Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today's Best Women Writersby Eleanor Henderson
Thirty acclaimed writers share their personal birth stories—the extraordinary, the ordinary, the terrifying, the sublime, the profane
It's an elemental, almost animalistic urge—the expectant mother's hunger for birth narratives. Bookstores are filled with month-by-month pregnancy manuals, but the shelves are virtually empty of artful,/p>/b>
Thirty acclaimed writers share their personal birth stories—the extraordinary, the ordinary, the terrifying, the sublime, the profane
It's an elemental, almost animalistic urge—the expectant mother's hunger for birth narratives. Bookstores are filled with month-by-month pregnancy manuals, but the shelves are virtually empty of artful, entertaining, unvarnished accounts of labor and delivery—the stories that new mothers need most.
Here is a book that transcends the limits of how-to guides and honors the act of childbirth in the twenty-first century. Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon have gathered true birth stories by women who have made self-expression their business, including Cheryl Strayed, Julia Glass, Lauren Groff, Dani Shapiro, and many other luminaries.
In Labor Day, you'll read about women determined to give birth naturally and others begging for epidurals; women who pushed for hours and women whose labors were over practically before they'd started; women giving birth to twins and to ten-pound babies. These women give birth in the hospital, at home, in bathtubs, and, yes, even in the car. Some revel in labor, some fear labor, some feel defeated by labor, some are fulfilled by it—and all are amazed by it. You will laugh, weep, squirm, perhaps groan in recognition, and undoubtedly gasp with surprise. And then you'll call every mother or mother-to-be that you know and say "You MUST read Labor Day."
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Lan Samantha Chang
Mary Beth Keane
Marie Myung-Ok Lee
Sarah A. Strickley
Rachel Jamison Webster
Editors Henderson (Ten Thousand Saints) and Solomon (The Little Bride) correctly title their introduction, “Expect the Unexpected.” Yes, these stories, by 30 professional writers, include pain, joy, fear, intimacy, bodily fluids, doctors and midwives, birthing centers and home births, natural childbirth, and C-sections. And, though the essays are uneven in quality, an eloquent handful transcend the parenting genre. The collection is greater than the sum of its parts because the pieces often share one of the hallmarks of modern motherhood: disappointment that often stumbles toward shame. Mary Beth Keane writes, “Neither of my children got here the way I’d dreamed…” while Danzy Senna expresses “remorse for having pushed my second out of me early—for inducing labor before my body clock was ready.” Marie Myung-Ok Lee writes, “I can’t help wondering… whether I would have been able to be a more direct agent of my own labor.” Edan Lepucki simply states: “I was still struggling to accept my own labor,” which is, perhaps, the originating idea behind the birth story, the coming to terms with a situation where the line between life and death is palpable, where women both lose and find themselves in a new identity, and where any last illusion of control disappears. (Apr.)
“This isn't a how-to book, nor does it present a case for the ‘perfect birth,' which sets it apart from the plethora of childbirth manuals and lends it broader appeal and a very different type of resonance.” Aleksandra Walker, Booklist
“Labor Day belongs on the nightstand next to What to Expect When You're Expecting. It's a must-have book for mothers, mothers-to-be, and anyone who cares about what birth looks like today.” Molly Ringwald, Actress, Singer, and author of When It Happens to You
“One of the most important preparations for labor is reading actual stories from actual women in labor. Labor Day provides a tremendously varied, honest, and beautiful set of stories to learn from and grow with, no matter where you are in your parenting journey.” Mayim Bialik, Ph.D., Actress, Neuroscientist
“Pregnancy made my body ravenous for food and my brain ravenous for stories like this, stories of how other women had crossed the great divide. In delivery rooms, in the backseats of cars, and at home, these women tell their birth stories so clearly that they must have had stenographers present on the scene. I loved reading this book with my baby asleep in the next room, and will give it to every pregnant woman I know from here on out, forever.” Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures
“I read Labor Day the way I ate my first meal after giving birth: I knew I loved labor stories, but I didn't know I was absolutely starving for them. Ravenous. And they satisfied me; they filled me with wonder and tears and quite a few laugh-out-loud guffaws. And mostly with gratitude that real women shared their real experiences so that all of us can re-experience the wild joy and terror and beauty of giving birth.” Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of Omega Institute and author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and The Seeker's Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure
