In the final weeks of my pregnancy, I found myself reading and listening to birth stories at a feverish pace. I’d taken a birth education class and felt informed about the mechanics of labor and delivery. But in the heady anticipation of those days, I was desperate to grasp what it would actually feel like to give birth. Birth stories were easy to find. They filled the pages of my pregnancy books, and I could play them from my phone as podcasts. In Milli Hill’s The Positive Birth Book, I read women describe the thrill and agitation of labor beginning (“exciting! it’s happening!”), navigating contractions (“a combination of pure panic, being in a different world, and being high as a kite”), the challenges of transition (“I lost my mind for a moment”), pushing (“the hardest work I’ve ever done”), the sensation of the baby emerging (“thank God”), and the feeling of your baby finally in your arms (“bliss and love, but then shock”). Reading these stunningly intimate accounts written and told by strangers, I reassured myself that I could imagine something of the new experiences to come.
For as long as people have given birth, they have told stories about it. But the “birth story” as we now know it is a product of recent history. In the 1960s and ’70s, a new wave of feminist activism demanded that women be regarded as active participants in childbirth. Activists systematically gathered and documented birth stories as a plea for change in the way childbirth typically unfolded in the United States. These birth stories were often harrowing tales, recording experiences with a medical system that removed women from the decision-making process, often through the use of heavy anesthetizing medication.
In the mid-1970s, the British feminist Ann Oakley began her pioneering sociological research on women’s experiences of childbirth. By interviewing and recording women’s stories en masse for the first time, she documented the psychological trauma of labors in which women felt they had little control. In this first wave of intentionally recorded and shared birth stories, many women’s experiences were marked by a sense of things being done to them. As one woman Oakley interviewed remembered: “The doctor kept coming round … he said try for an hour to push the baby’s head out, he said, there isn’t much room. … Otherwise, he said, we’ll have to make a decision as to what to do … so at twelve o’clock he said, we’ll take you upstairs, he said, and I’ll try with forceps, he said, or else you’ll have to have a cesarean, you know. They delivered him with forceps. And I was right out.” These stories were a call for change.
Feminists who drew attention to the problems with childbirth in the 1970s argued that the stories we tell about birth before, during, and after the experience—both to ourselves and collectively—structure how births actually happen in practice. The first commercial edition of the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves, published in 1973, included detailed descriptions of every phase of pregnancy, labor, birth, and the postpartum period. It was also peppered with women’s unique and varied accounts in their own voices. These included home births and cesarean deliveries alike. The collective recognized both the thrill that can accompany delivery and the sense of disappointment many women experience when things don’t go to plan.
The Our Bodies birth stories weren’t always “natural,” in the now-popularized Ina May Gaskin sense, but the women who told them weren’t always unhappy about that fact. Some women spoke highly of their experiences of pain relief: “As soon as the going got a little rough, I asked the nurse for ‘something.’ She brought me Nisentil, a narcotic. It began to take effect very soon after she administered the shot, and it helped me to relax between contractions so well that I often found myself on the verge of sleep.” Others emphasized their satisfaction at the experience of birth without medication: “I had a short, hard labor and it was clear to me that the incredible euphoria that I experienced afterwards was in part a function of the fact that it was very painful. It really was almost positive pain, really worth it in retrospect.” Far from an expression of the superiority of “natural” birth or a criticism of the use of medicine in labor and delivery, the stories collected in feminist texts like Our Bodies, Ourselves were a plea to normalize women’s diverse experiences and insist on a woman-centered model where, regardless of the details, women felt respected.
At best, the legacy of feminist birth activism has been that birthing people are encouraged to see themselves as agents in their own experience, and feel empowered to process it on their own terms. In recent years, podcasts like The Birth Hour, which feature parents narrating their birth stories, have joined pregnancy books in giving voice to birthing people’s experiences on a new scale. Without normalizing one or another kind of birth, the podcast helps expectant parents learn about birth from those who’ve been through it, and allows birthing people to speak in their own words about their desires and choices in the process. In a system that is inarguably more patient-centric than it was in the middle of the last century, birthing parents continue to confront all manner of disrespect and poor care. For women of color, this often includes life-threatening neglect and outright abuse. In a quiet way, The Birth Hour and other similar resources continue to make a case for better births.
