Out of the Mouths of Babes

Jennifer Gandin Le #2

Mama Self Portrait JGLe

What You Might Not Know

Monday, May 6, 2013 at 11:20AM

“A baby is born in a few tough hours, but a mother’s birth takes years.”

Megan Gogerty


For those of you who are pregnant right now.

For those of you who were once pregnant and then had a baby, and maybe the birth didn’t go the way you planned or hoped — that is to say, every single woman who has ever given birth.

For those of you who read all the natural childbirth books and blogs and stories and visioned the hell out of a birth just like that for yourself, only to end up in recovery with a lower abdominal scar that you never wanted.

Here is what you might not know, what might not come through clearly in all those natural childbirth books and blogs and movies.

When I was pregnant, I chucked out the window “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and read only Ina May Gaskin, Robert Bradley, Pam England. I watched movies filled with ecstatic images of women giving birth naturally in the Black Sea, dolphins swimming nearby. I would birth at home naturally, I would birth not only my baby but also my new self as a mother, and the way I chose to do it would set the tone for the rest of my life in this role.

They don’t mean to do it, these natural childbirth educators, but sometimes they convey the unspoken message that if your birth does not go this way, then you are a dud. Ina May Gaskin has a famous quote meant to encourage women in the middle of natural childbirth: “Your body is not a lemon.” Your body is an evolutionary genius. You don’t need all those medical interventions to give birth.

So when your homebirth turns into a hospital birth via cesarean section, the only thing you can hear is the inverse of her words, echoing coldly down sterile hallways in your mind: “But you? Your body *is* a lemon. Your body failed.”

Not only that, but the crowning moment, that unforgettable sensation of your baby slipping out of your body through your sheer effort alone — that moment whose alchemy would transform you into a mother… well, you missed out on that, too. You lost the rite of passage you dreamed of. Tough shit, kid.

What you might not know is that your birth does not define the kind of mother you will be. I still believe in natural childbirth. I will try for a natural homebirth again next time. But I also know that while birth is profoundly important for both mother and child, it is not the last chance. It feels like it, when you’re pregnant or caring for a newborn baby, but it is only the first of a million chances for you to bond with your child, to grow into your new role as a mother, to show your immense love for this new creature. I learned this through grieving the loss of my ideal birth. I learned this through the cadre of powerful mothers whom I met through ICAN, the group that saved my life over and over, starting with the first meeting I attended when my son was four weeks old.

What you might not know, but will learn: your birth does not define you as a mother.

And if your birth doesn’t define you, maybe there’s no single act or decision that will define you as a mother. Maybe it’s only the infinite daily work that you do as a mother that will define you.

Or perhaps you might learn that definitions are useless in the work of mothering. They’re the cold comfort that you reach for when you realize that your heart is broken wide open and will never stitch back together. When you feel your heart reach for the women across cultures and time and place who have also mothered, when you cry for children you’ll never meet. When you realize that you are wholly not in control of this wide world.

All of those books and theories and labels, they can bolster you or help you find a community of like-minded parents, which absolutely matters. But at the end of the day, there is only you, your child, and the other human beings around you who are helping to bring that child up into the world.

A mother’s birth takes years. A mother’s birth is never complete. A mother’s birth will last the rest of her life.

This is what I didn’t know.

(Thanks to Cristina Pippa for introducing me to Gogerty’s work.)

This post first appeared on Jennifer’s website. You can see her photography and writing here.

Jennifer Gandin Le

Jennifer Gandin Le is a writer, photographer, dreamer, and superhero. When she’s not telling stories with words or images, she’s saving lives through her company Emotion Technology, which works with social web companies to prevent suicide and promote mental health online.

When she was just 24, director Francis Ford Coppola commissioned her film adaptation of the best-selling novel The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank. Her non-fiction writing has been published in Wired Magazine, Time Out New York, BUST Magazine, The Village Voice, and ReadyMade. From 2007-2010, she also wrote the weekly Beauty in a Wicked World column on the group blog Crucial Minutiae.

Her short film, Small Changes, won the Grand Jury Prize in the 2009 Intelligent Use of Water film competition, and was screened at The Getty Center in Los Angeles in September 2009. In 2006, Gandin Le was selected as one of the “REAL Hot 100” young women working for change in the U.S.

Jennifer is an alumna of the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, a national organization of over 2500 women ethical leaders working toward social change. Gandin Le graduated with honors from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Jennifer Gandin Le offers a fresh perspective, illuminating the magical details of everyday life. Her stories often portray young women carving out room for their desires and dreams in a complex world.

In addition to her writing work, Jennifer is co-founder of Emotion Technology, a minority-owned business that prevents suicide and promotes mental health online. She lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, son, and very bad dog.

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