I never really pictured my birth until halfway through my pregnancy, when I took a class on Zoom. Over the course of two weekends, a childbirth educator talked about avoiding unnecessary medical interventions and shared strategies for coping with the pain of labor without medication, like an epidural.
When I started the class, the closest thing I had to a birth plan was “anything but a C-section.” But as we practiced breathing techniques, visualizations, and long, sustained eye contact with our partners while pressing ice to our wrists, visions of my “ideal birth” came into focus.
I knew I wanted the freedom to make my own choices about how my labor would go — to have agency, to follow my own intuition in the moment. Maybe I would labor in a tub, maybe I would refuse to push on my back in a hospital bed and squat down to the ground instead. Maybe I could even make it all the way without screaming for an epidural and earn that coveted trophy of childbirth: a “natural” birth.
At some point, that “could” slipped into “should,” and birth became something not just to experience, but also to achieve.
During one of the classes, our instructor showed us videos of women in labor. As someone whose high school sex-ed curriculum had somehow not included “The Miracle of Life,” I’d never seen this before and had, in fact, never seen anything like it — women lowing and moaning, any semblance of self-consciousness stripped away by raw pain. I listened to their gasps and guttural groans and became overwhelmed with curiosity: In this moment, whose voice would come out of my mouth? Who would I become in this animal yielding? I couldn’t wait to find out.
Late at night, as my future son’s in utero hiccups kept me awake, I dipped into birth Instagram and binged on the black-and-white images of women clutching their newborns to their chests in bloodied birthing tubs; women whose minds had turned fully inward in that moment, or maybe even transcended the walls of the room. As my third trimester dragged on, I daydreamed about my own labor: the warm bath I’d take before heading to the hospital, the music we’d play to get me through that last exhausting stretch of pushing. I pictured the idyllic photos I’d seen and superimposed myself on them, imagining my own body in that tub, my own face drawn into complete concentration. I made a labor playlist.
At 39 weeks, I waddled into the hospital for my appointment, just as I’d done once a week for the last month. I shared with the midwife on duty how suspenseful and frustrating, but also secretly thrilling, the mystery of spontaneous labor felt to me: Would it happen tomorrow, or two weeks from now, or tonight? I thought about it, frankly, all the time — what would happen, when it would happen, what we would do, what we would say — and knew it didn’t matter. I could think about it all I wanted, but ultimately my body would lead the way. After all, birth, we agreed, was about yielding control.
Then I heaved myself up onto the exam table. Five minutes later, all of the mystery fell away and any sense of control was indeed yielded. The baby, we found, was breech, a position that most providers (including my own) consider too high-risk for a vaginal delivery. He’d have to be born in a scheduled C-section instead.
At this stage in my pregnancy, it was unlikely I’d have time to change things — though I could certainly try. According to the internet, there was no shortage of things I could attempt if I wanted it badly enough: chiropractor, Spinning Babies, acupuncture, moxibustion, inversions, floating in a swimming pool, and one extremely painful procedure in which a doctor tries to manually maneuver the baby into position from the outside.
“You can drive yourself crazy trying to do all this stuff,” my doula said when I called her, sobbing, on my way home from the hospital, “and you need to know that it might not work.” Left to my own devices, I knew I’d easily fling myself down this rabbit hole and feel completely personally at fault if my efforts proved fruitless. I was also only three days away from my due date, with a baby wearing an umbilical cord around his neck.
Instead, we scheduled the C-section. After weeks of reveling in the uncertainty of when, the mystery was suddenly distilled into something as clinical and banal as a Google calendar slot. He’d be born not in a room with twinkle lights, aromatherapy, and a birthing tub, but in a clean, cold operating room on the other side of an ugly blue curtain on the following Monday morning.
At home that day, I cried on and off for approximately eight hours. I was shocked by the sheer force and relentlessness of my feelings: waves of sadness and disappointment as I processed the realization that I wouldn’t experience any of the moments I’d allowed myself to picture; I wouldn’t discover the depths of my own animal strength in the hardest parts of labor. The new reality was — after all that hoping and planning and grimacing with ice pressed to my wrist — I wouldn’t experience labor at all. I’m still not sure if I ever will.
I felt angry, too — at the situation, at my providers, but also at myself, for letting all those “maybes” take root and bloom into “shoulds.” For letting myself slip into the fantasy that I was in charge, that birth was something I could not only achieve but excel at. That the only thing separating me from my ideal birth was grit and effort and determination — wanting it badly enough, advocating for myself loudly enough. Intellectually, I was ashamed that I allowed myself to be fooled into even momentarily thinking that one kind of birth is more noble, more valid than another. Emotionally, I felt like I’d already failed the first test of motherhood before I’d even become one.
