Giving Birth Memoir Essay

Two years ago, when I was expecting my first baby, I searched for an anthology of birth stories and was surprised to discover that none existed. I could find birth stories online on parenting websites and mommy blogs, I could stumble upon birth stories in memoirs and novels, and I could read stories of natural birth in Ina May Gaskin’sSpiritual Midwifery, but I couldn’t find what I really wanted, which was a book that was just birth stories without any advice or particular agenda attached.

Labor Day: True Birth Stories By Today’s Best Women Writersis the book I hoped to find, and the question of what took so long for it to appear is one that its editors, Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon, address in their introduction. They point out, first of all, that birth is now a big business, thanks to increasing options surrounding fertility, pregnancy, and labor:

A vast and diverse industry has grown up around birth in the United States, 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.

Henderson and Solomon also note popular culture’s current obsession with birth and pregnancy, from reality TV shows like Baby Story to gossip magazines with arrows pointing to celebrity “baby bumps” to public hand-wringing over the length of Marissa Mayer’s maternity leave. Once a private conversation, pregnancy and birth are part of a public debate about women’s changing roles in the family and in the workplace:

…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 of outraged women into the Twitterverse.

The essays in Labor Day reflect this anxious atmosphere, sometimes for comic effect and other times with earnest soul-searching. In her essay, “What To Expect When You’re Not Expecting,” novelist Marie Myung-Ok Lee sums up the politics of modern birth this way: “I was realizing that choosing one thing over another would be, basically, a referendum on what I believed, my earliest documented statement on parenting. Earth mother or high-tech urban mommy? Breast or bottle? Rooming in or nursery? Drugs or just say no?”

Lee’s words may sound overwrought, but I remember feeling the same pressure when my doctor asked me if I had any thoughts about my “birth plan,” a concept unique to this particular moment in women’s health. If Labor Day had existed when I was pregnant, I am honestly not sure if it would have helped me to answer my doctor’s question or left me feeling even more confused, but I’m certain I would have read every single one of these essays anyway. Most birth stories I know were delivered second-hand; they’re a little fuzzy around the edges, a little watered-down, and often simplified so as not to frighten. But there’s nothing watered-down about the stories in this volume: they are blunt, wistful, confessional, wise, loving, sorrowful, witty, and sometimes eerie. And then there’s the fact that novelists, poets, and memoirists are at the helm of these essays. These are women with a lot of storytelling tools at their disposal. Putting aside my personal connection to the material (if that is even possible), it was interesting to see how each contributor attacked what is basically an open-ended creative writing prompt: Tell the story of your birth. Tell the truth.

Contributors to Labor Day include The Millions’s own Edan Lepucki, as well as many writers discussed and interviewed in these pages: Dani Shapiro, Joanna Smith Rakoff, Lauren Groff, Lan Samantha Chang, Cheryl Strayed, and Heidi Julavits — to name just a few. These women offer a wide variety of birth experiences. There are home birth and hospital births and even a birth in a car. There are women who labor for hours and those whose labors come quickly, or one case “precipitously.” There are emergency surgeries and scheduled caesareans. There are transcendent births and disappointing ones.

Despite the diversity of experience, I sometimes felt like I was in an echo chamber. Many of the writers in this volume reside in Brooklyn or progressive Brooklyn-ish communities and as a result, have similar attitudes toward labor and delivery. These are women who believe in research, planning, and more often than not, a labor without medical intervention or painkillers. The ideal of natural birth hovers over these essays, a goal to strive and train for. Those who are able to go through with it are often (but not always) exultant. During her 43-hour labor, Cheryl Strayed was transported: “I was blown away and forever altered. Aware of physical capacities and spiritual realms I hadn’t known existed before.” For Rachel Jamison Webster, natural birth was empowering and even healing: “a knowledge of my own strength — and my mother’s and her mother’s — was born.” Eleanor Henderson, Gina Zucker, and Heidi Julavits all report a heady feeling of accomplishment after their unmedicated births. But Julavits also describes an existential dread with the birth of her second child, despite a successful natural delivery: “The first birth proved a challenging athletic event, but I didn’t have to press my face against the cold glass of self.”

For those who do not manage to give birth naturally, there is often regret after delivery. For Edan Lepucki, the disappointment runs deep because natural birth is not just a cultural ideal, but something that is valued in her family: “If the female body is built to give birth, and if every other woman in my family can give birth naturally, then why did I have to meet my baby with an oxygen mask over my face, half my body so numb it became not my own?” Dani Shapiro wryly invokes the natural birth ideal when her long labor becomes decidedly medicalized: “Pitocin. Epidural. Two things I’d been told to avoid at all costs by my granola-crunchy mommy friends who have urged birth plans and doulas and acupuncturists and evening primrose oil…” For many contributors, the labor is too long or the pain is too great or the situation is too dicey and so natural birth is ultimately abandoned, a negotiation Lauren Groff summarizes with her admission: “I had wanted a natural childbirth, but when the anesthesiologist came into the room with the epidural, I kissed his hands.”

