I’ve been watching Call the Midwife, a British series about a group of young nurse/midwives in London’s East End in the 1950s, and I’m hooked. I tell my husband (who leaves the room when it’s on) that it’s not like those silly childbirth “stories” I used to watch on TLC when I was pregnant. What hooks me about this show (beyond it’s being wonderfully written, acted, and produced) is that shows women being supportive of other women going through labor and birth.
You’re asking now, I know it, “why is she talking about childbirth right now?” Because this whole notion of needing help — and not always clinical help — is crucial to all of us as parents. We forget it, we forget that we need each other, even if we disagree with each other, and we should lean on each other instead of relying on experts and otherwise flying solo.
I’m just going to come out and say this: I’m still unhappy and conflicted about my two birth experiences, which were one long, long slow labor that ended in surgery, and one shockingly short labor that also ended in surgery. As I wrote in an essay for Babble.com, “I know women who’ve given birth surgically whose feelings fall somewhere on the spectrum between neutral and ecstatic. I am not one of those women. I am angry.”
I wrote that piece probably in 2009 or so, though it wasn’t published until 2010. And yet it was not until last year that I realized I was feeling something other than anger. I realized that there was, or is, one major reason my anger lingers, one major reason I can’t “just” move on (as so many wish I would, both well-meaning people who love me, and commenters on that piece who think I’m selfish or silly or whatever), one major reason I experience, on the occasion of my older son’s birthday every year, a gloom that I can only liken to a kind of post-traumatic stress.
It’s because no one was there for me.
Now, let me be clear: My husband was there the whole time. So were my parents, who drove into New York City (an hour-plus trip) in the middle of the night. But what could they do, really? None of them, even the woman who had given birth three times, could really advocate for me. We were, all four of us, alone and terrified and bouncing haplessly around in a system that’s not designed to stop and really care for specific people, that is, laboring women.
I remember one weird moment in the long, dark night I spent in the “birthing” room, while the monitor strapped to my belly spit out a tree’s worth of data, looking across the dim room at my husband, mother and father and thinking we were all abandoned. I remember thinking I wanted to make them feel better for not being able to make me feel better.
And now for the true reason I bring this up now: Last year, my friend and fellow writer Jennifer Margulis got a deal to write what I think can and should be a very important book, called The Business of Baby. She asked — knowing my story, having read my Babble piece — if she could interview me for a chapter on C-sections. Jennifer’s book is about how the entire “baby” industry is not set up to be in the best interests of mothers, fathers and children (and is often the opposite), and knowing that, I quickly agreed to help her by telling my story, again.
In one small moment as we talked on the phone last year, Jennifer — a remarkable, smart, accomplished investigative journalist as well as the mother of four — slipped out of her role as dispassionate interviewer, took off her journalistic hat for a moment, and said, “Oh, honey. I wish I could have been there for you.”
And that is when I realized just how alone I had been. The first time, for sure, as I’ve described. But the second time, too, when my husband and I raced to the hospital like a pair of Keystone Kops. When after a very short time my (disinterested) doctor announced that my baby wouldn’t be born vaginally (despite full dilatation and an overwhelming urge to push) I had nothing left in me to disagree. It was not until much later, when I was going over and over the scene in my head, trying to rewrite the ending, that I thought of all the things I could have said or done to take control of the situation. Let’s try one more thing. Let me turn over. Get me a birthing ball. Maybe if I stood up and you and my husband helped me walk. How about…
And I was upset with myself for not advocating for myself in that manner.
But could I have? Better, should I have been expected to? Or would I have benefited from someone experienced, kind, clear-eyed and nurturing?
Can’t we all use that kind of support, at birth, yes, but also beyond?
I want to publicly thank Jennifer, here, for bravely writing her book and getting it out there, because even though she and I don’t see eye to eye on some things (such as routine vaccinations) she writes with compassion and truth, and she’s an advocate.
And we all can use a little (or a lot) of that kind of help, don’t you think?