Somewhere in all this, I had a flickering moment of clarity and decided to make a Sunday night dinner reservation for me and my husband on the patio of one of my favorite special occasion restaurants.
I like to tell people it was logistical, a type-A planner’s dream: If we can pinpoint the exact day and time we’ll become parents, why not squeeze in one hurrah of a nice meal, right under the wire? But if I’m being honest, I think it was a decision made a little bit out of spite. I’d spent the last nine months following the rules, preparing, abstaining, studying, visualizing, doing all the right things — after all that, if I still can’t get the birth I wanted, I can at least have a damn drink. (Besides, I thought, with only 12 more hours to go after nine months of pregnancy, one drink didn’t feel too irresponsible — he’s pretty much fully baked, right?)
So the night before our son would be born, and for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, I brushed my hair, put on a dress, swiped on some lipstick (and immediately wiped it off when I remembered masks), and went out to eat with my husband. We sat on the restaurant’s patio, and over the course of two hours, I feasted on one of the most expensive meals of my life while gleefully crossing off half the items on the “What Not to Eat When Pregnant” list: a platter of raw oysters, a little spoonful of white sturgeon caviar and a cured egg yolk on top of rice grits, and, yes, a drink — one perfect, effervescent French 75, made the old-fashioned way with Cognac.
I worried that I would throw it all back up the next morning in the operating room as a side effect of the anesthesia, which I’d read about online. Beneath that worry were other, more gnawing fears: being wide awake for my own surgery; lying strapped to a table as a scrum of people rummaged around my abdominal cavity like the TSA inspecting a suitcase; witnessing the exact moment in which my life would irreversibly shift on its axis. You’d think all this would inhibit one’s appetite. I ate and drank anyway, and after a spring and summer of barely leaving the house, the two of us somehow racked up a $298 tab.
In the previous three days, I had experienced such an onslaught of emotion that I’d barely had time to reflect on the fact that I was days away from the most significant before-and-after moment of my life. And in the previous few months, I’d become so preoccupied with imagining those final hours leading up to birth that I’d nearly forgotten what awaited me on the other side. Sitting before an iced plate of oysters on the half shell and a sweating champagne flute, I could finally pause long enough to remember.
The next morning, we arrived at the hospital before dawn, rolling a suitcase through the eerily empty hospital hallways. In the triage room, I changed into an ugly gown and laid in a bed while a half-dozen nurses did a lot of things to my body: swabbing, shaving, injecting, drawing. I curled into myself over the table as an anesthesiologist numbed my spine and a nurse held my hand. They laid me back and slipped my wrists through straps as the entire lower half of my body logged off from my nervous system. My husband, masked and scrubbed, came in and knelt beside me to tell me I was doing a good job. (I was not, in fact, doing anything, except nervously making jokes and weeping.)
The physical sensations of birth I’d spent months imagining were replaced by the cold tingle of the table, the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights, the murmur of nurses and PAs making water cooler small talk over my abdominal cavity. I could not see or feel anything on the other side of the blue curtain suspended over my torso, but I could hear. And just as my silly little labor playlist cued up a song by Otis Redding, I heard the squawk of a whole new person entering the world, and the entire thing felt preordained, every last bit of it.
There are two photos on my phone, separated by about 14 hours. In the first, I’m in a yellow lace maternity dress, holding a French 75, grinning under a pastel mask and posing next to an iced platter of raw oysters on the half shell. In the next, I’m masked, hair-netted, freshly Covid-19-swabbed, and giving an anxious, goofy thumbs-up from a gurney, waiting for someone to roll me into an operating room and deliver my son. There are no string lights or birthing tubs. But my birth wouldn’t have been mine without either of these moments. Both, I think, were a kind of labor.
One decadent night of oysters and champagne wouldn’t be enough to absolve me of disappointment — in fact, it took me months to even be able to use the word “birth” when talking about the day my son was born. (Until very recently, I called it “the day of my C-section” or the more Santa Claus-like “the day he came.”) It also wouldn’t soften the sting of envy I still catch myself feeling toward other mothers, or the ugly, insidious feeling that I didn’t earn the title of motherhood quite like they did.
What that extravagant night on the patio did offer, though, was the chance to reclaim some agency, make a decision without subconsciously comparing notes to what I saw on birth Instagram. In retrospect, a fancy meal the night before my C-section wasn’t just a concession prize, but a rebuking of a culture that valorizes women’s pain and veils it as a virtue. In a strange way, it led me right back to what I wanted from the start: following my intuition, allowing myself to decide what I needed in the moment. I still experienced all of that, in a way. My intuition just happened to lead me to oysters and caviar, and, of course, my son.
Oh, and I didn’t throw up.
Gray Chapman is a freelance writer living in Atlanta, Georgia.