Rethinking Your Birth Story

Thursday, May 08, 2014

baby hand motherhood kids parenting (Bridget Coila/flickr)

Hillary Frank, young adult author and This American Life contributor, is the host of "The Longest Shortest Time", a podcast about early childhood (months 0-36), and she's been thinking about how she might have given birth differently if she could. She talks about why some women wish they had a different birth story, what she heard from Ina May Gaskin (mother of the modern natural birth movement), and takes calls about how to make decisions about labor. 



Hillary Frank

Comments [39]

AC from New Jersey

Full disclosure: I did not listen to this segment. But my husband did. He did a recap of it with me over dinner on Thursday night. All I can say is-people, calm the heck down. Your argument/dilemma/crisis of faith about how you deliver a child and your status as a good or bad mother plays into the already crowded field of "how am I a crappy mom?" syndrome. How do you think women who adopt feel using your argument about c-sections vs natural birth? I had a c-section, I breast fed and supplemented with formula. My 3 year old son is fine. Happy, bubbly and perfectly fine. My recovery was fine, thankfully. My doctors were supportive, understanding and attentive to my needs the week I delivered and was in the hospital. My husband and I were beyond happy to have our son, and feel blessed that he is in our lives. How he came about being born has no meaning to us. Full stop. Why put yourself through this kind of turmoil, parenting is hard enough as it is. Breathe, move on, enjoy life.

May. 09 2014 12:51 PM
suzinne from Bronx

These women going on and on about not having a natural birth gave me a big fat headache! Is this some kind of competition? Geez. Considering the many who struggle merely to conceive, the self centered naval gazing going on here is beyond ABSURD.

May. 08 2014 01:22 PM
Stuart from Manhattan

As the husband of an ob-gyn (who was listening to the segment but refused to call in), I can tell you that the health of the baby is more important than how the baby is born. Without getting into the specifics, I don't think we ever sat around and discussed the methods that were used or whether anyone felt more or less successful with how it went. And it's no one else's business as to what happened.
Regarding Amy from Manhattan - it's not necessarily true that babies not delivered through the birth canal can develop health problems later in life. My children (who did not pass through the birth canal)were fed breast milk and are never sick.

May. 08 2014 01:05 PM
Elizabeth from Brooklyn

I had a similar situation with my first child. I intended and was convinced I would be able to have a natural child birth in a hospital. My OB had a different agenda. I ended up with a very traumatic delivery with a horrible recovery period both physically and emotionally, not to mention my son ending up in NICU on 2 different antibiotics that were completely unnecessary but hospital policy. It took me a very long time to come to terms with the experience. I felt not only robbed of the experience I craved, but it also robbed us of the crucial bonding period and a list of other negative consequences. We ultimately had a healthy baby and were completely grateful of that, but it was a pretty rough road for months after, especially being first time parents.

When we decided to have a second child, both my husband and I knew, without any doubt, we were going to do it at home; which we did and it was the most incredible experience of my life! My one and only regret was not doing it with my first.

To "Susan from Manhattan" I completely understand your position and the devastation of not being able to have a child. For a year prior to my first pregnancy, I was faced with the possibility that it would never happen for me, so I do understand. But I now also understand the devastation a woman can feel when a childbirth doesn't go the way she hoped and dreamed it would when more times than not, it could have. Of course we DO cherish what we have, everyday, but the childbirth IS an important part of the WHOLE part of being a mother and it can absolutely have an affect. It's a complicated set of emotions that should be addressed in support of others. Thank you.

May. 08 2014 12:56 PM

As the husband of an ob-gyn (who was listening to the segment but refused to call in), I can tell you that the health of the baby

May. 08 2014 12:50 PM
Rosie NY from NYC

Just had to add one more thing: to the person who said she was "compensating not giving birth naturally by breast feeding the baby" ..Relax!!! being a good mother is way much more work and more complicated than giving birth and feeding baby bottle or breast. There is nothing to compensate for because the way the child was born or how the child was fed as a baby is not as important as how you are going to love and care and nurture that child for the rest of his/her life. If anything, all these "I gave birth naturally in the middle of a corn field during a tornado" or "I breastfed my child for 5 years" stories tells me these mothers have a very fragile sense of self and that unless they are validated by others via these stories they do not think they are being good mothers. Do what you think is best for you and your child. Love, nurture, care for and guide that child. Go to every recital, play with that child, work to live a good life with that child but do not live to work. YOur child will be just as happy drinking formula or riding on a $50 stroller instead of the latest $1000 one as long as mom is smiling and talking and hugging that child. These are the things that are really important and there is nothing that you can do to "compensate" later on if you failed at doing that.

