It's an elemental, almost animalistic urge—the expectant mother's hunger for birth narratives. We are inundated with how-to guides and month-by-month pregnancy manuals when what we truly crave are artful, entertaining, unvarnished accounts of labor and delivery. We want to know what really happens—the good, the bad, and the ugly. In anticipation of the publication of Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today's Best Women Writers, celebrated author Elissa Schappell brings us "What We Talk About When We Talk About Birth." In this frank, funny, and bittersweet essay she explores the phenomenon of sharing birth stories, reveals her reluctance to tell her own, and discovers that talking about childbirth—the joy, the fear, the pain—is as instinctual as the act itself.
And if you love birth stories as much as we do, read thirty more essays like this one in Labor Day: True Birth Stories By Today's Best Women Writers, including Lan Samantha Chang, Julia Glass, Lauren Groff, Ann Hood, Danzy Senna, Dani Shapiro, and Cheryl Strayed.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|File size:||3 MB|
About the Author
Elissa Schappell is the author of two books of fiction, most recently Blueprints for Building Better Girls, which was chosen as one of the Best Books of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek/The Daily Beast, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Use Me, her first book, was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her fiction, nonfiction, and criticism have appeared in many publications, including The Paris Review, The New York Times Book Review, Spin, Bomb, One Story, and anthologies such as The Mrs. Dalloway Reader, Lit Riffs, Cooking and Stealing, Bound to Last, and The KGB Bar Reader. She is a contributing editor and the Hot Type columnist at Vanity Fair, a former senior editor at The Paris Review, and a cofounder and editor at large of Tin House magazine. She teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Columbia and in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn.
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What We Talk About When We Talk About Birth
By Elissa Schappell
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2014 Elissa Schappell
All rights reserved.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Birth
I was never interested in birth stories. Or, rather, I was never interested in birth stories in which everything went according to plan. I know. I'm a bad person. I certainly wished no ill fortune on anyone, but the tales where mother and newborn barely escaped alive—an umbilical cord looped like a noose around the baby's neck, an emergency transfusion in an ambulance, the Thumbelina-size preemie cut from the mother's womb just in the nick of time—those were the only stories that held my interest. Labor stories where a doctor, nurse, partner, friend, parent, or infant found superhuman strength, exhibited do-or-die decisiveness and speed, or discovered they could speak dolphin—those were stories for the ages, legends that bore telling again and again.
My two birth stories, a girl and a boy born three years apart, aren't like that. There was very little drama. I can claim no struggles with fertility or miscarriage. My husband and I wanted to get pregnant, I got pregnant. I delivered a healthy child. Twice. My struggle was existential, not medical: I always imagined publishing a book before I had a baby. That's it.
(Okay, that's not the whole story. I got pregnant when I did because my father was diagnosed with cancer. It was a surprise. He'd been sick before, but we'd thought he was cured.
In the movies, when a bomb that's been rolled into the room when no one is looking explodes, it's funny. It's not as funny when the bomb is cancer and the gag is the X-ray, millions of cancer cells sprayed throughout your father's body like shrapnel.
Some women hear a baby alarm; for me it was an air horn: YOU HAVE TO PREGNANT NOW SO YOUR FATHER CAN BLESS YOUR CHILD. So I got pregnant. I didn't have a plan.)
Like many women, my story followed the usual trajectory. The morning sickness and cravings for ice cream and pickles, the swollen ankles, constantly having to go to the loo, the mood swings, the feeling that an unpredictable tenant now occupied my body and would do as she pleased, including trampolining on my bladder and punching me in the ribs.
Then, in most birth stories, there is the climax. Things, big things, happen. And finally there is that shimmering moment when babe is folded into mother's arms—or plopped, still slimy, on her bare chest. The engulfing waves of love, the all-important latching on (or not ...), the bewitching smell of the infant's head and, finally, that sense, "You complete me."
(That was not my experience. No matter how easy the pregnancy or efficient the delivery, not every mother is full of joy after giving birth. Not everyone experiences that "You complete me" feeling. I didn't. You want to know what I felt? Stunned. Grateful. But more than that, I felt relieved. For nine months it had been a race between my body, which was creating new life, and my father's body, which was dying. And mine won.
My parents were the first people we called. Before anything else my father asked, "Does she have the toe?"
The toe. My father's big toe. The Schappell toe. Both my sister and I had inherited our father's oversize toe, as had my daughter. Directly after looking into my daughter's face, I'd looked at her feet. And yes, even at a distance, one could tell this baby was a part of our tribe.
My father would get to hold the baby. My daughter. His first grandchild. The only girl.
But right then it was all about the toe.)
Before I had children, I knew only one other birth story. My mother's. Which, everyone will tell you, is the one you need to know, because as your mother goes, so go you. It was the '60s. My mother told me that when she was pregnant, her doctor gave her a list of foods she could eat (boiled chicken, peas, carrot sticks) and a little booklet, "Exercises for Pregnant Women." Inside were small dour drawings of stick figures, half-twisting and trying to touch their toes.
