Me holding Sasha for a few seconds before she was rushed to the NICU due to meconium aspiration (inhaling her first poop)


Rewriting Your Birth Story

This is Part 1 of a three-part series on Natural Birth. Click here for Part 2 and Part 3.

Like a lot of first-time moms, I hoped for a natural childbirth. And I did everything I could think of to give myself the best chances of having one: I got a midwife, read Ina May Gaskin, took prenatal yoga. In the end, things went pretty awry. So awry that I came out of childbirth with PTSD, horrific flashbacks, and pain that persisted for the next three years. And I wound up wondering obsessively: Could I have done anything differently to make things less traumatic?

Me meeting Sasha for the first time after 25 hours of labor, including an IV drip, Pitocin, an epidural & an episiotomy

Me meeting Sasha for the first time, after 25 hours of labor, including an IV drip, Pitocin, an epidural, an oxygen mask, a catheter & an episiotomy

I had questions for my midwife. Lots of questions. And I wanted to ask them face to face. So we drove down to see her at Pennsylvania Hospital, where we were met with an out-of-the-blue snowstorm. Which was so weird, because is was snowing like that the last time we drove to that hospital—the day Sasha was born.

Philly when Sasha was born

Philly when Sasha was born

Philly 4 years later

Philly 4 years later

In this episode, I get my questions answered—both by my midwife and by maternal care researcher Saraswathi Vedam, who tells me something that will forever change the way I tell myself my birth story.

Resources for Choices in Childbirth

If you’re pregnant and hoping for a birth with as few medical interventions as possible, I encourage you to check out the resources below. If you’re like me and you wanted a normal birth and didn’t get one, these resources may answer some of your lingering questions.

Survey. Listening to Mothers is a periodically conducted survey, which collects data on women’s experiences and attitudes toward pregnancy, childbirth, and maternal care. If you’re interested in learning more about the rate of different types of interventions, how they’ve changed over time, and how women feel about those interventions, these surveys are a fascinating read. You can see a summary of the most recent survey’s major findings here.

Studies on intervention. In this story, I mention a study by the American Congress of Obstetricians & Gynocologists stating that cesarean is overused on first-time, low-risk moms. You can read that report in Safe Prevention of the Primary Cesarean Delivery. This review from Cochrane Libraries and this study from the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology examine the adverse effects of epidural on mom and baby. If you’re looking for research on Pitocin, this study from BMJ finds a significantly higher risk of severe postpartum hemorrhage with the use of Pitocin in labor, and this one from Obstetrics & Gynecology finds that elective induction significantly increases the risk of C-section in low-risk women.

Studies on place of birth. If you’ve ever tried to get a straight answer on where it’s safer to have a baby, hospital or home, you will find that the existing studies are confusing and conflicting. Saraswathi Vedam, who I interview in the piece, has evaluated the research for quality and veracity, and she has compiled a list of the best available data in her paper Home Birth: An annotated guide to the literature. Several of the studies she cites—this one from Cochrane Database of Systematic Review, this one from BMJ, this one fromBJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, this one from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and this one from the journal Birth—suggest that planned home birth with a qualified attendant and planned hospital birth are equally safe, when it comes to low-risk pregnancies in high resource countries. The caveat is, hospital births come with more frequent medical interventions.

Book. And if you’re looking for a book with a straightforward explanation of normal, physiologic birth, check out Immaculate Deception II by Suzanne Arms. It’s a classic that has held up.

Have you managed to revise YOUR birth story? Tell us how in the comments.

84 thoughts on “PODCAST #27: Rewriting Your Birth Story

  1. Hillary, thank you for your courageous podcast. It inspired me to write a blog post that begins to rewrite my own traumatic birth by thinking about what my critical decision should have been, if there was any point at which I might have avoided the horrible experience I had. I concluded that the rat race and hurried culture of NYC contributed to what happened, and it has inspired me to move away.

    I’m staying anonymous in my blog and have not yet written out my full birth story but hope to have the courage to attach my name soon. The blog:

  2. I’m sorry that you had a traumatic birth experience. After my first son was born, I felt the same emotions as you related here. He was a c-section, and my recovery was terrible. I was under general anesthetic for his delivery and never saw him born. It took a long time to bond with him to the point that I felt emotionally attached. I made the best choices I could at the time too, but found myself questioning everything afterward. I really lament missing my son’s birth, it tears me up. I delivered my second son via natural home birth 3 weeks ago. This was meant to be the healing experience that would repair the emotional wounds of my c-section. I was elated immediately after, had minimal tearing and felt great.

    Now that I have had time to process though, my second birth story cannot rewrite my first. I know I’m going to carry the pain of having been absent for my first son’s entrance to the world, and it eats me up. I was lucky for the home birth experience to be so gentle and my recovery much less painful than my c-section, but it hasn’t changed my memories of 2 years ago. Speaking with my doctors and midwives to learn that the c-section was truly necessary helped me accept that, but I’m afraid the emotional wounds that accompany birth stories remain– perhaps allowing us to have sympathy with other women and better perspective on life.

    1. Wow. I also had a C-section under general anesthetic a few years ago. It doesn’t seem like there are many of us.
      Thank you for offering your perspective that a second birth story cannot rewrite the first.

