“What was the best day of your life?” a facilitator asked during an ice-breaker exercise at a workshop. I struggled to answer because I have lots of highlights, but not one big day.
“Well, the birth of your children of course,” the facilitator prompted.
Because I was standing in front of 50 other people I gave the socially acceptable answer. I laughed awkwardly and agreed with the facilitator.
But it was such a lie.
If I were being honest, my response would have been “Are your out of your freaking mind?! Was your heart attack the best day of your life?”
While I love my children, the process by which they came into the world was anything but loveable. The most accurate way to describe both of my births was a mix of emotional torment and physical trauma. It took me months to recover from each of my births.
If it were any other trauma it would be bizarre, insensitive even, to suggest that it should be the highlight of someone’s life. But one of the great lies we tell ourselves, and our culture reinforces at every turn, is that good women LOVE childbirth. To think, much less say, otherwise is to admit to being perverse.
I’ll confide the truth to my closest friends in hushed tones, or write about it when I am shielded from people’s immediate shock and disapproval. But confess it in front of a group of people I’ve just met? I’d sooner share the intimate details of my sex life.
Real women are supposed to love feeling excruciating pain and being totally out of control during childbirth. And that bit about how you could die or end up wearing nappies for the rest of your life? What a hoot!
I know my story isn’t every woman’s story. No doubt some women do enjoy childbirth. Some are even lucky enough to find it orgasmic.
But many of us do not.
I regret not having the guts to tell the facilitator the truth: that my births were horrible. By lying, I essentially participated in reinforcing the universal blissful birthing myth.
The romanticisation of childbirth creates a veil of silence around the realities of the experience. This silence can lead to a sense of shame for women who do not love their births, and it is also thoroughly conservative.
Why bother to critically examine the culture and processes of childbirth, and seek to improve it, when women love it so much just the way it is?
The damage caused by this myth can endure long after our stitches have dissolved.
What’s particularly noxious about the idea that birth is the highpoint of female existence is the way that it erases our pre-mother lives and devalues our future achievements. That one event — existentially momentous as it is — compresses our identities into “just a mother”.
For example, during an interview with Ryan Seacrest, best-selling author Emily Giffin said that when her first book become a Number 1 best-seller it was the best day of her life.
Presumably realising she’d broken the unspoken rule of women who have borne children, she quickly rushed to clarify that the best day of her life was actually the birth of her kids.
Heaven forbid that the best day of a woman’s life had nothing to do with motherhood at all — that it might be a professional or personal achievement or a holiday with your bestie or meeting your partner.
And if we take this thinking to its logical end then we come to the equally offensive – and wrong – conclusion that women who do not experience childbirth must live lives that are lacking.
Childbirth is equal parts wonder, dread and terror and — for me at least — it was just a process I had to endure to get the real prize. It’s certainly not something we should have to relive or serve up as a cliché to build rapport with a bunch of strangers.