May. 08 2014 12:42 PM

I am deeply disturbed by the comments that the only thing that's important is to produce a healthy baby. That renders the mother invisible. Birth involves two people. The experiences and health of both are equally important.

May. 08 2014 12:37 PM
Amy from Manhattan

On cesarean section by choice, Leonard Lopate's show yesterday had a segment w/Dr. Martin Blaser, who said babies born that way, who don't pass through the birth canal, don't pick up the normal microbes from their mothers & don't have their microbiome develop normally, so they can develop health problems later. I wonder if obstetricians, birth coaches, & doulas are aware of this, & of the possibility of introducing these normal microbes on babies born by C-section?

May. 08 2014 12:21 PM
KR from Nyack, NY

At Eileen-I always enjoy reading comments by folks who have never birthed a baby.

I've had twins surgically, then followed that with a HBAC-homebirth after cesarean. I can tell you from where I sit-my homebirth was fast, challenging at points, but thrilling and joyful. After having had that transformative experience, I often want to scream at my TV or Twitter furiously at the folks who haven't experienced the joy of natural childbirth. I get that not every woman has a positive natural childbirth story-bit I don't blame women! I blame a culture of fear and ego-where childbirth is constantly negatively portrayed, and ego where doctors or other "professionals" can't resist but control or negatively input on the process. Since when did women's bodies become so weak that we can't bear our children normally?

Furthermore, the idea that a woman wanting a natural childbirth is "selfish" and not about the baby? Horrendous. If you think that natural childbirth is ultimately about selfish women who want to brag that squeezed an 8 pound baby through their loins u medicated, then I humbly suggest you do a little research-pick up any Ina May Gaskin book, for starters, and discover the many, many, many benefits of normal birth. We birth the way we do for a reason-evolution did not fail us! Natural childbirth is dependent on the participation of baby and loving mama. The birth process squeezed the water out of those little lungs, spills loads of lovely endorphins through mamas (and babies) bodies, cervical fluid populates the baby's microbiome, nursing and lactation are aided by normal birth, and the bonding between a mama who has birthed has baby naturally is aided by the experience. (Doesn't mean that mamas who have babies surgically or with medication won't bond, of course.) So a hearty thumbs-down to the comment that judges mamas who seek normal, unmedicated birth. We do so for ourselves and our babies. The archaic idea that the health and well-being of women is unimportant as it relates to out children is not only abhorrent, but also misapplied here. Normal birth benefits babies!

May. 08 2014 12:20 PM
Joyce from Manhattan

Great fan of Brian Lehrer, but have to say that this was a really tasteless choice for Mother's Day. Female narcissism re birth stories when horrendous news about young women being forced into slavery around the world (see NYTimes) dominates the news. "Natural childbirth" was the feminist watchword over 40years ago, when my children were born. Who cares what painkillers help as long as babies are born healthy and mothers don't die of complications, as once was the common case. Couldn't your programmers do better than this? I turned it off in disgust.

May. 08 2014 12:17 PM

i am on obstetrician in practice for 20 years and have delivered thousands of babies without medication, without medical intervention, with lavender oil in the air, on the toilet, naked and squatting, by emergency c-section, and with an epidural so effective that the baby was literally laughed out. i completely understand the desire for a perfect childbirth experience; when it happens, it truly is magical. the magic can be there even when in a hospital room, sometimes with a bad perineal tear that's going to take awhile to heal, a necessary vacuum delivery, or surgery for a breech that refused to turn.

we need to remember that modern obstetrics, as well as modern neonatology and infertility treatments have afforded us almost no mortality, minimal morbidity and the chance for people to be parents who never could have in a previous century. maternal and paternal bonding with a baby is the real magic, whether immediately after the baby's birth or hours to weeks later. for those who are disappointed with their childhood experience, i don't know if things could have been different under different circumstances. i do know that the most important part of parenting, bonding and family comes after the birth and goes on a lot longer.

May. 08 2014 12:13 PM
RosieNYC from NYC

I do not get why women put themselves through one of the most painful experiences ever trying to be martyrs when there is no need. This whole "natural-birth-only-otherwise-you-are-a-bad parent" is nothing more than the female version of "mine is bigger than yours". Of course, you have to do your homework and research in order to make an informed decision but do not decide for a "natural birth" just to show the world what a "good mother" you are. IT HURTS!!! and a C-section is not the only option to avoid pain!. When all of these "natural birth advocates" have root canals or wisdom teeth extracted without any pain medication, then talk to me. There is no "shame" in taking advantage of scientific research to make things easier for mom if there is no hurt to baby. Had my second child, VBAC delivery, using an epidural. Best thing I ever did. My hubby and I were chatting, watching the monitor and talking. Delivery was such a relaxed experience instead of the end of 23 hours of unbearable pain.

