Birth Stories

Published on October 20th, 2014 | by Arielle Greenberg




“The Tigers in the Room,” a story of three births, by poet Arielle Greenberg, comes from Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, edited by novelists Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon. The collection includes storytellers like Cheryl Strayed, Heidi Julavits, Lan Samantha Chang, Danzy Senna, Sarah Jefferis, Edan Lepucki, Joanna Rakoff, Heidi Pitlor, Julia Glass, Dani Shapiro, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, and many others.

This book surprised me. It upended me; it was not what I was expecting, not from its classy matte hardcover–nor, frankly, from having heard and read so many birth stories already before. I thought I could read it quickly. Do my job and select a sample, write these paragraphs. But, instead, I carried it for months, and read it slowly, crying and remembering and wishing.

Of course, my own birth story was also not what I expected. That is perhaps the unifying theme of these diverse stories–the gap between what we hope and what happens. This is a book you should share. But it is not an inspirational book. It looks ready to wrap up and gift, but do so knowing you are offering something real, rather than assurances.

Though, I think Arielle Greenberg’s piece is inspirational–joyous–despite being one of the saddest in the collection. Once you read it, I hope you’ll also pick up her poemic Home/Birth–and definitely Labor Day.

YoursMeg Lemke


photo (c) Tyler Flynn Dorholt

The Tigers in the Room

During my first pregnancy, my husband and I took a Birthing from Within class with a teacher who was still in training. One exercise she gave us was called “The Tiger in the Room”: think of your worst fear about childbirth, the mental tiger in your birthing room, and paint a picture of it, as a way of facing it head-on.

The fear that sprang to mind instantly for me was one I’d been obsessing about during my last trimester. It is, possibly, the greatest fear of all: a dead baby. I had no reason to think I was having a stillborn baby—my pregnancy had been totally normal and healthy and smooth, and I was largely confident about the whole process—but it’s where I put all my free-floating, first-time-mom anxiety. “Our baby could die for no reason,” I’d tell my husband urgently at night as we lay in bed, about to fall asleep. “It happens. It could just die.”

So when we went around the room of the Birthing from Within class declaring our tigers, I voiced this fear out loud to the group. “Stillbirth,” I said…and was met with shocked silence.   When she regained her voice, the teacher told me I couldn’t name stillbirth as my tiger, maybe because she didn’t know how to deal with it, hadn’t been trained in how to talk about death as part of a childbirth class. Sure, it was an exercise about fear, but she didn’t want to go there, with a room full of pregnant women and their partners.

“Okay, fine,” I said, feeling put in my place, “I’ll pick my second Biggest Fear: a long labor.” A three-day labor, I announced: that’s scary. How could I possibly handle a labor that long? During the visual art part of the exercise, I painted my idea of that unimaginable challenge with watercolors—a shimmering blue arc representing an impossibly long stretch of time that would take everything I had.

If you are someone who, like me, occasionally and grudgingly believes in woo woo stuff, then maybe you will agree that there is something about a pregnant woman’s ability to tap into her psychic nature. What I painted and what I spoke turned out to be uncannily accurate clues toward my first two birth stories.

I love and take pride in my first two birth stories, each in their own way. Neither was what you might call an ideal or smooth birth. They are not particularly encouraging or inspiring stories, but they are stories of endurance, of exorcising fears: first a difficult birth, then a tragic birth. They were dramatic, powerful: both, in fact, involve felonies.

But each, of course, resulted in a child I hold dear, and were life-changing for me.


Here’s the gist of my first birth, with its satisfying kind of shock value: you know that nightmare of a three-day labor I painted? Well, I had a five-day labor. Yup, a five-day labor: my water broke on a Friday evening, and the baby came on Wednesday morning. At home, no drugs, no medical intervention, just me and my fantastic reservoir of stamina and endurance. Motivated by an excellent support team, fear of the hospital, and sheer determination, I kicked ass at labor, as one of my midwife’s apprentices later told me. I feel like I could write a boastful hip hop song about my first labor, if I wrote hip hop songs.

In many ways my first birth also fits the bill for the kind of hippie-dippy, gauzy experience one often imagines when one hears the word “homebirth.” There were glowing candles. There was hushed, reverential darkness. There was reiki and massage and essential oils and someone running around opening all the drawers in the house to “cleanse the space.” There was take-out Thai food and tribal dancing. There was a house full of beautiful, wise midwives and doulas with nose-rings and tattoos. There was a birthing tub and a sunrise.

