I am daily compelled by the siren call of birth stories. I read them late at night when I can’t sleep because I’m pregnant. I read them early in the morning when I need inspiration because I’m pregnant and my toddler’s favourite co-sleeping position is ‘H is for Hell’. I recount them to my husband, my friends, my colleagues, and my neighbours, just for fun. Why? What is it about birth stories?
Their narrative structure is not that complex (baby…comes out…of woman!) and there’s rarely much character development or plot twisting. They contain typos and grammatical errors, and sometimes leave out the most relevant details. They’re not ‘literature’.
But I always feel a little pique of joy when January forwards me a birth story to edit and format. As a mother, a birth activist, and a writer, editing birth stories fulfills me. Deeply. Perhaps it’s because no two stories are the same or because they narrate one of the most powerful human experiences. Maybe I like to siphon endorphins off the ecstasy and intensity they describe. Certainly, they are all glimpses into other people’s most secret, sacred lives.
But I haven’t written my own, and it’s kind of embarrassing. I keep deciding to do other important things like nap with my toddler instead. It just… hasn’t happened yet. And I’m not sure why.
One evening, while chastising myself for slacking off on this important parenting/birth activist/blogger task, I got to wondering about birth stories as a social phenomenon: Why do (some) women write their birth stories? Why do others not? What can I do to light a fire under my behind to get my son’s written before May 22nd, which is when our daughter might arrive?*
*Exactly nine months from the sultry summer evening on which I received an email from Mrs. BWF, inviting me to start blogging for her. Beware, O Reader! Birth stories can actually get you pregnant. True story.
To answer these questions, I turned to my friend Shani Raviv. Shani is a professional writer, a yoga practitioner, and mother to an absurdly adorable toddler. She also leads birth story writing workshops in a Berkeley yurt. I asked her to tell me about her work and what she has noticed about women’s efforts to write their birth stories. And I turned to you, the BWF readership. I asked what made you write your birth story and how it affected you. You also shared some seriously awesome pictures.
This is what I learned.
Women write (and share) their birth stories because they wish…
1. To educate and support other women.
“It was a true fight to keep my home birth and I want to be able to encourage women when they don’t have the support they may need.” – Tammie H.
“Writing mine… helped many of my peers see that birth is not something to be afraid of.” – Kim G (read more here).
Stories have been used to transmit knowledge since time immemorial. Narrative is a great way to make information – whether about cultural heritage or about the time it took for your cervix to dilate – interesting and memorable. Education and narrative go hand in hand. Shani says that, “…It is unfortunate that we don’t live in a culture where women gather post birth, removed from the drudgery of chores and routine, to sit around the fire under the stars with our feminine clan (including the elders and the young) and share our birth stories … Instead, too many of our stories get lost in our hearts.” BWF mamas describe the desire to share their stories to support and educate other women – not unlike the moonlit knowledge circles Shani describes.
“I wrote it for another mom who was nervous about a VBAC. It was nice knowing my story [helped] another mom to fight for what she wanted.” – Ashlee B.
“I want to [write my birth story] so that other women might find the strength to say no to things.” – Jennifer K P
2. To commemorate the experience.
“I wrote mine a few days after because I wanted to remember every last detail, every feeling and emotion…” – Sara N G
“…As a birth doula I often write up stories for the couples I work with. I note times and major events in the birth, to give the mom a framework to insert her own memories and experiences since time gets distorted for her during birth.” – Michelle H L
Oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’ which initiates both labour contractions and bonding, has been shown to have significant impacts on memory. Mothers often remember their births differently from other people, and details that are significant to others (such as for how long the mother pushed, or the timing of her contractions) are vague to the mother herself. Some say that memory deficits caused by oxytocin are nature’s way of ‘making sure we have more babies’, believing we must forget the pain of childbirth in order to go through it again. Whether or not this is the case, many mothers are cognizant of the factor of forgetting. They write their birth stories as soon after the birth as possible in order to remember everything as it happened.
“I’m glad I [wrote] it today when our daughter is five days old… I found that details were already fuzzy.” – Martha F
3. To reflect.
“At first, I wanted to be disappointed that I didn’t get the fully natural birth I wanted. I wanted to be angry. But, as I wrote my birth story, I was able to lose that anger, and instead, speak hope for other moms who might not have the perfect birth they planned. … It helped me to celebrate the birth I had. I was able to remember the words spoken to me by my midwife and know that I am capable of an unmedicated birth, even though that couldn’t happen this time.” – Kim G (read more here).
Giving birth is a major life event. Stories used to describe and remember these events have been called “self-defining narratives” (McLean, Paspupathi, & Pals, 2007) in reference to the ways they form our basic perceptions of who we are. These stories evolve with time and re-telling. Sharing them helps us to bond with other people.
“It is very personal to me and I want to share it with anyone who would benefit from it.” – Melanie W.
