Our Strength is Tenacity, not Perfection

February 24, 2011 · 11 comments

Woman with "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger" tattoo

It makes me stronger

Last year I began a blog post about natural childbirth with a well-known quote from Laura Stavroe Harm: “There is a secret in our culture, and it’s not that birth is painful. It’s that women are strong.”

I found out later from an article in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine that women who experienced traumatic births often found that quote devastating, which made me so sad. I understand the interpretation — that if they simply were stronger, they could have had the birth they wanted. But I was surprised at the same time, because that’s not how I ever understood the words, and that’s not what I believed when I used them for my article.

Our strength doesn’t come from perfection. A strong woman isn’t the one who’s gotten everything she wanted, done everything right, or lived in soft-focus beauty.

Our strength comes from choices.

Making decisions for ourselves makes us stronger. In our male-dominated culture, women are often protected from choices: they’re made for us, in our best interests, to “protect” us (and our children). We often end up limited to what someone else decided is the safest statistical choice: hospital birth — continuously monitored, tethered with an IV, and in the company of strangers.

But we’re strong enough to make choices. We’re smart enough to look at our options and decide. And we’re tenacious enough to withstand the disappointment of knowing that we made a poor decision, or to deal with the reality of bad circumstances.

Our strength comes from disappointment and grief.

I’ve been honored to share the stories of two of my friends who had emergency cesarean sections for their first births, and then subsequent unsuccessful VBAC attempts. They both struggled with intense feelings afterwards, but eventually came to terms with their surgeries and look at their scars with pride.

That is the strength I see when I read the quote.

Strength is not just for the women who have the births they want. I’m proud of the births of my children — the first in a freestanding birth center, and the second at home. They were intense, overwhelming experiences, and I treasure them, but they didn’t happen because I was strong.

Our strength isn’t changed by the experience of others.

Birth is a life-changing event, and it’s meant to prepare us for the rigors of motherhood. There is no easy way to give birth, and there’s no easy way to be a mother.

The secret strength of Ms. Harm’s quote isn’t that all women are strong enough to will an unmedicated birth. The secret is that we’re strong no matter how we give birth. The secret is that we are strong enough to choose how we want to give birth (whether a hospital, birth center, or home), and we’re strong enough to stand the disappointment and grief if something goes wrong.

Ms. Harm is right — we all know birth is painful. It’s painful because it’s filled with so much love that our hearts will burst — and that is unchanged no matter the experience of our labor.

Yes, women are strong enough to have babies at home. But they are also strong enough to say they don’t want to. And women are strong enough to triumph over sadness and fear. That is the strength I think of when I read the quote. And that is strength we all share.

Photo Credit: Robynlou8 on Flickr

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ariel February 24, 2011

I love this quote. Always have. I was induced at 38 weeks to do preeclampsia, and I found my strength by insisting that the doctors do everything they can to help me avoid a C-section (though I wasn’t against it if baby and/or I were in distress). And because of my self-advocacy, they did. Four days of magnesium, pitocin, blood tests, and eventually, an epidural and I started pushing my little one out. They wanted to cut me, I said no, let me tear. And they did. My strength showed through by my knowledge of what was going on, and the doctors listened. It certainly wasn’t the birth I planned; I wanted a home birth. But I felt like I had control, because I DID have control over what was going on. I suffered a third degree tear, that they sewed up while I had my son on my chest, skin-to-skin.

I always took this quote to mean that women have the strength to birth, period. Even in emergency c-sections, those women are doing what they need to do for their child to get here safely. And that takes strength. :)

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2 mamapoekie February 24, 2011

Beautiful post!!! Completely support this! THIS is true feminism. Will be sharing on Sunday Surf

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3 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 24, 2011

Thank you mamapoekie!

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4 Larissa February 24, 2011

I think I read the quote the same way you do, that easy labor is an oxymoron, and women are able to endure, and hopefully thrive after the experience. It’s certainly the most intense and scary thing I’ve ever gone through, not because I had a horrible experience (on the contrary, actually), but because there is so much “unknown” to be afraid of. I don’t know if this will come across the right way, but my hope is that for each woman who goes through labor, no matter what her experience, I hope she has some sense of “Wow. I did it. Really, wow!”

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5 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 24, 2011

I couldn’t agree more . . .

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6 Anastasia February 24, 2011

I love this article! It’s a great reminder that pregnancy, birth, and motherhood can throw us some very difficult and unexpected obstacles but it doesn’t negate our strengths as women. Thank you!

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7 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 24, 2011

Anastasia & Ariel — thank you so much for your comments. I hoped that I hadn’t completely mis-judged this, because I’ve seen strength in every birth story I’ve read.

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8 Lily February 26, 2011

What a tender and kind post. As someone who has had both a great experience and a horrible one (in that order) I can really appreciate what you are getting at here as “strong.” I think you articulated that beautifully. And knowing what both types of birth experience can feel like, i think what you have written is an important distinction for both types of birthers to think about. It is easy to become over zealous and critical of women who have bad experiences when you have had a kick butt natural home birth and you are really well educated on birth. And it is also easy to blame yourself and internalize a really bad experience too. I guess the best we can strive for is to circulate the best possible information so all women have access to it and can, like you mentioned in the post, make informed choices. And to go easy on ourselves and others when we, or they, are faced with the disappointment of a bad experience.

Very nice approach to this topic.

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9 Jenny Wiebe March 1, 2011

Beautiful post. I am one of those mothers who, despite my best attempts, ended up having a cesarean birth. It was disappointing, to say the least, to not get my perfect homebirth in water. I have absolutely no regrets, knowing that I made the choice based on the particular circumstances and an infinite amount of preparation and research. I went into my second birth knowing very well that I had the strength to do what needed to be done to have a VBAC despite the odds against me. Again, I ended up in hospital when all I wanted was to deliver in my little fishy pool at home, but I stood up against the doctor who wanted to cut me open again and pushed my baby out. I am proud of that, and a better woman and mother because of it. I love that quote and your interpretation of it.

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10 Ann March 13, 2012

Amazing perspective. Thank you for writing this. Sums up so many of the feelings I have after an unplanned c-section.

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