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Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today's Best Women Writers

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Thirty acclaimed writers share their personal birth stories―the extraordinary, the ordinary, the terrifying, the sublime, the profane

It's an elemental, almost animalistic urge―the expectant mother's hunger for birth narratives. Bookstores are filled with month-by-month pregnancy manuals, but the shelves are virtually empty of artful, entertaining, unvarnished accounts of labor and delivery―the stories that new mothers need most.

Here is a book that transcends the limits of how-to guides and honors the act of childbirth in the twenty-first century. Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon have gathered true birth stories by women who have made self-expression their business, including Cheryl Strayed, Julia Glass, Lauren Groff, Dani Shapiro, and many other luminaries.

In Labor Day , you'll read about women determined to give birth naturally and others begging for epidurals; women who pushed for hours and women whose labors were over practically before they'd started; women giving birth to twins and to ten-pound babies. These women give birth in the hospital, at home, in bathtubs, and, yes, even in the car. Some revel in labor, some fear labor, some feel defeated by labor, some are fulfilled by it―and all are amazed by it. You will laugh, weep, squirm, perhaps groan in recognition, and undoubtedly gasp with surprise. And then you'll call every mother or mother-to-be that you know and say "You MUST read Labor Day ."


Nuar Alsadir

Amy Brill

Susan Burton

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Lan Samantha Chang

Phoebe Damrosch

Claire Dederer

Jennifer Gilmore

Julia Glass

Arielle Greenberg

Lauren Groff

Eleanor Henderson

Cristina Henriquez

Amy Herzog

Ann Hood

Sarah Jefferis

Heidi Julavits

Mary Beth Keane

Marie Myung-Ok Lee

Edan Lepucki

Heidi Pitlor

Joanna Rakoff

Jane Roper

Danzy Senna

Dani Shapiro

Anna Solomon

Cheryl Strayed

Sarah A. Strickley

Rachel Jamison Webster

Gina Zucker

310 pages, Hardcover

First published April 15, 2014

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Eleanor Henderson

13 books267 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 45 reviews
Profile Image for Lightreads.
641 reviews524 followers
September 9, 2014
For context, I should note that my response to this collection probably has a lot to do with the fact that I read two-thirds of it while repeatedly slamming my head into the emotional brick wall that is a stubborn breech baby. So in one respect, this collection was helpful because pretty much any group of birth stories, in the aggregate, will be all about how this shit doesn't go to plan. It just doesn't. It is peripherally comforting to remember that, as one's plans crumble around one's ears.

On the other hand. This is a collection of stories of singleton births and twin births; births in the hospital, at home, the birth center, the car; births after miscarriage; births after infertility; births of well babies and sick babies and at least one dead baby; complicated births and easy births; medically mismanaged births; traumatic births; beautiful births. That sounds like it covers a lot of ground, and it does. But for all that, there's a . . . sameness here. And I don't mean that this collection has put its finger on the concerns and experiences of America's gestators. More like this collection has put its finger on the concerns and experiences of well-educated, well-informed, married, intentionally pregnant women writers of New York Times notable books who seek out midwifery care and who have caesarians at a noticeably lower rate than the norm, which is to be expected as an artifact of economic/access privilege. I mean, some of that describes me, too, and yet this collection didn't truly speak to me, didn't reach me while I'm wrestling with this thing that is happening to me, which it should have.

I don't know. Maybe it's not the fault of this book. Maybe it isn't just that the experiences of women who write New York Times notable books (most of which I suspect I would loathe – the books, not the women) are so similar in essence, even while being different in facts. Maybe it's birth stories themselves. Maybe they are like relating a dream: so personal and vital to the teller, but rather strange and impenetrable to the listener, because that's just how it is with an experience so profound.

