The Myth of Blissful Birth
When I hear the term “blissful birth” my jaw clenches. As a doula and birth advocate, with 3 homebirths myself, I feel like I should shout “blissful birth!” from the mountaintops. Instead, my stomach churns and my breath shortens. I scan the room for exits. To state birth as blissful denies the fullness of the experience.
Pregnant with my first child, glowing, young and ripe, I was committed to a blissful birth. I was adamant our birth would be unmedicated and at home, and I was convinced that a beautiful birth meant an easy birth. I was wrong. What I came to know through this birth was raw power, unnamable fear, a strength that only came from surrendering.
As the sun rose for the second time in that labor journey, I knew it was only me that could birth this baby. I stared into my doula’s wide eyes. My partner pressed into my naked hips and I roared my baby from my vagina. The light was soft, dappled through the blinds and his sounds were like a mewing kitten. There was trust and breath and the entire thing was both safe and sacred. It was the most beautiful day of my life. But it was the farthest from easy a person can get.
With my second child, I knew this going in: that the only way through it is through it. Still, I downloaded birth hypnosis tracks and practiced them daily. I met fear, as many women do, a few weeks before the birth. I looked at it, talked about, said “Holy Shit, I have to do this. No one else can give birth to my baby but me. No matter how they come out, it is going to be intense...".
And that is the thing, right? No matter how a baby is born it is the greatest transition of life: for the baby it is womb to life; for the woman it is pregnant to motherhood. Suddenly, what was 1 is now 2, (or more!), beings. I’ve come to believe that the path to get there, the birth, is not meant to be easy. How can life be forged with ease? We can plan, we can do 300 squats a day, we can soften our minds to this life expansion, we can take time off work, we can arrange our ideal birth team. Still, in the end, all we can do is breathe and surrender to the ride.
Birth calls us into our most primal self. We are animal. Both nature and spirit have taken over our bodies. We are doing the most natural thing in the world, but it takes our full attention. We are vessel for life and for dreams. THIS is our primary duty.
My births we’re painful. They were textbook “natural” births, twice in a tub in my own home and once at the foot of my own bed. My babies we born in their own time into my midwives hands. And yet, they were forced from my womb. Vomited from my body. Clawed their way out. I don’t think bliss was present. Relief, surrender, trust, sheer power, an unstoppable train…. That was present.
After birth I stare at my body’s creation, eyes wide in something close to shocked horror that we call amazement. I feel elated. Disbelief and pure belief married: “We did it! I can’t believe we did it?!”. Words barely do service to those moments just after birth. My baby wiggles and stretches. He roots for union, and I feel for both of us the pain in separation.
There is something else there, too. I call it trauma, a certain PTSD that comes after such a surge of energy. This can be present even with unmedicated birth. For years I was uncomfortable describing empowered birth as traumatic, the word bringing to mind devastation and pain that he blessing of desired birth surely can’t compare to that pain. I don't mean to take away from anyone who has experienced a reckless traumatic event. But trauma is there, a shadow side of birth. Labor can be an unstoppable train, an energy that hits you and the only choice is to ride or resist, be a participant or be overtaken. A woman may be unable to speak. She journeys alone, even if surrounded. I believe no matter how we give birth we hit a moment where we think we cannot do it. And, then we DO it, and we are holding our baby or gasping for breath, wrapping our heads around the whole scenario. Shock is a common emotion immediately after birth, though we don't talk about it. Suddenly there are logical decisions to make and tasks at hand: "Get the baby on the breast." "Is he warm enough?" "Let's get you to the bed." "Who’s going to cut the cord?" "It’s time to get the placenta out." "Should she be screaming like this?" "What do you want the baby to wear?" "What’s the baby’s name?" "Have you called your mother?" All of this spoken as lovingly as possible to a stunned brain. Everyone else may sleep, but mom replays the scenario, out of breath and eyes alert.
My 3rd birth was the most textbook “natural” birth I've experienced. I laid on my side by choice for most of the labor, completely trusting that the baby would come out without me doing anything special. I worked completely on instinct, mostly just focusing on breathing. It was the deepest level of trust I have known. Regardless of all this, for days afterward I thought, “I can not be around a pregnant lady. I should not be around anyone about to get birth.” I could find nothing empowering to say, only “it was fucking intense”. Because that’s the truth of it. It is fucking intense.
I feel compelled here to remind you all that you can do it. You can do it. We can. There are many ways to give birth and become a parent, and I have faith we can do whatever that journey asks of us. We can do it, and for most of us, that ride will be the strongest, most out of control, instinct-driven ride of our lives. If you didn't have a blissful birth, you're not alone. If you pooped yourself, screamed “FUCK”, thought you couldn't do it and then did, you are in good company. If you stared at you new baby, shocked and wordless, please know that is how it is sometimes. Birth is the most real it gets.
I can acknowledge that birth is blissful if we can also acknowledge birth’s shadowy companions: radical power and will, and sometimes trauma. Birth is the paradox of ALL. It is bliss and overwhelming love right beside shitting in front of our partners, loss of faith, and being stunned by our own creation.