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.  

"Don’t believe a pregnant woman is psychologically fragile and should be protected from the realities of labor and birth."

Photo courtesy Daniel Lobo/Flickr

In a little red cottage on a pond in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts one Saturday morning in August I woke alone in my bed and felt a queasy swoop of something flitter through my gut. I’m pregnant! I thought, sitting up with a start.

PREGNANTPREGNANTPREGNANT! A joyous, silent shout repeated in my head.


As I walked into the bathroom and ripped open a pregnancy test—I kept a stash of them on hand during that time—another, more reasonable voice said, No, no, NO. Don’t get your hopes up. That queasy feeling is just the two margaritas you drank last night with Donna!

For once in my life that other, more reasonable voice was wrong.

* * *

My husband was out of town, but he’d be home that evening. I’d be picking him up at the Albany airport, but I wouldn’t tell him about being pregnant there. I also wouldn’t tell him on the drive home. The news was too momentous, too beautiful to be delivered in an airport or an automobile. I would lead him into our little red cottage on the pond where I’d open a bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling something and say the words I’d been wanting to say to him for a year.

That day, as I readied for his arrival, I bought fantastic things at the farmer’s market. I wandered the stalls with the word pregnant, pregnant, pregnant chirping like a secret bird only I could hear. At home, I set out the organic cheeses and ridiculously expensive handmade crackers and dark chocolates I’d purchased that day, arranging them artfully on a platter. I drove to Albany while playing out the evening in my mind. How I would ask my husband all about his trip so as to distract him from inquiring about me. How once we got home I would finally say, “Guess what?”

When I got to the airport he was there already, his flight having arrived early. I came upon him as he was yanking his suitcase from the rotating belt in the baggage claim area.

“I’m PREGNANT!” I shrieked crazily the minute his eyes met mine. People turned and looked at us in alarm.

I’ve always been terrible at keeping secrets.

* * *

Being pregnant meant making a lot of decisions. My husband and I decided I’d see a midwife not a doctor. We decided I’d have a drug-free, low-tech, not-in-the-hospital-unless-it-was-actually-medically-necessary birth. We decided I’d have an ultrasound but not an amniocentesis. We decided we’d take a labor and birth class together but under no circumstances would I refer to my husband as my “coach,” no matter what the official class literature instructed us to do. We decided we didn’t want to know the gender of the baby, but we found out by accident anyway: a boy.

In a bar called Limey’s, we decided his name would be Carver.

* * *

The thing I couldn’t picture all through my pregnancy was his face. I tried to but I could never land on anything. It seemed like the greatest mystery I’d ever encountered, one that grew as he did inside of me. He kicked and squirmed. He got the hiccups and I felt them at the top of my crotch (at which point I learned for the first time ever that my crotch had a top). I was viscerally connected to this being inside of me and yet when I tried to picture him I could not.

He’s going to be a big baby! people said jovially to me when they saw my enormous belly and that’s all I could imagine. Not a face. Not my son’s face. Just the face of a big anonymous baby that happened to belong to me.

His anonymity compounded my fear that I wouldn’t love him. I worried about the fact that I didn’t burst into tears when we’d had the ultrasound and I’d first seen the image of him on the screen or when I heard his heartbeat at my meetings with the midwife. I felt awfully fond of him. I did everything for him. I protected his well being at every turn. But there was still a distance between us. I didn’t know him. All through my pregnancy my burning question was this: How could I love someone I didn’t know?

* * *

His birth began on a Tuesday morning. We were living in Portland, Ore., by then, having moved there when I was five months pregnant. I called my husband and got immediately into the shower and by the time I got out he was there with bags of groceries that I’d instructed him to buy—snacks for labor and ingredients for baking. All through my pregnancy I’d read tales of people baking things in the early stages of labor while also watching videos. They made blueberry muffins while watching Sleepless in Seattle. They made a carrot cake while watching The Last Picture Show. So I had the same cozy idea about my own early stages of labor. That I would do what I called putzing around.

It didn’t go like that. It went like someone was operating a jackhammer in the lower half of my body every five minutes for hours on end. I had to wander the house and lean on things and process the pain with moans and ghastly facial expressions. In between one of these contractions my husband implored me to eat a bowl of chocolate pudding. I ate it, grateful for the small, temporary pleasure it afforded me.

Then I had a contraction and puked it all up.

What Not To Believe

1.    Don’t believe labor doesn’t hurt more than anything you’ve ever felt.

2.    Don’t believe you might have an orgasm while pushing a head out of your who-ha.

3.    Don’t believe you can’t withstand enormous amounts of pain.

4.    Don’t believe suffering is abnormal or permanent.

5.    Don’t believe your body should cooperate with some plan that a medical association made because it protects them from law suits and makes it easier for them to run the show—the show being your body.

6.    Don’t believe you shouldn’t educate yourself beyond what whomever you’ve hired to help you with your birth tells you.

7.    Don’t believe a pregnant woman is psychologically fragile and should be protected from the realities of labor and birth.

8.    Don’t believe you can’t do this. It’s a rough business, but you can.

* * *

The thing I feared most was the drive to the birth center, a place called Andaluz, which was 30 minutes from our house. As we drove, I breathed in and I breathed out while listening to a Krishna Das CD. I chanted om nama shivaya along with him, not knowing what it meant, only knowing it helped me. It was Tuesday around dinnertime. I’d been in labor seven hours by then. The pain had become so spectacular I figured it had to be time to go to the birth center. I looked at my husband and said excitedly, “Our baby’s going to be born tonight!”