Or maybe it's me. Maybe this memo from the universe I am taking right now -- let go, you are not in charge here, there is no amount of smart that will fix this, let go -- maybe I still need to hear it a few dozen more times before I can hear anything else.
Profile Image for Edan.
Author 11 books33k followers
December 14, 2013
I have an essay in this anthology, but I am rating this based on the work by my fellow contributors, women like Cheryl Strayed, Joanna Smith Rakoff, Dani Shapiro, and many, many, more. This anthology offers so many diverse birth stories, and each took my breath away: they're honest, they're harrowing, they're moving, they're funny, they're true. It's a great, necessary book!
Profile Image for Jessica.
500 reviews42 followers
July 8, 2014
WHITE LADY BABY FEELINGS TIME. Still worth reading if you're pregnant or have been pregnant, but don't buy it. I got RULL tired of the incessant "the only good birth is the home/unmedicated/'natural' birth and any other birth is only worthy of lesser assholes who feed their children food with high fructose corn syrup" crap, and thus got to revel in schadenfreude when they had to face the reality that all the holier-than-thou in the world won't solve medical issues during labor and birth.
Profile Image for Kelly.
86 reviews22 followers
September 2, 2020
It’s a mixed of experiences. They don’t harp on things, it’s like sitting with some friends and hearing their birth stories and how they felt about the choices they made. Some aren’t sunshine and rainbows, trigger warnings for miscarriage and still birth.
I just took it as, these are important stories even though they aren’t happy, and they still deserve to tell their story.
Some of them are funny And sweet. There were some things I learned.
Profile Image for Erin.
3,714 reviews45 followers
September 7, 2015
I just gorged on thirty birth stories, and my head is spinning. I remember the first couple of birth stories I ever heard, pregnant with my first baby. Tearing skin, stitches, blood and mess, pooping, all things I had not ever associated with these women I thought I knew. And yet, those stories helped me through the pregnancy and helped me to see both the variety and the sameness of each childbirth. These birth stories included here provide much the same reminder.

Each story is different, although they all blend together. They address first births, miscarriages, c-sections, inductions, lovely medical professionals, horrid medical professionals, dashed expectations, pain, support, struggle, strength, and so much more. You could fill libraries with more stories that would all be as unique, and as much the same as what's here.

Would recommend for people interested in other people or in medical stories. Honestly, I feel like anyone who's ever been at a birth should be at least nominally interested in this... and that would be everyone, right? After all, someone labored to bring you into the world.

Some bits that resonated for me:

7: "I felt awed to be a portal through which another would enter her life." [Yes.]

44: "If I didn't fear the pain, I wouldn't feel it." [Perhaps more accurately, if I didn't fear the pain, I could endure it.]

92: "...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."

117: "I didn't want a reward for pushing out my baby. I wanted the story of pushing him." [The story... you don't just get a baby, you get a story.]

130: "...real female power is nothing less than the power to risk death to bring forth new life.'' [Thinking of those two recent Ranger graduates. Females are built, literally, to fight for life in the midst of suffering and sometimes death.]

139: "Every single one of these people had a mother who brought them into the world, just as I am doing now." [One of those facts that boggles my mind.]

145: "...childbirth...had nothing on the vastness of parenthood, just as weddings have nothing on marriage."

151: "I had never felt the urge to push with my [first] birth; the midwife and the nurse had had to instruct me to lie down on my back, pull up my knees, and count as I pushed for as long and hard as I could. It was a tremendous effort of physical and mental concentration, and I was never sure I was pushing at the right moment. This was different. I felt something..." [This could have been excerpted from my own experience: birth one featured no urge to push; birth two featured an intense and surprising urge. The familiarity of some of these stories was comforting, astounding, delightful.]

157: "I was both more and less myself as a pregnant woman." [One of many paradoxes that pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting usher in.]

213: "It's hard not to make comparisons, and I felt these stories as a judgment about my choices, my capabilities." [And it doesn't stop with birth.]

227: "Isn't that why the natural-birth movement has taken hold...? Pregnancy is such a vulnerable and mysterious state that it's comforting to focus on what you can achieve instead of what you can't know. Easier to blame any... disasters on a medical establishment you can sidestep instead of on fate, which is beyond your sway." [I have always thought of the 'natural birth' folk and the 'medical birth' folk as being opposites. This statement shook that perspective and made me think that both 'natural birth' folk and 'medical birth' folk are each trying too hard to control something that is utterly capricious, they just have different ideas of how to exercise that control. What has become increasingly apparent to me, however, is that there is no need to pick a side and narrow your options. Why there is not more collaboration between 'natural' and 'medical' I am unsure.]

