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Birth Stories and Identity

Having my first baby was easy – to the extent that having a baby can be easy. I can’t say the same of the other three. Pregnancies got easier with each child; actually delivering the child got harder. The contrast – which many people have felt the need to point out to me, most frustratingly by an extremely grumpy delivery midwife – has made me think a lot about birth stories and identity.

birth stories and identity

I remember getting pregnant with Emma, and suddenly having women tell me all sorts of birth stories. Having a child is a life-changing experience, and there isn’t a formal space (or wasn’t, until mommy blogs came along) to talk about it. So, when someone gets pregnant for the first time, they get to hear the stories!

Read My Birth Stories:

Sometimes, when we listen to birth stories, we get caught up in the details. Did someone have their baby at home? In the hospital? Did they get an epidural? Did they have their baby naturally? The phrasing of that last question always strikes me as odd. I have yet to meet an artificially born baby!

If you struggle with infertility, the questions get worse.

Birth Stories are important. Adoption stories are important. Infertility stories are important. Child loss stories are important.

And there isn’t actually anything wrong with the details, if you can hear them without judging. Sometimes the details are important; there are a lot of different ways to have a baby, and knowing what works and what doesn’t work for others might someday help you make a decision about the best delivery option for yourself. Sometimes the teller needs someone to hear the details as they process their own story.

But, if you are going to judge, maybe it’s better not to ask for details. At the end of the day, there are two things that matter: Is mom doing well – emotionally as well as physically? Is the baby healthy? If the answer is yes, it’s time to celebrate! And, if the answer to either of those questions is no, the last thing anyone needs is judgment.

How has your childbirth experience impacted your identity?

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MaryAnne lives is a craft loving educator, musician, photographer, and writer who lives in Silicon Valley with her husband Mike and their four children.

38 thoughts on “Birth Stories and Identity”

  1. I appreciate this post, but I feel a bit uncomfortable with the statement that the only things that matter are mom’s health and baby’s health. The physical health of mom and baby is enormously important, but the actual experience of birth and the emotional impact of that is also enormously important. My own births resulted in healthy babies and a reasonably healthy mom, but left deep emotional trauma. That could, I suppose, be grouped under “mom’s health”–but I’m not sure that’s fully accurate. I feel I’m emotionally healthy at this point, but it still matters to me that my births were traumatic. It is part of my story and it hurts when people dismiss it as unimportant because, after all, I and my babies are healthy. I don’t think you actually intend to dismiss my experience or anyone’s experience, so I am just commenting because the phrasing gave me that impression a bit. Other women may experience disappointing birth experiences that they may not ever call traumatic or feel that the experiences made them emotionally unhealthy, but I think it still matters when a birth just isn’t what a woman wanted it to be.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Catherine. I wouldn’t characterize a traumatic birth as one that left both the mother and child healthy. You may be emotionally healthy now, but those births clearly left scars just as a birth that is physically unhealthy will leave physical scars. Would the phrase “Is mom doing well?” be more clear on that point? Or do you have another way of clarifying?

      1. But if a woman is left not traumatized but simply disappointed by her birth experience, I don’t think that can really be described as her not being emotionally healthy or even not doing well, but her experience still matters. What do you think?

        1. Absolutely. But, if you are telling a mom she should be happy because she is healthy and her baby is healthy even though she is disappointed, that will come across as you judging her for being disappointed, don’t you think?

          I also think that a disappointing birth does take a sufficiently significant emotional toll on a new mom that I wouldn’t see them as “doing well” – because, for me, “doing well” is a positive state of being, not a neutral or “okay” one. Does that make sense?

          1. I can see that. I still have a personal preference for emphasizing that the experience itself matters regardless of the outcome, but I certainly agree with you that judgment doesn’t help anyone.

          2. I think the experience is critical – and that is why birth stories matter. I was writing this simply from the point of view that, if someone is telling you their story, not judging is much more important than any of the details.

  2. It’s funny…we think that once we become adults, the judgment and other social pains will go away, and then we get pregnant and realize that there are so many choices and so many strong opinions and no matter what we do, someone has something to say about it. All that being said, I love birth stories, and I love sharing mine.