But my first birth story also includes its share of difficulty: for starters, there were those five grueling days of not knowing what was going on, of labor failing to build into any kind of regular pattern or rhythm. There was the fact that the baby’s position made it so that I couldn’t pee, and since I was being constantly hydrated to keep my strength up, I had to be catheterized five times, each more excruciating than the pain of labor itself. There were the moments when I felt all my resources and energy leave my body, when I wept with frustration and fatigue. There was the “directed pushing” I did at the end: hours of work trying to force the baby out through sheer will and physicality, even though I wasn’t feeling the urge to push and my contractions were still, after five days, not strong or close enough together to bring the baby out on their own.

And, oh, yes—that felony. Did I mention that our beloved and highly skilled midwife, emcee for the whole wild event, was illegally practicing, due to punishing laws against direct-entry midwives in the state of Illinois? So besides the endurance and weeping and beauty, my first birth is also the story of criminal activity. But the baby born of all that—my oldest, my daughter—came into the world a stunningly beautiful, serene, alert, healthy baby girl.

carousel and Mama

But maybe you can also guess what I’m about to tell you about my second birth. Because it turns out I was unerringly on target with my tigers.

My second baby died at thirty-one weeks in utero.

If you are like most people, the first question you have is Why? And the answer is, I don’t know. No one knows. As I’d told my husband lying in bed those nights late in my first pregnancy, sometimes it just happens. Babies die at all stages of pregnancy and birth.

As with my first, my second pregnancy had been normal. This time, we’d even had a twenty-two week ultrasound, which showed a robust baby boy kicking away in the womb. He was a strong kicker, an early kicker…and then he stopped kicking. I didn’t even notice it right away—there was no event, no trauma, no sudden shriek in my throat or stab in my heart. I just sort of noticed that I wasn’t feeling movement, and then I realized that I wasn’t feeling any movement, and then I didn’t really feel pregnant any more at all—my gait felt lightened, my hunger subsided—and I knew my baby boy was dead.

To avoid another felony by being attended by a midwife who was illegal in our state, and because all the midwives we liked had left the state to avoid persecution by then anyway, we’d already made a plan to travel to Maine to have this baby there, attended by midwives we’d interviewed while on our summer vacation. We had a cute little rental house by the harbor, and plans to hunker down for the winter and wait for our baby to come, so we could wrap him in blankets and cuddle him night and day. We had just started to pack for the trip when the baby died.

We could have stayed in Illinois. I could have done what the vast majority of people do when they find out their baby will be stillborn: I could have checked into a hospital, been induced, and had our baby as quickly as possible.

But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted a homebirth again. After my first birth, which would have surely ended in an unnecessary cesarean had we been in the hospital (hospital policies usually don’t allow a mother to labor for days on end after her water breaks), I was a card-carrying homebirther. And I knew that at the end of this birth, I was not going to have a baby to cuddle and nurse and tuck into bed next to me. I was going to have a funeral home, and a burial. The only potentially good part of this birth—the only part that felt like it could be possibly beautiful to me—was the birth itself. To face the grief, I wanted a birth that felt sane, and intimate, and loving, and private. I wanted another homebirth.

So we finished the packing job we’d started with a very different kind of trip in mind. We took a last-minute, cross-country flight between two snowstorms, thereby commiting another felony: I found out later that by making this trip, I’d inadvertently done something illegal by transporting a dead body across state lines without a permit.

But we made it to Maine, to the little house by the harbor. We settled in with our two-year-old daughter to wait for our baby to be born. And waited. And waited.

It took two and a half weeks from the time we found out our son had died until the day he was born. Eighteen of the hardest, most profound, most incredible days I have ever spent. Eighteen days which ended with a smooth, quick labor marked by deep, deep mourning and also incandescent love and support from everyone around me, fearless and generous midwives and doulas and my loving husband. Eighteen days after which our sweet and brilliant daughter, two and a half, got to hold and coo at her brother after he was born as if he was the live sibling she’d hoped for, and then told her own version of the story to anyone who would listen: “My baby died. He stopped swimming. We are sad. But we’ll have another one.”

_with mama and willa

She was right. A year later, much to my own surprise, I was back in Maine again, entering my third trimester for the third time around. It was another healthy pregnancy, but this time, I felt haunted. Had I gotten all that hard stuff “out of the way”? My two ferocious tigers had been faced, wrestled; I’d encountered and made peace with my very worst birth fears. Would I have a clear path toward a third birth that could be easy? What I wanted most was a birth that was downright boring: uneventful, straightforward labor with a plain old healthy baby at the end.

Thank the universe, I got it.

I was thirty-seven and a half weeks pregnant. My husband, mother-in-law and now four-year-old daughter and I went out for a delicious dinner at a restaurant in the small downtown a few blocks from where we were renting a home. It was a beautiful April night, and we started our leisurely walk home, the sun setting on the ocean just blocks away. As we passed the public library, I felt something sudden and wet between my legs. “Oh,” I said, surprised, delighted. “I think my water broke.” We walked the rest of the way home, my water breaking in little gushes.

