Health Advice



Birth of a story: How new parents find meaning after childbirth hints at how they will adjust

Darby Saxbe, Associate Professor of Psychology, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, The Conversation on

Published in Health & Fitness

Gather a group of new parents and the conversation will likely turn to their childbirth stories – ranging from the joyful to the gnarly to the positively traumatic. Birth story podcasts and websites feature a curated range of birth experiences, and you can buy embossed leather “birth story” journals as a baby shower gift. People are fascinated by this pivotal, emotionally complex and literally life-and-death experience.

Birth narratives might also contain clues about how the adjustment to parenthood will go.

People have long used stories to understand difficult experiences. Stories may be particularly valuable as a source of “meaning-making,” the process of finding order in chaos by making sense of unexpected events, identifying silver linings and discovering the patterns and connections that thread seemingly random events together into a coherent narrative.

In a new study led by Geoffrey Corner, a former graduate student in my lab, we found that the levels of meaning-making in the stories new parents told about their baby’s birth predicted their relationship quality and parenting stress in the child’s first months.

Finding meaningful themes and patterns in life’s seeming randomness is a fundamentally human activity. As writer Joan Didion put it, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

“Meaning-making” can buffer despair in the wake of tragedy. Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl’s memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” argued that meaning and purpose can prevent the bitterness and disillusionment that can otherwise fester after great loss. Research on what psychologists call post-traumatic growth has found that the level of “meaning-making” in people’s narratives about a difficult event predicts their mental health over time.


For example, studies have found links between meaning-making and resilience in cancer patients, bereaved parents and caregivers. Cancer survivors might discover that their chemo ordeal brought them closer to friends and family, or helped them step back from the hustle of everyday life and embrace a slower pace.

Although childbirth is typically experienced as a joyful rather than a tragic event, it can still be unpredictable, frightening and even life-threatening. Indeed, psychologists have begun to recognize that particularly difficult labors can trigger post-traumatic stress symptoms, not just in mothers but in their partners as well. Even normal, nontraumatic births require parents to cope with hours, sometimes days, of pain and discomfort. Therefore, we hypothesized that meaning-making might be an important part of couples’ birth narratives, potentially promoting resilience in new parents.

To test these hypotheses, we collected birth stories from 77 couples who were participating in our lab’s longitudinal study of the transition to parenthood. We visited couples at the hospital within a day or two of their infant’s birth, and audio-recorded them sharing their stories together. We told couples, “We’d like to hear you tell the story of your birth experience. Start from the beginning and tell us as much as you remember.”

A team of coders listened to each story and recorded examples of meaning-making, using three categories established in the research literature:


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