Woman Enough

A Story About Birth

To those who want the “blood and guts” version of this birth story, I would say, in the words of Luke Skywalker, “Ask me again sometime.” This is not that story. In fact, very little of this story has to do with “the facts” of what happened when I gave birth to our daughter.

This is what you need to know: my experience with giving birth was extremely positive. Not painless — positive. It was also very fast. My water broke unexpectedly (yes, I am in that 15%) at 10:00pm of February 19th, 2016, and I was holding NJ by 3:00am of February 20th. The whole affair was less than 5 hours from start to finish: short, intense, and dramatic.

I gave birth in an out-of-hospital setting.* Having a natural birth, if at all possible, was important to me. Coming from a family where home births were considered perfectly normal, an out-of-hospital birth started as an assumption but soon became a deeply personal choice. I didn’t want to just “get through” giving birth. I wanted to do it. I could give a laundry list of medically-relevant reasons, but I think that deep down, that was the real reason that I chose a natural, out-of-hospital birth. I had a vague but persistent feeling that somehow, it was going to be important. It was.

In “War and Peace” (a book I read in between countless birth books during my pregnancy), Tolstoy dwells lingeringly on the feelings of the untried soldier before the eve of battle. He’s prepared and trained and he knows what to do, and he wants so badly to be brave, but he doesn’t know if he will be. When the battle comes, and he finds the courage he so desperately wants to possess, there is a joy in spite of the horrors of war that surround him. The anticipation of birth was like that for me. I was afraid of the pain, but I had to know if I was woman enough. When I finally found myself in the height of labor, there was a wonderful relief as I realized that I was up to the task. As hard as it was, even in that moment, a part of me rejoiced in the strength of my own body and its ability to do this incredible thing. I felt like Rambo, Rocky and Jason Bourne combined. My sister, in a later conversation, expressed the same feeling by saying she “felt like she could’ve walked up to Osama Bin Laden and punched him in the face”.

It’s unfortunate that I have to resort to pictures of battle to describe the drama and power of birth. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, we humans are far too apt to associate power with violence. The power of birth is precisely the opposite. It is a struggle that concludes with life, not death. It is a sad commentary on human nature, that we reward the power to take life with more honor than the power to bring it into the world.

One of the gifts that birth gave me — an impression which lasted long into and beyond the after-glow of the birth experience — was the opportunity of seeing my body as if I were an outside observer admiring a designed, created thing. I saw my body, with little help from my conscious self, perform something stupendous, something unthinkable. Amy, my wonderful doula**, sat by my side the whole time, reminding me over and over again: your body is made to do this. I let go of fear and embraced wonder. I felt no sensation of vanity or pride in my ability, just an admiration for the hand that formed this glorious, mysterious vessel that I live in. I felt that to be Woman was something truly special.

The other gift that birth gave me was freedom from any feeling of obligation to prove myself on behalf of my sex. Ever. Nothing in my life up to this point has been as empowering as the experience of birth. After giving birth, I reflected how what I had just gone through was an experience that was extraordinary, yet also fundamentally ordinary. I could not deny the power of that experience by reminding myself that millions — billions — of women had gone through it since the dawn of time. The only other way to resolve the contradiction was to correct my opinion of women, as a sex. I was ashamed when I thought of how I had subconsciously dismissed the Susy Homemakers and smiling housewives in gingham aprons with babies in their arms. They were heroes, but I had never seen it, because I was looking in all the wrong places. How can the strength of womankind be questioned in the light of childbirth? To ignore this heritage is to despise the accomplishments of a history’s worth of women, just because they didn’t march into battle or sit behind a desk.

We are trained, in so many ways, to be ashamed of the female body. Ashamed of our power to reproduce, to carry life, and at last, in that noble struggle that is childbirth, to bring it into the world. We are told, if not in so many words, that it is our bodies, with their unique capabilities, that are holding us back from achieving our true potential — a potential that we allow traditional masculinity to define. We are pitted against our very selves. We are trained to see ourselves as victims, especially in childbirth, and our femaleness as a cage from which we must struggle to be free.

For me, birth shattered that forever.

*This article is not meant to be an endorsement of out-of-hospital births, or a crusade against necessary medical intervention. Every woman, along with the baby’s father when appropriate, should do her own research when deciding where and how to give birth. I’m always happy to talk about my experience, which was great, but birth is just not one size fits all.

**For the uninitiated: doula — a woman who assists women during labor and after childbirth (courtesy Dictionary.com).

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