Tell Me A Story

07.15.10: Why women must tell the tale of their birth and why we must listen.


When you’re a labor nurse, part of your job description both on and off duty is listening to “story time;” women’s recaps of how labor progressed and how their birth happened. Women must tell. It’s uncontrollable. They need to tell a woman who knows, really knows about their birth. Women even start the conversation with, “you probably don’t want to hear this since you spend all day with birthing women but...” and then they tell their story anyway: How labor started, where they were, how each contraction felt, who they were with, when they went to the hospital, what centimeter they were at what hour, what the doctor said, the midwife, the nurses, their mother-in-law, etc. “At one o’clock I was 4.5 centimeters and at 12:15, I was 5. Then at 2:30 I was still only 5 centimeters so they had to break my water. Then at 3:00 I was still only 5 so they had to start Pitocin and then the Pitocin made my contractions so painful, I had to get an epidural.” And so on and so on. I always listen.

It’s true, I don’t always want to hear the story because frankly, once you’ve heard it a few million times, seen it several thousand times and experienced it personally four times, the stories are pretty much the same. Still, I listen because I understand the need to process one of the most challenging, traumatizing, painful and fulfilling experiences of your life. It doesn’t matter that the story has already been told. It’s the telling that’s important. It’s the listening. This primal experience must be put into words, organized thoughts and vocalized. It must be told in order to process the mental part of birth. It’s part of recovery. As a woman who has chosen birth as a career, listening is part of the job but women everywhere share this responsibility to listen to each other. Just listen.

Last week, I wrote about cesarean scars and the responses I received were consistent. Women wrote and told the tale of their cesarean, the centimeter-by-centimeter, hour-by-hour story of why they were finally wheeled into the operating room. They wanted to make sense of it, justify it, process it and heal from it. They wanted it to be OK. Women with vaginal births tell the same stories, the same centimeter-by-centimeter tale because they too need to justify, process and heal. They want to understand why labor was so difficult and painful, why their bodies are different now. Women think there has to be a reason why labor and birth were so intense and perhaps, with the telling and re-telling, it’ll make sense. It’s an age-old story that hasn’t changed much since the first time it was told.

It’s hard to wrap your mind around what birth is really like. For women on the other side of it, their birth was so much harder than they thought it would be, or, sometimes, so much easier. They thought they were prepared, thought they knew what it was going to be and then were surprised it was totally different. Women say, “no one told me it would be like that,” as if that would have made the difference. If someone had found a way to verbalize exactly what it was going to be, then maybe they could have prepared differently and been ready. And yet, they were told, they’ve heard the stories too. They just didn’t get it until they’d done it themselves. And having been told with words wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Birth is not a verbal, cerebral experience. You can’t read your way through it. It has to be done.

Another response I got to the cesarean scar piece was that I got the statistics wrong. I wrote that since a third of all babies are now born by c-section, a third of all moms have scars. A reader shot off an angry response that since many of those c-sections are repeat surgeries, I’d gotten my numbers wrong and I should take a basic statistic class before I ever write another article. My reaction: you’re probably right, sorry, those numbers might not add up. Should I quit writing (and making a living) and go back to school? I’m not sure that would satisfy the angry reader and I’m sure it wouldn’t make any difference to the point of that story; that point being, a whole lot of women are sporting scars – million and millions of them. Not all of them are physical either.

That’s why women tell their stories. To heal from the emotional scars of birth so they can reconcile what they expected with the experience they had. How can we help them? Whether you’re a nurse, health provider or friend, you can listen. Just listen. The stories will be wonderful and terrible, exciting and boring, painful and pleasurable, frightening and exhilarating – just like birth. And still, the real story of birth will never be put fully into words. It’s not a word-thing.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? E-mail it to and it may be answered in a future blog post.

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