Another ideal that shows up in many essays is that of the “birth plan.” This is a group of accomplished women, after all. They are accustomed to planning. Several of them finish big projects shortly before birth; others educate themselves on every aspect of the birthing process; others clean houses and bake — or at least plan to clean and bake. But then things that could not be anticipated begin to occur and the writers must adjust. A persistent theme throughout these essays is the difficulty of letting go of expectations. Gina Zucker observes that all her planning for birth was a bit like her planning for her wedding: “The details I’d obsessed about for months became beside the point afterward.” Marie Myung-Ok Lee calls labor a metaphor for life: “You can have your beliefs, your expectations, your plans, but when it comes, it just comes and does what it wants.” Ann Hood takes a rueful, novelistic view: “How we plan! And how hopeful and ignorant we are! With such certainty we move through life, making decisions — however impulsively — and moving steadily forward.”

Labor Day will no doubt be marketed to expectant mothers and touted as the perfect baby shower gift, but I think that it might be just as helpful, if not more helpful, to read these stories after birth. Before giving birth, I looked to birth stories as a way to prepare for the unknown, an idea that now strikes me as wishful thinking. But after giving birth, the stories I heard from other women helped me to make sense of what had just happened — and who I was after what just happened. It’s a process Claire Dederer describes in her essay, “Not Telling”:

The birth story, I believe, is not so much about the baby as about the mother and her wonder and horror at the whole crazing fucking incomprehensible transformative gestalt alteration she’s undergoing. The birth story is an expression of the dying throes of an egoism that is in the process of being brutally impaired.

The interesting thing about Dederer’s essay is that she doesn’t actually tell the story of the births of her children. She doesn’t tell them, because she’s told them before, in her memoir, Poser, and she regrets having told them, because the stories are no longer hers, they are now for her readers. “Maybe they helped someone else become a mother,” Dederer muses. I was fascinated to read these words, because Dederer’s birth stories are among the ones I stumbled upon, when I was looking for birth stories. Her stories stuck with me, and they helped me, and I’m glad that she is no longer so lonely in telling them.

Image credit: Hamed Saber/Flickr

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Hannah Gersen is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field. Her short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and The Chattahoochee Review, among others. Read more at hannahgersen.com or sign up for her newsletter here.

For most of her life, Ariel Levy’s disregard for rules and expectations has mostly paid off. As a child, she preferred adventurous make-believe to playing house. As a young adult, she was determined to write at New York magazine when she was a lowly editorial assistant and became an accomplished magazine writer for such publications as the New York Times, Vogue, and the New Yorker. She fell in love and got the girl, even though the girl was in a relationship with someone else when they met. Eventually, they married. She’s boarded airplanes to places like South Africa in search of characters and returned with stories about gender and athleticism and ways that ignorance and stereotypes can cripple.

But life isn’t simple, and as she moved from her 20s into her late 30s, the rules began to feel a little less negotiable—an experience she records in her riveting new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply.

“Every morning I wake up, and for a few seconds I’m disoriented, confused as to why I feel grief seeping into my body, and then I remember what has become of my life,” Levy writes in the preface. “I am thunderstruck by feeling at odd times, and then I find myself gripping the kitchen counter, a subway pole, a friend’s body, so I won’t fall over.”Over the course of only a few months when she was 38 years old, Levy lost her spouse and her house to divorce, and her son to a miscarriage. In 2013, Levy wrote about her miscarriage in a powerful New Yorker personal essay called “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” It’s impossible to read that essay—and the book—without experiencing some of her anguish, as if you’ve stepped outside of your body and into hers. It’s the sort of writing that is vulnerable and vivid, and makes the reader feel brave and desperate in quick succession. “All of my conjuring had led to ruin and death,” she writes in her memoir. “Now I was a wounded witch, wailing in the forest, undone…The wide-open blue forever had spoken: You control nothing.”

Mother Jones caught up with Levy to talk about writing through grief, the politics of miscarriage, and what it means to be an animal woman.

Mother Jones: Let’s talk about “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” How did you decide to write about that experience in the first place?

Ariel Levy: It wasn’t really a decision. It just sort of came out of my fingers, you know? There were fewer choices involved than in anything I’ve ever written before—it just kind of happened. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had a piece like that before in my life where there was not a lot of effort; there were not a lot of choices; there was not a lot of moving things around. It just came out of my fingers. I just said what I had to say, basically. It’s not usually like that. Usually it’s a lot of work. Usually it’s a pain in the drain. It just happened.

MJ: So it just felt like something you needed to write about?