Profile Image for Atefeh Eghbali.
22 reviews1 follower
January 6, 2022
Includes a lot of things to expect/not expect during giving birth process. Recommended
Profile Image for Chris.
1,121 reviews12 followers
August 3, 2014
I liked most of the stories in this book, but I would have appreciated more of the "I would like as many drugs as possible, please." variety. Most of the births here were, or were intended to be non medicated, and the authors were pretty judgy about epidurals and c sections. Like the use of them was a failure. That part I didn't like, but many of the stories were quite touching.
Profile Image for Amy!.
2,261 reviews30 followers
November 18, 2019
I love birth stories, so this is right up my alley. I only recognized a couple of the writers included in this book, but all the stories were fascinating and well written. Some of them were deeply sad, but I appreciated that even the ones that started with loss ended with a healthy baby.
Profile Image for Destinee.
1,584 reviews142 followers
May 26, 2014
So I'm six months pregnant and getting tired of reading blah prose about pregnancy and birth. I was really excited to find a book of essays about childbirth by great writers. Finally! A pregnancy book the English major in me can sink her teeth into (really the English major in me should say, "into which she can sink her teeth").

Now, I liked this book for the quality of the writing, but I'm going to say that I sort of regret reading it. If you're a pregnant lady trying to prepare for an unmedicated home birth (as I am), this is not the book for you. Many of the stories are horrifying. My last midwife appointment was full of me relating stories from this book and Shari assuring me, "That's very rare." It's almost impossible to shelter yourself from negative birth stories nowadays, but you certainly don't have to read this book and freak yourself out. So many of the stories start with some version of, "I really wanted to have an unmedicated birth," and end with epidurals, c-sections, and various traumas. Even though Ina May Gaskin's books are hardly poetry, they are meant to get to you to a place where you believe you can have an awesome birth.

To be fair, I know that these stories are all true and they are not all scary. Still, if you were about to take your first trip on an airplane, would you want to read a bunch of stories describing traumatic airplane trips that didn't go as planned? Probably not. Better to read it after safely landing at your destination.

I may alter my three-star rating after giving birth. There are some really great essays in here. I particularly liked Cheryl Strayed's, Gina Zucker's and Susan Burton's, but they are all worthwhile.
Profile Image for Kim.
388 reviews4 followers
May 27, 2014
This was a lovely read. Just lovely. I can't help it...once I had children, I became addicted to birth stories. There really is something magical about that moment when you move from non-mother to mother.

I loved this collection of stories because the stories were so personal and so full of varied emotions. Each had its own context and aftermath, and reading each was like being invited into someone's personal and sacred space. I laughed, and, yes, I cried at times.

I gave it four stars vs. five (though it was close) just because after a bit, many of the stories seemed to blend a bit, and I started to see a lot of similarities. I think this took away a bit from the uniqueness of each story. However, it was beautiful to have a writer's perspective in each story....the ability to reflect on, at times, just one angle of a birth experience is special.

A good read for anyone who is a parent, anyone hoping to be a parent, or anyone fascinated by childbirth.
71 reviews1 follower
November 15, 2014
Good for pregnant women who are not easily alarmed. Really nice to read birth stories penned by good, thoughtful writers.
Profile Image for Heather.
93 reviews2 followers
July 21, 2017
I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, I really appreciated hearing all the varied perspectives and experiences about birth. As a woman approaching that day soon herself, I was craving some real, honest, and uncensored accounts of what other women have been through. However, it can be very scary to hear what can go wrong, and how many unexpected things can happen no matter how much you prepare! I knew that to be true but also I will admit some of these stories caused me to have nightmares and anxieties about my own impending birth. So I would suggest that people read these stories cautiously and with the knowledge that anything can happen. I was hoping it would help me build my confidence going into birth knowing I wanted a natural, unmedicated one if possible, but this book has actually just taken away some of my previous confidence and made me much more nervous. So while a good read, and obviously well written stories, I'm still not sure how to feel about the book and my reading of it at this particular time in my life.
Profile Image for Lorelei.
Author 1 book30 followers
October 28, 2016
This book is one of those things that reminds you how amazing and miraculous birth is. These women honestly shared their stories of expectations and misconceptions as well as triumphs. It was interesting to read that again and again we are so hard on ourselves about natural birth and the gap in rhetoric between birthing classes and what happens in hospital. I suppose what ultimately matters is getting baby delivered safely.
Profile Image for Amanda.
757 reviews
October 8, 2018
Since these are all written by authors, they are mostly all about births to women of a very certain demographic, i.e. mine, in Brooklyn. But with that caveat, I found them interesting in a voyeuristic way and slightly terrifying.
Profile Image for Elyssa.
797 reviews
June 26, 2017
Interesting, honest, and raw birth stories from a variety of writers.