We called the midwives. They were out eating fish fry. “We’ll go home and go to bed,” they said. We put our daughter to sleep and sent my mother-in-law back to her hotel. We ordered an infant car seat online (we weren’t expecting the baby for two more weeks, and we hadn’t gotten around to that yet). We went to bed. My husband fell asleep and I lay awake, waiting to feel labor kick in. I felt utterly, utterly calm and utterly, utterly thrilled all at once.

(Is there anything as delicious as spending those first hours in early labor, knowing a baby and a beautiful birth is on its way, but not knowing a thing about it all yet? I wish I could feel that exact brand of anticipation every year.)

By midnight, I started having contractions. Easy contractions. I lay in bed and sort of half-noticed them, trying to figure out whether it was worth waking my husband. After a half hour or so, when it was clear that the contractions were regular and definite, I woke him, and we sat up in bed reading magazines in dim light. Every so often I’d say, calmly, “Here’s another contraction,” and stare placidly into space while the contraction happened, and my husband would write the time down in the margin of the article he was reading. “Okay, it’s over now,” I’d say, and we’d both go back to reading.

Eventually we called the midwives. Eventually they came. (By now it was about 3:30 AM.) My husband was having trouble getting the birth tub set up, so one of the midwives helped him while another boiled water. When the contractions came, stronger now, I picked a midwife, doula, or husband to lean on, and made the deep moaning sounds now familiar to me from my previous two births. Then the contraction would subside and we’d all go back to chatting about the weather or someone we all knew in common. I remember one of the midwives telling a story about how she pissed off a client by clipping her nails during a labor.

We kept joking around, quietly. The baby kept kicking. The contractions kept coming. At about 5 AM, the tub was finally ready and full and warm, and I got in and relaxed into the water. My whole body eased and then geared up again, for harder work: the contractions coming closer together and more and more difficult. Gosh, I remember thinking, these are hard. I don’t know if I can do this for two or three more days like I did with the first.

But there was no need for that. One of the midwives was already getting the little newborn warming cap ready. Rosy daylight was coming in across the harbor through the windows by my birthing tub when, with one or two high-pitched screams and calls of I love you, I pushed my son into the world. He came in with the dawn. He needed a little suctioning and a back rub to get him going—a couple weeks early, he was purple-tinged and slow to breathe at first—but he was also sturdy and a good size for a 37 ½ week baby, almost seven pounds, and he seemed fully of this world. He met his sister, who woke up just in time to welcome him and cut his cord.

Spring birds chirped outside. My baby was alive and well. Our whole family cuddled in bed and I took pictures of our daughter with her new brother. The midwives cleaned everything up and went home. I got up and made pancakes for my family.

That’s the story. It has no tigers.

Writing this now, on my third child’s second birthday, I want to weep with gratitude for the plainness, the simplicity of it.

Mama and Jem B&W

My first two birth stories made me. They are the experiences that have most deeply shaped every choice I’ve made, every path I’ve taken since. My third birth story is the least complicated, the least interesting, and the least told.

Last month, I gave an interview to Nora, a woman who is doing an oral history project of birth narratives. “Which birth story do you want?” I asked. “I have two exciting stories and one boring one.”

“I want them all,” she said.

So I told them all.   I told the politically intriguing, complicated details of our underground, epic first birth, and Nora was on the edge of her seat. The telling took about two hours. I told the sorrowful story of our stillbirth, and Nora and I both wept. This story took two more hours to tell. And then I told the quick, painless story of our third baby’s birth. It didn’t take very long at all.

A day or two later, I got an email from Nora. “My digital recorder conked out during the last twenty minutes of our interview,” she apologized. “I lost the story of your last son’s birth. We should get together and redo it.” But it hasn’t happened.

Part of me really wants to make sure this story, the story of my precious son, my third baby, is recorded, in all its boring glory. Part of me thinks that perhaps, because it’s the simplest story, the least dramatic story, the story with no surprises and no tragedies and no felonies and no tigers, it’s also a story I don’t need to tell. And the not needing fills its own kind of need.

Mama and kids, causeway

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About the Author

Arielle Greenberg is the coauthor, with Rachel Zucker, of the nonfiction book Home/Birth: A Poemic, and the author of the poetry collections My Kafka Century and Given and the chapbooks Shake Her and Farther Down: Songs from the Allergy Trials. She is the coeditor of three anthologies: with Rachel Zucker, Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days andWomen Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections; and with Lara Glenum, Gurlesque: the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics. Twice featured in Best American Poetry, she lives with her family in a small town in rural Maine.

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