AL: Yeah. I guess I needed to, because it wasn’t a conscious choice. The book is a different matter—the book is a conscious choice, and the book was work. It did involve making lots and lots of decisions, and doing lots and lots of revisions. “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” was not like that. I felt like I had said exactly what I meant to say. It’s not usually like that for me. Normally, it’s kind of what I want to say, you know, it’s sort of what I want to say, but it’s never quite everything I hoped. With that piece, I didn’t have any hope. I was like, “Yeah, I mean every word of that.” Unfortunately, it only happened once in 20 years. I’m not going to get too used to it. [The book] was, in many ways, a pleasurable process. It was a normal writing experience that involved decision-making and revision, and some struggle, like anything. Much, much easier than my first book, which was like a total uphill slog.

MJ: I’m sort of surprised to hear you say that—the writing comes across as such raw emotion.

AL: Well, the fact of the matter is, I was doing that anyway. That process of looking at what has happened and what I had done in various ways was difficult, but writing about it wasn’t painful. Feeling suffering is painful, obviously, but writing about suffering, I did not find unpleasant. Usually I don’t write about myself; I write about other people. When you’re reporting, you’re trying to put together the truth based on what lots of different people tell you. Maybe you’re there for some of it because you’re reporting scenes, but at the end of the day, you’re trying to piece together reality from various sources. It’s not like I know the ultimate truth, but I know what was true to me. I found the exercise of trying to express that as precisely as possible sort of thrilling.

MJ: So how did you decide to write the story of your miscarriage as a book?

AL: I don’t know. If this was someone else’s story, I would have wanted to tell it. I would have thought, “Well first of all, that’s a good story, and second of all, it involves lots of stuff that I’m interested in.” Why is it disqualified just because it’s my story, and I know every single thing about it? That shouldn’t be a mark against it. Maybe that should be a mark for it, is what I ultimately decided. Obviously personal life is complicated, but I decided to do it anyway.

MJ: I’m glad you did.

AL: Thanks, I’m glad I did too.

MJ: So does that mean you’re feeling good about the book coming out?

AL: I feel partly good about it, let’s say.

MJ: How did the people in your life react to the idea of your memoir?

AL: Really generously. My former spouse is the first person who read it before I turned it in. I was like, “Okay, if there’s anything you can’t live with, let me know and I’ll take it out.” She’s more important to me than any book. Characteristically generous, she was like, “You know what? I’m not going to censor you. This is your story—you tell it how you want to tell it.”

Which is incredible, but also not surprising if you know her. She was the only one I was concerned about. My parents, you know, that’s ancient history.

MJ: Miscarriage is sometimes regarded as this personal, private thing. When women come forward and speak about it, it becomes political. Do you see yourself normalizing the spectrum of pregnancy outcomes by writing about your experience?

AL: Certainly hearing from lots and lots of women who had lost babies, lost pregnancies, and also some women who’d lost children, made me feel good about writing about some of these issues. I feel that the dramatic experience of being a human female animal hasn’t really been a major subject for art and literature. Why shouldn’t it be? It affects half the population. Not that every woman is going to get pregnant or have a child or lose a child, but at some point in her life every woman will have some drama around menstruation, pregnancy, childbearing, childbirth, menopause, something to do with that animal fear.

MJ: Do you feel like there’s a stigma of blame around miscarriage?

AL: Well it’s also a biological experience, right? When you lose a pregnancy like that—especially if you are late term, as I was—you’re going through an enormous let down of all these hormones. If things go well, you’ve got a baby to take care of, so that serves as this counterbalance to this enormous physical, hormonal shitshow. If the baby dies, then you’re in a pretty dark place. Sure it’s cultural, but it’s not just cultural. It’s also physical. It’s pretty hard not to blame yourself and feel terrible in 800 ways when you’re going through that physical experience. Your body’s producing milk for a baby who’s not there. I don’t see a way that you’d avoid going to a pretty dark place in that condition.

MJ: The book is, in some ways, a meditation on womanhood and what it means to have the power to reproduce. Can you talk a little bit about what that has meant to you and then how it has evolved since your pregnancy? 

AL: Before I had that experience, I wouldn’t have understood what it entailed. I think if someone said to me, “Oh, this person had a late-term miscarriage, this person went into premature labor,” I would’ve had no sense of what that meant. I think sometimes people will [assume] women will know what this is all about. I don’t even think it’s fair to ask women to know what it’s about if they haven’t experienced that. I certainly didn’t understand the emotional experience of pregnancy and birth. It just wouldn’t have resonated for me.

MJ: What advice would you give someone who is dealing with this kind of loss?

AL: Just to know that eventually, grief moves. It changes shape. If you’re fortunate, it moves from something you live in to something that lives in you. What I mean is, there’s always going to be something. I’m never going to be like, “Oh yeah, that was fine that that happened.” It’s always going to be a really painful reality for me. I’m always going to wish that my son had lived. Now, that’s something that lives in me. I don’t walk around in a tunnel of that experience. It’s just something that lives in my heart.

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