“Labor Day is such a gift. I've probably read or heard hundreds of birth stories, but once I picked up Labor Day, I could not put it down. Birth stories, especially those told by mothers who are also writers, are riveting. From Heidi Julavits reflecting on the value of a doula by reminding us that ‘Pain, when explained, can be much less painful' to Eleanor Henderson's depiction of being ‘dazzled by happiness,' this collection beautifully covers a huge range of birth experiences. Each fascinating detail, from the banal to the exalted, gives a glimpse of just what can happen when a baby is born.” Catherine Taylor, author of Giving Birth: A Journey into the World of Mothers and Midwives
Thirty-one female writers (including the editors) narrate their highly personal experiences of giving birth, beginning with the choices they made in advance, and how the reality compared with their expectations. Henderson (Fiction Writing/Ithaca Coll.; Ten Thousand Saints, 2011) and Solomon (English/Brown Univ.; The Little Bride, 2011) first met in 2005 at the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in Vermont. They remained friends and kept in touch, and the genesis of this book was an email from a very pregnant Henderson to Solomon asking for details about the birth of her first child. She felt overwhelmed with the wide range of choices to be made: Should she opt for natural childbirth and a midwife or an obstetrician? What about epidurals, and when is surgical intervention required? After their discussions, Henderson and Solomon realized that there was a book's worth of material to share. Despite the wealth of how-to books on pregnancy and parenting, what was missing from bookshelves was the kind of highly personal account that Solomon shared with Henderson. They wanted "artful, entertaining, unvarnished accounts of labor and delivery." They pitched the idea to writer friends who were mothers, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. The contributors chronicle their expectations and the nitty-gritty of the process from the onset of contractions to the moment of birth. As many of the stories illustrate, the feminist ideal of natural childbirth is appealing but not necessarily realistic. Unforeseen medical emergencies are part of the territory; both infants and mothers may be at the point of collapse during extended labor, requiring surgical intervention. Gina Zucker writes exuberantly, "In spite of the pain, or in part because of it, having a natural childbirth had been incredibly empowering." The editors also include sadder stories, accounts that deal with birth defects that might have been avoided with quicker medical intervention. Other contributors include Cheryl Strayed, Lauren Groff, Ann Hood, Dani Shapiro, Heidi Julavits, Jennifer Gilmore and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. Compelling childbirth narratives told from fresh perspectives.
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Read an Excerpt
What I’m Trying to Say
Contractions started around five on Friday afternoon.1 They were mild at first, mild enough that I doubted they were real. I could walk. I did walk, around our neighborhood, thinking, Am I having contractions? When Mike got home, we rented a movie and bought a box of brownie mix, and after dinner (what did we eat? I remember only the brownies, my wanting them) I mixed and baked the brownies. Later I would wonder, What was I thinking, making brownies? But for a while then, they still tasted good to me, and I wasn’t in so much pain that I couldn’t enjoy the movie, too—though I don’t remember what it was now, and I don’t think we finished watching it. The contractions got stronger, then stayed the same through the night, somewhere between five to ten minutes apart, varying in length. I couldn’t sleep, and by morning I decided I needed an epidural. I’d been unsure about the epidural question—I thought I would see what it was like, that if I could do it without, I’d rather, but that I wouldn’t go crazy about it. Now I thought, I can’t do it without. I need to sleep. That was my main priority—to rest. Which people had told me the epidural let you do. So we called Dr. Yang,2 who said she doubted I was in labor but that sure, I could meet her at her office at nine.
A word about Dr. Yang, whom other patients sometimes refer to as “the Yangster,” who my sister-in-law warned me was “a little intense,” and whom I generally just call “my crazy Chinese doctor.” She is temperamentally similar in some ways to the Chinese grocer in our corner bodega, except that instead of yelling at me, “This is DAIKON!” (when I called one night in my seventh month, terrified by the white puffy flesh suddenly bulging from the part of my stomach where I imagined my baby’s head to be) she yelled, “That is your COLON, ANNA! It’s coming through the tissue! It’s just ABDOMINAL SEPARATION! YOU HAVE TO RELAX!”
