Cheryl Strayed’s true birth story: A 43-hour labor, and then love.

Birthing My Baby Was a Labor of Love. A Spectacularly Painful, Utterly Preposterous, 43-Hour Labor of Love.

Birthing My Baby Was a Labor of Love. A Spectacularly Painful, Utterly Preposterous, 43-Hour Labor of Love.

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April 13 2014 10:26 PM

The Lavender Room

Birthing my baby was a labor of love. A spectacularly painful, utterly preposterous 43-hour labor of love.  

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Andaluz was on the second floor of a brick building of the sort that is always described as nondescript. It housed dental offices and insurance firms and mortgage brokerages and psychotherapy practices. Out of respect for the regular, non-laboring non-chocolate-pudding-puking people, I tried not to bellow and howl and moan like a madwoman as I passed by the doors of these businesses. I tried to walk upright across the vast gray carpet and to refrain from murmuring fuckfuckfuck while gripping the banister of the stairs as another contraction came on.

I did not succeed.

There were three birth rooms in Andaluz, each with a peaceful-sounding name, a name that suggested that things like massage or Reiki might be going on inside. I chose the one called Lavender. There was a queen-sized bed covered in a pretty quilt and throw pillows in pastel colors and a door that opened up into a bathroom with a birthing tub at its center. I insisted on getting into the tub immediately, though the warm water only fleetingly blunted my pain. Every time I had a contraction I thought, you have got to be fucking kidding me! It seemed preposterous that this was the way birth got done. I felt solidly and profoundly connected to all the female mammals of the world. Not just the women who’d birthed, but the cats and the bears and the lemurs too.


I howled and moaned and mooed like a cow as I contracted every 2/3/4/5 minutes. I walked up and down the carpeted stairs of the now-empty nondescript office building that housed the birth center. I did squats and lunges and sat on an inflated ball and languished in the tub and vomited every time I so much as took a sip of water. I laughed with my husband and tried to concentrate on the candles he lit for me and I stared at the framed photograph of my dead mother he propped next to them, trying to channel her to make me strong.

Author and her baby.
Cheryl Strayedand her baby.

Courtesy Cheryl Strayed

When I had a contraction my entire body would be instantly flooded with sweat, the heat unbearable. Then, as soon as the contraction ended, I’d be freezing cold, shivering violently until the next round began again. My husband and two women friends who’d joined us a few hours after we’d arrived at the birth center were what I came to think of as my contraction pit crew. They were the ones who pulled my robe off and put it back on according to my body temperature. They tried to convince me to sip the water I’d later retch up. Every 15 minutes a midwife or one of her apprentices would crouch down and listen to the baby’s heartbeat through a stethoscope and assure me that everything was okay, but otherwise the four of us were left alone, doing our circuit of stairs, ball, robe, no robe, bathtub, lunge, howl.

By morning I was standing near a window in the Lavender Room watching the sun rise and feeling like a survivor, if only of the night. My pit crew was asleep on the bed behind me—they’d taken to dozing off in the brief minutes between my contractions—and so it seemed in this moment, I was alone. As I gazed out the window, I prayed to be out of this misery, to muster up the courage to do whatever I had to do, for the baby to be born soon. I felt entirely at the mercy of the birth, as if I’d lost any sense of who I was outside of this. As if there was no me outside of this.

As I had these thoughts, a crow flew up and perched on the narrow brick ledge outside the window. He was only a few inches away from me. Startled, we looked at each other. After a few moments, he tapped his beak several times against the glass as if trying to tell me something—tap tap tap.  And then he turned and flew away.

I took it as a good omen. My son would be born today.

* * *

It went on. And on and on and on. All through the day and deep into the night. I laughed. I cried. I despaired. I pondered the possibility of going to a hospital and getting a C-section or at least an epidural. I resolved to stick it out so long as my baby was okay. I remembered to feel grateful. I told dirty jokes. I swore. I surrendered. I begged the spirit of my mother to come to me and help and she did. I refused to do another lunge or to get into the tub. I was ravaged and exhausted. I was blown away and forever altered. Aware of physical capacities and spiritual realms I hadn’t known existed before. I went to the deepest place within me and found there was a place deeper still. I drifted off to sleep on the bed in the Lavender Room, and woke every few minutes with a roar. I pushed so long and hard I didn’t know what I was pushing anymore—my baby’s body or mine. We merged most profoundly in the panting moment that he ripped my flesh open as I forced him into the world.

At 4:07 in the dark of morning, 43 hours after my first contraction, my son was born. He was dark and gigantic. Just shy of eleven pounds. His eyes were ancient, going to me and to his father and then back again. He looked at me like he knew everything already. Like he loved me from the start.

Excerpted and adapted from Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon, to be published in April 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon. All rights reserved.

Cheryl Strayed is the author of the New York Times best-seller Wild. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and two children.