This past week, Hilary Duff posted a bunch of photos taken during her labor with her third child. She is sitting on an exercise ball, her hair tinted a resplendent aquamarine, her lips painted ruby red, all her makeup flawless. She radiates a very zen sense of calm. The pictures could be advertising cosmetics, but, instead, they are a small handful of the thousands of photos and videos to be found online selling birth as a beautiful experience and a pinnacle of female achievement.
Of course, birth can be beautiful. But it can also be a lot of other things. And while, admittedly, I’m bitter about the fact that my births didn’t proceed according to plan, and rather than ads for lipstick resembled scenes from “The Exorcist“–roaring, cursing, bodily fluids splashing–I think it’s worth taking a moment to think about how these images shape the narrative around labor and delivery, and ask whether or not they do a service for their intended audience: people who are preparing to give birth.
Remember that game that teachers like to make you play on the first day of school, two truths and a lie? To get to know your classmates, you’d say three things about yourself and have them guess which one isn’t true. But you can build a lie entirely out of true statements. For example, if you came over to my house last Wednesday, upon entering you might’ve said, “Wow, your place is spotless!”
There are a couple of ways I could respond. I could say that having a messy house really stresses me out, and that I am constantly asking my kids to pick up all their crap–and those things are a hundred percent true, but I’m lying by omission when I don’t mention that I paid a housecleaner to make the place look great that day. And I’m doing you a disservice when I uphold the illusion that I can work full-time, parent two kids, and keep the apartment gleaming. You might wonder why you can’t manage to do the same thing, or what you’re doing wrong that your kids are such mess magnets, when, in reality, my kids are profoundly slovenly, my nagging almost always goes unheeded, and I have the privilege to hire someone to make it appear otherwise.
Let’s try the same exercise with my first birth. I could tell you that I spent six hours rocking and moaning in the shower, that a nurse coached me through pushing, and that the moment my son emerged I reached down for him and called him by name. All those things are true. But so are these: after six hours of withstanding brutal pain in the shower, my dilation didn’t increase at all, in an attempt to get me to push more effectively a nurse cruelly berated me (“Do you think you’re special? Women do this every day!”) and the doctor eventually removed him with forceps, causing a third degree tear in my perineum–which, in English, means I ripped from my vagina all the way through to my anus.
The instructor in our intensive childbirth class had repeatedly critiqued the way birth is portrayed in movies, with all the frantic screaming, but, in the end, both my first birth (epidural) and my second birth (nuthin’) involved a whole lot of shrieking, and the vibe was anything but peaceful. When a doctor attempted to pull my cervix fully open, I went full-on Linda Blair and snarled, “Get your fucking hands off me!” and four years later when my daughter emerged, I yowled, “Get it out!”
My mother, a high-risk OB/GYN who birthed two children without anesthesia, will be the first to tell you that I have no tolerance for pain. She bases this assessment off of hair-combing and splinter-removing procedures that took place when I was four years old. I grant that she may be correct; however, I don’t think the agony I felt giving birth, which I have attempted before to describe with phrases like mind-bending, unspeakable, and blinding, is particularly unique. I’ve swapped birth stories with countless people in the twelve years since I first gave birth, and mostly we agree that the pain was much worse than we could have imagined, and, over all, things didn’t go as we expected after watching all that footage of infants peacefully sliding out from women’s bodies.
During my first labor, I remember crouching in the shower between contractions, wondering why anyone would be so cruel as to encourage me to do this, and what I was doing wrong that my labor didn’t look or sound anything like all those beautiful videos. I wasn’t even half-way through, and, already, I felt that I was failing somehow.
Years later, I was listened to a woman at work describe her birth experience to a pregnant colleague, saying that her doula couldn’t tell how far along she was because she was being so quiet, and, when I mentioned something about poop, claimed that she “took care of that at home” (meaning what, that she gave herself an enema?) I eagerly jumped in at that moment to point out that she probably had shit herself at least a little while pushing, but a swift nurse cleaned it up before she even knew it had happened. After she finished telling her story, I told the pregnant colleague that I hoped very much that her labor and delivery went just like that, but, if she was in tremendous pain and screaming, that it was also totally normal and didn’t mean she was doing anything wrong.
Perhaps because marriage has lost some of its iconic luster over the years, and the day of your wedding isn’t “the big day” the way it used to be, more and more people are looking to their births as the height of their life’s achievements–and they’re investing in intense preparation and professional photographers the way a yearning bride might. But the only thing that a wedding and a birth have in common is that we tend to put so much weight on these experiences. You can plan everything about a wedding except the weather. The dress, the venue, the cake, the flowers: you get to decide all of it. You can’t control when you go into labor, or how, or how long it takes, or if the amount of pain you’re feeling corresponds to your progress. Things you have no sway over, like the angle the baby’s head sits at in your pelvis, can make the difference between a speedy delivery and endless agony. Plan all you want, but you can’t tell the story of your delivery until it’s happened.
Hilary Duff, and everyone else, are all free to pick which pictures to post, and to tell the story of their own births however they like. Those stories belong to them. But, before we share, it’s worth thinking about how those stories affect those most eager to hear them: expectant parents looking for a narrative to use as a guide. The next time a pregnant friend asks what labor is really like, I’d invite you to do the following. First, ask if they really want to know. They may just want reassurance that they can get through it. If they do want details, pick a few that seem to contradict each other entirely. This usually brings a story closer to the truth. It was beautiful, and terrifying. It was painful, but rewarding. Reassure your friend that birth may look nothing like they imagine, or as seen on Instagram, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean they failed.
And here’s to all the heroic, butt-wiping nurses out there, doing the hard work of keeping the dream alive.