is to let people work out those feelings.

Ariadne said...

My labor and delivery did not the way I had hoped they would, and I'm still trying to come to terms with that 10 months later. Honestly, I don't know why I care so much. Everything worked out in the end, after all, but we can't help our feelings.

I made the best decisions I could with the information I had at the time, and I'm not sure that I would choose differently if I could go back and do it over again. I am definitely ashamed that I was not able to have a natural birth. After all, my mom did it 7 times with no problems, and most of my friends have managed it as well. So why couldn't I? Well, it is what it is. I was induced, and I put up with the almost constant contractions for 8 hours until I caved and got the epidural. The epidural helped me relax, get some sleep, and let my body do its job, so I think it was the right decision. I have a low threshold for pain anyway, so I'm not sure what would have happened when I got into "real" labor.

Having said that, I am grateful for the good memories I have of my L&D. I remember the first time I saw Rosie's little dark head in the mirror. That mirror got me through 2 hours of pushing! I remember the feeling of relief when she finally came out, and the wonder I felt when they laid her on my chest. I just watched her moving her arms and looking around; she didn't even cry. I remember the first time I got to hold her. She cried at first until I sang to her. Then she calmed down and fell asleep.

I think we all need to be easier on ourselves about these things. Everyone's labor is different, and I don't think anyone has a perfect experience.

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, Sheila, I can relate! I also felt ambivalent about femininity and being female for a long time. When I was a child, I was so attracted to the things that my family and society and the media said were just "for boys" that I really disliked being a girl. It didn't help that my face was very badly scarred from some medical procedures. Girls were supposed to be pretty and I wasn't pretty at all, so how could I be a decent girl? =P I couldn't even be a tomboy without worrying that the boys would reject me for not being a pretty enough tomboy! (Well, they did reject my company a lot, but that was probably because of my annoying personality rather than my looks. LOL!)

It seems shallow to say that reconstructive surgery made everything better, but I believe that it played a huge part. At least I've always felt that it is easier to be feminine and to be happy being feminine when I "look the part." (Did you ever watch the movie Junior in which Arnold Schwarzenegger gets "pregnant"? There's a scene in which he has to pretend to be a real woman--and you can be sure that the effect is comical! But he makes up a story about having been on an East German Olympic team and being pumped full of anabolic steroids, ending with the line, "But inside, I'm all woman!" That was totally me, apologising for my looks before and during the years when I was having all my reconstructive surgeries. And now it occurs to me that although the main source of humour in Junior was seeing a man experiencing what is naturally reserved for women, I enjoyed it because I know what it's like to feel like less of a woman than other women.)

But now there's the other issue that you brought up in your post: your feelings toward your true nature. I personally don't think that being passive--or as I prefer to think of it, receptivity--is a bad thing, even though it does make people vulnerable. I wish that you didn't dislike a perfectly good part of yourself just because some awful people took advantage of you through it. They're the ones who should feel ashamed--not you!

I wish I had the time to write more, but I can't even answer the comments on my own blog yet . . . much less wrap up the next Oryx and Crake post that is half done. =P I will come back to this later, though!

Enbrethiliel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julia said...

Sojourner, I think you are right about mothers' feelings being overlooked. And who knows what I'll be like if ever I'm a mother! But I haven't been led to believe that labour is anything other than agonisingly painful, and I don't really know anyone who's had a "birth plan", so I don't really think I'll have any expectations other than PAINPAINPAIN.

But I'm not very sentimental either. To use your example, I was never the girl who had her wedding planned from a young age.

sdecorla said...

This conversation is very interesting to me, as it touches on something I’ve been thinking about. I’m someone who always loved being female – until I had to deal with pregnancy and childbirth, that is.

As a kid, I was very “girly” and I loved princesses, flowers, and color pink, and all things “pretty” and feminine. I still love the color pink, actually. As I got older my interests were always in the arts and humanities and things that more girls and women seem to be interested in. I was never interested in math, science, business, or other more “male” disciplines. Pretty much every career I’ve even considered is female-dominated. I always wanted kids and didn’t have any ambivalence at all about having them. When my first child was born I was blown away by the strong bond I felt with her. I had a strong desire to stay home with her and hated having to go back to work.

Yet despite being very conventionally feminine in a lot of ways, I HATED having to deal with pregnancy and childbirth. It’s just a lot of pain and discomfort and inconvenience. I love being a mom, but I wish I could just snap my fingers and have a baby. Even things that some pregnant women like – such as feeling the baby move around – I just found really annoying, to be honest! It makes me angry when men in the Church wax poetic about pregnancy. They will never have to go through it. Pregnancy can be seriously dangerous and even kills people. I am someone who never, ever had even the slightest desire to be male or the slightest interest in more conventionally “male” things, yet actually experiencing pregnancy and childbirth made me feel very ambivalent about being female, for the first time ever.

Also, I have NEVER heard any man express any desire at all to experience pregnancy and childbirth. There are men who are effeminate and men who desire to be the primary caregivers to their kids, but I’ve never, ever heard of any man who actually wants to experience pregnancy. It seems like you can find a man somewhere who wants to do everything that women have traditionally done, EXCEPT be pregnant and give birth. If being able to experience pregnancy and childbirth is supposedly such a privilege, why isn’t there more jealousy from men that they don’t “get” to experience it?

Sheila said...

sdecorla, my husband actually has expressed a wish to get pregnant and give birth! But not because he is jealous .... he just feels horribly guilty watching me go through it, and would love to take it off my hands. Because I hate it too. I hate being huge, I hate all the nasty uncomfortable side-effects (how can people NOT?), and it doesn't help that I am always vaguely annoyed and depressed the whole nine months.

