I was sitting across from her at the table with my 2-week-old in my lap when I heard the question.
“So, did you have a natural birth?”
It was one of those moments in conversations where you’re supposed to reply quickly – no room for qualifiers, explanations or sentences starting with “Well…” Except I didn’t have a yes or no answer, and I felt a quick jolt of pain at that realization.
“I think I can handle a natural birth. I have a pretty high pain tolerance.”
Luckily, all the other women at the table started chiming in, each with their impression of what they’d be like in labor. Their comments filled the space where I was still hanging, saying they could handle it, too.
I couldn’t really judge. I had been there — months ago, or weeks, really. But sitting at brunch just two weeks after giving birth, the pain of it was still raw. Not so much my physical scars, but my mental ones. And there was that question — “Did you have a natural birth?” — that I still couldn’t answer.
That was what I wanted. I labored at home with my husband and then later with my doula for 9 hours, arriving at the hospital having dilated to 6 centimeters. I was in transition — a stage of labor that’s short, but ugly, the last little bit of dilation before pushing. It usually lasts about 30 minutes to an hour. But after 5 hours of insane contractions every two to three minutes, accompanied by projectile vomiting, hot and cold flashes and intense full-body shakes, I wasn’t any further along. My baby was stuck. His head was acynclitic — cocked to the side and unable to descend all the way into the pelvis.
It was decision time. Something had to be done. I was exhausted and bordering on dehydrated. And stuck.
I had learned in my childbirth class that an epidural isn’t just about pain relief. Sometimes, my doula explained, it’s a tool to help a woman continue with labor — to get rest, to help her cervix open, to give her a break so she can avoid a C-section. So, that’s what we did. And within an hour, I had dilated to 9 cm. I had rested, gotten fluids and was ready to roll again when the sun came up.
So, no, I did not have a “natural” birth. But that seemed so unjust. I wanted to scream, “I did it my damn self! No one helped me! I did it — me, alone!” And that was true. Yes, the drugs and the anesthesiologist gave me a break. But they couldn’t do what I alone had to do — contract, release, push — the work of birthing.
But I felt ashamed — sitting there at the brunch table with a group of women who imagined birth to be something like the lives they had lived up until now. Not the life-altering moment it was for me, not just because of the birth of my first baby, but the birth of me as a mother. I emerged from birth as a baby myself — new and vulnerable. I had done it, but I didn’t feel powerful. I felt as if I had been through war and just barely escaped the fatal bullet.
I know all the facts about natural birth — that our over-medicalized, pay-per-procedure, cycle women through the maternity ward system is broken. We treat birth as a medical problem, not a life event, and at once both fail to honor it properly and clutter it with tubes and wires. I wanted a “natural birth.” What I got was a complicated birth.
Weeks later, my doula came to visit. We talked about what had happened and she expressed how proud she was of me — how I faced each difficulty and made hard decisions under pressure. She explained that in birth, we learn what we need to know to be a mother. “You’re a tough girl,” she said. “You needed a tough birth.”
Then why do I still feel the shame of not giving birth “the right way”? I don’t know. I want to feel a sense of community with women — that birth is a radically life-changing experience that most of us will experience some day — and that however it happens, you find solace, comfort and friendship in the group of people who’ve been there.
What I learned through my birth was that pain cannot always be avoided. Sometimes it must be embraced to get where you want to go. At times, I felt like I was adrift in a sea of pain, utterly alone and afraid. And yet, the way out was through. Is that lesson less meaningful because I had an epidural?
I also learned that my job as a mother is not to judge other mothers, but to be their comrade — someone to affirm their experience and validate their feelings. That’s what I hope I can be in writing this blog — a mother who shares her experiences honestly, without judgment and without the gauzy lie that everything I do and every choice I make is perfect and problem-free. That’s the kind of friend I have in my co-blogger, Liz, and I know it’s the kind of community we want to create here at Pluck.
I still don’t have a short, quick answer to that nagging question. Nothing in motherhood is that easy. I hope we can experience that together.