    1. I love birth stories, too, and think it’s really neat to have blogging as a space where women can share their experiences with the world.

      But yes, it’s funny how being an adult isn’t nearly as carefree as it looks from a child’s point of view…

  3. I like hearing my friends’ birth stories, however different or the same they may be from mine. Both my births were thankfully smooth. I didn’t really have any expectations; I just knew it was something I had to do. And yes I would hate for someone to look down on my choices (which is why I suppose we choose whom we surround ourselves with wisely!).

  4. The not judging part is such an important takeaway from your post. I agree with Catherine’s point too, that the feelings a new mom has about her own birth experience even if the eventual outcome is a healthy mom and baby are important and worth validating.

    1. I agree. Having a baby is such a vulnerable moment in your life, and the emotions a new mom is feeling shouldn’t be brushed off or taken lightly.

  5. I had the honor of witnessing all three of my daughters’ births, and each one took my breath away in a new and exciting way. First, to meet my angels, face to face for the first time. And not lost in that – the strength, courage and love of a mom to deliver and nurture them.

  6. Interesting discussion in the comments. I had a scheduled C-section with my child (she was a breach baby), and that didn’t affect my identity in the least. Many women resist C-section, because it’s somehow “unnatural”, but to me having a healthy child was way more important than how she will be “extracted”. I say that I had a fantastic birth experience and a speedy recovery, because I didn’t have any expectations regarding how my birth is “supposed to be”.

    1. I think not having expectations is a healthy approach. They initially thought Emma was breech, and I would have gone for a C-section if that had been the case. And, if having four babies taught me anything about expectations, it was to expect the unexpected!

  7. Very interesting that pregnancy got easier but deliveries harder. My second pregnancy was harder because I had HG but I can’t judge the deliveries because my second was a csection.

    I had traumatic experiences with both my births. With my first they lost the babies heart beat and had to bring in a doctor and ultrasound to find it. The midwives were asking me when the last time was I felt the baby move. It was a very scary 20 minutes. With my second, I had internal bleeding after a csection and had to rushed back into surgery. So I would have to agree. Healthy baby and mama is all that matters.

  8. I should add…
    All that matters IN MY CASE. I wanted vaginal births without interventions and I didn’t get them but experiencing life and death moments changed my perspective.

    1. Life and death moments change everything. What a frightening experience you had – both times! I am very glad that everything worked out for you and your beautiful family.

  9. I love birth stories, and they even can change depending on where you are from. When I was pregnant with my first kid I had set in my mind that I wanted a doctor to follow my pregnancy and deliver the baby. Because midwives are looked down in my country, Bolivia. My husband wanted a midwife for me and he wanted a very homebirth like experience, (I could not help but to think that poor people in my country do that, because I thought they do not have the resources to pay for the hospital) I was not happy about all this but, I wanted to please my husband. So we looked for the best midwife in the area, and boy I got the best. It changed my mentality, in spite of 33 hours of labor, it was one of the best experiences ever. I realized that a lot of my ignorance, came for stigmas I had in my mind. When I tell my Bolivian friends that I had midwives in my 4 deliveries (by the way,one was at home) they look at me like I am ignorant, but then most of my friends had doctors and C-sections in a hospital. My experiences has definitely changed my mind!

    1. I’m so glad you had a good birth experience! You are definitely right, that what is considered an ideal birth environment changes depending on culture and location.

  10. I love birth stories and babies. I wish mine could have gone differently (hoping #2 will go more smoothly), but I’m thankful for a full recovery and a healthy kid!

  11. Elisa | blissfulE

    What a wonderful way to summarise how we can support a woman during this time of transition in her life, MaryAnne – whether she’s having her first or fifth baby, or has discovered she cannot conceive. Don’t press for details. Listen, reflect back what she is saying – often she will have a lot to process, especially with a sympathetic listener – but don’t bring up what she doesn’t. Too often we are tempted to ask for details so we can compare either mentally or out loud, to our own or others’ experiences. Comparisons in the mommy world are almost never helpful, so let’s avoid digging for those details.

  12. I love hearing about birth stories. One of my friends had 22 hours of labor without epidural. I am in awe of her but it always makes my back twitchy with sympathy pains!

