Labor Pains: A Reading List

A doctor examines a pregnant woman in Allahabad, India, 2011. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh, File)

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories. 

Prior to researching this column, I felt no significant babymaking desire tugging at my uterus. This is not to say I have not thought of being a mother or a stepmother. Adoption and foster-to-adopt programs have always held a special fascination for me, even when I was a little kid. But the biological mechanics of what happens at the end of the human assembly line — you know, the manner in which the finished product exits the factory door? That always freaked me out.

According to my mother, Child Me reacted to the discussion of labor and delivery with disinterest at best and revulsion at worst. Mom worried that she’d somehow made me afraid of it. In fact, she had not; she’d always spoken of pregnancy as the happiest time of her young life, and had two relatively swift and uncomplicated deliveries with healthy babies. When she was 24, I woke her up at 1:00 a.m. one October morning and was out in the world by a quarter past four, taking the traditional route. When she was 27, my brother took maybe six or seven hours on a Sunday in early December. She said he “shot out like a football.” I never knew how to react to that, and I still don’t.

As a child, I asked her how painful it was. She said, “Kind of like… having to do number two in a really big way.” She has since admitted this was an understatement, though one often does go number two when one does a vaginal delivery, but says “it wasn’t that bad” and “at the end you get a beautiful baby!”

My mother accepted long ago that making babies was not high on my priority list. She always encouraged my career and creative aspirations. I give her a lot of credit for not pressuring me about it like some women’s mothers do. I’ve told her that I just don’t have baby fever.

But then I researched this column.

And now…

Well, aside from abstinence from sexual intercourse, there is no greater method of birth control than reading birth stories. Add articles about labor and delivery as managed by the medical industry in the United States, and you’ve got a cocktail that should be nearly as effective as the common oral contraceptive.

My hat is off to women who go through with having a baby — and especially those who choose to do it again. That’s wild, lady! But as you’ll see from the stories I’ve collected below, some labor and delivery experiences are less than ideal, to say the very least. I’m glad real women share what really happens to them rather than glossing it over with some fairy tale bullshit. More real stories from real women who don’t pretend everything is easy, please. And more reporting on the way Black women and poor immigrant women are consistently offered a lower standard of maternal healthcare.

1. “I Think, Therefore I Am Getting The Goddamned Epidural” (Rebecca Schuman, Longreads, November 2017)

I despise every hippie braggart Schuman cites from Ina May Gaskin’s creepy-sounding books Spiritual Midwifery and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. At one point I also wanted to lightly smack her husband and kick the shit out of her anesthesiologist, though probably not as much as she did.

Dads make mistakes. It is a fact that my dad is awesome and also that while I was being born, he walked into the wrong labor and delivery room, misreading the name on the door. He did not recognize the gaping vagina before him and swiftly made his exit. During my mother’s second delivery experience, with my younger brother, he pissed her the fuck off by a.) complaining about the room temperature and opening the window when she was fucking cold and b.) bringing in a TV so he and the doctor and any orderlies could watch the game. But he turned out to be a splendid dad.

(As for a similar redemption for Schuman’s shitty, bored, Instagram-scrolling anesthesiologist, I have less hope. I’ve always regarded anesthesiologists as the groovy magicians of surgery — they show up, make your life better — or worse, if they want! — and then disappear. This gal seems to have gone to the wrong wizarding school.)

Schuman, who is one smart cookie, talks about Descartes in an accessible way and connects him quite easily to birthing:

“But what then am I?” he asked. “A thing which thinks. What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels.” These might not seem to be questions (or answers) that one naturally associates with the act of giving birth, but perhaps they should be. The midwives in my books were asking versions of these questions, after all, and they shouldn’t be the only ones who got to. Indeed, what makes all that mother-Goddess-yoni-orgasm stuff disquieting is not actually its medical dubiousness. It’s the decidedly un-philosophical certainty of the operation.

If I still drank, I would toss back some bourbon with Schuman (though not if either of us were pregnant, obviously). Regardless, I would like to buy her a beverage or a large carbohydrate-based baked substance one day.

2. “The Lavender Room” (Cheryl Strayed, Slate, April 2014)

Cheryl Strayed had an ideal situation: the desire for a baby, good health, access to excellent care. Then she labored for 43 hours and pushed an 11-pound kid out of her undercarriage. I have no words other than “holy shit, what a warrior.” She is very encouraging of other women having their baby the way they want, which makes this a very sweet and loving story. When she mentions laboring while asking her deceased mother to help her, I got teary-eyed.

It also reminded me of how long labor can take. My sister-in-law and younger brother texted me a few hours after her water broke on a Sunday afternoon. I felt sure the baby would be there by the time I arrived to New Jersey on a flight from Los Angeles the next afternoon. Nope! I visited the hospital room, drank margaritas at the Stuff Yer Face in New Brunswick, New Jersey with the other aunties and an uncle and got a full night’s sleep before I finally woke up to the news that a child was born unto us. Now we are all obsessed with him and his favorite song is “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads. He is 17 months old and looks like Wallace Shawn.

