What I Learned at the Bottom of a Well: lessons from my birth story
Last week I told my birth story. While the majority of my labor went well, the end was traumatic. Experiencing pain that overwhelming, that all-encompassing, will never leave me. I know there are some who scoff at the idea of a traumatic birth in which mom and baby both end up healthy. So I do have some reservations about using the term. To begin with, while my internal experience was one of trauma, externally nothing bad happened. I did not hemorrhage. Celeste was healthy. It is my privilege that the worst thing about my delivery was the experience and not the outcome. There are many women who have complicated pregnancies who do not have the privilege of worrying about the experience. There are women who just want to get out of pregnancy alive. While my experience was important, it is not more important than my life or the life of my baby. I’m a mom. My primary concern is always for the safety and protection of my child. So, in using the term traumatic birth I am aware of my privilege.
That being said- my birth was traumatic. Despite all of my preparation, the one thing I wasn’t prepared for was my complete inability to control the situation. It makes so much sense now. But I believed that if I meditated everyday, studied hynobirthing, read all the classic birth books like Spiritual Midwifery and Birthing From Within, and hired a doula that I would be able to have a beautiful birth experience. And externally, my birth looked the way I envisioned. The lights were dim, candlelight flickered, and soft music played while I soaked in warm water. I believed that these conditions would allow me to have the empowering experience I’ve heard so much about. Why didn’t it work for me? What did I do wrong?
While I do not regret my preparation, I fundamentally misunderstood birth. I believed my preparation would result in some control over the situation. What I now understand is that birth is an intense physical, emotional and spiritual experience. For some women it will be amazing and they will fall in love with birth. Others will not have a pleasant experience. Where you end up on the intensity spectrum- it isn’t just up to you. There are factors beyond our control. For one, there is another human involved in birth! Of course I couldn't control her. So I wish I had understood that just because I lived out my perfect birth “plan” did not mean I was going to feel empowered afterwards. I did not feel empowered then and I don’t feel empowered now. I do not feel stronger for going through that experience.
Many women do feel empowered and I don’t disagree with that at all. I’m slightly jealous. I don’t feel that way. My ability to deal with high levels of pain- it just doesn’t impress me. By the time my pain reached a level that would have prompted me to get an epidural I was too far gone. I was incapable of asking for help. I was drowning in darkness and I didn’t know which way was up. I wouldn’t be impressed with my ability to say no to a cupcake if I was chained across the room with no access. Similarly, I’m not impressed that I gave birth without medications. It wasn’t an option for me by the time I needed it. I don’t think someone who feels empowered by an unmedicated birth is wrong- but I can't force myself to feel something I don't.
Though I don’t feel experiencing that level of pain has made me stronger, I am grateful for the experience. The alternative would have set me off on a very different path, and one that I don’t belong on. I know that if I had had an exhilarating delivery I would have thought that my preparation and my confidence in my birthing body was the reason it worked out so well. I would have then advocated for that particular version of birth. And while I believe that the natural birth world and medical birth world both have valid perspectives and beliefs, I was not meant to be an advocate for a particular brand of birth. I was meant to advocate for women regardless of their birth preferences. I believe that all women, not just those preparing for an unmedicated delivery, deserve to be prepared for birth. At the same time I also believe that we need to focus more on what comes after the baby is born. Birth is not the destination of pregnancy. The destination is motherhood. Our culture seems to have forgotten about preparing women for motherhood.