One year ago, we posted an article to this blog titled, “There is a secret in our culture, but it is not that women are strong. Why some birth quotes may be damaging to women.” We focused specifically on a birth quote by an author named Laura Stavoe, whose quote appears on birth, midwifery and doula websites all around the world. This blogpost of ours has become our most-commented article of all time, & shared across cyberspace. As a result, it was published in Pathways magazine’s Winter issue under the title, “Encouraging Words, Unintentional Wounds”. We received some heartfelt emails from Pathways readers, & much positive feedback for the article.
We also recently received another email in response to the article in Pathways…from Laura Stavoe herself. She was copying us on an email she had written to the editors of Pathways magazine in response to our article, and wrote to us that she thought that our organisation ‘sounds wonderful, and I truly appreciate all the work you do.’ She thought we’d be interested to know the original context of her quote, which of course we were! We had tried to find this information initially, but because we were searching under Ms Stavoe’s married name, we had no luck. In the end we had decided that, although we really wanted the context, as we guessed it would give more weight to what we were saying, we could still write the article anyway, as it was really about how it can be interpreted that we were concerned with.
As it turns out, the quote is excerpted from an article that is no longer available online, so we were happy and grateful to receive Ms Stavoe’s email. We have reproduced it in full, below :
My step-daughter gave me your magazine when she realized that you ran an article based on a quote that I wrote many years ago, “There’s a secret in our culture, and it’s not that birth is painful. It’s that women are strong.” I’ve been as amazed as anyone at the way those words have found a life of their own, and I admit at times I’ve been uncomfortable with the assumptions people make based on those words. The authors of your article were careful to mention that the words were taken out of context. I wanted to add that context here.
I wrote those words as part of a first-person essay for American Baby magazine in 1998. The essay was about the rather old-fashioned idea (popular in my mother’s generation) that we should not talk about birth stories because it would scare women about the pain. The thesis of the essays was that women have much to be gained by sharing our birth stories. The “secret” was not meant to suggest that anything at all about natural childbirth, but rather, that in sharing our stories we would learn what so many women have been able to bear over the centuries in its myriad of forms.
Your article gave me the opportunity to see how some interpreted that quote, and I appreciate that since to me it was always connected to the “storytelling” idea. I stand by the idea that women are stronger than we have been led to know over the years, but I certainly hope that people don’t assign such a narrow application of what is meant by “strength.” My own situation was a complicated one. I was in preterm labor, on bedrest and on medication for the last 77 days of my twin pregnancy. My sons were born in an operating theater. I had them vaginally and without an epidural, but only because they came so fast and Dylan happened to turn head down at the last second.
I would’ve loved to have had a more natural pregnancy and birth, but it was not our path.
Still, it is my best story. It is my best story because those boys are now fifteen years old. Gabe ran a sub 2 minute 800 as a freshman and placed in state. Dylan is going to play violin with his high school orchestra at Carnegie Hall in April. And while part of me mentioning these things is just a typical mother’s pride, there is also always the subtext: they almost weren’t here. The combination of western medicine and my body and grace meant that these two beings had a chance. (To read Ms Stavoe’s intense journey to birth with her twins, see Diary of a Difficult Pregnancy)
Also it is my best story because I have never been the same since their birth, not because my birth was so perfect, but because motherhood in its entirety is a transformative experience. At least that is how it has been for me.
I don’t know that this generation of women need the quote in the context I wrote it. I think women are far more open about their stories than previous generations. How wonderful is that! I appreciate the opportunity to see these words in a different light, and I hope that women keep talking about things so that we all gain strength from each other.
We would like to thank Ms Stavoe for contacting us, and clarifying the original context of her oft-used quote for a new generation of birthing women. Ms Stavoe is absolutely right to stand by the idea that women are stronger than we have been led to believe, and that’s one of the reasons we run Birthtalk.org. We agree that things are changing, and women do share more of their stories, perhaps partly due to the legacy of Ms Stavoe and her peers. Our ongoing focus at Birthtalk.org is to offer women opportunities to discover their strength by sharing positive, empowering stories, and busting the birth myths that have kept many of us trapped in fear.