I always heard childbirth was painful, but before I had my daughter in 2015, I wasn’t entering the room with too much hesitation. Literally billions of women had done this before me—survived and thrived. Also, believing I had a generally high pain threshold, so even if it was worse than I could imagine, I placed myself in the stronger more able-bodied minority of baby deliverers. I entered into pregnancy and prepared for birth with a shrug, “Eh, it can’t be that bad.”
When the labor pains started, we jumped to a false start at the hospital. The triage nurse said, “Come back when you can’t walk.” I thought she was joking but what I know now is that, if you can walk, you’re not very far along, so, really you can just go on home. I live in Berlin and I don’t have a car, so I was actually planning on walking to the ER a few blocks from my apartment. When the labor pains returned fully, my husband helped me down the stairs. Within about 30 feet, the contractions were so strong and the weight so low, I didn’t think I would make it.
My water broke on the floor of the waiting room and after that the next few hours became a blur. I couldn’t see straight to walk to the birthing room. The contractions and pain became so severe that I alternated between screaming and retracted out of body silence. The breathing techniques I had practiced were useless. I repeated to myself, “Just count to 10 and it will be over” but, there was no break no relief, no amount of breathing or counting would bring relief from the shooting, deep, throbbing pain, which had nothing to do with the baby actually being delivered. The pain was internal, crushing, and somehow I couldn’t even locate it’s source.
Why wasn’t I aware of this? I felt like I was enduring something so foreign, so indescribable.
I remember seeing movies about childbirth that seemed over dramatic, but what I feel now is that they are not dramatic at all. From the outside, it must have looked like an exorcism. I remember trying to climb the walls, get out of my body. They tried to give me an epidural but the student missed my spinal cord and they waited an extra hour to try again. I was already 9 cm. When the epidural kicked in, my legs went numb. I didn’t feel anything and everything stopped. We didn’t know it then, but my daughter was stuck in the birth canal, slowly losing oxygen. Hours went by. My husband even said tongue-in-cheek, “So, you’re in labor, right? Shouldn’t you be laboring?”
It wasn’t until about 5 hours later that a new midwife on staff noticed my daughter’s heart rate had slowed. I could tell from the hurried gestures and her eyes that something was wrong. The lights were dim but in seconds an entire surgical crew, brought in a tray of metal instruments, flipped on the lights and forced me into gurney straps. They quickly threw my legs open and the doctor on staff, took one look and said, “Scheiße!”—it was one of the few cold, hard word German words I could understand. Blood sprayed her gown and face. No one told me what was going on, only that the baby had to come out NOW. This was after hours of bedridden anti-labor.
I think this is when I left my body, my eyes glazed over, I didn’t cry. I tried not to feel anything. I don’t really remember pushing. I collapsed into myself, unable to consider my own body, like if I thought about myself, I was taking life energy from my baby.
They used the vacuum to remove her.
I remember when they placed her on my chest, her eyes were so big, her mouth gaped and pouted, like a fish. I didn’t really want to hold her. I wanted them to take her away. I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t know how I would care for her. I had never felt so responsible yet incapable of caring for this life in my hands. “Someone take her, tell me she’s okay,” I begged. She hadn’t made a sound. I had never been so ravaged by fear. Because of the delayed labor, her oxygen levels dropped and they were close to doing a C-section. They just had to rush the delivery. In the end, my daughter was fine.
She was fine, but I wasn’t.
The thing was, for the next two years, I couldn’t tell that story without crying. My husband, who was in the same room, did not experience in the same way, and in some ways, didn’t consider it traumatic at all. Other mothers didn’t seem to want to revisit their own birth stories. I wondered if something was wrong with me—why did the birth feel so horrible and traumatizing, even though nothing happened to my daughter? And why didn’t it feel like anyone wanted to talk about this hugely significant and traumatic experience of birth?
One of my younger friends asked me—what is childbirth like and I said, “It is kind of like being murdered, but you survive.” I wasn’t really kidding. It was the only way I could describe walking this fine line of life and death, even wanting to die, this brute force upon you, leaving you out of mind out of body, writhing, helpless, pained and sometimes just wishing you would die so it would be over, moments wondering if maybe you were already gone. For me, that was childbirth. And no one ever told me how to prepare for that.
I always felt like I went through it alone, even though I knew the experience of birth itself was so universal. Last year, I sought a trauma therapist to help me work through my PTSD so that I stopped having flashbacks, so that I stopped feeling panic every time I revisited that moment. I was also facing the birth of my second child, and didn’t want to experience it the same way. Fortunately, just being able to talk about it helped. Just being able to say, “This happened. It wasn’t beautiful,” created space for me to heal.
I heard of Carmen Winant’s work through a mutual friend, a cultural anthropologist, Nick Kawa who is a friend of mine from college. Our children were born months apart, mine in Germany, his in Peru. One day we were trading birth stories and he mentioned this exhibit at the MoMA and the artist Carmen Winant, the artist and visual artist behind the installation, My Birth, a collage of over 2,000 of photographs and personal writings on women in labor. She is also the author of several books and her work has been exhibited at galleries throughout the U.S. and internationally.
Not having even seen the exhibit, it made me want to cry because it really captured this feeling of birth being both so universal and also solitary. I wanted to talk more about birth and about making birth visible and so, I’ve created a podcast episode about my own birth story and included a conversation I’ve had with the artist, dealing with the lack of visual representations of birth in culture, misrepresentations of birth, as well as how the conversation around the struggles related to birth and motherhood could move us towards greater political action and structural support for women (think paid maternity and childcare). We both felt strongly about opening up this dialogue about our birth stories, and the experience we shared so deeply.