Pregnancy and childbirth provide a glimpse of ourselves at our most elemental. There is no room for inauthenticity or the masks of politeness that we wear daily. There is only the experience—a ride that grips, lifts us into a mighty paw, and takes us to a destination guaranteed to be unknown. Control is never more glaringly absent than in these life-rending moments when things are given and others are taken away. Labor Day, a collection of birth narratives from 30 women writers, captures the raw physicality, emotion, and unpredictability of delivering a child and gives us a sense of one of the most savage and joyful moments in women’s lives. Reading the anthology feels much like the process it strives to encapsulate, and it ultimately provides us with a taste of pain and miracles.
Labor Day: Birth Stories for the Twenty-First Century is not a collection I would recommend to a friend expecting her first child. The essays are too candid and visceral, and they refuse to cede truth to protect the interests of the emotionally fragile. This may be because, when we think of birth, we inevitably think of death, and many of the narratives reflect this, asking us to acknowledge that sorrow and joy are often as interdependent as mother and unborn child. While the honesty of the collection makes it potentially inappropriate for those newly expecting, I would recommend the book to any other reader looking to laugh and cry and reflect upon life’s changeable face. As one of the collection’s editors, Eleanor Henderson, says in “Two Lines,” the anthology’s concluding essay:
Who knows at any time what mysteries are inside us, what cells and spirits conspire to shut down life, or bring it forth? Sometimes modern medicine, with its x-ray vision, helps to reveal our bodies’ secrets. Sometimes it reveals them too late. Sometimes it fails us. Sometimes we get lucky and we triumph over our bodies, and what we believed them capable of. […] I’ve never felt luckier than in the hour after first giving birth.
These lines demonstrate that, while sorrow and joy are bound up in one another, it is the moments like this one Henderson describes—the hour after giving birth—that allow us to separate the two and celebrate the differences.
In reading Labor Day, we bear witness to an array of circumstances and types of delivery. We hear from women who have undergone C-section, episiotomy, epidural, and Pitocin. Likewise, we hear from strong advocates for drug-free deliveries and those who labored at home, in hospitals, in tubs, and on birthing balls with little medical intervention. We hear from women who have experienced infertility, miscarriage, and loss in many forms. We hear from Sarah Jefferis, who, in raising a family with her same-sex partner, empowers women by proclaiming “the myth of the indispensable man cracked. Love between two women has the power to unravel all kinds of lies.” Regardless of sexual orientation, this statement underscores the way that motherhood sets us apart from men and unites us as women.
The range of the stories in the collection emphasizes both the commonalities and variations in the experiences of giving birth and reminds us that, no matter our circumstances, bringing new life into the world is the great female equalizer. Further, the collection loudly proclaims that what each of us can expect in becoming a mother is the unexpected.
Reading Labor Day involves embracing the unexpected and recognizing the illusory nature of the control we all hold with ferocious desperation. The essays reveal the authors’ birth plans and life plans as evidence of this quest and suggest that such planning is nothing more than an exercise in futility.
In her essay “What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting,” Marie Myung-Ok Lee provides a comical look at the ambitions of her nine-year-old self, which are presented as a list that includes “BECOME A WRITER” and “NEVER HAVE CHILDREN.” Obviously, these life goals morphed when that writer grew up and conceived a child, and Lee acknowledges this transformation, stating, “Labor is a metaphor for life. You can have your beliefs, your expectations, your plans, but when it comes, it just comes and does what it wants.” Lee’s revelation is confirmed throughout the anthology as each writer describes how childbirth, and much of what follows is an exercise in surrender—of control, of planning, of sanity, and of our previously stale definitions of joy.
Most of the essays in the anthology are rife with humor, joyful anticipation, quiet uncertainty, and pain that is bodily, fleeting, and easily subsumed in the miracle of new life. Some of the essays, however, go deeper and take us to places beyond the birthing room. In “This Life,” Ann Hood recounts the birth of her two children and the pain of losing one of those children when she is older. The essay is haunting in the most literal sense, and I found my thoughts diverted by it for days. Hood concludes the essay:
I know now that for all of our careful planning, no matter how our birth experience turns out, we cannot prepare ourselves for anything or protect ourselves from disappointment and heartache. We cannot anticipate the sheer joy our children will bring, or the way our hearts can open and grow because of them. All we can do is choose the people whom we want beside us through whatever life holds, and take their hands and hold on tight.
One of the more emotionally provocative essays in the collection, Hood’s story emphasizes the overriding theme in Labor Day, which appears in both subtle and overt ways in each contribution. In giving birth, we cede our already fragile and fictional versions of control, accept pain in all its forms, and, if we are brave and patient and lucky, make miracles.