We made the trip from Brooklyn to TriBeCa, our still-shiny labor ball stowed in the backseat. It was a Saturday, the bridge mercifully empty. At Dr. Yang’s office, we were let in by a group of Chinese construction workers, busy affixing a new door. Dr. Yang, the leader explained, would be back to meet us; she’d had to go to the hardware store for a tool.
Dr. Yang is a solo practitioner, I should explain, which in her case means not only that she delivers every baby of every patient but also oversees every hinge being fitted to her doors.
We went into a room at the back and waited. I got very angry, waiting. I’d been angry at Dr. Yang before, many times, but now I felt angry in the way a laboring woman feels angry. She had abandoned me, I decided. And now? Now? What did this portend about my labor and delivery? Would she leave as the baby was coming out to go buy a box of nails?
Dr. Yang arrived some ten minutes later. Okay, Anna, let’s see, let’s see. Oh, I can see just looking at you, you’re not in labor!
Of course the second she walked in the room, my contractions had diminished.
After her examination, she declared, See! You are only fifty percent effaced, and barely dilated even a centimeter!
I started to cry. But I’m exhausted! I said. I did not say, I want an epidural, because I knew now how stupid and impossible that idea was. I can’t keep going!
My guess is you’ll go into labor in the next day or two.
But this is labor, I told her.
Well, she said. Look. Anna. You have a very strong mind. I know this about you. You can make many things happen with your mind …
You’re saying this is all in my head?
What I’m trying to say … (This was Dr. Yang’s favorite phrase.) Listen. You have a very strong mind. In China, this is a very prized attribute. I? I can lower my blood pressure by ten points just thinking about it. In China, people can move cups just looking at them! What I’m trying to say …
As she spoke, I was vaguely aware—and disappointed, and ashamed—that I wasn’t in as much pain as I’d been earlier.
What I’m trying to say is you’re feeling your pain at a ten, and I want you to feel it at a four.
But I need to sleep! I said, still crying.
Yes. Exactly. You need to rest. Sometimes that brings labor on itself.
But I can’t sleep! I said. It’s too painful! (And I am in labor, I wanted to add, but didn’t.)3
Here. Listen. I want you to go home, take an Ambien—I write you out a prescription—take the hottest bath you can stand, drink a glass of wine. Relax.
I thought pregnant women aren’t supposed to take hot baths, I said.
Baloney, Dr. Yang said, as she had about many other myths I’d brought up during our visits. The baby is all there. She not bothered by the heat!
I explained to Dr. Yang that the one time I’d taken Ambien, two nights before my wedding, I’d awakened hours later on the bathroom floor. I hadn’t even made it to the bed.
Then take half! she cried, and ushered us out.
* * *
I felt desperate on the way home. The next day or two?
But at home, I followed Dr. Yang’s directions—except for the wine, which I thought would make me throw up. After the bath, I got into bed (it was about 11:00 a.m. now) and for the next couple hours I managed to sleep between—though not during—contractions. It was a vague, hazy sleep, the four- and five-minute snatches building on one another. When I woke up and went to the bathroom, I had blood in my underwear. Dr. Yang had said, When you’re in labor, you’ll have blood, you’ll have all sorts of things coming out of you.
It was about two now. From there, the contractions got steadily stronger. I rested my forearms on the ball, my knees on the floor, Mike pushing my hip bones together, as we learned in class. Nothing made it less painful, but at least we were doing something, and I couldn’t not be on my knees. Between contractions, I closed my eyes and rested. That was what I did best, I think, during my labor, really rested between contractions, not fearing the next one, but really sinking into the relief of those moments.
This better be labor! I think I said a few times. And around five, I said, We have to go to the hospital. I don’t care if Dr. Yang laughs and sends us back. We’re going.
Mike called Dr. Yang. Dr. Yang loves Mike, and she said, Well, Mike, if you really think it’s different from this morning, I’ll meet you at the hospital. I have another patient already there.
