Mama, You're a Superhero

Childbirth can be scary, but it's also empowering.
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Childbirth can be scary, but it's also empowering.
Photo Credit: Violet Short Photography

Photo Credit: Violet Short Photography

Former supermodel Christy Turlington is used to turning heads. But she most recently caused ears to perk up when she told Britain’s Red magazine, “Giving birth was probably the most empowering thing I’ve ever done physically. I was like, now I can do anything. I can run a marathon . . . I can run three marathons!”

Having twice given birth, I smiled at Turlington’s remarks; I’m glad she made them. We hear so much about labor being exhausting or immensely painful, as if the whole thing is solely a huge and unpleasant burden for women to bear. That story isn’t challenged during regular obstetric visits either because most OBs believe their job is to supervise physical safety throughout pregnancy, not offer emotional support. Yes, pregnancy and labor are intense work, but they can also offer unexpected gifts. Bringing a new life into the world is miraculous, life-affirming, and indeed, empowering.

The whole process is pretty amazing when you stop to think about it: the fact that—to quote a former boss—something the size of a watermelon manages to squeeze out of something the size of a lemon. That even if you have no idea what to do, your body does, if you’ll only trust it. That, while this experience will no doubt be painful, you will feel even stronger having overcome it.

WAIT, HOW DOES THIS WORK AGAIN?

Before our first daughter was born in 2011, my husband and I took prenatal classes near our Boston-area home. I hadn’t yet decided whether I wanted to attempt a natural birth, so I signed us up for a general class that addressed the full menu of birthing options. I remember feeling intimidated by the fact that every other expectant mother I met seemed to have a definite preference for birthing procedures—one that rolled off her tongue as easily as if you’d asked, “Coke or Pepsi?” Me, however? I simply didn’t know.

But I’ll never forget the night our instructor showed us videos of real women in labor; one woman accepted the relatively mild painkiller she was offered, one had the epidural (the full-strength painkiller option), and one went natural (medication-free). The first two women didn’t look like they were enjoying themselves, but they also didn’t look like they were suffering.

It was the woman who refused medication, the one who seemed most in touch with what was happening to her body, who was the most alarming to watch. When we watched the close-up of her child entering the world, it looked to me like her body was literally being torn apart. I blanched. I thought I might faint.

For the first time, I was mad at my husband. “I can’t believe I let you get me pregnant!” I exclaimed after class that night. Sure, it had been a mutual decision; motherhood was something I had very much wanted and still did. And either way, there was no going back. I knew that in the not-too-distant future, it would be time to meet the baby who regularly hosted late-night dance parties in my belly—and I wanted to! But watching that video made me anxious. I began to find it scary thinking about the logistics of how I would get from point A (being pregnant) to point B (holding my newborn).

THANK GOD FOR GIRLFRIENDS

Thankfully, I mentioned all of this to a wise friend who had just given birth to her second child. She encouraged me to read the work of famous midwife Ina May Gaskin. The name was new to me, but I hopped on Amazon and ordered a book of Gaskin’s birth stories.

Reading about Gaskin’s midwifery completely transformed my outlook. Each chapter compassionately told the story of a different woman’s birthing experience. The more I read, the calmer and more confident I felt about the impending birth. I began to believe Ina (yes, reading these stories made me feel like I knew her personally) that many women over many generations had successfully given birth and that I could, too. 

I could bring my daughter safely into this world.

That internal certitude made all the difference when my daughter was born. The day after my due date I went to bed as I always did, but I wasn't able to sleep for too long. My water broke at 2:50 a.m., and intense contractions began immediately and lasted all night. 

We were in a cab by 7:30 a.m. with a careful selection of well-loved music and a pre-packed overnight bag. I also carried two copies of my straightforward Ina-influenced birth plan. It read, “(1) I would like to give birth naturally. (2) If for some reason the pain is truly unbearable, I reserve the right to ask the attending anesthesiologist for an epidural.” While I knew that it is impossible to anticipate what might happen during any birth, I found it reassuring to go in with at least a simple game plan.

THE MOMENT OF TRUTH

While I was fortunate to deliver at a Harvard teaching hospital known for its maternity unit, the delivery team wasn't particularly warm. Still, I had my husband there, fully engaged and cheering me on. Throughout labor, we listened to the early Beatles songs I knew by heart while I silently repeated my own reassuring birth mantra: “Ina May says I can do this.

Meanwhile, my OB was simultaneously monitoring several laboring women, so I hardly saw her. I had more time with the maddening delivery nurse, who urged me to “Push ’im out, mama! Push ’im out!” even after my husband politely informed her that we were awaiting a girl and not a boy.

When you’re in labor, though, there’s no time to debate; you can only move forward. So I pushed. Oh, how I pushed. After two hours of pushing, and ten hours of labor total, our beautiful daughter arrived.

My husband cried. He was overjoyed to be a father. I felt thoroughly exhausted but remarkably content because I now had everything I ever wanted: I was both a wife and a mother.

With help from Ina May and my husband, I had done it! I scaled the heights of labor and delivered our daughter, fully present and feeling everything the whole time (which I know isn’t for everybody). I was proud of myself. I had delegated control to my body, and it came through for me.

While I might have been one small person, I had done something huge: I brought a new life into the world. Yes, it was painful, but not as painful as I’d feared it might be. And not only had I come out on the other side, but I also had a positively amazing little person to show for it. How many superheroes have something so transcendent to show for a day’s work?

What struck me most is how I felt satisfied and peaceful in a way that was entirely new to me. This baby was about to overhaul my life in ways I couldn’t imagine, but I was ready and even excited. Because as Ina May, Christy Turlington, and countless other women already knew, motherhood is a gift—and labor and delivery is where it all begins.