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