    I had 15 hours of labor and then a non-emergency c-section with my first. The worst of both worlds! But her head was so big that it got stuck and even the epidural did not help much.

    My second and third kids were vaginal and I was lucky to have an OB that let me try after c-section!

  13. I love this post MaryAnne. My first daughter’s birth ended with a healthy baby but it was nothing like I had envisioned or hoped for. I was thrilled to have my healthy daughter but it took me a while to get over the disappointment of not having the birth experience I wanted. You are so right – judgement is something no new mother needs.

    1. I think it’s important to give a new mother space to be disappointed, if that is how she is feeling. Having a child is such a vulnerable moment in a woman’s life, and there is a lot to process.

  14. I am an OB/GYN, so I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with over a thousand different birth stories. Although in some ways, childbirth has become commonplace, I can say that no two experiences are the same. I have had one child of my own, and do cherish my own, personal experience and enjoy swapping stories with friends and acquaintances. I find that the people who end up being the most disappointed after a birth(despite physically healthy mom and baby) are those who come into the experience with a well-defined birth plan with every detail mapped out in their mind. Most of these birth plans are devised by reading other birth stories and talking to friends about their “horror stories.” When things deviate from the plan(which inevitably they do), this can be very anxiety provoking and stressful for some people.
    My advice for any first time mother-to-be is to focus on the goal/best outcome and try to be flexible. The birth is just the beginning of a long relationship of give/take with another person and the beginning of a realization that your life is not your own anymore.

    1. Very wise advice! If having four children taught me anything about giving birth, it was to expect the unexpected and understand that, while I could take steps to eat well, be in good shape, and educate myself about my options, there were too many factors outside of my own control to be able to predict what the actual birth would be like. I’m very grateful to have come out of it with no serious complications and four healthy children!

  15. Very pertinent. Yes, we need to hear birth stories, but we also need to remember that there is no perfect birth story. Pregnant women and new mothers shouldn’t get the feeling that they have to live up to any one of those stories. It is out this prejudice that many women (such as myself) don’t share their stories – because they are afraid of being branded a ‘failure’ or a ‘loser’. I had a c-section, and I still find myself quiet in conversation where women are glorifying natural birth.

    1. C-sections save lives every single day. I was reading a birth story this morning by a woman talking about how she was so upset being wheeled into the OR because she had wanted a vaginal birth, and her husband leaned in and whispered, “You are saving her [the baby’s] life.” I loved that. Here’s the post, if you are curious: http://mytwinspirationaljourney.blogspot.com/2013/11/nov-4.html

      You are right that there is no perfect birth story – and I think it’s much healthier to go into childbirth having heard a few not-ideal-but-still-worked-out stories so that, when things don’t go as planned, it’s easier to accept. It’s amazing to me how many babies are born without serious complications, when you consider all of the things that have to go “right” in the process of developing in utero and being born.

  16. I remember when I was pregnant with the boys and taking a lamaze class the instructor asked us in the first class if there was anything we specifically wanted covered to ask her. So I went up at the end of class and said “My doctor said it has to be a C-section because one is breech and the other is transverse, so I’d like more information on that.” Then the instructor proceeded to tell me how I shouldn’t have a C-section, and I should really consider natural birth, and natural birth was better.

    Then I stared at her in shock. My doctor had told me it was medically necessary because they were twins and she couldn’t manipulate them or anything to change their position, and here she was condemning me for what I had to do.

    Thankfully a week later I was on bed rest for medical complications, so I never really had to deal with that fanatic again or listen to her for the rest of the class tell me how I was wrong.

  17. I love hearing birth stories! I also love my birth experiences with my children and the fact that I was able to have them the way I wanted, with no drugs (or naturally…wink, wink). I do agree, though, that it is extremely important not to judge others who have had different birth experiences. In no way, do I gain any kind of identity from my experiences, but rather a joyful and thankful heart that I was able to have the experience I was hoping for (at least as much as you can hope for without knowing what to expect).

  18. Thank you for this. I had c-sections and when people ask and I tell them that, I often get -“oh……” I’m ok with it, I know the story behind it, why do I get the long sigh? Anyway, you are correct and unless you were in the labor and delivery room, you just don’t understand all that went into a decision.

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