A few days ago, a friend of mine, who just gave birth to her first child, emailed me to check in. Learning how to breastfeed was tough, she wrote, and on top of that, she was so tired and overwhelmed and full of love that she didn't know what to do with herself. I smiled, remembering feeling the exact same way in the flush of new motherhood.
Then she wrote my least favorite sentence: "Let's talk soon and swap birth stories."
How to explain that four years later, I still sometimes struggle with how to tell mine?
It wasn't just that my son's delivery didn't go according to plan. Whose does, really? It was more about how the experience made me feel: powerless, traumatized and, later, angry as hell that I didn't speak up more for myself. It was 22 hours of relentless back labor, of pain so bad I wondered whether I'd be able to survive it. It was trying to drown out the nurses making fun of the laboring woman next door who was hollering her lungs out (and hoping they weren't ridiculing me, too). It was laying prostrate over the bedside tray while the anesthesiologist callously threatened to walk out with his epidural if I didn't stop shaking.
It's not exactly Hallmark movie-worthy stuff, and certainly not the bright, pithy story most people expect to hear when they ask about your baby's birth. Afterward, I felt like the oddball among other new moms who batted around their birth stories as effortlessly as beach balls, giggling over the cool swag from their hospitals and comparing push presents. How did all these lucky ladies sail through labor and delivery while I was still walking around having imaginary arguments with my anesthesiologist?
To make things easier on myself—and not freak out any of my preggo friends—I started to lie when asked how the delivery went. Well, that's not exactly true. It was more like I gave a seriously scrubbed-down, Disney-fied version of what happened. In my retelling, the toughest part was that I had to have two epidurals. (Two! Can you believe it? Ha ha!)
That strategy worked pretty well for the first few months, when everyone in my life felt perfectly comfortable asking how it felt to squeeze a baby out of my body. I would have kept up the charade too, had I not bumped into a girlfriend of mine. She saw right through my hokey story and volunteered that she too felt traumatized by her labor—but didn't have the heart to tell me when I was pregnant. She said she didn't want to scare me. I understood where she was coming from, of course, but I also wanted to reach across the table and hug her. Finally, someone else who had a less-than-rosy experience and was willing to admit it. I felt like a weight had been lifted off of me; like I was no longer the odd mom out. I vowed right then to drop the sugarcoated shtick and be more honest about what happened, especially since it could help other women.
Like everything else about motherhood, practice has helped. A lot. I've fine-tuned the story so it's truthful but not an overshare. I only divulge the details if the person asks to hear them, and I always add the caveat that no two childbirths are alike. Much to my surprise, the response from friends has been positive. My pregnant buddies don't recoil in horror or go running for the hills, and my new mom pals don't look at me like I'm a weirdo.
That said, I still sometimes catch myself freezing up when talk (or a friendly email) turns to birth stories. Baring all isn't easy for me, but I do see its benefits. My newfound transparency is helping the women in my life feel more comfortable about sharing their own fears or experiences surrounding childbirth. It's an important dialogue that wouldn't have been opened otherwise, and for that, I'm incredibly grateful.