I discovered that I was unexpectedly pregnant three days before I was leaving for a month-long trip to Guatemala. It was my honeymoon. I had been married for six months. I was one of those people who did not plan to get pregnant but paradoxically did not use birth control (you know who you are).
I cried, hysterically, and not with joy (not at first, anyway). It was more like panic, like what the fuck am I going to do now? I needed to get vaccinated and take malaria pills and hike with a heavy pack and party with travelers and swim with dolphins. How the hell was I going to manage to do any of that while pregnant?
Now what? Nothing, really. Eat lots of protein. Take folic acid. Drink plenty of water. That’s it? I'd found the most laid-back doctor in the world, but I trusted that she knew better than me. When I went for vaccines, I told them I was pregnant and they used the Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for what I could and could not take. I ate foreign street food and climbed a volcano and swam under a waterfall and had a glass of wine every now and then. When I returned, I went to my local birthing center, where midwives assisted births in private rooms with homemade quilts and Jacuzzi tubs. They were a bit concerned about my Guatemalan adventure, but after an ultrasound, we were all reassured that my baby was fine.
Because it was my first pregnancy and being the kind of person who has to research and overthink everything until I’m lying in a puddle of my own anxiety-induced sweat, it was inevitable that I was going to buy all the birthing books I could get my hands on and read them cover to cover. But I am here now to urge you not to make my mistake. Don’t read those books. Put them down immediately.
Whether you plan on a scheduled Cesarean or a completely drug-free birth, I advise you to leave those birthing books alone. Tune into your intuition. Listen to the doctor you chose for their compatible disposition and years of medical training. If you are intelligent enough to seek out books (and this article) in the first place, then you are already way more conscientious about prenatal care than many moms-to-be.
Here are three reasons why I believe you should avoid books about pregnancy and childbirth:
1. They can make you anxious about all the things that can go wrong.
Pregnancy books can often be alarmist. My midwife specifically instructed me not to read What to Expect When Expecting, the most popular pregnancy book out there. I wanted to trust her insights and I should have, but I couldn’t help skimming the pages, just a little, between the narrow bookshelves of my library. Gasp! The horror. I had no idea all the things that could possibly go wrong. What do you mean my pesticide-laden salad and unfiltered water are going to give my unborn child a forked tongue? I promptly threw the book down the aisle with a hiss. Then I waddled over to it, heaved it off the floor with much moaning and groaning, and reshelved it in the wrong location.
2. They set expectations too high for a perfect birth.
I would love to tell you that the reason I wanted a natural childbirth was because it was best for my baby and me, but truly I was terrified of hospitals and needles. So, I purchased books on natural childbirth, the ones that explain the mind and body connection and tell you how non-invasive methods are the best, how even the slightest external disturbances will delay your labor, how your fears will hold up your birth. In Birthing From Within, the author suggested that I visualize the birth I wanted. I practiced pain techniques by holding ice cubes as long as I could and I created birth art, crayon drawings of my expanding "yoni." I meditated on my subconscious fears in attempt to release them from holding me back during labor. I read Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery and learned about how you can have an orgasmic birth inside a school bus. This was going to be my birth: a blossoming flower, a bursting dam releasing the natural flow of rivers, an ecstatic yawn from my cervix.
Needless to say, this was not the birth I got.
I remember feeling the pop, exclaiming “something’s happening” and running to the bathroom where I let out a steady stream of fluid. I could not stand up without soaking myself and so I stayed there, on the pot, as the realization set in that my water broke. With slight labor cramps, we waited until morning for the midwives to confirm that it was indeed amniotic fluid dripping down my leg. So began the natural induction; acupressure, breast pumping, Cohosh tinctures, herbal teas and castor oil. All of which brought me successfully into active labor before wearing off completely. In New Mexico, you have 24 hours after your water breaks to go into active labor before midwives are required to take you to the hospital for a chemical induction. I was given a little extra time but 32 hours later, my worst fears were faced and I ended up in the hospital pumped with Pitocin.
