I both love granola and think that it is OK to be a smidgen afraid of pregnancy, labor and birth. While I adamantly believe that most of us who set out down the path to childbearing will not only survive, but thrive and find more joy than pain, I don’t think it’s completely fair to expect the entire route to be blessed and covered in flowers. I stand by the truth that pregnancy and childbirth are natural, awesome processes that a majority of animals come through with flying colors, but it is also clearly true that it can hurt like a mother-fucker, fail to progress and, once in a while, end in gut-wrenching tragedy. I don’t think it is fair to deny ourselves the opportunity to connect with eons of intense laborers just to pretend that nothing horrible ever happens.
Having done this whole baby process once, and embarking on it again – despite all common sense, just to fulfill lifelong fantasies of a tree house full of my own brood – I find myself a bit more measured this second time. The first time, my lefty, feminist OB had to practically wrestle me into peeing in a cup once a month so that she could check me for pre-eclampsia proteins that I was certain and correct were not present in my urine. I indulged in Western Medicine’s minor reassurances and cute ultrasounds, but still arrogantly scorned all major interventions and clung steadfastly to my copy of Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth. I hated all of the gender implications of pregnancy, but allowed myself to feel wicked tough as I daydreamed about Viking women, pioneer women and generation after generation of every conceivable kind of human who had nailed the dismount of child production and care.
But now I find myself imagining the other parts of mothers’ lives. I have allowed myself to deeply read and think about their lives on the mountains, plains, ships and plantations. Many parts of the daily lives of women, which I have studied before and will always study again, were too intense, intimate, infuriating and terrifying to absorb during my first pregnancy. I desperately needed the solace of absolute, certain bliss and survival. I shut out all of my memories of women’s history that involved unbearable pain or death. I couldn’t let the element of (supposedly Western) fear pierce my righteous armor. All I could do was cling to the idea that if I believed that everything was fine, it would be. I just let fear nag at the back of my brain stem instead of addressing it openly.
This time, I can’t help but lean into what some non-standard pregnancies and births are really like. I have spent a long, long time as a domestic and childcare expert, so I can’t be scandalized or horrified by anatomy, bodily functions or natural processes that involve a little pain. I feel generally calm and self-assured that I can handle whatever comes next in life and parenting, but this second time, I have already experienced what can come next. In some ways, it is more comforting and genuinely relaxing to understand what squeezing out babies is really like, even when it sucks.
Sometimes women get pregnant with twins, have emergency c-sections to deliver their very premature spawn, and only one of them lives, with life-long impairments. Sometimes, a woman is pregnant for nine months and then one day the baby stops kicking, and she has to go through labor anyway, without a living baby at the end. A few, brave souls manage to finish a healthy pregnancy despite the fact that they will give their child to someone else to raise. Occasionally, hippie women who do yoga and eat organic produce tear all the way through their assholes after declining episiotomies as they have been empowered to do. The large majority of pregnancies and births go just fine: there is some pain, a large degree of fortitude and then a child that usually survives until adulthood, but this does not mean we should deny what our hearts are risking in this gambit. It would be dishonest and unfair not to listen to both sides of the human experience with childbirth – both the sublime and the shitty.
I am in the majority of lucky modern parents who made it through my first round of baby-making with a healthy-ish kid to show for it. When medical professionals diverted my birth plan (which they had first thoroughly explored and supported), it was for excellent reasons. If I had attempted a vaginal delivery of my first offspring without Western medicine, it is unlikely that either of us would have survived. If I had managed to squeeze my minion out, to save myself, despite the FOUR loops of umbilical cord tightened around him, he definitely wouldn’t have made it. Even with an emergency c-section I had to watch them perform CPR on my baby to resuscitate him. Hardcore, dangerous shit. And every single procedure that those professionals performed perfectly on us had been learned and practiced over the course of centuries, both by midwives and surgeons, because birth can be a life-threatening and serious endeavor that demands solutions. This connected me deeply and truly with the mind-blowingly simple truth that birth is risky.
It was not a tiny amount of pain and terror that I overlooked to win my child. I loved labor. Contractions are some of the most badass confidence-inducing spasms ever. I labored for thirty-six hours before I accepted the epidural. Woo! It was really rad. I paced. I practiced breathing. I sat in a hot tub. I leaned on my partner for support. I called on all past birthers to spiritually swear with me like sailors as each wave of kickass pain passed. Had my child not tied himself inside of me, I would have rocked the shit out of some zany-ass granola-loving birth poses. Alas, I had to be flexible about my conviction that birth should be utterly natural, because that’s just how things work out sometimes. For the best.
If we humans head into most processes feeling optimistic and competent, I really suspect we’ll all do much better at everything that we attempt. However, it doesn’t often hurt to be prepared for a few little slip-ups or, hey, even an occasional, unlikely apocalypse. It certainly doesn’t do any of us any good to ignore history and pretend that none of us have valid reasons to be wary of sugar-coated guarantees of divine success.
Midwives – smart, strong, capable, expert, loving, super-hero midwives – are a huge, huge part of pregnancy and birthing history. Hurray midwives! Many sparkling successes! High five. But if you should happen to not be able to afford or find a qualified midwife and/or feminist OB, welcome to the rest of humanity’s struggle with gestation. Many of us can find family members, friends or partners to stand by us and calm our fears. Many of us could survive a midnight walk into the countryside to push all by ourselves, and return with a warm, hungry infant. Some of us made it through the Trail of Tears, Oregon Trail or ships full of our fellows chained like chattel. At least one of us guided Lewis and Clarke to the Pacific, saving their damned supplies from an overturned canoe at the same time as keeping a squalling babe from drowning, developing hypothermia and malnutrition. No success guaranteed.
Don’t insist that I not to be afraid in the slightest. We shouldn’t over-indulge and become neurotic and paralyzed with doubts and anxiety, but certainty is the opposite of parenthood. Let’s just use natural fear appropriately: to respect anyone who has ever gone through with the process. Let’s take advantage of our history with birth to know that we will likely be fine and feel hella tough along the way, but that it is okay and valid to request appropriate help and accept needed plan-changes mid-stream. We can celebrate our natural abilities while also not shaming parents who choose an epidural to alleviate the pain that our great-grandmother’s had no choice in suffering.
Let’s take strength, flexibility and a healthy does of skepticism from the traumas our peers have faced. It is a privilege for any modern parent to be informed about natural birth and Western interventions. Let’s not denigrate the graces we are given by pretending that no one needs them. Let’s be as educated as possible and survive the best that we can, using our hopes and our fears as balanced guides.