Citizen Reading: 11 September 2017.
Citizen Reading: 18 September 2017.

Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today's Best Women Writers.

The other day I was talking with a friend who doesn't have kids, but who has spent a lot of time in recent years going to the bridal showers, weddings, and baby showers of her friends. She doesn't mind those types of parties as much as I do (I have a firm "no attendance" policy for any showers to which I am invited, which has saved me a lot of time over the past two decades), but she did say that, particularly at baby showers, she doesn't really need to hear everyone's story about giving birth. And I suggested, well, perhaps women tell her their stories because they don't often get to tell those stories, to anyone.

Labor dayI don't know that there's any truth to that. But I do know this: I love birth and labor stories. I never mind when anyone wants to tell me theirs, and I would love to tell mine, but you have to pick your audience very carefully for that sort of thing. But this has always struck me as very unfair. Look at all the books we read about war, about gory crimes, about love affairs, and love affairs, and more love affairs...and yet hardly ever do we get to tell (or hear about) the very process by which we all arrived in this world.

So when I found* a book called Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today's Best Women Writers, I was very excited. I was NOT excited that I had to get it through interlibrary loan; my local library always seems to own everything, so it seems very odd that they don't own this one. It's a 2014 book, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon. And it is just what its title promises: Thirty firsthand, no-details-spared recountings of how children arrived in the world. So what I'm going to do now is quote some passages from it, and what you should do, if you are at all squeamish about the birth process or the female body, is to GO ELSEWHERE.

This is one of my favorite bits, from novelist Edan Lepucki's essay "If, If, If," about how she really wanted to try unmedicated childbirth and eventually ended up undergoing a c-section. This bit comes in the middle of the essay, when she's still trying to do things the "natural" way:

"I was breathing so deeply and productively, the pain seemed to transform into something else, and I let it rush through and over me. I had tears in my eyes, but they were a comfort. Everyone was breathing with me and holding me, and I felt incredibly safe. I felt like I was dilating, that this baby was coming. It remains one of the most beautiful and important moments of my life, a moment when I was surrounded by love, and knew it, and accepted it.

Turns out, I wasn't dilating, and my baby wasn't coming. I was checked again a few hours later, and I was still only at five centimeters. I felt trapped inside of a demoralizing and exhausting practical joke." (p. 77.)

Well, if that doesn't just sum up labor, I don't know what does. In my experience, never will you feel MORE in tune with your body than during labor. Simultaneously, never will you know LESS about what your body is actually doing.

Another of my favorite bits was from Heidi Julavits, of whom I am not usually a big fan. But this is part of her story, about giving birth in a hospital in Maine:

"My first child was born in a sparsely populated Maine county, where the nearest hospital is considered more hindrance than help in matters of mortality prevention. Many of the doctors who work at this hospital give birth at home. So do many of my friends. Despite compelling evidence against the hospital, however, my husband wanted to go to the hospital. 'If something happens to you or the baby, everyone will blame me,' he said. This might sound paranoid, but it's actually just true, and a fine-enough reason to choose a bad hospital over a good home. Birth makes people blame other people. Even when nobody dies, there is blame galore. You should have waited to go to the hospital. You should have gone earlier. You should have said no to this and yes to that...

The doctor could not tell me how to breast-feed because she didn't have any children and had never breast-fed, and so (according to her) possessed no information on this topic. She'd spent the entirety of my labor in the hallway, reading a Sue Grafton novel. When I was finally moved to a proper room, I found a pair of gigantic bloody underpants on the bathroom floor.

My husband said, 'I guess we should have stayed home." (p. 174.)

Several of these essayists seem to be from the socioeconomic class that makes them want to either have home births or unmedicated births, so I wonder if this collection took any heat for not offering a broad enough cross-section of experiences.

But in all? I found this to be one of my most enjoyable and satisfying reads of the year. (Nearly every single essay here had at least one little bit in it that completely resonated with me, and nearly every one made me cry. From all different emotions. Satisfying.) At last, I got to hear my fill of birth stories. And yet? I could read a lot more collections like this, and I wouldn't mind seeing more about birth and child-bearing in some fiction, too. If I have to keep reading about men and their midlife crises and affairs, after all, it seems only fair that giving birth should get some love in contemporary fiction too. (Although I have read an excellent novel on the subject, and it is called The Birth of Love, by Joanna Kavenna. Go read it.)

*I found it after reading this article by Anna Solomon, at The Millions.