In early 2005, I sat in a classroom scribbling notes while the members of my fiction workshop discussed the novel excerpt I had handed out to them the previous week. In the opening scene, a young woman is fleeing across the ravaged Russian countryside during World War II. As members of the class discussed my work, I jotted down numerous comments about my depiction of the war, my use of language, my knowledge of Russian culture. Then a young man cleared his throat and started to speak nervously.
“Umm, this scene where she gives birth?” he said. “It just didn’t seem real to me. It seemed too easy. I mean, obviously I’m not speaking from firsthand experience, but I think giving birth is a lot harder and takes a lot longer. I just found that section hard to believe.”
Although I was not supposed to speak while my work was under discussion, I couldn’t help myself.
“I’ll know about that soon enough,” I said. “Then I’ll be able to revise it.”
The students in the class chuckled. I was hugely pregnant, about two weeks away from giving birth to my first child.
No doubt the members of the class—none of whom, as far as I knew, had ever given birth—believed that I had been inspired by my own pregnancy to write about a pregnant protagonist. In fact, in my novel I had written two separate birth scenes, involving two different protagonists, before I ever became pregnant. I had always recognized the importance of birth stories, even before having one of my own to tell.
Each birth story is unique. All mothers have them, a different narrative for each of their children. We begin by rehearsing the story well before it even happens. We take birth classes to learn the basic plot, the possible twists and complications. We write detailed birth plans, outlining just how we want the story to go. We imagine the birth, again and again. We rehearse and rewrite. It is supremely important, because if each life has a story, that story begins with birth. That is why, I think, many mothers are compelled to tell the stories of their children’s births. Those stories belong to us, but they also belong to our children. And we mothers are the keepers of those stories for our children. It is up to us to tell them where and how they began, to weave for them the narratives of their origins, their earliest years. Life is about storytelling, and we want our stories—and our children’s stories—to be true and good.
My own birth stories are not exceptional or amazing, except that they happened to me. And because while laboring we are in a place beyond words, we can never adequately tell our stories. Giving birth is a cohesive experience, yet we are left with disjointed, fragmented impressions. I can give my children only bits and pieces. When my daughter asks, I will be able to offer her only the sparse, bright gems of experience that are still with me, that I can put into words: The erratic contractions we timed all night, my husband working diligently with a stopwatch and notebook. The questioning: Is it real? Is it time? The drive to the hospital, the bright, crisp world of late winter. The nurses who didn’t believe my labor was real because I was withdrawn and silent, calm as in a trance, awaiting the next wave of pain. Elvis on the muted hospital TV, singing with a lei around his neck. The glint of sun on cars in the parking lot below. The unexpected, rapid delivery. The alarmed nurse telling me not to push, that she still had to call the midwife on the phone. The midwife rushing in just in time to catch the baby. The robust, squalling baby girl, mad at the sudden shock of the world.
I knew none of this when I first wrote that scene in my novel. So yes, after giving birth, I know more. I can write about it firsthand. But in another way, I am no closer to telling my character’s story. It is her birth story, not my own. Giving birth myself is not enough. It is not a credential for writing fiction. To tell my character’s story, I have to enter her world, in a sense become her. I have to write the birth story that is uniquely hers.
And yet, I believe there is truth in the old adage, write what you know. Maybe I can get to her story through my own. All of the characters, all of the stories, that we access as writers of fiction come through the lens of our own experiences. Write what you know. Just as every mother is different, every birth is different. With the coming of the new year, with my son’s fifth birthday approaching, I have been remembering his birth. Write what you know.
This is what I know: My second baby was due December 25. I wanted a fantastic story. Driving through a winter blizzard. A Christmas Eve baby. A completely natural birth. A Christmas baby. He was late. I then hoped for a New Year’s Eve baby. A New Year’s Day baby. He didn’t cooperate. A week late. Ten days late. My wants became simpler. A birth. A baby. Soon.
This is what I know: It is nighttime in winter, and I am in labor, by myself, on the living room sofa beneath the picture window, in a small house in a small windblown town in the Nebraska Panhandle. I am watching the stars, listening to the furnace tick on and off. Outside, crabapple trees rustle quietly. I am still, so that I do not awaken anyone. My husband will need his rest for what lies ahead. There is no sense in both of us staying up all night. I’ve snuck away to be in labor by myself. Between contractions, my thoughts are lucid, calm. I see myself as a participant in a story. I think of the new life story that will unfold out of this quiet winter night.
This is what I know: A contraction pierces my stream of thoughts, a blaze of pain, and then the gradual abating. The story will come. The dawn, the almost-three-year-old daughter I must calmly say my goodbyes to, the potholed road, the patches of snow dotting the yards, the gray winter sky. The small hospital where no other babies are being born that day. Asking to be in the water. No, first the fetal monitoring. No, first the doctor must come. No, I’m too close. No water allowed. There is no time. He he is here, so soon: my howling nine-pound boy, peeing on the doctor first thing.
But for now, I am still here, alone in the night. And this is what I know: I ride the crest of another contraction. The story continues. I think of the ultrasound technician who told me twelve hours ago: you’re not close. The doctor who told me eight hours ago: you’re not close, we need to induce. They do not know. I am close. The induction will never take place. I am close. I wait for my baby to tell me when. He takes his sweet time. I watch the stars. I listen to the trees. I am blessed on this night. The contractions come. I do not count them, I do not time them. I know it is the real deal. I let my story—his story—come to me.