My mother explains, somewhat chagrined, "The doctor told me if I got fat my husband wouldn't want me anymore." In photos, my mother is slim and gorgeous, she doesn't look pregnant at all; she looks like she is wearing an unflatteringly cut shift, and she looks like a smoker.
"We didn't know," she adds apologetically. "And smoking made me not hungry."
Both of my mother's labors were quick (if her story is to be believed) despite my sister and I being born breech. It helped that we were both about the size of a husky guinea pig.
I'm not sure if I wasn't listening to the other pregnancy stories that might have been told around me, or if I simply wasn't being told them because I wasn't pregnant and had no child. Mostly likely, it was a privacy thing. As my friend Rachel says, "It's because you're a WASP and the only thing more embarrassing to a WASP than a birth story is a conception story." She may be right. Rachel is my best friend and the first friend of mine to have a baby, but try as I might to recall the birth of her son (my godson), I cannot. Although, being a WASP herself, she may have refused to tell me.
The only birth stories I remember are the weird ones. A woman I worked with in a sushi bar in Boulder, Colorado, had invited all her friends over for a barbecue when she went into labor, later giving birth behind her sofa while they gnawed at ribs and chicken bones. As soon as she'd delivered she ate a hamburger. "Best burger of my life," she told me. In San Francisco, a friend's mother, bobbing nude in a hot tub, recounted the story of giving birth to her son underwater. I refrained from joining her in the Jacuzzi that night and decided shortly thereafter that it was time to leave the West Coast. And then there was the editor who, after having a scheduled C-section (some derisively refer to these moms as the "too posh to push" crowd), requested the doctor tighten up her tummy. The result? He hiked up the skin so high her navel disappeared. She was consigned to a lifetime of frequent full bikini waxes lest it appear that a small mammal was peeking out over the waistband of her pants.
Since having children I have been privy to perhaps more than my share of pregnancy and birth stories. Intimacy is the currency of female friendships. We bond by sharing the most personal details of our lives—first love, first heartbreak, first sexual experience, first dalliance with hard drugs, first marriage, first affair, and first divorce. So it's hard to imagine being close friends with a mother and never hearing her birth story. (Although one could make the case for home renovation and romantic betrayal.)
It's not just our friends, though, who are ready and willing to share their birth stories. Regardless of age, color, creed, political affiliation—next to dying, giving birth is the most profound experience that joins us, and there are those who really love to share. Last summer, I was in Peru in a rug shop in Cusco with my mother and teenage daughter. The store was owned by a couple with whom I appeared to share little in common except an uninhibited fondness for feather headpieces and heaps of vividly patterned pillows. Suddenly, the wife, having figured out that I was shopping with my mother and daughter, reached under the brightly colored carpet–strewn table and pulled out a woven basket. In it slept her baby daughter. She looked at me and patted her stomach, indicating that she had yet to lose the pregnancy weight. I mimed back that with my daughter, I had been so pregnant I was bowlegged. We laughed and carried on like this for a good while, acting out the highlights of pregnancy, the queasiness, the exhaustion, and when, with pride, she lifted her daughter from the basket to show us how perfect she was (and she was), I felt profoundly proud of my girl, too.
The husband then appeared and began to speak, gesturing to his wife and the baby, raising his hands to the sky as if to exclaim, She screamed so loud! The woman and I just looked at each other with FESP (female extrasensory perception). Egad, here they go again. Birth partners, regardless of gender, will try to tell their side of the birth story. And who can blame them? I stroked my lady with a feather to ease her pain. I fed her ice chips. I let her bite through my hand. I banged a tambourine in rhythm with her contractions. I delivered the baby in the back of a taxi. But really, they have no place in the conversation. I've witnessed the most amiable, refined, well-mannered women snap: Did you labor for forty-eight hours and then get a C-section? Did you pass an object the size of a Thanksgiving turkey through a hole the size of a dime? Did you crap on the delivery room table? Kidney stones, gunshot wound, shark attack—pity the person who attempts to match the agony of your average labor story.
(What my husband always says is, "I was right there," and he means inches from my face, which he was, "because she wouldn't breathe unless I breathed with her." This is an exaggeration. Despite those ridiculous Lamaze classes—puff, puff, puff—I didn't have the breathing down and burst hundreds of blood vessels in my face. There. I told you.
To be fair to my husband, he was a big help the second time, when I was in labor with our son. When the nurse asked him, "When was your wife's last period?" I was busy wailing in pain. "Are you kidding me?" he screamed at her. "Nine months ago! Are you crazy?!" Which I'd like to have said to her myself.)
I have found birth story kinship in other parts of the world, too. In Saint Petersburg, Russia, the only way I was able to get a grumpy and pregnant young saleswoman in a department store to give me the price on a teapot was to remark in pidgin English that I remembered being pregnant and that I imagined she must be suffering. At once, roses bloomed in her cheeks. Yes, she'd been on her feet all day long, and her cigarette break couldn't come soon enough. I couldn't afford the teapot, but having a conversation with a Russian woman about the miseries of pregnancy helped to blunt any disappointment I might have felt. More than that, though, in a city that appeared ominously devoid of kids, perhaps because Saint Petersburg was sprucing itself up in anticipation of celebrating the city's 300th birthday, and apparently children were an eyesore (though there were the shadows of children in the park huffing gasoline out of paper bags and a few strays in fancy dress dancing for rubles on the street), I felt privy to the real life of a real Russian, and that was better than any souvenir.
