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The stories that make us real

By Melanie Springer Mock

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I became a mother in the back of a taxi cab.

No sit-com cliché, this: no crusty driver inducing me to push, no traffic jams impeding the cab's progress, no baby brought into the world amidst back seat detritus. Were I to have such a story, I imagine its telling would become legion among my mother-friends, who, when we gather, enjoy competing with each other for the best pregnancy and labor narrative. These discussions about birth generally follow a well-trod trajectory: pregnant woman describes her recent symptoms, of fatigue and bloating and kicking. Someone else remembers her own pregnancy, with more debilitating fatigue, gassier bloating, a sure-footed fetus kicking her uterus walls. And so it goes, a tournament of maternal fitness in which competitors fight to show who the strongest mom is. Sides are quickly taken in the battle, between the naturalists and those who opt for medicinal pain control. The one-upping stories turns to debate, about what it means to be a real mom, about whether being given anesthesia means giving in.

Meanwhile, in the midst of my friends' birth narrative battles, I remain silent: despite the fact that I am a mother of two beautiful boys, despite my own compelling stories of becoming a mother. My story is of a different sort, as is my entry into motherhood, and for some reason, my narrative has little cachet amongst most women. Both my sons are adopted. So, yes, I became a mother in a taxi cab; after eleven months of an adoption process, after signing all the paperwork, after spending several hours at my first son's orphanage, the orphanage director handed my child to me through the taxi cab window, and I was transformed to mother. But sometimes, I think, my own transformation to motherhood matters little to others, or at least to those who believe I have no "real" birth narratives to share.

Before I entered the sisterhood of motherhood, I did not know how significant these birthing narratives were, did not know that when in groups, women enjoy not only sharing their stories of birth, but also use those stories to prove themselves worthy: as if refusing an epidural or choosing to induce somehow indicates a woman's value to her own children or to society. Now that I have become a mother, birth stories seem everywhere—my friends are not the only ones competing to spin the best pregnancy yarn. Bookstore shelves bend under the weight of pregnancy stories: essay collections about women's birthing experiences, manifestos about the spiritual beauty of natural birth, memoirs describing one or another woman's powerful labor and delivery. Television series, like The Learning Channel's Birth Stories, use each episode to trace the development and then birth of one child, showing the mother in all her queasy, fatigued, exuberant, bloody and sweaty glory. Blogs and chat rooms allow women cross-globally to boast of their tremendous -- and unmatchable -- experiences becoming mothers, providing forums as well for mothers to assert the supremacy of one delivery method over all others.

Birthing narratives are powerful, to be sure. Despite their seeming differences, differences exploited by the women telling their tales, the similarities within birth narratives draw women together across cultures, across time; in the least, the stories offer the same denouement, a child entering the world. Such stories celebrate the inexplicable miracle of being, the still-unfathomable process that gives us presence, that gives us life. I understand this significance of telling, of describing for others the most profound moment in many women's lives. So profound, in fact, that birthing stories are an integral part of mythology, of literature, of religious texts. The Bible has at its center a delivery story that is remembered and celebrated each year, and we can easily imagine Mary's birthing tale following the advent of Christ: "And you thought your experience was bad. I had to give birth to Jesus in a manure-filled manger. If that wasn't bad enough, all these people came around to gawk."  

The ubiquity of birthing stories is not troubling, in and of itself. I would be a cruel woman indeed were I to begrudge others the opportunity to publicly narrate the most extraordinary moments in their lives. Still, I'm annoyed by the competitive approach to storytelling, the sense that each woman's story needs to be more profound -- the pregnancy more difficult, the labor more, well, laborious -- than all others. And, more, I find that the rite of telling such narratives sometimes serve to marginalize those mothers, like me, who lack good birthing tales. I don't have the "right" narrative to make emblematic that first maternal sacrifice leading to a million more. Although I have two sons, I don't have a labor story to share, don't have the ritualized wounds of pregnancy and birth that show my initiation into motherhood. For there is a message that these labor narratives implicitly acknowledge: a nine month pregnancy, followed by a vaginal birth (or, a Caesarian section, but only if necessary) is the truest, the most real, form of becoming a mother.

Of course, most people would probably deny this belief. Much of contemporary society has endeavored to embrace adoption as another viable way to build a family, giving lip service (at least) to the beauty of adoption. But ask any adoptive parent about the comments she has received, and it becomes clear in the rhetorical choices alone that adoption is not often considered as legitimate as biological parenting. For example, a friend once said, "Melanie, you're lucky you don't have children, so you don't have to deal with all the physical symptoms that follow giving birth."  I had children, my two sons, but that was apparently beside the point. Others have asked whether I "have my own children," as if my sons were not mine; or have wondered if my sons were "really brothers," as if blood alone defined their sibling relationship.

alternative journeys to parenthood

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