Amber Strocel is one of my favorite bloggers. A Vancouver, B.C. "crunchy granola mom" (and engineer), Strocel writes with equal aplomb about the pleasures of domesticity and more serious issues like Internet privacy.
Strocel also writes a good bit about childbirth, and one recent post got me thinking. In “Scare Tactics,” Strocel considers which kinds of stories about birth and breastfeeding women should share, in particular with pregnant women.
As anyone who has ever been pregnant knows, that bump is a powerful magnet for women who had a 78-hour labor, or whatever, and believe you need to hear a blow-by-blow description, complete with sound effects.
“I don’t see much value in sharing horror stories,” Strocel wrote, adding that during a discussion she shared on Twitter, others had disagreed, saying they thought “negative stories can prepare women” for the possibility of problems with birth or breastfeeding.
Strocel relates that during the birth of her first child, precipitated at 34 weeks by an infection, she experienced severe hemorrhaging, which required surgery and a blood transfusion.
“I was actually not all that afraid of labour when I was pregnant the first time around… Being armed with someone else’s story of severe blood loss wouldn’t have changed anything for me,” she writes. “Thinking about it, I believe there’s a difference between sharing a horror story that scares someone out of her pants, and useful information that you can use to avoid problems.”
Strocel offers an example of the latter: "If I had a very negative experience with a health care provider, I might share that with someone who was considering seeing the provider."
I agree that would be useful information, but the key would be to catch a woman before she had committed to that provider. By the time other people know a woman is pregnant, she has usually settled on a birth attendant.
In fact, I’m not sure any birth stories have utility for a pregnant woman. Let's think about a really positive one. Would hearing about supermodel Gisele Bundchen’s painless water birth really be encouraging to the average mortal? No pressure, girlfriend, but Gisele had zero pain.
I suspect one reason why people deluge pregnant women with birth stories is that we assume they have some interest in a topic we don't actually get to talk about that much.
The birth story occupies a place very near the heart of the narrative of most mothers’ lives. I have two birth stories myself. One tells of a vaginal delivery in a hospital that required foiling an obnoxious resident itching to perform a Caesarean-section; the other is a near-miraculous survival story.
I hardly ever tell these stories out loud. They are great stories, full of colorful characters, conflict and drama but, practically speaking, who can I press them on? The people who are willing to listen to me use words like “vagina” and “transfusion” do not include, for example, my brother-in-law.
As I think about these stories, though, it occurs to me that even though the near-death experience is more dramatic, the birth of my first daughter is more satisfying, more reassuring, more the kind of narrative prospective parents are looking for: A family overcomes obstacles to have the experience it was hoping for (more or less). It was certainly more pleasant to live through.
I'm not sure it is the more helpful of the two stories. Knowing what it takes to live through a calamity — in our case, speedy access to a competent surgeon and anesthesiologist, and plenty of blood — seems to me to be extremely useful information.
But perhaps the stories we mothers like best are the ones where the fair damsel saves herself.