* * *
The car ride was the worst part, by far. It took us about fifty minutes, across the bridge (which one did Mike take?), through lower Manhattan, up the West Side Highway, which is not a highway at all, but a misnamed series of traffic lights that seemed to be red, every one, the whole way. I was, as Mike told me later, mooing like a cow. I was grabbing at the doors, writhing to the floor. It was awful.5
In the lobby, the triage nurse didn’t ask what we were doing there, but sent us up to labor and delivery. Dr. Yang was still with the other patient, so a resident examined me. I remember looking at her face, staring, willing her, thinking, If she tells me I’m only two centimeters dilated, I will die. I will die. I really will, right here. I will die.
But I wasn’t. I was eight centimeters dilated. “Entering transition,” as she put it.
Hooray! I thought. I’m in labor! Then I thought—and shouted—I want an epidural NOW!
* * *
In the delivery room, the nurse told me Dr. Yang would be there soon, and that she had to get an IV in me to deliver fluids so they could do the epidural.
But where’s the epidural? I asked.
Anesthesiology’s been backed up all day, I heard her say. (She couldn’t have said this to me, right? Wouldn’t that have been too cruel?)
It’s okay. Here, said the nurse, trying to get the IV in.
But I was so dehydrated, the first veins she tried disappeared, and then she burst the vein in my left hand, which would be bruised for weeks, and then she couldn’t get it into my right hand. Finally, she got it into my right arm. At some point in all this, I said, I have to pee, I have to go to the bathroom, and she said, You just go now. Just go. And I did. I peed all over myself. It was the first time I’d peed all over myself since I was a kid, I guess. I was just like a damn baby.
I remember hearing her say at some point during this, We have pushing! And I realized I was pushing. She said, I think she’s fully dilated, and I said, Where is Dr. Yang? And soon Dr. Yang was there, in a brightly flowered velour dress, with pink lipstick to match,6 and she said something to me—she actually said this—about how the residents often overestimate how dilated women are. And I thought, Fuck you.7 Where is my epidural? Am I shitting myself? Oh shit, I might be shitting myself. And the nurse said, She’s fully dilated, I really think so and Dr. Yang checked me out and didn’t confirm or not confirm this, but she said to me, Anna, if it feels better to push, you can push.
I’d already been pushing, but I kept at it. And it did feel better. It felt great. I mean, it hurt like hell, but it was something to do, not just enduring the waves of pain but pushing. I was grunting insanely, making disgusting noises. Mike was holding one leg, Dr. Yang the other, and on her face, I remember, was total, utter joy.
I said, Wait. Am I pushing out the baby? I really thought, until that point, that I was pushing because it felt better.
YES! she cried. Here. You can feel it.
And I felt Sylvie’s head (Oh, I’m going to cry now), a mushy, hairy, slimy thing.8 And I kept pushing. And when she came out (it was 7:33 now; I’d pushed for about twenty-five minutes; we’d been at the hospital about an hour and a half), it was like a building erupting from me. And once it was out, it was out. Over. Sylvie screamed, they brought her right to me, she had so much hair! There was a little stitching to be done, but I barely noticed. And Sylvie looked at me, found my breast, and started to suck. The next day, the pediatrician put her finger in Sylvie’s mouth and said, That’s the best suck I’ve felt in a while. And it was true, from the beginning: Sylvie taught me how to nurse her.9
Copyright © 2014 by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon
Meet the Author
Eleanor Henderson's novel Ten Thousand Saints was named one of the Top 10 Books of the Year by The New York Times and was a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. An assistant professor of fiction writing at Ithaca College, she lives in Ithaca, New York, with her husband and two sons. Anna Solomon's debut novel, The Little Bride, was a Boston Globe bestseller. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, More, One Story, Ploughshares, and elsewhere, and have twice been awarded the Pushcart Prize. She teaches at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where she lives with her husband, daughter, and son.
Eleanor Henderson’s novel Ten Thousand Saints was named one of the Top 10 Books of the Year by The New York Times and was a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. An assistant professor of fiction writing at Ithaca College, she lives in Ithaca, New York, with her husband and two sons.
Anna Solomon’s debut novel, The Little Bride, was a Boston Globe bestseller. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, More, One Story, Ploughshares, and elsewhere, and have twice been awarded the Pushcart Prize. She teaches at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where she lives with her husband, daughter, and son.
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