Why We Can't Stop Telling Our Birth Stories (And Why We Never Should)

By Elisa Albert
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When did you first begin to comprehend what it means to give birth? How were you introduced to the idea? What kinds of images made an impression?

I grew up on John Hughes’ She’s Having a Baby (terror, haunting music, a near-death emergency), Nora Ephron’s Heartburn (terror, screaming, a near-death emergency), Look Who’s Talking (freak-out, demon voice), and the bizarre Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Junior (madcap, grotesque, oddly clairvoyant about assisted reproduction and gender politics). The message I got from these films was that there is no dignity in birth and the female body is monstrous and unlovable in any functional capacity whatsoever. Also, in the midst of childbirth, one has free license to holler obscenities at one’s (presumably heterosexual) partner (“You got me into this mess, *sshole!”).

I’m a storyteller by trade, I moonlight as a doula, and I believe we navigate our lives by the constellations of narrative. The stories we absorb morph into the stories we tell ourselves, overlapping and shifting and echoing as we attempt to pass them on. Let’s hear it for data — data is eminently useful — but our core beliefs and ideas and emotional identifications don’t come from data. Stories, more than data, shape our understanding and expectations of birth. It's through sharing stories that we process the profound, life-altering experience of giving birth, before the fact and long after.

But for too long our narrative inheritance around birth has been hidden, twisted, and traumatized. In her 1976 opus Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, poet Adrienne Rich recalls herself as a child, scouring the birth scenes in Anna Karenina and War and Peace for some comprehension of what the hell was happening to those poor women screaming behind closed doors (in narratives, needless to say, written by men). Then there was the obstetrics textbook in her father’s study, full of clinical language and disembodied or diagrammed genitalia, offering little holistic understanding of what it means to be the person giving birth. Later, Rich bore each of her three sons under general anesthesia, which was in fashion at the time, and she wonders, agonizingly, why she went along with it.

I embroidered a pitiful teenage anxiety about how I would someday manage to get a fresh bikini wax right before going into labor, so as not to disgust my (presumably misogynistic) future OB.

As a kid, when I asked my own mother about giving birth, she would just shrug: “It’s the quickest forgotten pain in the world. Over before you know it. Nothing to be afraid of.” This was a powerful assurance from a formidable woman who grew up in an era when I Love Lucy writers couldn’t use the word “pregnant” on air. But I still embroidered a pitiful teenage anxiety about how I would someday manage to get a fresh bikini wax right before going into labor, so as not to disgust my (presumably misogynistic) future OB.

In my 20s, I got a job writing for a TV network that syndicated a Canadian show called Birth Stories. I watched women walking around throughout labor, dancing through the rough bits, shaking their hips, eating and drinking, squatting or on all fours, or floating peacefully in bathtubs to deliver. My job was to add researched pop-up commentary, and the more I learned, the more astonished I became: Birth looked nothing like the cultural tripe I’d been fed. If you were a healthy woman with an uncomplicated pregnancy, you didn’t have to give birth incapacitated and flat on your back on an institutional table with your ass hanging out of a tiny gown and your legs held up by panicked strangers. Who knew?

These days, the quality and quantity of birth stories available to us is limited only by our search engine fluency (try: “birth stories”). You can watch Kourtney Kardashian intuitively guide her son out into her own arms in a 2009 episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians (Kardashian shared the home movie footage from the hospital because, she later said, the experience was “amazing,” unlike the childbirth scenes she’d seen in movies, which “terrified” her), or you can watch the poet Rachel Zucker’s intimate, lovely short film chronicling her 2008 home/water birth. On Reddit, there are enough first-person accounts of childbirth to fuel a Cornell University computational science study.

The fear-mongering, silence, and innuendo offered up within the last century of mass culture couldn't be more different from the diversity and sheer volume of birth stories available to us now. But we still have a long way to go when it comes to normalizing empowered birth: Using machine-learning, the Cornell study measured power dynamics across thousands of birth stories, and found that new mothers tended to feel like the least powerful people in the room, second only to their newborns.

A doula listens to and helps to retell the birth story postpartum, happily dwelling on the details a person’s friends and family may tire of hearing.

“Birth takes place in such an invisible space,” says British Columbia-based midwife and author Ilana Stanger-Ross. “Unlike, say, weddings. We aren’t always flooded with mainstream images of normal, healthy, empowered birth to give us real working familiarity.” People are quick to pass around the horror story about their sister’s friend’s sister’s friend, “while the lovely stories are actually sort of boring.” When Stanger-Ross was pregnant, she kept Spiritual Midwifery out on the table, to remind herself that birth is “normal and fine and possible. I wanted to be surrounded by those stories,” she says.

Cristen Pascucci, the founder of obstetric violence awareness organization Birth Monopoly, heard a lot traumatic stories when she was expecting, and wondered why they often ended with “Oh, but here’s my baby, so it’s all fine.” “Why did everyone seem OK with that? What if it didn’t have to be that way?” she says. She was determined to educate herself, starting with YouTube.