3. “I’ve Given Birth 4 Very Different Ways – Here’s What I’ve Learned” (Laurie Batzel, PopSugar, June 2018)

I think I love this woman. She curses way less than I do but she does not pull punches.

I’m a former ballet dancer and have performed in blood-soaked pointe shoes through severe sprains and other sundry injuries. My pain tolerance is not insignificant. But there is no pain on earth like having a baby. When the nurse told me it was too late for an epidural, I would have sobbed if I’d had the strength. I had marched around the labor and delivery unit for three hours straight to avoid Dr. Jerk, I hadn’t slept in over 36 hours, and, as badly as I wanted the “traditional” birthing experience, I would have performed my own C-section right then and there to make the pain stop. Seriously, it’s a good thing there were no spare scalpels, letter openers, or jagged shoelace tips lying around, because I would have gone rogue in a heartbeat.

She had two C-sections followed by two VBACs (vaginal birth after Caeseran). She also says that if a guy tries to convince you that passing a kidney stone is as painful as giving birth with no drugs, you can punch him “in the biscuits.” Starry eyes over here! She concludes with the very kind sentiment “there’s no wrong way to become a mother.” What a refreshing antidote to some of the “you must have a vaginal birth with no drugs so that you can be a true woman” bullshit I read while looking through articles.

4. “Lost Mothers” (ProPublica, 2017-2018)

In publishing, any subject can become a trend, a flash in the pan, a momentary topic of national chatter. Sparked in no small part by Serena Williams talking to Vogue about nearly dying after the birth of her daughter, 2018 saw more mainstream publications begin to cover the topic of maternal mortality among Black women. But organizations like ProPublica, NPR, and smaller independent publications had addressed the issue previously, and Black women themselves had been speaking up about it for years.

It is incumbent upon reporters at mainstream publications to continue to report on this humiliating and devastating national health crisis. In the meantime, ProPublica did the legwork with a series of articles about the many, many Black women who experience a ghastly standard of maternal healthcare in the United States.

5. “I Was Pregnant and in Crisis. All the Doctors and Nurses Saw Was an Incompetent Black Woman” (Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, Time, January 2019)

This story is vivid and it is horrifying and it is heartbreaking. Read every word of it. Here are a few: “When the medical profession systematically denies the existence of Black women’s pain, underdiagnoses our pain, refuses to alleviate or treat our pain, healthcare marks us as incompetent bureaucratic subjects. Then it serves us accordingly.”

6. “Why does it cost $32,093 just to give birth in America?” (Jessica Glenza, The Guardian, January 2018)

These statistics are stark. Writes Glenza:

Despite these high costs, the US consistently ranks poorly in health outcomes for mothers and infants. The US rate of infant mortality is 6.1 for every 1,000 live births, higher than Slovakia and Hungary, and nearly three times the rate of Japan and Finland. The US also has the worst rate of maternal mortality in the developed world. That means America is simultaneously the most expensive and one of the riskiest industrialized nations in which to have children.

So we’re paying the most in the developed world for the shittiest treatment in the developed world? Okay, makes sense. No wonder so many women reject the conventional medical approach to birth and buy into comforting “orgasmic birth is possible, babies just slip right out, pain is all in your mind and was put there by The Man, also buy my book and taint moisturizer” pseudoscience, rocketing from one extreme to the other.

As with anything else, it seems, a complementary medical approach is best, blending conventional medicine with alternative or “traditional” healing techniques. But while my complementary medical idea sounds delightful if you can afford to pay out of pocket, how may health insurance plans will pay for your midwife, doula, obstetrician, nurses and 1+ nights stay at some swanky, soothingly lit spa retreat? Oy vey, what a mess.

* * *

The other ways to obtain a beautiful baby without almost certainly going number two in the process have always seemed the more palatable options to me. Of course, the headaches and heartbreaks possible with adoption and foster-to-adopt are innumerable. Taking on the huge responsibility of parenting does not seem simple — nor should it, I suppose.  Plenty of abusive, nasty jerks have kids, and I rather wish they’d give up for fear of poop on the delivery table or too many forms at the agency.

I may yet become a mother. I don’t know. At present, I am glad to be an aunt; I am glad to entertain my friends when they have kids, or to entertain the kids so that my friends can use the toilet in peace or take a nap. I feel enormous gratitude that generations of American women have fought to ensure that women of childbearing age have rights and protections that were unthinkable years ago — as well as the right to prevent or terminate a pregnancy.

I feel energized to work harder to ensure better access to healthcare for all women, and to help make certain motherhood remains a choice. I should say “biological reproduction” because, as Batzel wrote, “There’s no wrong way to become a mother.”  And of course I know — and you now know I know – it is fine to choose to go without children. You’ll sleep more and save money, much of which you can spend spoiling other people’s kids. I can’t recommend that enough.

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Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, actress, college speaker on mental health awareness, and the author of Real Artists Have Day JobsDC TripGreat, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She also wrote a very silly joke book called Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad. Recent roles include “Corporate” on Comedy Central, “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” on TVLand and critically-acclaimed short film “The Focus Group,” which she also wrote. She also hosts the podcast “Where Ya From?”

Editor: Michelle Weber