May. 08 2014 12:08 PM
Cat from BK

I had a natural birth in a midwife center in Miami. I had been looking for a water birth and found this center in 2005. I really enjoyed the experience of getting to know the midwives and not feeling like just a number at the hospital. I had my own bedroom with a queen bed, jacuzzi and attached bathroom. The midwives were really great: understanding and even came to visit me in my home the following day. There was no doctor on-site so I could not ask for drugs at the last minute-- which I have to say that the pain was excruciating (vomiting and passing-out) especially since that I was not dilating. I left 4 hours after my daughter was born and recovered within days. I don't regret my experience, and would do it again (I think I'm too old now though).

May. 08 2014 12:06 PM
KJH from New York

If I was going to do it again, I would ignore the romantic stories about pregnancy and "natural" childbirth that influenced my decision the first time. I tried to have twins with a midwife (at St. Vincents Hospital), but my son tipped his head back when I was fully dilated and got stuck in the birth canal, so cesarean it was. Whatever! My twins and I are alive.

May. 08 2014 12:02 PM
tracey from East Harlem

I had the birth I wanted (with midwives, at a free-standing birth center, not in a hospital) but after my baby arrived, I had to be rushed to the hospital with a retained placenta.

I feel lucky that I got the best of both worlds- a natural drug-free childbirth but also necessary medical intervention.

I have many friends who didn't have the birth they "wanted" but luckily ALL of them have healthy kiddos. I think that's the important part. Motherhood will not go "as planned" so I think it's appropriate that fertility, pregnancy and childbirth CAN'T be controlled!

May. 08 2014 12:01 PM

I'm not a mother. Never had the opportunity. I have to say that while I think natural birth is a wonderful goal, I wonder:
when did giving birthing take on this attribute of being an experience judged in much the same way we desire a great night at the theater, or a wonderful trip?
The goal is to get a healthy baby here on earth. Get over yourselves. Its not about YOU!!!!!! Its about the baby.

May. 08 2014 12:00 PM
ml from inwood

Agree with Susan from Manhattan - this is definitely a first-world "problem." If you are alive and healthy, your child is alive and healthy, and you are still able to have children in the future, you made the right choice. Change any one thing and the outcome might have been worse, not better. Tell yourself that every day and enjoy your child. I say this as a mother who lost a child to a brain tumor - forget the birth problems and enjoy every day with your child that you have.

May. 08 2014 12:00 PM
Bettina from Manhattan

I gave birth over 50 years ago in Jerusalem. I intentionally selected an ob/gyn that was connected to a small hospital (28) beds, since my fear was my baby would be switched at birth. I took courses beforehand in exercise and expectations, which among other things showed pictures of an actual birth, which for some reason took me completely by surprise. When I went into labor my husband and I walked to the hospital and left me there, while he went to the movies. Hours later, when I was in the delivery room and my doctor could not be located, a midwife came to me. They thought I was not having pains because I was not screaming, but I expected to be in pain and doing hard work, and apparently my threshold is high. Five or six hours later I was delivered of an 8 lb plus boy, no drugs, no episiotomy, in time for my husband to hear me crying uncontollably with relief. It was my one experience and I did it right.

May. 08 2014 11:59 AM
Dan from Brooklyn

Maybe it's because I'm a guy, but I'm trying to figure out the entire point of this conversation. What are the reasons for being so zealous about natural child birth?

If it doesn't go exactly as planned, how in the hell is that the mother's fault?


May. 08 2014 11:59 AM
Jennifer from Airmont, NY

One of your callers wanted a home birth after C-section. I am a mother of four. First was a C-section after 36 hours. 2nd was a hospital VBAC. 3rd was a VBAC2 at home in water and the 4th was the same. IT IS POSSIBLE TO VBAC AND HAVE A BABY AT HOME!

May. 08 2014 11:58 AM
Tina Bissell from Ann Arbor, Michigan

I appreciate hearing about someone else's disappointment. I felt so horrible after having a C-section. Failure, anger that I was unable to better advocate for myself (or that my husband didn't). It wasn't until I saw a therapist who pointed out that the midwives would not have let that happen unless it was necessary and one possible alternative was a baby with brain damage.... The one positive thing was that the sense of failure pushed me to pursue breast feeding when my son was not enthusiastic and various people were pushing bottle feeding. We wound up having a great bonding breastfeeding relationship for over a year (which helped with the going back to work situation).

May. 08 2014 11:58 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Let's get some perspective here. Until ~100 years ago, before these interventions existed, *many* women died giving birth. Even an episiotomy could get infected & kill the mother. I just heard Ms. Frank say the most important thing is that you have a healthy baby. That's extremely important, but it's just as important that you survive the birth yourself. We're too used to the advantages we have in the 20th/21st-century developed world & take them for granted to the point where we don't even realize that the reason families have stories like the one a caller told is that too many mothers w/different stories didn't live to tell them.

