Toby Klein Greenwald
I picked up the book Second Labor, edited by Chaya Kasse Valier, with a combination of anticipation and trepidation. Every mother has her own postpartum stories–good, bad, and usually a combination of both. Women love to talk about their birth stories. Few women talk (or write) freely about what follows, which can range from elation to exhaustion to postpartum depression. There is pain but there is also humor.
The stories that Kasse Valier has collected from 24 different women from around the world are alternately moving, frightening, heart-wrenching, inspirational, and light-filled. No woman who has given birth will read them without remembering something from her own experiences. In addition to recalling their post-birth experiences, the women talk about their relationships with the rest of their family–husband, children, mother, or mother-in-law–all of whom are part of the tribe into which the child is born, and all of whom can influence the mother’s postpartum levels of struggle or joy.
She included births into challenging situations–a 16-year-old unwed mother, a couple who adopt, and a mother who has a “silent birth” (her child dies in utero and the mother has to endure a regular birth, holding the child after she is born, then giving her up forever). One woman writes about having twins, others about their home births, or natural births in hospital settings.
All the authors are identified only by first names and the first initial of their last names. There is Carmiya, with an MA in social work, who experienced what she calls “postpartum annoyance” with her first child–not enjoying the diapering, lack of sleep (a recurring theme throughout the book), nursing–only at five months did she really begin to enjoy her.
There is Hilary, a corporate marketing expert, who had her first child at 31 through emergency C-section. She experienced intense loneliness (her husband had a new job and could not always be there for her), crying, and cluelessness about how things were done in the hospital (“I kept waiting for someone to bring me a meal…I discovered after day 3 that postpartum mothers are expected to travel down the hall to the cafeteria…”). Her nursing problems were solved when they finally diagnosed and “clipped” her tongue-tied baby’s connective tissue. She went home, where she finally got control of her life, but determined to never give birth again. Yet she did–twice more.
Hannah had a wonderful natural childbirth, in a room that her husband and doula filled with humor and laughter, but then suffered extreme blood loss and weakness; it took her six weeks to feel a little better. Kathy, now a grandmother of 63, describes how a new-mother support group helped her get through the postpartum challenges, and relates that she and three other mothers from the group continued their friendship and meetings for more than 30 years. Renanit describes how she hoped for a VBAC birth (regular birth after a previous C-section) and how disappointed she was when that didn’t happen, yet recognized the need to accept and let the experience lead her forward. “I’ve become a trained postpartum doula and lactation counselor with a special interest in working with women who’ve had cesarean births or other traumatic birth experiences. Helping other new parents through their experiences has helped me process some of my own.”
It appears that all the mothers who contributed to the book hoped that their experience would help other mothers who went through similar situations not feel so alone. They write sometimes with tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation, other times with hope.
Abby had her third child at 41, an eight-year difference from her next oldest. When she decided she wanted to get pregnant again, it took her a year and a half until it actually happened. She labored for 13 hours, then had two hours of pushing. She writes, “I was in utter disbelief–that I made it through, that she was alive, that she was a girl after two boys, that we had a baby. It was all so overwhelming and joyful…I was lucky to have a strong, loving, and supportive family and community. Honestly I can’t imagine having a baby without that.” Her husband took off work for a few weeks and her sister and mom came to help out.
If there is a strong message to receive from this book, it’s that family, friends, and community are a key factor in helping any mother, certainly if there are any extraordinary difficulties in the birth.
Chaya Kasse Valier, the editor, is a writer and a doula. She grew up in Washington, DC from age nine. Prior to that her family had lived in other U.S. cities, and in Barbados and Spain. She has her own story as well in this book. She has also adapted ten of the book’s stories for the stage, in SECOND LABOR Live! Post-Birth Monologues, which premiered on October 24, 2017, in Jerusalem, with plans for future performances in New York, San Francisco, Washington, DC, and London. She writes in her preface, “I sensed that a compilation of personal stories would help mothers, birth professionals, mental-health professionals, and fathers to have a book in hand to read about women’s real postpartum experiences. The mothers can feel validated, knowing they’re not alone…A midwife I know often quips, ‘We are pregnant for nine months and postpartum for the rest of our lives.’”
If there is one criticism of the book, I’m sorry she doesn’t note where the authors live. I imagine she wanted it to be accepted as universal, but I was curious to know if the various stories took place in Manhattan, Los Angeles, South Africa, England, or Jerusalem.
Perhaps that was part of her message–that women everywhere can experience similar postpartum struggles, self-doubt, pain, and joy.
Toby Klein Greenwald is the award-winning theater director of Raise Your Spirits Theatre; a board member of ATARA–Association of Torah and the Arts; and editor-in-chief of WholeFamily.com.