“Studies from Australia,Belgium, China, France, Saudi Arabia, the U.K. and the U.S. concur: when expectations match experience, that’s the single the most important factor in a woman’s ability to emotionally integrate the reality of childbirth. It’s not, as you might expect, about how painful labor was,” writes Ananda Lowe in “What To Expect When You’re Birthing At Home: A Hospital C-Section (Possibly)” http://commonhealth.wbur.org/2015/03/what-to-expect-when-youre-birthing-at-home-a-c-section-possibly)
Every woman has expectations for her birth - a unique dream of her ideal experience. And yet, the one thing that can be counted on in childbirth is that it will unfold in unexpected ways. So how can a woman prepare for childbirth in a way that reduces emotional trauma if there is no way to know if her expectations will, in fact, match her experience? You can prepare yourself for this profound experience by exploring your expectations; cultivating skills for finding your way in unfamiliar terrain; and creating a story map that allows for meaningful interpretation of the events of your birth.
Are your expectations limiting you?
Look deeply into your expectations
Be curious. How do you know to have these expectations? What stories have you heard, from infancy to adulthood, that have helped form them? What does it mean about you, as a woman, as a mother, as a person, to have or avoid certain experiences? What problem do your choices solve for you? By asking yourself these types of questions, you begin to hone in on what really matters most to you and why. When you bring awareness to your thought patterns, you get to choose what is working for you and what is not. As you uncover the layers of your expectations, you may find that they are less about specific details and more about the way you want to feel about your birth, your relationships, and yourself. You can explore these feelings and the different ways that they can be achieved.
Unearth your Agreements
Beginning in infancy, we form agreements with ourselves about what we need to do and be in order to be loved/worthy/okay. Unexamined, these agreements feel like matters of life or death because as infants our survival absolutely depended on our being lovable. Even as adults, we are social beings that need to live in community in order to survive. While we remain unaware of our agreements, we don’t get to choose if they are really working for us or not. In order to bring awareness to your agreements, keep an eye out for conditional statements about your birth - “It will be a good birth IF…” “I am a good mom AS LONG AS…” “I am a strong woman IF…” or “Women in labor SHOULD…” Pay attention to the way these statements feel in your body. Do they feel expansive or limiting? How will they affect your body in labor - will they support you or hold you back?
Now you have taken an inventory of your agreements. Perhaps you have let some of them go and decided to keep others because they are good guides for your everyday life. But we are not talking about everyday life. We are talking about a rite of passage that transcends the everyday. The pathways of birth take you to another reality, an underworld, an otherworld, a sacred space (meaning a safe space set aside for a special purpose). Laborland is a realm where everyday agreements do not apply. Agreements such as: be modest, stay in control, be logical, take care of others, be nice… Think about what it will feel like to drop your agreements one by one, like layers of clothing as weather heats up. Which ones will be hardest to relinquish? Acknowledge that it may be extremely difficult or it may be ecstatically freeing. Recognizing this shedding of agreements as a necessary part of your rite of passage will help you integrate the experience afterward. Remember, too, that you will have the opportunity to reclaim each of them during your journey home from Laborland.
Prepare yourself for the unknown
Practice Not Knowing
You know that the only thing you can expect is the unexpected. So how do you prepare when you don’t know what you’re preparing for? We generally avoid experiences in which we don’t know what to do. We want to get it right. One way to prepare is to consciously put yourself in situations where you don’t know what to do. Feel your way through it. Be curious about your mind’s and body’s responses. Journal about it. This is an experiment, not a judgment.
Making art is a powerful way to prepare for the Not Knowing of birth. The more you practice making art, the more you learn the feeling of not knowing what to do and doing something anyway. There are many interesting thought patterns (or “Dragons” as process painting pioneer Michele Cassou calls them) that try to get in your way when you make art. The Dragon of Getting It Right can be a powerful one. Just wait for it. You will get to a place where you actually kind of like what you’re drawing and you become paralyzed because you don’t want to mess it up. Ask yourself: What if it were okay to mess this up? Or you drew something that you think is ugly or embarrassing or dumb or otherwise too revealing and you want to cover it up. Ask yourself: What if this needed to be here for reasons I don’t yet understand? What if I trusted the process? What if I let this part of me be seen? This is childbirth preparation. Not knowing what to do and doing something anyway. Being in completely new territory. Surprising yourself.
A zen proverb states that "To live without sufficiently powerful questions is to be unarmed in the thick of battle. And these cannot be another’s questions, but those which arise from your own tacit experience. It is a sad thing to rely on another’s question." In ancient and modern lore, laboring women have been likened to warriors. Preparing for childbirth, then, is an important time to formulate your powerful questions and to practice asking them. A Deepest Question, Living Question, or Warrior Question always leads to action. It helps you know what to do when you don’t know what to do.
Take a moment to jot down some questions you have about yourself in labor. Now look at these questions and cross out any that can be answered by someone other than yourself. These are Getting It Right questions. Your Deepest Question can only be answered by you. Have any questions left? If not, list a few more that come to mind.
Now, if any of these are yes/no questions, go ahead and erase them. Yes/no questions are dependent upon your mood and lead to uncertainty, not action. For instance, “Am I strong enough?” or “Is this the right choice?” Notice how these questions feel in your body. You don’t want to ask these in the heat of battle.
Finally, make sure your question is in the present tense. Instead of, “How will I listen to my inner voice?”, try “How am I listening to my inner voice in this moment?” It’s this present tense that makes it a Living Question. A Warrior Question. It becomes a question that you can ask yourself at any time. Ask it right now. Feel it. It doesn’t just apply to yourself in childbirth, but to yourself in your life. Right here. Right now. Keep playing with your question until you find one that strikes a chord. You may choose to begin with an intention that is strong within you and transform it into a question. For example, if you have an intention to act out of love rather than fear, you might ask yourself, “How am I acting out of love rather than fear in this moment?” Be curious. What effect does the asking of this question have on you? How will frequently asking your question prepare you for the unexpected?