May. 08 2014 11:57 AM

Whenever someone claims that "nature has worked out the birth process," I reply with this:

May. 08 2014 11:57 AM
Alexis from Brooklyn

I gave birth to my son in December and as a black woman, I felt very essentialized as the primitive Other by the natural childbirth movement. Hypnobirthing, for instance, rhapsodizes about the lack of hospital care for laboring mothers in parts of Africa and states that "we" (black women) are able to just lean against a wall and have children out of doors. It made me feel that yet again, black women are frequently imagined by progressive white women as being strong because we are more dray horse than human being.

May. 08 2014 11:57 AM
Nina from Queens

I've done it both ways. I had the epidural the first time, and a totally unmedicated birth the second. It felt like I was being ripped open from the inside and I'm really not sure I could do it again. I'm glad I did, and proud of myself for making it through, but I really don't know if I'd do it again.

May. 08 2014 11:57 AM
Pascale from Atlanta

Why should we worry and feel guilty just because we had to have the epidural? Your caller is right, what matters is that the baby is healthy, and I'm absolutely not feeling guilty about asking the epidural. There is a limit of suffering that one can endure when giving birth, and good for the women who were able to go through it medication free, but do not tell me I did something wrong.

May. 08 2014 11:57 AM
Estelle from Brooklyn

Back in 1966 My baby presented as a breech. I believe the doctor used forceps, but it was a vaginal birth. The baby was fine. I bet that today a breech baby would mean an automatic Ceasarian. I'm so glad that didn't happen to me.

May. 08 2014 11:56 AM

Once babies are produced in hatcheries under strict QA standards, all of this will be barbarous ancient history.

May. 08 2014 11:56 AM
Estelle from Brooklyn

Back in 1966 My baby presented as a breech. I believe the doctor used forceps, but it was a vaginal birth. The baby was fine. I bet that today a breech baby would mean an automatic Ceasarian. I'm so glad that didn't happen to me.

May. 08 2014 11:56 AM
Dave from Manhattan

This is crazy! To hear these women wine over the fact that were blessed enough to have children of their own.....astounding!

Try the heartbreak of not being able to conceive.

Spoiled brats. Can we move on to some news please.

May. 08 2014 11:56 AM
enough already


Can't stand hearing about other people's baby issues.


See you tomorrow.

May. 08 2014 11:55 AM
Elena from Bed Stuy

Love that you are discussing birth experiences. I happened to have had a wonderful birthing experience at the Brooklyn Birthing Center. With my Doula, two Midwives and my husband by my side, I was able to deliver my baby with no intervention. Not only was I LUCKY that I was able to have this amazing experience, I also educated myself in preparation. Between birthing classes, lots of documentaries and books I went in with as much information as possible, to in essence manage my own expectations. With a bout of Gestational Diabetes, the birthing center option was up in the air. I went into the birth promising myself that if I needed a C-Section or any other intervention, at the end of the day, what the end goal is for the healthy baby.

May. 08 2014 11:55 AM
Jon Pope from Ridge, NY

Please ask guest how many women worried about this kid of stuff at the turn of the last century (when there was only natural child birth)or if they where more worried about the child or herself dying during the birthing process?

May. 08 2014 11:55 AM
Estelle from Brooklyn

Back in 1966 My baby presented as a breech. I believe the doctor used forceps, but it was a vaginal birth. The baby was fine. I bet that today a breech baby would mean an automatic Ceasarian. I'm so glad that didn't happen to me.

May. 08 2014 11:54 AM
JP from Westchester

If you are lucky enough to have a healthy baby - you are lucky enough.

May. 08 2014 11:53 AM
Andrea from NYC

This conversation baffles can you feel a sense of being disappointed in YOURSELF for something utterly out of your control? I can understand being disappointed in the experience but why would you be disappointed in yourself?

May. 08 2014 11:53 AM
Dee from montclair

I labored for 36 hours with my first child. I had an emergency c section. The second child popped out naturally after 35 minutes. There is hope for a vbac.

May. 08 2014 11:53 AM
ken from Park Slope

What advice can you offer fathers/husbands to be a supportive partner to a spouse experiencing the same failure feelings you describe?

May. 08 2014 11:50 AM
Susan from Manhattan

...first world problems.
These Moms need to refocus. Some of us *can't have* children - naturally birthed or otherwise!!

It astounds me that they are focused on and so traumatized by their own disappointments, when they actually have a child of their own to love.

Get over it and focus on what you DO have!

May. 08 2014 11:49 AM

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