Profile Image for Jill Gooch.
47 reviews
October 20, 2017
Loved it!

Even though I am way past childbearing age, I still love to read about having babies. Well written, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. Thank you!
5 reviews
January 3, 2018
This is the book about how I was born and I love the way I was born
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Margaret.
858 reviews
October 10, 2018
As a mom, I found this to be a really interesting read. Apparently I had easy birth experiences compared to most people! Yikes!
Profile Image for nomadreader (Carrie D-L).
405 reviews70 followers
April 15, 2014
(originally published at http://nomadreader.blogspot.com)

The basics: Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today's Best Women Writers, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon, brings together an impressive group of contemporary female writers from a variety of genres to share their experiences giving birth. The essays are as varied as the women who write them.

My thoughts: Admittedly, before I got pregnant (and even early on in my pregnancy), I shied away from birth stories. Rarely do I favor ignorance, but in this case, I was scared of labor and childbirth, yet I knew I would be going through it, and I wasn't ready to deal with it. At some point in my pregnancy, I became eager for birth stories. I'm still frightened, of course, but I find comfort in imagining myself in a variety of different scenarios, both the positive and negative.

I'll be honest: this collection of essays often veers to the negative and sad. There are some heart-breaking stories told in these pages. I shed many, many tears as I read, yet even the most heart-breaking essays, I found a sense of comfort and kinship with the writers. These strong, beautiful voices moved me with their tales of the times before, during and after birth. To combine such intimate details about life, birth, and new motherhood with beautiful language is a true gift.

Favorite passage:  "I suppose we are always alone in our pain, but we are rarely positioned appropriately to view the isolation accurately. Most of the choices with which we are presented in childbirth are secondary to the one most important in practice we must be prepared to labor alone, even in the company of others, even with the brilliantly blinding help of loved ones. Perhaps the debates regarding child birth are so he did because in the end it’s one woman’s experience, not a shared cultural phenomenon. It’s you and your pain; it’s you and it’s your baby.” --Sarah A. Strickley

The verdict: This collection is superb. While some essays are objectively better than others, only one rang hollow for me. While I connected more deeply with some than others, I appreciated and gained something from each one. I'll be giving this book to many, many pregnant friends in the years to come.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Profile Image for Michelle.
150 reviews21 followers
February 3, 2015
I have to agree with an earlier reviewer who wrote that this book had a "sameness" for him, and that "this collection has put its finger on the concerns and experiences of well-educated, well-informed, married, intentionally pregnant women writers of New York Times notable books who seek out midwifery care and who have caesarians at a noticeably lower rate than the norm, which is to be expected as an artifact of economic/access privilege." In some ways, this book has a range of birth stories: single births, twins, preemies, c-sections, home births, epidurals and not, a stillbrith, miscarriages, adoption. And in some ways they tell some of the things people didn't used to talk about: peeing on yourself during birth, feeling intense pain, feeling depressed about the state of the world and worried about your child's place in it. But in other ways there wasn't as much detail as I wanted. I would have appreciated more talk of prenatal testing, both from people who decided to and those who didn't. More talk about children born with mental or physical issues, and how the parents dealt with it (there were two stories where the authors mentions issues, one muscular, the other seemed mental, but there was no discussion of the fears, disappointments, whether they'd tested for those problems or not, etc.). While as I mentioned above, peeing during birth was talked about, pooping wasn't. And while it's not the thing anyone wants to think about, it definitely happens, and the lack of anyone discussing it made me wonder what else was being white-washed. I would be interested to read a similar book, but where the stories weren't written by popular authors. Maybe a really great interviewer could conduct interviews of women on the topic. I do think it's a valuable book, and made me think about how you can never know exactly what will happen during a pregnancy, birth, and child's life. I'm not sure if it changed my mind about any of my own wants and desires if I should ever be pregnant, besides perhaps convincing me even further that many home births aren't a big deal, but also that getting an epidural isn't the end of the world.
Profile Image for miteypen.
832 reviews59 followers
November 18, 2014
This is a collection of well-written essays by women writers about their experiences with pregnancy, labor and birth. If you've had this experience yourself you will find this book fascinating, but I would definitely not recommend it for someone who has yet to go through it, especially if she is pregnant. Not all of these birth stories are harrowing, but almost all of them make labor and delivery sound extremely difficult and often fraught with unseen dangers.