“I caught myself writing a sentence like, ‘I wanted to go as long as possible before getting the epidural.’ Like I had no choice but to get one. After reading that part over and over, I knew my views had to change. They have 100% changed and have given me more empowerment/encouragement with just being a woman.” – Britany S.
4. To preserve beauty .
“I’ve talked to others about my daughter’s birth many times and have found it hard not to cry just because of how empowering and beautiful it was.” – Briana G
“For both my girls, I wrote their stories so I could share with the world the wonder of their births.” – Sarah Jamison (read more here)
All births are sacred. Some women write or talk about their birth stories simply to capture a bit of that beauty. Shani and I discussed the courage it takes to do this. She says that many of the birth stories she has heard, “…omitted all the excitement, the emotions, the color, the magic [of the birth]… [Women need to] gather to share and write their stories in a creative way and bring magic to an already magical experience no matter where the birth happened or how the baby was born.” In a culture that derides the importance of birth as a spiritual experience, being honest about the transformative qualities of your birth can be a profound gift to others. For some women, it is an early step in the long journey of giving that is motherhood.
“…while my baby nursed, fussed or was just otherwise awake,… [I would recall] every detail of his birth so that I c ould commit it to memory…Then I started writing it down during those hours-long midnight visits, typing one-handed on my now ancient Blackberry in a memo folder. That old Blackberry had the tiniest screen and no dimmer app. By the time I was done… and exported it to a word file on my computer, it was ten pages long… After I finished writing it, the long nights didn’t end, the sleep deprivation was high and patience was getting even lower, so I would read his birth story over and over again on my Black berry at night. It really kept me kind and sane for him.” - Debbie R.
5. To change the world.
“Our daughter was born this January, and I was immediately compelled to write her birth story. I spent so much of my pregnancy reading others’ birth stories and finding them so beautiful, different, and empowering. I wanted to be a part of that.” – Kim G. (read more here)
Given the hysteria and prejudice surrounding birth in the West, sharing your birth story can be a political act. Birth was a taboo subject for a number of years – the same years during which twilight sleep ensured that many women never consciously experienced it. No matter how you felt about your birth, sharing your experience of it is another drop in the changing of that tide. Talking about an ‘unspeakable’ topic is a revolutionary act for some BWF readers.
“I will share it because I was inspired by others stories and I want to do the same. I will share it because I want to make my mark in the world of home birth advocacy. I will share it because I am proud. I will share in hopes that other ladies will also share their experiences as well. Good or bad. It’s how we learn. It’s how we grow!” – Patrice NB (read more here)
6. To give to the child.
“I wrote my birth stories as I love being able to relive the experiences, and have something to read to my children as they get older.” - Tess A.
Shani says, “We… honor our stories as something that came through us, as did our children, but are now bigger than us, our personal journeys. Our stories become part of our family’s legacy or our child’s birthright that can last for generations.” Children love to hear the story of how they were born, and the ritual of its recounting can be so sweet. Writing down your child’s birth story can be a way of ensuring that they will one day know how they entered the world. When the child is a girl, the wish to support and educate her as a future mother also comes into play.
“I…printed it out and placed it in my daughter’s baby book so she can look back and read about the day she was born. I can only hope that it will inspire her to have a birth without fear when she is ready to give birth to her own child.” – Jennifer C.
7. To heal trauma.
“I wrote mine because of its healing factors. I had an induced labour then ended up with an emergency C-section and had severe postpartum anxiety because of it. Writing my birth story helped me be at peace with the fact I couldn’t change what happened and that I am lucky I ended up with my beautiful, now three year-old boy.” – Fiona W.
If a woman’s body or wishes were violated while she was giving birth, this trauma can pop up in other areas of her life. She may re-live her experience of it over and over again. Narrative is a time-honoured method of healing after trauma; it can provide a path through the chaos of an emergency C-section or other crises. For many BWF readers, getting their complete stories out of their minds and onto paper (or a screen) has helped them to understand, organize, and gain perspective on the things that happened to them. As I will discuss in my next post on this topic, writing birth stories for this purpose can be challenging and downright scary. But for those who do it, the results are worthwhile.
“My second daughter’s birth was a little non-standard… and so writing it down helped me process it and really get a handle on what had happened.” – Sarah Jamison (read more here)
“…to heal regarding the things that didn’t go my way… to appreciate all the things that DID go my way.” – D LB
There are many, many reasons to write a birth story – more than I could ever mention here. It’s a great thing to do. But it’s not easy. Almost half of the BWF readers who contacted me also wrote about the struggles they faced in writing their birth stories, and as some mothers have asked, “Why would you want to write about that? You just get over it and move on with your life.” We will discuss some of these challenges, and a few ways of overcoming them, in my next post. I’ll be working on it over the course of this week – by the end of it, I might even have a story of my own to share.
Then again, I might be napping.