My friend Maria was sipping a glass of Pinot Gris and cooing at my three-week-old daughter, when I asked her again if she’d watch my birth video. She had declined my first and second offers, but after enough pleading (and refilling of her wine glass), she finally relented. “Okay, fine,” she said. “Let’s get it over with.”
By all accounts, my birth was fast and uncomplicated. Five hours of labor followed by a mere 13 minutes of pushing. No drugs or scary medical instruments were involved. So I struggled with the fact that nearly a month after the experience, I still felt so traumatized by what people kept telling me was an “easy” birth.
When I first got the birth video from my doula, I watched it obsessively, reliving the trauma with each viewing. Even after playing it five, 10, 50 times, I couldn’t watch it without clenching every muscle in my body, a lump gathering in my throat as I fought the urge to cry and vomit at the same time. I was still processing all the feelings, while a slew of new hormones coursed through my beat-up body. Before Maria could change her mind, I handed my infant to my husband and hit play on the computer. I turned around to watch her watch the video.
I had seen the footage so many times, I could give a perfect play-by-play simply by listening to the audio. When I hear grunting, I see myself pushing on the hospital bed, legs spread wide with my knees hugged into my chest and my husband holding onto my left foot. My eyes are shut so tight, it looks like I’m trying to disappear into myself. My grunts turn to screams, and I know that my daughter’s head is emerging. “You’re doing it, babe!” my husband says, and I anticipate his encouragement fading to shock when he looks past my hips and utters “oh my God” as he sees, for the first time, a tuft of his daughter’s ruddy and matted hair. When my doctor tells me to relax, it means I will do the exact opposite and push and howl for 13 more seconds until I’ve expelled her whole body, head to toe.
I hear the nurse say “congratulations,” and my mind recalls the doctor holding my tiny baby in her hands. Then: silence. The video ends abruptly, 40 seconds in.
As the familiar sounds of my labor started, Maria’s hand immediately shot up to cover her mouth. “No! No, no, no. This is too much,” she said, shielding her eyes from the screen. She peeked through her fingers just enough to witness the moment my daughter exited my body and that was enough to send her out of the room shrieking. She walked back in, flustered. “That was terrifying,” she said. “It was like watching a horror movie.”
Maria’s visceral reaction validated so many feelings I had about the birth. The pain, the fear, the uncertainty of being able to get through it unscathed. It justified every postpartum “woe is me” I uttered while stuffing ice packs down my adult diaper. I couldn’t wait to push the video onto others.
As more visitors stopped by to meet our daughter, I extended more offers to watch her entry into the world. My family and close friends were among the first to view it, of course, but I also showed it to acquaintances, colleagues and complete strangers. I had uploaded the video to my phone so I could show it anytime, anywhere. Among the viewers: a group of women at a baby shower. My father-in-law. Our babysitter. Some random guy at a party.
Watching people react to my birth video helped me come to terms with my own conflicting emotions about it. Although my mother watched it with tears of joy streaming down her face, most reactions were of the, “Ah, hell no” variety: People tended to watch it with an open mouth and darting eyes, while mumbling “oh my God” repeatedly. There was also plenty of gasping, squealing and gagging. I felt comfort in their anguish, pride in their amazement. I found the reactions so satisfying, I even started filming some of them. When I played it for my squeamish best friend, who was seven months pregnant with her first child, I captured her hilariously horrified reaction and posted it online. (The video is so amusing, it has since been licensed and recently appeared on the TV show World’s Funniest. Go ahead, Google “Pregnant Woman Reacts to Childbirth Video.”)
A lot of people have chosen not to watch my birth video, including a former boss, an ex-boyfriend and my own father. And I understand their resistance. Birth can be a gruesome horror show, the Lars von Trier version of one of life’s greatest blessings. But for me, the graphic physical part is not only easy to share, it’s necessary.
What I found difficult to express are some of the deeper human emotions I felt when becoming a mother. I’m much more comfortable showing someone my body expelling a human than I am talking about the intense and all-consuming love that tore through me in the seconds that followed.
There is a second video that picks up shortly after the birth video leaves off. In it, my new daughter is placed on my chest. She lets out a quiet cry, soft as a meowing kitten, and I cry along with her. I am out of breath, depleted of all my energy. It’s all I can do to say hello and stroke her gently. I take in every line on her wrinkly face, and I tell her I love her. The pain, the anxiety, the gore — it’s all gone, replaced by this beautiful moment of a mother meeting her child. My teary husband kisses me, and we look at each other in awe, both realizing exactly what the other person is feeling. But I haven’t showed this video to anyone. This is what is private.
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