I never really thought much about being a woman, and intended to be a domestic goddess/earth mother type (which I admit I am!) but pregnancy? Ugh. Luckily I don't mind breastfeeding, seeing as I've done it a total of almost four years now.

Julia, it seems to me there are two kinds of women: those like me, who research the heck out of everything and have the crunchy homebirth and still feel disappointed about something .... and those who expect a lot of pain and don't plan for anything, and wind up with a c-section because that's what you get if you let the doctors have their way. Call me a cynic. I hope you are pleasantly surprised, if you ever have kids, that it's not as bad as you thought.

Ariadne, an epidural birth can be a good birth too. If I hadn't been so scared to do it, I probably would have gotten one with Marko. But I also was at seven cm when I was contemplating it, and my mom had told me beforehand that that's about when things are the worst -- so I figured if I just held on a little longer, things would get easier, and they did. If I'd been dealing with that for eight hours, though, forget it.

I think too many of us consider resisting the epidural like resisting torture -- if you get one, you're a failure; if you don't, you achieved something. I never saw it that way -- I am afraid of needles, and preferred the pain, when it came down to it. I also knew that it can make your labor longer (increasing your chance of a c-section, one of my greatest fears) and your recovery harder (because you can't feel while you're pushing and can injure yourself). So it was a "selfish" choice but in this case I see no reason not to be selfish. It's not like anyone gave me a medal -- or that I even FELT accomplished for refusing it.

I remember your birth sounded pretty traumatic to me, but it does sound like it ended well and you had some nice bonding moments, thank goodness.

E .... I wonder if men feel this conflicted about being men. I know I was always happy with my looks until puberty .... and then I was rather weirded out by things changing, didn't like that. But for me, I don't think looks enter into it so much .... I have no idea whether I am considered pretty, or what someone might "rate" me. I don't know if any guy has ever liked me except the one I married, and he doesn't care about looks. *shrug*

I do think, though, that there's a difference between passivity and receptivity. I can't quite define it ... but it seems to me that a brick you are building with is passive, whereas a garden patch is receptive. A passive person does what they are told; a receptive person uses initiative to achieve what's really wanted. Lady Macbeth is a *receptive* woman -- Chesterton called her the ideal wife! She uses initiative.

I do know that I have to fight my passivity to make my marriage work. Otherwise it's a million arguments of "why didn't you tell me you needed me to take out the trash? why didn't you ask me for help? why won't you ever tell me what you want?" I'm married to a guy who is DEAD TIRED of making all the decisions and taking on all the responsibility, all the time. So the *receptive* thing to do is to take on some of the responsibility myself, while the passive side of me is still wanting to shrug and say "whatever you like is fine, dear."

Ariadne said...

My birth WAS traumatic, no doubt about that! I had nightmares for two solid weeks afterward. If I ever have another baby, I'm not sure what choices I would make, but I just hope I go into labor on my own and that there is less fear involved.

I did my research, so I was in a position to weigh the risks and benefits of an epidural and make an informed choice. I remember reading that a well-timed epidural can actually help labor progress under the right circumstances, and I definitely think that's what happened with me. In my case, I could feel quite well when it was time to push, so I think it depends on the dosage. It was out of my system soon after I gave birth.

I'm not sure the dichotomy of crunchy birth or c-section is accurate. Some people try for natural births and don't manage it for whatever reason, and not all doctors are pushing for c-sections. We were lucky that the doctors and our hospital were patient and not in a rush to do surgery. Anyway, I do think there's a broad spectrum of labor experiences out there.

Sheila said...

Well, definitely, but I think you fit into the category of "prepared and disappointed about some part of it." Whereas the people who have low expectations of birth -- who say they expect only pain, and their birth plan is "wing it" -- they very often do get c-sections. But they also seem to be less traumatized and disappointed than I would be, because I was busy researching to find the "right" way and am disappointed if I don't get it to go that way.

I just wonder sometimes if it would be better to know less, plan less, and expect less so that that way I wouldn't mind so much when things go sideways, as they always do!

But yes, of course there is a broad spectrum, and there are lots of people who show up knowing zip about birth and have a perfectly natural one and plenty of prepared people wind up with c-sections. I was more talking about how high expectations and lots of planning seem to result in more disappointment afterward, but failing to plan could result in even worse results, so there's no winning.

Enbrethiliel said...


In fairness to the brick, we want our bricks to be passive, because otherwise our houses wouldn't stand!

I'm going to come back to this discussion when I have more time, but you know I can't resist claiming Comment #13! ;-)

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm sure this isn't the first combox in which I said I'd come back later, and then forgot to do so! The problem with that is that I also forget what I was going to say. =P

But I'm back anyway because I thought of something new to throw into the pot! Something I don't like about myself, which seems related to both passivity and receptivity, is my gullibility. =( I very rarely figure out until embarrassingly late that someone is being fake with me and just using me. On the one hand, it's because I try to see the best in others and to give them the benefit of the doubt . . . but on the other hand, it's also because I'm slow on the uptake and apparently easy to bribe with generous gifts. =( I also experience some loss of control: my inability to tell who the slick operators are means that I'm always vulnerable to them.

At least passivity during labour can be a good: as your midwife said, you're listening to your body at a time when you really should. But it's hard to see gullibility as a good.

Sheila said...

Well, if you think of the opposite of gullibility, it would also be a bad thing. You'd withhold your trust even from people who did deserve it, and thus miss out on people who are being real with you.

I mean, I'm a pretty trusting person too, and I guess that's how you and I manage to be friends even though either one of us could be scamming the other somehow. We just have to trust that it IS real, or it wouldn't work at all.

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