Create an Soulful Story Map
A Hero’s Story
Humans are natural storytellers. Our brains seem to automatically take any information or experience and put it in the form of a story. Story is our way of making sense of reality. Another way to explain the emotional distress that can be caused by the mismatch between birth expectations and realities is to say that the “story map” that a woman brought into labor did not have the appropriate slots, or receptors, for the experience to plug into. Certain things that happened during the birth have no place to settle. These events just spin around, wanting to fit into the story, but having no place. They cannot be integrated. This can be tremendously unsettling.
Even though the specific events of birth will remain unknown and unexpected, if we view birth through the story map of the rite of passage or hero’s journey, we can expect certain elements and create a map in which these “slots” lie waiting to be filled. Indeed, Michael Meade writes that the soul expects to experience rites of passage in this life and when it senses that a rite of passage has begun, it expects to see it through to its conclusion. So, on a soul level, this story map has already been created. What can we do to bring it to a conscious level as well?
A rite of passage entails leaving behind your old life, crossing into the unknown, coping with ordeals, then returning to the world reborn with an opened heart to share your new gifts with your community. If you read any story of a hero’s journey (Innana’s Descent, Daughter of the Forest, Cupid and Psyche, Star Wars) you will notice these elements and others.
A few of these elements that I’d like to touch on here are Stripping Away Old Identities, Coping With Ordeals, Emotional Thresholds, and Empowerment. By expecting these elements ahead of time, you create space in your story map for the events of your birth to plug into. It doesn’t matter if your dream for your birth is a scheduled Cesarean, an epidural as soon as you arrive at the hospital, an ecstatic spiritual experience, or anything else - you can expect these elements and you will find them.
Expect to Lose Yourself
Giving birth is a significant event in the process of entering a new stage of life: Motherhood. In order to become something new, an old life must be left behind. In his description of the Hero’s Journey, Paul Rebillot writes that “The old forms must fall away so that the new form can emerge.” The intensity of birth seems designed to bring about this surrender of old identities and beliefs, yet it is sometimes this very experience that causes emotional trauma. This could occur when unwanted interventions are employed, when a woman loses her decision-making capacity, when she breaks her Agreements, or when she enters an altered state and surrenders to her body, to name just a few. A woman cannot prepare for these moments, in the sense of having control over them, for that would defeat their purpose, but she can create space in her story for this type of experience. What symbols can you come up with that represent this transition? What actions during labor might symbolize this shedding of old forms to make space for the new?
Expect to Do What Needs To Be Done
Women’s feelings about coping are often tangled up with their Agreements. In class, I ask women to see themselves coping at different levels of intensity during labor. Sometimes women will say they see themselves screaming or cursing and I ask them if that is a way of coping. They might giggle nervously and say, “no”. But when we talk about the meaning of “cope”, which is “to strive or contend with on equal terms”, we see that whatever gives them the strength to meet to force of labor with equal intensity is indeed coping. Screaming, cursing, even chanting “I can’t I can’t I can’t” may be what is needed in the moment. In her article on homebirth Cesareans, Ananda Lowe quotes Sue Burns, a mother who planned a homebirth but was transferred to the hospital and gave birth by Cesarean, as she talks about her emotional trauma as a result of the wide mismatch of her expectations and reality. After feeling invalidated so often by people offering their sympathy, she managed to find empathy for herself and reframe her experience as that of a hero coping with her ordeal:
“I finally was able to say those things to myself. I labored at home for a ridiculously long time. I endured. I had stamina and an unbelievably high pain tolerance. And then I did the thing I most didn’t want to do: I went to the hospital. I was brave enough to let someone cut me open and have major abdominal surgery AWAKE! so that I could be her mother. I am a warrior.”
This mother broke her Agreements, did what she most did not want to do, and that was her act of heroism. As a part of your hero’s journey, expect to do whatever needs to be done to contend with the intensity of birth on equal terms.
Expect to Cross Many Emotional Thresholds
A rite of passage entails crossing the threshold into the unknown and Laborland is unfamiliar terrain. A story map will help you recognize the landmarks of this terrain even though you don’t know when or where they will be or what form they will take. Somewhere along the journey you will cross other thresholds. These thresholds may include confusion, fear, and self-doubt, as well as joy, love, determination and mystery. It’s important for the laboring mother and her companions to recognize that these are normal emotions of birth and to view these as milestones, doorways to be passed through, rather than something to be avoided or minimized. In this way they space can be created for the events of birth, facilitating their integration postpartum.
The Empowerment Comes Later
The term “empowering” is frequently used to describe an ideal birth. Childbirth has the potential to be an incredibly empowering and transformative experience. It’s important to note, however, that the empowerment does not occur during the ordeal, but after, during the long journey back home, in which the experiences are integrated, the story unraveled and re-woven, the true gifts realized. There’s no set time limit on this. Your story continues. You may have felt empowered during birth, you may have felt helpless and afraid, probably you felt some of both, and a lot of other things as well. Regardless of the way your birth unfolded, you never lose the opportunity to weave your story, ask Warrior Questions, re-examine your Agreements, play with your Dragons.
Your story is sacred. Choose with care when and how to tell it. Honor it and ask it to teach you.
Christy is a doula and Birthing From Within childbirth mentor committed to strengthening families and communities through storytelling/storylistening, meaningful celebration, mindfulness, and reflective work.