A couple of weekends ago I was talking about labor and birth with a friend when she told me she wouldn’t consider my labor as having gone well. This was coming from one of my best friends, and was not meant to be offensive in any way. And I wasn’t offended; I recognized immediately that- as is the case with all experiences of life- someone who’s experienced something is the only person who can truly understand that experience. And, really, between the extreme sleep deprivation of labor, the tremendous hormonal shifts, the strange mental space of ‘laborland,’ and the involvement of numerous other people, it seems that a lot of women have a hard time remembering their birth experience, much less “understanding” it in any way. But if there’s a chance of anyone understanding it, it’s that woman.
My friend’s comment came at an interesting moment for me, now about 6 months postpartum; For about the past month and a half, I have felt like I am starting to forget parts of my birth experience. Details that had felt so clear suddenly feel fuzzy. I have wondered if I handled it all with any semblance of grace and calm in the challenging moments. Small doubts have crept in about whether or not my perception of my labor and birth experience match the reality of how things unfolded.
And there’s the kicker. Ultimately, no matter how many details get fuzzy or how many doubts creep in, no matter who else was involved and what they say or think about my labor, what truly defines my experience of birth is just that: my experience-my internal experience-of giving birth. Because external factors are very much out of a birthing woman’s control: anyone could tell you that birth never goes according to plan, and babies have a journey of coming into the world that is unknown to even the person they are living inside of. So, what matters is how the woman feels about it all as she goes forward in processing the birth of her baby.
So, when my friend said she wouldn’t consider my labor as having gone well, I was taken aback. Because I would consider it as having gone well and count it as one of the best experiences of my lifetime. But the conversation got me thinking and reflecting and stewing just a little bit.
“50 hours of labor??” she said. “I wouldn’t say that’s ‘going well.'”
Of course, in the minds of most people- including in my own mind before giving birth- a short labor is a good labor. And I sure didn’t sit around hoping for a 50 hour labor. No, no, no. In fact, if someone had told me I would be in labor for 50 hours I would have told them, ‘No, sir or ma’am..you are incorrect.. that’s horrendous and I will not allow it to happen.’ Still, I don’t know how I had the mental and physical endurance to do such a thing. I’m not a marathon-runner, through-hiker, or endurance sport enthusiast of any kind. But there’s a whole lot involved in birth that’s mysterious and not quantifiable.
My perspective now is the same as it was the day after my son’s birth. And now I’ve had 6 months to put words to that perspective.
Every woman has the goal of ‘healthy mama, healthy baby’ during labor and delivery; not one time during labor did my baby’s heart rate drop. Not one time did my vitals show signs of distress for either of us. My babe took his time, but was calm throughout and born healthy, and I came out of it real tired and with a long recovery ahead (who doesn’t..??), but healthy. I would never put my own health or my baby’s at stake for the sake of a certain type of birth. Knowing this, I proceeded with my ideal birth scenario with no fear around letting my body work in the way it is biologically programmed to work, as long as my health and my baby’s health was stable.
And most women desire at least one thing beyond a healthy mama and a healthy baby that further addresses the huge mental and emotional components of the birth process. I desired to feel empowered through labor and birth; I was supported by an amazing team of people that guided me, comforted me, and also never did things like tell me to stop eating and drinking. I was informed and involved in every decision along the way. And in the end, perhaps the biggest moment of empowerment came in surrender. Fifty hours of labor, and letting go of my expectations of birth was by far the greatest moment of strength.
I have been told I climbed the Everest of labor.
The more I hear women talk about the physical, mental, and emotional components of growing and birthing a baby, the more I think pretty much every baby is, so to speak, born at the summit of Everest.
You can plan, train, and prepare endlessly, but when the moment arrives, you can’t climb Everest on knowledge alone. You can’t climb Everest with pure physical capability. You can’t climb Everest without an awesome support team. And you can’t climb Everest without playing the mental and emotional game.
Or without food and water…
And probably some tears, yelling, wondering what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into, why you’ve gotten yourself into it, and when- dear God- will you come out the other side.
My labor ended in a cesarean birth. So, do I feel like I got close to the summit, wimped out, and hitched a ride to the top on a Sherpa’s back?
I am incredibly grateful for modern medicine, which brought my baby from womb to world.
And I am equally grateful for my 50 hours of labor, which left no stone un-turned in attempting a natural birth, showed me parts of myself I never knew existed, and allowed me to feel at peace, simply, with process.
Because a summit, no matter how it’s reached, is the beautiful, single moment you’ll recount forever. But the climb is the grit and the heart that only you can know.