The Power of Birth Stories

I have not met my seven-week-old grandniece, Radley, in the flesh, but I can’t get enough of watching videos of her squirming and cooing, flailing her tiny limbs around and making mini fists. The first of her generation in our family, she is adored by all of us. Her mother, Becca, says of the birth that it was “wild and primal and I felt connected to all the women in the world who have done it prior to me. I want her to know that the transition from inside to out was a beautiful teamwork effort between the two of us. A celebration of all the work we had done together growing her. It was nothing like I had planned, but it was everything I needed.”

Radley’s arrival, this story of celebration and teamwork and connection to the human family, seems like a wonderful way to enter the world. The birth of my own son held similar elements. We adopted him from a woman we love, and my husband and I were present at his birth. The birth mother and her mother and I, along with my husband, were all a team in bringing my son over to this side. Never have I felt such a powerful feeling of being a part of the human family, just like Becca felt. I am curious about how Radley herself will report the experience of her birth when she is able to speak about it.

All my life I’ve been fascinated by the role birth stories often play in our lives. If we tell stories about ourselves, which most of us do, nothing could be more important than our birth stories. They are the opening, the seeds germinating and breaking through soil, readying to grow taller, sprout buds and leaves.

My interest in this has emerged from my own experience: the template of my own birth story has laid out a pattern I have seen playing out over and over through the years. My mother went to the hospital on Christmas Eve, thinking my arrival was imminent. But it was a false alarm — I refused to come out. I can almost hear myself thinking: I’m not ready yet. I’m enjoying my own room I’ll see you when it’s time. Three weeks later, when I felt sufficiently “cooked” I was so eager to enter the world that my head emerged in the elevator and the doctor said, “It has black hair.” These few story strokes, repeated by my mother many times over the years, have left a powerful imprint. They seem to describe my general approach to life. I check things out, initially reluctant to enter and commit then, when I’m ready, I dive in fully. This has been true of my involvements with jobs, people, places. It took me years to settle in the genre of writing that suits me (fiction), and I didn’t marry or have a child until I was good and ready. Again and again throughout my life I’ve looked back to that birth story and seen a force working back then in my earliest days that has been a throughline. In other words, my birth story reveals — or tells — something true about me and my approach to the world.

Curious about how widespread this is, I’ve done some informal research among family and friends, and have uncovered others whose birth stories also get to the heart of something important about who they’ve become. My husband’s story is one of surprise and delight. His mother’s water broke in the morning of March 4th — Infantry Day, as he calls it — shortly after his father had left for work. His father drove the circuitous route on Highway 17 over the hill from Santa Cruz to San Jose before he got word that his wife was in labor. He drove straight back. Paul was born quickly and easily. By noon he was out in the world, delighting everyone (though not cooking yet!) including the doctor who wanted to get to a ballgame. The takeaway narrative for Paul is that his was an easy and happy birth, and he has become an easygoing man whose presence delights people.

The two members of my writing group weighed in on my question about birth stories with radically different responses. One, my dear friend Miriam, says she has no recollection at all of being told a story about her birth, except that it was in a Detroit hospital. She attributes this lack of narrative to what she calls “the large, large chasm of distance that existed between the adults and the children in my household.” She compensated for this when her son was born by keeping copious notes, recording every detail of her pregnancy and the early days following his birth. I haven’t asked her son (almost thirteen) what his takeaway is, but for Miriam I wonder if her urge to tell stories might emerge from the need to fill in the blank slate. (Pure speculation here.) I recommend her novel, The Local News, for a sense of her storytelling chops.

My other writing group member, Debra, has a very powerful birth story that she has written about more eloquently than I can. (Read her book I Am A Stranger Here Myself for details.) She was born to high school sweethearts, teenagers, in a small town in Idaho where both sides of the family were royalty, and the teenagers were star performers. The pregnancy was not looked upon with delight, an interruption in lives so full of promise, but everyone sucked it up and did their best. She was four and a half pounds at birth — premature, I believe — and she was placed under lights used for warming chicks, since no one was ready. This rough start has created a woman of exceptional resiliency, stalwart in the face of life challenges that would have sunk most of us. (You can read about these setbacks in her memoir, Live Through This) She has taken charge of her life’s narrative impressively, even as shades of her birth story echo; despite being admired and loved, she often has the feeling she isn’t welcome.

Another fiend, Andrea, also had a difficult arrival. Her mother’s water broke two months early when she was visiting her own mother with whom she had a difficult relationship. Put on bed rest, Andrea’s mother was restless and could endure only a month in that tense environment before she wanted to have the baby. The doctor gave his okay, and Andrea was born a month prematurely, weighing four pounds and three ounces. Despite her diminutive size, she was a strong baby and, like Debra, has become a strong and resilient adult, making her way in the world without a great deal of support and in spite of a difficult relationship with her mother. This is a story “of conflict and inconvenience,” Andrea reports, made all the more challenging by her mother being a Holocaust survivor. Nevertheless, Andrea has become a genuinely wise woman (a lifelong Buddhist), as well as a phenomenal and prolific painter. Her work can be seen at: www.schwartzfeit.com

Our birth stories are never the stories we actually remember. They are the stories that are told to us, and we grow into and around them, like plants following the sun. Sometimes their import is negligible, or something to redress or rebel against, other times they are, as in my case, surprisingly powerful in explaining patterns. I often think that these stories say something about what our families needed us to be (easy or resilient, for example). Because I’ve spent most of my life thinking about stories, analyzing them and making them up, I can’t disregard the importance of these stories, no matter what they are. They are the beginning of things, the opening act, the seed finally germinating (to return to this tired but apt metaphor!). They lay down some kind of groundwork for what follows. They also build on what has gone before, the mother’s story, the grandmother’s story, all the generations of men and women who preceded. It is our nature as human beings to look for patterns and tell stories, and we find meaning in those patterns and stories to assist us in living, whether there is meaning there or not.

I look at the little bundle of possibility that is Radley, and I feel the passing of the baton. As she is beginning to grow and flourish, soon to be walking and talking, I am getting wobbly and thinking about how my last days will play out. It thrills me that she is here to “take my place.” And as I contemplate that, I try to imagine how my death story will unfold. The final act. The denouement. I wonder if my death story will mirror my birth story, the reluctance followed by the eager dive. I already have a picture in my head (as you can imagine) of an ideal passing. I am situated in my bedroom, in my uber-comfortable bed with fleece sheets, plenty of pillows, and aa fleece coverlet. The room is dimly lit, and my intimates are nearby, along with the woman who is becoming my “death doula.” A quiet “sound bath” is playing, maybe bowls, maybe a harp, maybe women’s voices, or Gregorian chant. I have a trace of morphine in my veins, but not enough to remove me from reality, and I hold hand after hand of the people I love, squeezing as strongly as I can, reluctant to leave. Then, the moment of readiness arrives, and I let go, taking that deep dive with eagerness n.

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Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.

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Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.

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