After being in the hospital for nearly eight hours, most of which was in active labor, my cervix dilation had not progressed at all. Many women who have given birth can understand this moment. It is similar to promethean mythology, climbing an exhaustingly steep mountain without getting anywhere.
Because of the time constraint put on me due to my water breaking nearly 40 hours earlier, my doctor suggested a caesarean and gave me one hour to progress or be cut open. The room felt submerged in a heavy dark pool as we all looked to one another with desperate eyes. My midwife suggested an epidural as a last resort. The thought of having a needle put in my spine to insert a tube that would paralyze me from the waist down terrified me. Yet, my midwife reasoned, if you get a caesarean, you will need an epidural anyway. Additionally, I was in so much pain at this point that I was willing to try anything. My choices were slim. I went ahead with the epidural.
I was disappointed. Where was my euphoric drug-free birth in a serene pool of water? I do not recall ever having “a moment” like I read about in all those natural childbirth books, the one where the spiritual window opens for just a moment and you feel connected with all other mothers in the world or the awesome orgasmic sensation of opening yourself to the universe. Did I do something wrong? Was something wrong with me? Was I too neurotic or controlling? Yeah, I actually thought these things. All those natural birthing books really got in my head and convinced me that if I was just laid back enough, if I just visualized enough, I was going to have a “perfect” birth. I believe that those books served to make me feel bad. I realize their intention was to show me that I can do it without hospitals and drugs, but I had already chosen a midwife over a traditional obstetrician. So what did I actually learn?
3. A book could never actually explain what childbirth is like.
What I quickly realized was that I was completely clueless about birth. I read all the books, I took the child birthing classes, I listened closely to my midwives, but there was no way any of those things could have prepared me for the reality of birth. And in truth, because I never expected to end up in the hospital, I was even more clueless about hospital births.
First, they put an IV in my arm. In my IV, I had fluids for hydration due to my hypertension, antibiotics because my membrane had already broken and Pitocin to begin artificial inducement. Then, they hooked me up to the fetal monitor, which would monitor my contractions and the baby’s heartbeat. The belts itched and the left marks on my taut bulging belly. Additionally, I had to wear a pressure cuff on my arm which would automatically begin squeezing me every few minutes. Due to my hypertension, the nurses preferred that I lay down on my left side. I found it difficult to relax in this position.
I did not know that Pitocin, which is meant to replicate natural childbirth, is not even remotely similar. Having experienced both, I can tell you that while natural labor contractions come on slowly before reaching a painful climax, the synthetic contractions give you barely a moment’s notice before they force themselves upon you in the most painful way.)
After my epidural, I was able to relax and even take a little nap. Within an hour I had dilated to nine inches and everyone exclaimed it was a miracle. My husband and I grabbed onto our baby and pulled her out of the birth canal and onto my belly. She came out crying, present and beautiful. It was the most incredible experience of my life. The room was full of bliss. The doctors, midwives and nurses were all exuberant as if it were their first birth, too. I felt like a new person. I am a new person, a mommy. I don’t care how many drugs I had to take, I have never experienced anything more “natural” than childbirth.
Each doctor has a different prescription for childbirth depending on their training and outlook, whether it be conservative or liberal or somewhere on the spectrum. Choose the doctor that best fits your own attitudes. There is no perfect formula for what to do when you are pregnant. We follow the basic guidelines, make sure we get enough of the nutrition we need to support a growing baby and avoid things that are bad for growing babies.
But don't read the childbirth books. Everyone’s labor is different. Each one is completely unique. We are all different people in different places in our lives both psychologically and geographically. No book is going to help you have a perfect birth, in fact, they might make it worse. Just as I wouldn’t want to know too much before I go see a movie because I will have expectations, so should it be the same way with childbirth. Trust your body means more than just believing you are strong enough to do it. It means you are strong enough to do it however you need to.