But Mary did it: without a syntocinon drip, without pain relief, without a tub of warm water or the peace of mind that she could be rushed to the hospital in case of an emergency. She did it.
Why couldn't I?
I sat around a cafe table with five women I love, two of which had mysterious babies pushing their skin thin, their bodies past comfortable, their hearts ready to welcome into arms aching. A baby shower of sorts. We were celebrating the last moments with babes inside over coffee and fondue, words flew across the table fast from many mouths and among other topics, the last few year's labours were recounted.
I like hearing my friends' birth stories, but I have to deal with my jealousy, my insecurities come poking, I have to choose not to compare. My births were harder than I imagined they would be. Both required some amount of synthetic oxytocin (ie, 'the drip'), my first birth ending in an emergency vacuum delivery, extremely painful and traumatic. I carried a lot of shame for his first year of life, about my inadequacies in childbirth, that we almost lost him because I couldn't push fast enough, or hard enough.
Our surprise pregnancy with my daughter 8 months later encouraged my fears to face me, I wrote out my advent confessions, I felt ready to give birth only in the 11th hour. I haven't written about her birth, maybe someday I will; it ended with a gorgeous baby girl immediately resting on my chest, glad cries of deliverance abounding, sweet nursing within minutes and I couldn't have been more relieved. But I didn't get there without some painful interventions, a hormone drip to finish the work after 16 hours labouring that nearly did me in. When I compare with my son's birth it was so much better. But I'm still not sure why my body doesn't seem to do birth well, why my daughter turned posterior in active labour and I stopped progressing, why both times my waters broke so early on but my contractions didn't cooperate. I can pick apart my births and decisions that were presented to me as the only options available and I think I did have some interventions that could have been delayed or were less than necessary. But in those intense hours of pain and emotions and uncertainties, they seemed like the best decisions my husband and I and our very skilled midwives could make.
I have two children with me now. My second birth was a non-instrumental vaginal birth with a baby girl who still breastfeeds well. I'm so, so very grateful – grateful, but also interested with how it all works and how it doesn't seem to work for some of us. I have helped many women bring their children into the world, in a handful of beautiful places (although not necessarily tourist destinations). I understand the physiology of birth. I had very easy pregnancies, I exercised (kind of), I gained the right amount of weight - and I am an extremely optimistic person. I was pretty sure, both times, that I would have a surprise accidental home birth after using the bathroom sometime around 40 weeks. I thought very positively, I let God come to my fears (which was much more costly and freeing the second time around) and I practiced active birthing, you've never seen someone walk so much in early labour. My husband was an incredibly comforting presence, hands marathon-rubbing my back and praying in my ears, we were a team like never before.
If there was a formula, I would have aced the exam. Unfortunately, I wasn't the only one who was participating that day, and even over my own body I wasn't in control; isn't that the surrender of bringing new life from earthen vessels?
Many cultures celebrate easy births with proclamations of how strong the mother was during labour. Isn't she amazing? She was born to do this! Look at her, no drugs - wow, what an incredible woman! In some cultures it's more pronounced, with a woman's worth being extremely intertwined with the amount of children she can produce for her husband.
What does that kind of language mean for women's births who didn't turn out the way they planned? The hospital transfer and cesarean birth after 30 hours labouring at home? The 15 year old Ethiopian woman who's birth ends with a stillborn child and a debilitating fistulae? The woman who takes an epidural after 20 hours of posterior labour with little progress? Or the woman who's desperate to be pregnant and has not yet conceived?
Midwives talk about the variables surrounding birth. There's the powers, the passenger, the passage and the psyche. The uterus needs to produce contractions that are increasingly stronger, longer and closer together. The baby inside has a say as well, a good position is optimal and some ways the baby can lie make it down-right impossible to be born vaginally, no matter how long you labour for, or how hard you push. The passage, the pelvis and birth canal, can vary in size and shape and malnutrition, rickets, puberty, and female genital mutilation can all cause difficulties, fistulae, and even death for women in the developing world. And the woman's psyche plays a role as well: trust, confidence, and a safe, supportive environment are all vital components, tipping the scale in multiple ways. We all experience pain in different ways, some of us have endured abuse and trauma that can surface during labour and birth.
Many of those factors are out of our control. Some women birth babies with ease, like the older lady at church who told me her second child was born basically with one contraction, no pushing (or even labouring) necessary. Some women labour for days, giving it all they've got, and their baby is born via emergency cesarean. And there are stories of suffering and loss, especially in Africa and Central Asia but even close to home. Even our western obsession with control will never tame pregnancy, birth and the thin space between rejoicing and weeping.
Recognizing the variables of birth helps me come to terms with my birth experiences; I did my best but there were other factors involved that I could not control. If I give birth again I might have the home birth experience I would like; or I might need the hormone drip again to give my powers what they need to bring the passenger through the passage. Or I could have a scheduled cesarean.
When things go as planned people say we are strong, capable, incredible. When things don't go well in birth it's so common to blame ourselves. The truth is there are so many variables at work outside of our control.
I do think God's intention is for women to have healthy, vaginal births. The prophet Isaiah declares of God's redemption in the world:
"Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years… They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune." (from Isaiah 65)
Unfortunately, I don't think God's will always happens in the world. Not yet, anyway.
I wish I could control the variables, for all of us bringing babies into the world, for all of us living with our bodies in the 'not-yet' of God's healing reign. There are things we can do that contribute to natural childbirth: learning as much as you can about birth is an important thing, being empowered in knowledge about your body's capabilities, hearing positive birth stories from other women, having access to a skilled birth attendant, avoiding unnecessary interventions, being well-nourished and giving birth when your body is finished developing (17+), having supportive people around you during your birth, processing through abuse or trauma that you've previously suffered. But even if we do all of those things (and more), there is no guarantee that we can push our baby out without help.
I rejoice with my friends and acquaintances when they have the births they desire, when the variables all align for the good and the baby comes screaming. I also honour my friends who give birth differently than they would have hoped, and I support them as they grieve and process and heal. A healthy mom and a healthy baby is nothing to take for granted, but ignoring our feelings of disappointment doesn't help us move forward.
We are amazing, all of us, not because of what we do, but because of who we are. We are women, made in the image of God; a God who loves and creates and labours in a world with things out of Her control, and is sometimes left disappointed.
I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.
“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
I would LOVE to hear your thoughts, whether you gave birth in the manner that you expected, or if things turned out differently than you planned. Does any of this resonate with you? What are your thoughts on how births turn out? What am I missing?