When I first heard of the conceit behind the Labor Day anthology, I had one immediate regret: that the book was not published before I gave birth to my sons in 2010 and 2012. Stories of labor and birth have been passed around since women have been having babies (i.e. forever), and the mystique surrounding childbirth is among the most powerful focal points of a pregnancy.
Childbirth itself is ripe with dichotomies. On one hand, the process is the same the world over—a fetus develops into a baby inside its mother’s womb and then emerges when (hopefully) capable of thriving on its own. On the other hand, childbirth is extraordinarily personal and variable. One woman’s two-hour, “orgasmic” labor is another woman’s 40-hour medical emergency.
In an ideal world, every pregnant woman would have a network (dare I say “a village”) of mamas to inform, educate, and share with her their experiences. Since that’s not the reality for a majority of expecting mothers to be, editors Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon have curated a next best choice: an anthology of birth essays that are so beautifully rendered and so brutally honest that they could serve as a stand in for a birthing class.
The editors write in their introduction, “It’s an elemental, almost animalistic urge—the expectant mother’s hunger for birth narratives. Surely our mothers and their mothers nurtured the same craving, a craving as old as storytelling or childbirth itself.”
The beauty of this compilation of essays is twofold: exquisite writing and a range of experiences that paint childbirth as the unpredictable and intense and transformative transition that it is.
“Being pregnant was like being on a seesaw between utter terror and complete awe,” writes Sarah Jeffries in her essay “Blood and Chocolate.” “It was better than any drug I had tried in high school, back when escaping my body was my highest goal. But I didn’t believe I could have a successful labor unless I could birth my daughter through my brain, like Athena, at home. I wanted to think her out.”
Within Labor Day, readers will find accounts of home births, hospital births, epic labors and quick ones. They will read a heart-rendering story of a still birth. They’ll read about pain and epidurals and hypnobirthing and hot baths. They will read about adoption and midwives and doctors and partners who either try to help too much or withdraw. And the experience of reading so many different stories will have the effect of demystifying childbirth and showing the myriad ways that exist for getting a baby out of its mother.
Childbirth has the potential to define a woman’s perception of herself as a mother—even before she actually gives birth. By collecting a series of essays that underscore the unpredictability of birth and that showcase the insight of these mothers—whose skills as writers allow them to articulate the many nuances and truths of the process in ways that less skilled communicators might not be able to—the editors have accomplished the tricky task of both honoring the magnitude of childbirth while delivering many a cautionary tale to expectant mothers to not get too attached to a specific “birthing philosophy.”
Many women enter their third trimesters with birth plans and high expectations. For some, the event of childbirth looms so large that it overshadows what will (hopefully) follow: the mothering of a healthy newborn, the becoming of a family. Through the wildly different accounts of childbirth, Labor Day emphasizes that there is no “right way” to give birth and gives credence to all different experiences.
And it does this with terrific writing that is at times funny and at other times quite sober. At other times, the writing is educational. Always it reads as though written straight from the heart.
Take Sarah Strickley’s musing on pain in “Live from the NICU.” She writes, “I suppose we’re always alone in our pain, but we are rarely positioned appropriately to view the isolation accurately. Most of the choices with which we are presented in childbirth are secondary to the one most important in practice: We must be prepared to labor alone, even in the company of others, even with the brilliantly blinding help of loved ones. Perhaps the debates regarding childbirth are so heated because in the end it’s one woman’s experience, not a shared cultural phenomenon. It’s you and your pain; it’s you and it’s your baby.”
Indeed, there’s a lot of discussion of pain in Labor Day. But there is also a lot of exploration of themes of love, family, and self-reliance. Despite the seriousness of the subject, Labor Day is a celebration of life—of babies and the women who make and birth them.
My one critique of Labor Day is its dearth of contributors from the middle of the country. Surely the editors could have found some articulate women writers in the Rocky Mountain West or the Midwest and had one or two fewer authors from Brooklyn. But this is a minor complaint. What Labor Day might lack in geographic distribution, it more than makes up for in the diversity of births and the writers’ reactions and explorations of them.
As I read (compulsively, in 48 hours, roughly the same amount of time as the labor and C-section that delivered my first son), I asked myself if this book would interest those who either have no children or have not given birth to their kids, be they fathers, same-sex partners, or adoptive parents.
Naturally I am biased. I’ve given birth twice and I am in awe of the miracle of life. I could have read 30 more birth stories when this book ended. Yet I believe the answer is yes, most anyone would enjoy this book, thanks to the probing and vulnerable writing. Labor Day renders the drama of birth in 30 different, compelling ways. This book is not a polemic on the “right” way to have a baby. Rather, Labor Day is a literary convergence of one of the most interesting, miraculous phenomenon in existence.