We've seen it a million times, played out in movies and on sitcoms until it seems perfectly normal. A pregnant woman (slim and lovely everywhere but her tummy) awakens in the night to labor pains. She shakes awake her spouse, who fumbles around in a panic, putting his pants on backwards, losing his car keys and finding them again, before they get into the car and speed to the hospital or birthing center. They are met at the entrance by a kindly, efficient nurse who ushers the laboring mother into a wheelchair and whisks her into a delivery room. There she writhes around in the bed, screams at her husband, and, when her wisecracking obstetrician arrives, is told to push. After a few intense minutes, the baby emerges, wet and screaming, and is placed on the mother's chest. She is enraptured, transformed, a member of the eternal Sisterhood, connected to all women throughout all time. Proud papa cuts the cord, the goo is swabbed off, and baby is brought to the breast for the first time. Mommy looks into baby's eyes, the angels sing, and they are instantly and profoundly bonded. Variations of this scenario have become engraved in our consciousness and we've come to expect, even demand, that this is how our own births should go.
For the vast majority of women in the world, this simply doesn't happen. For most, birth is a drawn-out, arduous, dangerous process. Things can and do go wrong, and the outcome of a birth can not be predicted in advance. Complications, both maternal and fetal, arise frequently. Breech presentation. Preeclampsia. Gestational diabetes. For some women, myself included, the baby just won't fit through the pelvis. Luckily for me, I live in a wealthy and prosperous nation. My pregnancy was carefully monitored and, when the disparity in size between his head and my pelvis became apparent, a C-section was scheduled. Many women in the world are not so lucky; they labor for days until the baby dies, at which point it is removed, piece by piece. These women are often left with fistulas, causing them to be incontinent, and shunned by their families and villages. They lose everything, their babies, their husbands, their societal status, due to nothing more than being unlucky enough to be born into a third-world society, devoid of modern obstetrics.
Devastating loss is not confined to the third world. Even with our amazing technological advances, women in more advanced countries still lose babies. I used to attend a support group for pregnancy and infant loss, and I've seen firsthand the sorrow and guilt a mother faces when she loses a child. I've seen pictures of a stillborn baby, so beautiful and perfectly formed, so tragically still and lifeless. I remember, and will never forget, the names of the dead. Brisa, Meredith, Bridget Bell. These are all children that never were. Their parents hold onto those names, as they hold onto anything that connected them to their lost children. In their short time on earth, these babies were beloved.
In light of these tragedies, questions of pain management, birth plans, laboring positions, and the birth "experience" seem trivial. To a woman who has experienced loss, any birth that ends in a live baby is a success. If that baby is healthy and the delivery is not nightmarish, well, that's icing on the cake. And to any idealist who insists that there's only one right way to give birth and that mothers are entitled to have it that way, I have only two words: fuck you.
In my case, the knowledge of this suffering stripped away not only my delusions, but my very ability to delude myself. I could no longer kid myself that certain things were "meant to be" or to believe that old cliche that states "everything happens for a reason". It was a rough road to skepticism and, while I'm not happy to have gone through such heartache, I am glad to have my blinders stripped off and the world laid bare. Because, although nature can be cruel, it can also be full of majesty and wonder, and when you open yourself up to sad truths, you also open yourself up to profound joy and awe.
When I heard my baby cry for the first time, as he was yanked through an incision in my abdomen, I felt that sense of awe, along with a wash of relief. After nine months of constant worry, he was finally out, and he was wonderfully, gloriously, alive. I didn't mind that he was promptly whisked away to be poked, prodded, tested and weighed. I knew he was in competent, professional hands, watched over by his proud father. The nurse put a cool hand on my brow and told me I could take a nap if I wanted, while they stitched me up. I closed my eyes and reveled in the knowledge that we had both made it, that my beautiful son and I had the rest of my lifetime to get to know each other.
Birth is only the beginning of motherhood, as a wedding is only the beginning of the marriage. The rite of passage isn't nearly as important as what follows. Thanks to the incredible stroke of luck that had me born in America, I am now a mother. And no woman on this planet, living or dead, has ever loved her child more than I love mine, regardless of how that child was born.