In 2010, Pam England wrote a series of pieces about ways in which we can change birth in our culture. The Birthing From Within leadership and blog team has chosen 12 of these pieces and updated them to reflect current understandings within the birth world as well as our current approaches and offerings as an organization. We will be sharing one piece for each month of 2018, both on the blog and in our monthly newsletters. We hope you enjoy this wonderful material, both as archival treasure and as new, innovative insights!
When we have not yet lived a life-changing event, one that we anticipate living in the future (college, marriage, childbirth), we can only idealize, dream, and fantasize about the event from a place of innocence. This is why, when a pregnant person is at the beginning of their first childbearing year, they will always proceed from within their archetypal child, a place of innocent belief in their own dreams and powers. It is also a given that some time during the initiatory ordeals of pregnancy, labor, and postpartum, they will lose some part of that innocence as the price of the wisdom that moves them into more adult archetypes.
There are many who don’t understand these contours of the hero’s journey of birth, and who therefore aren’t able to provide uninitiated parents with support that can both meet them in their innocence and also prepare them for wisdom.
When pregnant parents share their innocent plans and imaginings about birth and parenthood, two responses are particularly common. The first typical response consists of effectively dashing the parent’s dreams. “Oh, that kind of birth will NEVER happen in a hospital setting.” “Trust me, you’re going to WANT an epidural.” “I hate to break it to you, but a sleep schedule just ain’t happening in the first couple months.” Such responses are often offered by experienced birth workers exhausted by the constant mismatch between clients’ idealism and the poor quality of maternity care and support in our culture, or by disappointed parents who want to prevent others from repeating their unhappy experiences.
The second typical response is to simply encourage the parent to continue dreaming. In fact, parents often choose medical care providers, doulas, and childbirth educators based on their alignment with the parents’ innocent fantasies. So a parent whose dream is that hospitals and doctors will be able to “run” the childbearing experience so that it feels safe and satisfying may choose an obstetrician whose practice emphasizes medically managed labor and de-emphasizes parents’ own coping and decision-making skills. Or a parent whose dream is of calm, quiet birth may choose a childbirth educator whose classes offer instructions for achieving that outcome rather than explorations of various possible outcomes and how they might feel.
The truth is, of course, that neither jaded cynicism nor unquestioning affirmation truly serve to prepare initiates for the loss of innocence – and gaining of wisdom – that awaits them.
Parents are also not served by the encouragement, which could come from any “side” of any given birth or parenting issue, to remain in a state of vague trust. We can see the positive intention behind various versions of the “Have trust!” mantra. But what, exactly, is the parent meant to “trust”? The actual meaning is often up for grabs, to be determined by the one advising it. It might be an order to trust in the body, or a benevolent protective force, or the wisdom of a specific set of experts, or their own intuition — even though, as parents will soon find out, others may not share one or more of these various trusts and may attempt to prevent the parent from acting upon them. So even the message to “trust,” which seems so simple at first, often turns out to be a source of confusion and, ultimately, frustration.
So what are we, as mentors, to do? How can we help initiates locate and develop their natural trust and inner knowing so that they are strong enough to serve them throughout their ordeal? Well, we begin by meeting them inside their innocence and learning a little bit about it. Really listen to what they are saying: What do they trust and mistrust, know and not know, believe and disbelieve? We might also begin to wonder together how they came to these positions — where did this learning come from? Then we can offer guided processes and independent practices — storytelling, artmaking, coping exercises, mindfulness practices, readings, journal reflections, etc — that give parents the opportunity to explore and enhance their self-knowledge, inner wisdom, and intuition. This will prepare parents for navigating waters far deeper than their innocent selves can even contemplate.
Just as every seed carries the full potential to become a mature plant, so, too, does every expecting parent have the potential to be able to cope with and heal from the ordeal of the childbearing year.
But we don’t simply drop seeds on the ground and believe that they will sprout, grow, and thrive spontaneously. Instead, we plant them in good soil and provide them with nourishment and protection. Similarly, we don’t just tell parents, “Trust that everything you need is within you!” and leave it at that. Rather, as Birthing From Within mentors, we give them ways to nourish their inner knowing so that it may grow and bear the fruit they will need to sustain themselves during their initiatory ordeals.
Growing your own plant is a very different experience from simply being handed a full-grown tree. By actively engaging in individual preparatory work, parents can embody and truly own their developing understandings. The result is a deeply-rooted inner wisdom and trust, so that even in the midst of disorientation, shock, or unwished-for events, parents will not abandon themselves and instead stay present with themselves, each other, and their babies.