But if The Birth Hour is in many ways a legacy of feminist activism like Oakley’s and the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s, it also comes to us through a new 21st century media culture. Episodes are labeled for easy sorting: “preemie,” “hypnobirthing,” “BIPOC stories,” “breech,” “homebirth,” etc. This allows people to listen to birth stories selectively—perhaps less to learn about the range of all possible experiences, and more to hear what it is that we want to hear, in anticipation of what we hope for ourselves. Despite my desire, in the abstract, to prepare for any birth experience I might have, I found myself pretty much exclusively listening to birth stories that described the unmedicated, low-intervention birth I hoped for.
The feminists who popularized birth stories in the ’70s meant them to educate broadly and honor different experiences. But in practice, the birth stories we read or hear in the media tend to feature women narrating their stories with confidence—birthing parents, in other words, who are in control, if only of their narratives. Refracted through 21st century culture, the feminist call for a more active, central role for birthing people in childbirth can counterintuitively make us feel like we are failing if our births do not feel wholly in our control or do not go to plan. So often the birth stories that go viral online represent extremes that polarize viewers and breed a sense of inadequacy. A 2013 video of a woman who chose to give birth in a stream in Australia, without medical support of any kind, has received 90 million views on YouTube. Parents magazine described this as birth “in a truly organic fashion—no pain relief, no doctors, no hospital … just a woman, a stream, and the miracle of life.” A far cry from feminism’s past, this treatment glamorized one woman’s clearly exceptional story, setting it up as a sort of Whole Foods ideal for all.
Since the 1990s, the rise of confessional storytelling done by women, first in print and then online, has complicated the place of “birth stories” in our culture. Recording your experience of birth is at once a feminist act and now potentially one intended for mass consumption via a Reddit forum or blog. Writing, and even sharing, your birth story is also now commodified as one of a number of things you “should” do as a successful new parent, like having a baby shower or assembling a baby book. If you Google “birth story,” you will find everything from fill-in-the-blank birth story templates to birth journals marketed as perfect, handwritten “heirlooms in the making.” You will also come across guides to documenting your experience that suggest ways to make it “powerful” as well as “compelling” and “light”—in any case, digestible and palatable to others, not least your child, who may (some of these guides remind you) end up reading your story “someday.” This commodification and sentimentalization of birth stories is not quite, I imagine, what Oakley or the Boston Women’s Health Collective had in mind.
Last year, once everyone in my birth class had delivered their babies, we met for a final time. We were invited, as promised, to share our birth stories. The usually chatty Zoom room fell silent. I wonder if it was because, in the weeks and months after childbirth, the notion of neatly packaging these experiences for others came to feel reductive—in many ways a false promise held out as the endpoint of a birthing parent’s story of bringing a child into the world. Or maybe it just felt too loaded, impossible to tell any story without being somehow misperceived.
I was fortunate to have a straightforward experience of birth, and one that left me feeling respected. Although no birth story I read or heard during my pregnancy could really have prepared me for that experience, the stories I sought out did fill me with confidence and, most of all, a sense of solidarity with all birthing people. My birth story is one that I like to share, but I tended, and still tend, not to do so, for fear of sounding like I think my experience was an act of will or personality, rather than a product of good luck and of all the factors—my gender, race, socioeconomic status, and geographic location—that made it likely I would receive good care. When it comes to sharing birth stories, many of my friends who had difficult experiences of birth feel similarly—like things will be read into their stories that aren’t there, whether that’s a critique of the medical establishment or judgment about the sort of person they are. It’s hard to feel like a valid storyteller in a culture of extremes and commodified successes.
Diverse, honest accounts of birth on the one hand and the imperative to tell your story the right way—perhaps even to birth the right way—on the other make for awkward companions. Together they are products of an era in which feminist progress sits alongside new modes of packaging and commodifying our intimate lives for public consumption. The birth story, like feminism, has reached an uncomfortable phase in its history. Now, as feminists, our task is to free the birth story from the demands of crafting a successful personal brand, and find a way to return it to its highest purpose: integrating an intense and singular experience into the story you tell yourself about your life, and connecting all of that with the experiences of others.