A lot of these stories are by women who had children when they were older (which seems to be a trend)--the oldest one was 44. I've read that older mothers often have long and unproductive labors and that certainly seems to be the case here but the age factor isn't really referred to. The result is that the book makes it seem as if most women have prolonged labors where they just narrowly avoid having C-sections. There are only a couple of stories about easier deliveries and they seem to be included because they were very fast (one delivered in the car on the way to the hospital!).

I didn't think that any of the stories were hilarious, but they did seem to be the unvarnished truth: nothing is prettied up here. Almost all the mothers wish things had gone differently; it seems like no one got the experience that they had hoped to have--but then isn't that true of most experiences in life?

One thing all the women had in common was that they didn't regret having children--but how they feel about that might be another book altogether!
Profile Image for Sarah Benson.
149 reviews9 followers
August 28, 2015
So much writing about pregnancy and birth is kind of blah. These stories were refreshingly honest, funny, insightful, and well-written. Most of them touch on much more than just "birth"-- also discussing the transition to motherhood, expectations, anxieties, family dynamics, and relationships. Might read this again, and would (or rather, will) recommend to friends. That being said, the collection is meant to represent a diverse spectrum of stories, and I thought the editors only did an okay job at that... the writers all seem to be New Yorkers (or name some other big city or trendy place to live) of a certain age and attitude and education level. So even though the stories are, on the surface, really different, they also have this similar current running through them. Like always "I researched my "birth plan" for months and knew everything, but then maybe things didn't turn out that way" but never "I got my information from reality TV and was petrified of birth, and have no idea what really happened after I got the hospital because the nurses weren't communicating with me and I couldn't follow the medical jargon." Maybe that second kind of story would be less fun to read...
Profile Image for Literary Mama.
415 reviews40 followers
February 20, 2015
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.

Read Literary Mama's full review here: http://www.literarymama.com/reviews/a...
Profile Image for Jessica .
542 reviews26 followers
April 7, 2022
Oh, a book written exactly for me? Well, I cannot resist but to give you 5 stars then, book.

Fans of birth stories will obviously gobble this up. Even more so if you are a fan of literary memoir. More than one contributor seems to have named a child after Willa Cather, if that gives you a sense of what kind of moms and stories we are dealing with here.

Read: May 2014, February 2016, August 2017, April 2022

I have officially listened to this book on audio during all three of my pregnancies. And I was sad it was over every time. It is, apparently, my preferred method of ingesting birth stories as I prepare for my own.
602 reviews4 followers
December 14, 2015
Well-written stories, but I have to say that I would *not* recommend this for a pregnant mom. There are some stories of births that had tragic outcomes. I believe that one needs to try to stay in a good headspace when preparing to give birth (I had two unmedicated births and I had to stay optimistic in order to keep my nerve up to do it) and some of these stories would definitely not help in that endeavor. That said, my youngest is three and we don't plan on any more, so I could appreciate these stories without worrying about their effect on my mental state.
Profile Image for Cari.
Author 17 books115 followers
May 24, 2014
I think this book came at the perfect time in my life: after having one child and considering having another next year or the year after. Every essay is beautifully written and poignant, and each one gave me a lot to think about. I also reflected on my son's birth and thought about what might happen during a future birth. Life is so precarious and precious, and this collection is an illustration of the many ways we fall down and get back up when we produce that life.
Profile Image for Celeste Fairchild.
9 reviews2 followers
May 2, 2014
I was drawn into this after encountering some of the included essays on Slate (and I think Salon?) -- notably Cheryl Strayed, Lauren Groff, and Marie Lee. The rest of the collection didn't disappoint, and it seems like every possible variety of birth story (or western birth story, at least) is represented here. Moreover, it's plain gorgeous writing.
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