The saleswoman jonesing for a smoke was weirdly refreshing. Back in New York, I knew pregnant mothers who missed no opportunity to trumpet their freakishly healthy organic diets, regimens that seemed composed primarily of dark greens, tofu, and tubers that had been baked, stewed, macerated by grass-fed goats, you name it. And then, the treats: yummy yam muffins and fistfuls of gorp (good ole raisins and peanuts, but supplemented with carob chips, never chocolate. Demon, chocolate.). On the other side were those who trumpeted their transgressions, tearing into carcasses of barely dead steer and lamb, gobbling down oysters, ripping through bags of Doritos and Girl Scout cookies like stoned wolverines. That ... was me.
The place to complain about the discomforts of pregnancy was in Lamaze class. I took notes. My group was made of Upper East Siders and the rest of us. Folks who, like me, had traveled from fringe neighborhoods and boroughs to get there. Going around the circle, there was a woman who looked chic in her expensive designer pregnancy clothes. She told us that her remedy for back pain and insomnia was a hot bath with a lavender candle and cool jazz in the background. A fiercely toned woman in yoga gear—her mat tucked proudly under her arm like a certificate announcing, "Soon to Be Mother of a Future Honor Student"—told the group that daily workouts relieved her stress, arnica was the way to deal with sore muscles, and broccoli gave you gas. Another woman—who had apparently abandoned even trying to not look pregnant and was wearing what appeared to be a mohair car cover—had "never felt more powerful, more alive, more vital." We all knew that this was code for I'm having lots of sex. The yogini piped up, "Me too!" We all knew that this was code for having lots of tantric sex. Sting and Trudie Styler sex. Hours upon hours of sex. I felt sympathetic when the woman next to me, a cop from Queens, shuddered. She was pregnant with twins and wearing overalls. "You are kidding me, right?" she asked, shaking her head and looking down at her belly. I knew what she was thinking. You think I want another person inside me? What do you think this is, a clown car?
(In the weeks after my daughter was born, there were times when, feeling whipsawed by confusion, I wished I were still part of that group. I had questions. Like, Why is she crying? Can I use duct tape to close a diaper? When will she sleep?
It was like being made the captain of a ship without ever having sailed a day in your life. Not only that—it's the middle of the ocean, the sun is hot, the rum is running low, and you don't know how to swim.)
I didn't pipe up much during these conversations. I really didn't have much to contribute.
(No, the truth is more that I didn't want to share what I was feeling. Here is my story: I didn't imagine I'd get pregnant quickly—maybe there is a God—and figured that given how upset I was about my father's cancer, I'd skipped my period. It had happened before. My upset stomachs, the harbinger of an ulcer. I'd had one before. The headaches and exhaustion were a bout with the flu. I'd had one before.
So here is a gift for you who might torture yourself for unwittingly doing something unwise while pregnant—I took cold medicine. First trimester, slugged it down like a hobo. Judge me. I told myself, Hey, you didn't shoot heroin! Look at Courtney Love. She had a healthy baby girl! (It's never good when you start comparing yourself to Courtney Love to make yourself feel better.) I wasn't happy and my doctor really wasn't happy to hear this, right after confirming the fact that I was almost three months pregnant.)
But the bigger issue, as the birth story reaches its crescendo, is pain. This is the part we're all waiting for. Will she or won't she?
Will the mother-to-be opt for delivery accompanied by some sort of painkiller, or will she go with primal screams? I suppose in eras past, the options would have been either to inhale ether or bite on a leather strap. Was there implied virtue and bravery associated with the leather strap route?
(I know nothing of virtue or bravery. At one point during my first labor, when my daughter's skull was pressing against my spinal cord, the pain was so intense I tried to get up off the table, like any sane person would, and crawl away like a dog to have my baby under a car.)
It's tough to argue against "natural childbirth." It's natural, so by definition, any other way is unnatural. And it's so easy to feel smug when you ask: Did the pioneer women get epidurals? Was Lucy Lawless, Xena Warrior Princess, gassed to the gills? Do you really want to go into motherhood like some character in Valley of the Dolls? Why not be alive in the moment of giving birth?
Why not just all agree that no one philosophy is better than another and leave it at that? After all, at least we've come a long way from the '50s, when it was perfectly acceptable to choose to be knocked out cold and then revived with a martini.
Here is a question: Why do more who choose to say no to drugs choose to videotape the labor and delivery? Is it pride? If it's a matter of showing off, why don't women who have had epidurals just fake thrashing around and moaning? Like a sex tape.
Excerpted from What We Talk About When We Talk About Birth by Elissa Schappell. Copyright © 2014 Elissa Schappell. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
What We Talk About When We Talk About Birth,
A Note About the Author,
Also by Elissa Schappell,