“The births that looked safe, healthy, not scary to me were the ones that took place at home — mostly just a woman alone in a bathtub catching her own baby,” Pascucci says. “I was not into that idea for myself, but it blew my mind this was even possible, and I had to reevaluate everything I thought I knew about birth.”

What positive birth stories tend to have in common is that the person giving birth “understood what was happening every step of the way … felt supported, and ... felt like she herself shaped her experience; she wasn’t acted upon,” says Stanger-Ross. “She had agency. The negative stories, I find, don’t have as much to do with what happened or how it went down, but more about how she was treated through the process.”

Being a doula — serving people before, during, and after the birthing process — means helping to guide a strong, positive, empowered narrative. “Sometimes I feel like a DJ,” says Ceridwen Morris, author and OG doula. “Sometimes a sex worker.”

It also involves listening to and helping to retell the birth story postpartum, happily dwelling on the details a person’s friends and family may tire of hearing. “Sometimes moms ask me to fill in the blanks, since I was there with them, and the story takes shape the more we share it between us,” says Deshaya Williams, a doula based in Albany, New York. Occasionally, Williams says, she learns after the fact of a client’s mother or sister’s traumatic birth experience. “And I’m like, wow, it might have been better had we discussed this beforehand! The ancestral line affects us.”

The impulse to write my birth story down ASAP was a way to outwit the shifting sands of time, refuse to let the 'truth' of my experience fade.

The day after my son was born, I wrote down what had happened. Or, no: I wrote down my experience of what had happened. I had to set it down before the immediacy faded, before I lost fluency with the realness. I wasn’t thinking “straight,” my mind still in that “other” place — some call it sacred, certainly not of this workaday world. Arguably an ideal state of mind for a storyteller.

The story I had to tell was about heroics and accomplishment. For me, birth was a staggering challenge, a life-altering trial, and I wanted to own it fully. I had done it: come back from an epic journey to another plane, with a whole new person in my arms. The impulse to write it down ASAP was a way to outwit the shifting sands of time, refuse to let the “truth” of my experience fade. And memory does fade, which is why humans have always encased the truth in stories.

I sent my birth story to a few far-flung friends — maybe the ones who, if we did live in some magical village in some distant wishful past, would have been by my side throughout. One replied with an immediate virtual high five: “OMFG, YOU DID IT.” Which made my experience realer, somehow.

The medical community is waking up to the importance of storytelling and empathic listening, too. Dr. Abigail Ford Winkel, attending OB-GYN at Bellevue and vice chair for education in obstetrics and gynecology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, credits her training in the burgeoning field of narrative medicine with shaping her consciousness as a clinician. “I wanted to be there for people in a meaningful way during labor and delivery, but there often just wasn’t really time for that, because you’re so focused on the quality of the clinical decision-making,” she says. Winkel’s kids go to a progressive school where the parent questionnaire asks, “What do you tell your children about how they were born?”

“At first I thought: Nothing! They came out and we all lived and it’s over! But then I thought about it, and about who my kids are, and how the stories of their births actually reflect who they are. And I understand more and more how meaningful birth is in the story of a family.”

It took my mom decades to begin to understand that it 'didn’t have to be that way,' but all the while she kept telling me birth was fine, normal, no big deal. Which is true! And also not true.

The tricky thing about stories, though, is that they shape-shift. They bend and alter themselves to fit the needs and agendas of their tellers and the preconceptions of their listeners. Stories are living entities. This is what makes them at once fully true and trustworthy and potentially false and misleading. As I’ve asked my mother more in-depth questions about her experience giving birth, her stories have grown darker and more complex. Forgotten or hidden details have begun to emerge. Like the “handsome” OB-GYN who swept her membranes without consent (“I don’t know what he was doing, but it hurt like hell!”), the routine full episiotomy and use of forceps, non-consent a given. “I guess I just trusted the doctors,” she says. “What did I know?” She did, however, reflexively kick the OB-GYN in the face. It wasn’t intentional (she swears), and everyone allegedly laughed it off, but on some level she must have known perfectly well she wasn’t being treated decently.

It took my mom decades to begin to understand that it “didn’t have to be that way,” but all the while she kept telling me birth was fine, normal, no big deal. Which is true! And also not true. But she had no context for her story, no one to help her “unpack” it, in MFA-speak. In a way, by encouraging her to retell her story, and by helping her contextualize it, it’s as though I’m her doula, many decades after the fact.

Owning our own stories, recording them, retelling them, revisiting them, and sharing them is an education unto itself. Listen to birth stories. Seek out birth stories. Tell your own story in any form or forum you like. No matter how you gave birth or how it went down, someone is likely to be personally affronted by your choices, which simply could not matter less.

Birth is a normal rite of passage, and rites of passage are supposed to be both common and meaningful, both ordinary and extraordinary. Even in the embrace (or grip?) of an advanced technocracy, we still can’t really control life itself, our bodies, or the natural world, and for my part, I can’t begin to imagine why we’d want to. Especially as it seems more and more obvious that our efforts at control often backfire in spectacularly destructive ways. What we can control, however, are the stories we tell and the stories we consume. And, by extension, the meaning we make.