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True Birth Wisdom: 10 Pearls You Won't Find In Your Pregnancy Guide

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Any pregnant woman wants a how-to manual on her nightstand — and for good reason. But for all their usefulness, books like "What to Expect When You’re Expecting" can’t speak to the infinitely intimate, lived experience of labor and delivery.

As Dani Shapiro puts it in an essay that's part of a new anthology, Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, “the inner life of a woman about to give birth is a world textured and complex and all its own.”

Here, editors Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon share 10 lessons taken from these writers' harrowing and sometimes hilarious stories, which range from delivering twins to a 10-pound baby, from scheduled C-sections to a birth in the back of a car.

1. Your birth experience is unlikely to match up with your birth “plan.”

Julia Glass (courtesy)
Julia Glass (courtesy)

Even when labor and delivery go smoothly, there will be bumps, surprises and probably setbacks you didn’t imagine. Julia Glass looks back on the birth of her second child and sighs: “I should have known better than to make any plans.” But if you can be open to what you or your baby wind up needing, you may find your laboring self far more flexible than you imagined. As Susan Burton, who wanted but didn’t get a drug-free birth, puts it, “the IV fluids I hadn’t wanted were better than ice chips.”

2. Choice can be empowering. But it can also paralyze you.

We’re lucky to live in a time and place of such endless options, but the options can be overwhelming --and can often come to feel like ethical and political choices. As Marie Myung-Ok Lee writes: “People espoused breathing techniques, epidurals, the Bradley Method, the narcotic Stadol, doulas, a morphine drip. Each person’s feedback took on the fervency and faith of a Moonie wedding; it was thus hard to know what was ‘normal.’ You have to get an epidural. Don’t get an epidural; they cause C-sections. Make sure you––” Try not to let the chorus drown out your own voice. What do you really want?

3. Understanding what your body is actually doing during labor really can help — if not with the pain, then with the fear.

Several of our authors write about how understanding their uterus as a muscle that was doing its work gave them a sense of agency in the process, and that viewing contractions as something their body was doing — as opposed to something being done to it — made them feel less afraid, and more centered. Amy Brill writes of her second labor: “I didn’t focus on the pain, but what I needed it to do: open the door, release the life waiting there.” Heidi Julavits: “Pain, when explained, can be much less painful.”

4. Your partner might not be as present as you’d imagined. And that might be OK.

Cheryl Strayed (photo: Brian Lindstrom)
Cheryl Strayed (photo: Brian Lindstrom)

Julia Glass’ second child came so fast that her baby’s father missed the birth entirely. Co-editor Eleanor Henderson writes about her husband’s squeamishness and distance during her labor — and her discovery that space is what she in fact craved. For many mothers, the support of a partner can be essential during labor and delivery, but ultimately, it’s a solitary experience. As Sarah A. Strickley writes, “It’s you and your baby. It’s you and your pain.” And your own strength may surprise you. “Don’t believe you can’t do this,” Cheryl Strayed writes. “It’s a rough business, but you can.”

5. Your vision for your birth may be dramatically shaped by your mother’s birth story.

Several of our authors hoped, even assumed, that their own birth experiences would resemble their mothers’. When Joanna Rakoff’s mother tells her she’d felt no pain, hadn’t even had to push, Rakoff prepares herself for a fast, easy delivery that doesn’t happen. “Was this the normal pain of labor?” she wonders. “Was there something wrong--with the baby? Or with me? Or did the pain seem so extreme because I hadn’t believed there’d really be any pain? How could my mother have told me that there was no pain?” Edan Lepucki labors in the shadow of her mother’s and sisters’ many “natural” births only to feel disappointed, even ashamed, when she winds up with a C-section. Don’t be surprised if you wind up forging a different path from the women you love.

Joanna Rakoff (courtesy)
Joanna Rakoff (courtesy)

6. Try not to get too attached to the term “natural,” which itself is a construction.

Sarah A. Strickley writes about our “insidious” use of the word: “When the word natural is directed at the choices women make with regard to childbirth, it often manages to relegate all manner of births as artificial, while maintaining an air of guiltless, guileless remove.” Many of the writers in "Labor Day" had to let go of their vision of drug-free births. Others saw their idea of “natural” complicated after birth, whether their babies wound up unable to nurse or needed additional medical support.

7. Pushing may not come as naturally as you think.

For some women, pushing feels like a relief, something they can finally do. But many are bewildered when it comes to this final stage: they have trouble activating, or even locating, the muscles they need to use. Sarah A. Strickley writes: “I expected instinct to kick in, but instead, I was confounded. I didn’t know what pushing meant or how it was supposed to happen.” If you’ve been the victim of sexual abuse, this confusion may be magnified. Rachel Jamison Webster describes her midwife’s bafflement when she has no urge to push, and she realizes that almost all the women she knows whose labors halted right before the pushing stage had, like her, been abused. She writes: “Our vaginas are sites of magnificent power, but they often become wounds of powerlessness. And so I wonder if this absence of instinct to push, to birth, may simply be evidence of another instinct — one related to our very survival.”

8. Birth is not a performance.

We often train for labor and delivery as though it’s the S.A.T. or a marathon: as though it’s a matter of winning or losing. Performance anxiety can get the best of us. Lauren Groff writes about wanting to be a “good girl” during labor. And Edan Lepucki, after agreeing to a C-section, writes, “I remember asking Patrick and my mother, ‘Are you disappointed in me?’ and, to my sister, ‘Will you talk shit about me behind my back?’ The last thing I wanted was to be accused of weakness. No, they said. Never. So why did I feel so defeated?” Learning to let go of control and expectation can be the most difficult lesson of labor. For Amy Brill, it took her first birth to get there. By her second, she had embraced the process, whatever shape it took. As it happened, she gave birth — blissfully — in the back of a car.

9. If you wind up giving birth more than once, don’t expect the experience to be the same --don’t even expect yourself to be the same.

Eleanor Henderson (courtesy)
Eleanor Henderson (courtesy)

It’s easy to assume that giving birth once makes you more prepared to give birth again. But as so many of our writers attest, their second (and third) birth experiences looked little like the first. Heidi Julavits feels powerful after her first birth, and traumatized after her second. For others, it’s the opposite. Co-editor Anna Solomon feels like “a battered cow” during the birth of her first (easily conceived) child, but multiple miscarriages change her, and her experience: “I was grateful in every cell of my body. I was grateful to be given another chance to push, grateful even for the pain, so grateful that as soon as I brought him to by breast, I thought, I want to do this again!”

10. Birth ends up being a lot less important than what comes after.

It’s easy to spend nine months obsessing over every detail of childbirth, but the day (or two or three) you labor is ultimately a means to meeting your baby. And how you give birth doesn’t determine how you will parent. In her "Labor Day" essay, Gina Zucker writes, “what followed birth (life with my new daughter) mattered so much more than whether or not I’d used a hypnobirthing pool. Hearing her cry for the first time was a little like saying ‘I do’ on my wedding day. The big push was over. Now the rest of life had begun.”

Readers, any Mother's Day pearls of your own to share? 

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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