  3. Thank you for sharing this really personal and interesting story — I found the podcast through Reading My Tea Leaves. I just graduated college and wrote my thesis on documented reasons for c-section for low-risk mothers based on the ACOG story you mentioned. Yours was very different from the birth stories I’ve heard before in that you questioned your choice to birth with a midwife and wondered if a c-section would have been better. My advisor, Dr. Theresa Morris had a similarly traumatic birth and it sparked in her a huge shift in her studies from banks to childbirth. Her book, Cut It Out: The C-section epidemic in America came out this Fall — you should check it out! Thanks again!

  4. I just binge-listened to all of the episodes over the past week since I heard about it from It was great timing because I have a seven week newborn and a 19 month old (as of yesterday)! This episode totally caught my heart. I had a scheduled c-section for a breech baby with my first and ended up having an all-natural VBAC with my second. I am so aware now (especially as a best friend did not get the VBAC she wanted just a few weeks later) that birth is a mix of mother’s desires/effort, baby’s health/positioning/timing, and the practitioner’s best ideas and suggestions. Sometimes it all works and sometimes it doesn’t. I have a third degree tear from my VBAC and am still healing and will probably start physical therapy after my 8 week followup next week (after so many other OB checkups post-partum). And both my babies were taken away from me for 2–6 hours due to extra liquid in their lungs and I missed the “Golden Hour” with both which still makes me sad, despite the type of birth experience they had. I have been blessed to develop good nursing relationships (with lots of work with #1 and no effort for #2) but I still missed that sweet initial bonding time.

    I do want to say that despite the immediate issues described in the podcast with c-sections, no one mentioned how it affects later pregnancies and birthing options/decisions. Even finding a VBAC friendly doctor in Seattle took some work because so many wanted me to deliver by 40 or 41 weeks or have a repeat c-section. I am so glad I put in tons of effort to find a doc who would let me go to 42 weeks without surgery, since my baby didn’t decide to arrive until 41 + 1. And many women have secondary infertility related to c-sections. I believe they are a life saving surgery and I have peace that it was the right decision for us since no one in our area is trained in breech vaginal delivery anymore but a c-section rate of 30+% is far too high in America. The International Caesarean Awareness Network is a great group to look into and really helped me as I pursued options after the first surgery.

  5. I’ve been going back and listening to all your podcasts since I heard about your blog on the radiolab webpage. I think this one is really fantastic (although they’ve all been interesting and poignant) because your own self-examination and reflection is so encouraging and you advocate for women to find as much information as possible to empower their decisions. So often, like you said, it’s hard for women to feel like they have unbiased and credible information upon which to make their choices for this hugely important event in their lives.

    Also, I was phenomenally fortunate in my labor and birth with my son, but I still got caught up in replaying it for myself because it was such a fantastic moment. For the first six months or so of my son’s life, I was simultaneously loving the present and nostalgic for the past moments of his life. Like you and Saraswathi talked about the past can take a hold of us for any number of reasons, and it’s really awesome that you address this particularly in relation to the numerous emotions and interpretations that come up in early motherhood.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing your story. I agree with previous posters who mentioned that the more we psych ourselves up for natural birth, the more disappointed we can feel when it doesn’t go that way. My first was a planned c-section due to breech presentation. The birth itself was easy, the recovery was tough on me (no complications, but still tough). With my second, I wanted to try a VBAC, mainly because I wanted to experience contractions, water breaking, etc–all the things I didn’t feel with my planned c-section. I also wanted to avoid the recovery again, especially with a toddler. With my second, I went into labor on my own and my water broke at home after about 24 hours of labor. In the hospital, I had a wonderful experience and made it to an 8, but would not progress any more. I ended up with a second c-section and a posterior baby who was 9lbs, 3oz. I feel totally at peace with the experience, even though I wasn’t able to push. I was able to experience most of the things that I missed with my first, and my recovery has been so much easier this time around. I really think that your expectations going in affect your feelings afterwards. All I wanted was to try, and I felt I was given a very fair chance by my OB and nurses.

  7. So, I know I’m about 100 years late. I literally just discovered podcasts (thanks Serial!) and have been binge listening to yours and really loving it. But this particular one was really upsetting.

    I felt like at the end of it you were still blaming yourself and I truly do not think you should. I’m disappointed that you only spoke to midwives about your birth process. I found Saraswathi Vedam’s comments very biased and she omitted a lot of pertinent information. Many very high quality studies suggest planned homebirth has close to triple the risk of death than hospital birth (–1/fulltext) and to not even here this discussed on the podcast left a very bad taste in my mouth. (and I do know the point was not to debate home vs. hospital, but it was very distressing to state so unequivocally that there is no difference in outcomes when there is so much high quality evidence to the contrary. Vedam didn’t even seem to acknowledge that) I felt like Vedam used your story to advocate for homebirth, and I felt that it was inappropriate.

    I found great peace with my birth process (vaguely similar to yours) when I discussed it with my college roommate who is now an ob/gyn. I was expressing disappointment with my body, that I had needed pitocin to get my daughter out. My roommmates response was “OF COURSE you could have birthed her naturally and eventually. But you probably would have REALLY jacked up your pelvic floor and your baby might not have made it”. It was shocking and sobering, but true. Millions of women across the world do it every day, and many suffer the consequences of a lack of quality medical care.

    I’d love to see you revisit this story, but talking to doctors instead of a homebirth advocate

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