distractions of daily life going on around you. When people are talking to you or when you are trying to take care of others or get things done, the left brain keeps getting re-activated, making it more difficult to go deeper and deeper into the forest. You can't prevent such distractions, but your practice can help you let go of them.
Eventually, there is no need to work so hard to stay in the right brain. The right brain takes over, she sinks completely into the primitive, Feminine realm and reaches a point of complete surrender, as when the woman steps into the boat and lets the waters take her. She surrenders to the power of birth and enters “Laborland”. She goes completely within and may be unaware of or uninterested in what is going on around her. She may be, however, very open to suggestion at this point, and the people around her should consider the impact of their words and emotions on her.
In the story, the man meets her in the Feminine and takes her to the Masculine realm, where he can protect her. During labor, let us consider everyone besides the mother as inhabiting the Masculine realm. She alone is immersed in the trance-like, primitive state of Laborland. No one can fully understand what she is experiencing, and she can't tell them. During labor women cannot express themselves as well as they normally do, and at some point in labor probably can't speak at all (verbal communication is a left-brain skill). Because he met her in the Feminine and was open and attentive enough to experience the Otherworld while journeying with her, the man knows how to hear what she is saying without speaking. The birth partner can meet the mother in the Feminine by tuning into her breathing and her rhythm, by noticing signs of tension or fear, and, most of all, by trusting that what she is experiencing is real and purposeful. Her demeanor and actions may seem unfamiliar and unsettling, but they have purpose. This is not only a good way to support her, but allows the partner to experience labor on a deeper level, which can be transformative, as we see at the end of the tale.
The woman in this story is intelligent, strong and capable. She needs to be protected, not because she is weak, but because she is using all of her resources to complete the task before her. A woman in labor needs a Sacred space in which to focus on her work. (Sacred: safe, set apart for a special purpose.) She needs to know that she can let go and focus completely without worrying about any real or perceived threat to her Work. This is important no matter where she labors: at home, in a birth center or in a hospital.
In our story, many things start happening quickly as she gets close to reaching her goal. The shirts are nearly ready, the swans are arriving, the woman is standing in a ring of fire but still intent on completing her task. It can feel this way during transition and pushing: many things happening quickly after such a long time of slow, repetitive work. The fire represents the total collapse of ego that can occur during this time of intensity. There is no “I”, only the work, only the goal. Women often recall that they felt like they were dying at this point. And many say that they did not care. They were sensing their ego-death, not their physical death.
Another important element of this story, and of labor, is that the woman suddenly gives up her dream and, without thinking twice, does what needs to be done in that moment. For so many months, the woman has worked and pushed herself to her limits with one goal in mind: to save her brothers. And yet, when she has almost reached her goal, she uses her voice to save the man, and risks losing her brothers forever. This part of the story is a metaphor for handling unwanted surprises in labor. Perhaps a woman is counting on pain medication to assist her and this is not an option, or doesn't work as well as she thought. Perhaps she has dreamed of a peaceful, meditative birth in a tranquil environment but ends up laboring in a loud, chaotic place. Perhaps a woman has practiced and worked and given all of herself, for hours, for months, with the goal of birthing naturally, and, suddenly, there is an unforeseen complication. Everything has changed. What is needed in that moment may be a transfer to the hospital, pain medication, or Caesarean birth. Preparing for childbirth is preparing to handle unwanted surprises, even the loss of your dream, with ferocious love and compassion.
This started out as a story about the birth partner, but it has strayed far off course. Or perhaps not. It is good for the birth partner to understand what the laboring mother may be experiencing in her psyche. Like the man in the story, if the birth partner is open and respectful of right-brain world she inhabits, he will know what she needs without verbal communication. He can maintain a Sacred space around her, minimizing the intrusions of the outer, left-brain world. It is also helpful to realize that this right-brain state does not end when the baby is born. The postpartum weeks are also experienced in a kind of altered state. Mother and baby still inhabit a sacred space, separate from the everyday world going on around them. The father can better support mother and baby and enjoy this special time more if he understands this.
Opening to this primitive, Feminine side of life can have a transformative effect on the birth partner. Birth is a rite of passage for mothers and fathers alike. It is an initiation into parenthood. Women and men are re-born as mothers and fathers. In our story, the man has an encounter with the inner/other/underworld, a rare occurrence for people of his left-brained land. This experience changes him. He becomes more aware of and open to other ways of life. It helps him to open his heart to how he really wants to live. He walks away from the life that had been planned for him and ventures into the forest. His quest is to find and embrace a previously unrecognized part of himself. As a result of his initiation and rite of passage (experiencing the otherworld and caring for the wild, mute woman) he is able to find his way through the uncanny forest and speak from the heart when he arrives at the center.
There was a woman who lived with her family in the heart of a wild and uncanny forest, the last refuge of the arrogant, trickster Fair Folk. One day her six brothers were turned into swans by a sorceress. In order to turn her brothers back into human form, the Fair Folk told the woman that she must go alone into the forest and sew a shirt for each of them. With her bare hands she must weave the fabric from fibers of a plant that causes stinging and swelling when touched. She must not speak until she is done. If she speaks, she will lose her brothers forever. She spends many months alone in the forest working on her task and undergoing many trials.
When this existence overwhelms her, she goes to the water and gets into a boat, letting the voices and currents of the water take her where they will. Close to drowning, she is discovered and rescued by a man from another land. He finds her to be strange and wild, having been living alone in the forest for so long, and not being able to speak. Despite her strangeness, he brings her to his home and becomes her Protector. Along the way, the man has his first encounter with the Fair Folk, beings of the Otherworld.
The man's home is far from the mysterious forest, in a “civilized” land of logic and commerce. While in his home, the woman spends her days in the sewing room with the ladies of the house, they stitching delicate embroidery, she maiming her hands weaving coarse, ugly shirts. Everyone distrusts her and thinks she is crazy, or worse, a witch. The man cannot understand why she does what she does, but he trusts that it is important and so does everything he can to help her complete her task. His love and trust makes the task more bearable. At the edge of her awareness, he and other Allies stand guard over her, protect her and provide her with whatever she needs so that she can continue her work. He offers to do the work for her, but, of course, she is the one that must do it.
When five shirts are finished and the sixth one is nearly complete, the time comes to place them on the swans' necks and return her brothers to human form. At this same moment, the woman is facing her own death. She is about to be burned at the stake, but her focus never wavers from her task. Before she has a chance to put the last shirt on the last brother, she uses her voice to shout a warning to her protector, saving his life. She thinks that, by speaking before her task is completely finished, she has doomed her brothers to be swans forever, but she does what needs to be done in that moment, without hesitating. She did not fail her brothers, however. Somehow, the last shirt had reached the last swan in time and she and her brothers were saved.
Her brothers are in a hurry to return with their sister to the forest, for they are enemies of this land. The woman is now faced a difficult choice: stay in this civilized land with the man that loves and protected her or return to her homeland, the otherworldly forest. She returns to the forest. She soon realizes that she truly loves the man, but knows in her heart that she belongs in the forest. Meanwhile, the man gives up his land and finds his way through the uncanny forest to her. His ability to move through the forest and tell his story from the heart convinces her brothers that he is worthy of their sister. He remains with her in the forest, a man with one foot in each world.
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.