Reflections on Pregnancy, Birth, and Motherhood
By: Christine White
Disclaimer: All women should be respected for the choices they make during their pregnancy and labor. There is no one right or better way to bring a human being into this world. Below is a small part of my pregnancy/labor journey, one that is authentic to me. You may relate to it, or you may not. And I believe that is ok because different struggles, experiences and beliefs is what makes us humans beautiful as individuals.
This past year while I was pregnant, I dug deep into ALL of the birth books. I’m a researcher at heart, so I read it all. I learned about what actually happens to a woman hormonally as she labors, ways to cope with labor pains, that my little babe was growing fingernails at 12 weeks, that I would deliver my placenta right after delivering a baby, what an episiotomy is, nourishing foods to eat for postpartum healing...the list goes on. As a new mama-to-be I was fascinated, overwhelmed, and in awe of what our female bodies are capable of. To be sure, I was also curious and fearful. Curious and fearful of the pain and wonder and transformation that is childbirth, of the unknown. Like, How am I going to know if I’m actually in labor??!?!
So. Not only a researcher, but also a perfectionist at heart.
And with this perfectionist spirit, I really wanted to get this childbirth thing “right.”
For me, “right” meant having an unmedicated, vaginal birth, and to feel supported and empowered throughout my birth experience. Many of the birth books I read recommended creating a birth plan - something of an outline of your birth preferences that is not only for you and your partner, but a handout of bullet points to give to your medical care providers. A birth plan can include everything from, I prefer dim lights and a quiet atmosphere while laboring, to, I prefer an unmedicated birth. Please do not offer me pain medication. I was pretty hooked on this idea of a birth plan. And being a product of our goal-oriented and accomplishment-focused society, I can see why many women are. You write down your birth plan, or the way you want your birth to go, so in a way you manifest it, and then the birth you want becomes a realistic goal you can achieve, right?
Researcher, perfectionist, so, also (of course!!), a planner at heart. Around 36 weeks pregnant, as I finally sat down to write my birth plan, I felt stuck. Something was not sitting right with this effort. I felt like I was trying to control one of the most unpredictable human experiences. I wanted to be prepared for childbirth and to have a plan; but if I had learned anything from all of my books and from talking to other mama women, the only constant in birth is that it most likely will not go as planned. When I really sat with this truth, I felt torn. I wanted a vision for my labor. I wanted to be clear about what was important to me, but I didn’t want to hold on so tight to my ideal of a perfect birth that I’d be distraught if it didn’t go my way.
And then comes “Birthing From Within,” by Pam England and Rob Horowitz. This book is so profound and holistic in its approach to childbirth and labor, seriously, SO GOOD. In it there is a chapter titled The Birth Plan Trap. I was pretty shocked when I first read this alternative approach to a birth plan. The authors explain that though birth plans in modern society come from a well-intentioned place (i.e women having a more active role in their births in a medical setting), ”labor and birth are not events conducive to being planned… You can have a fantasy or a birth plan, the hospital has its ideas, but Mother Nature may surprise all of you.” And then I realized, there it was. Another moment in my life where I was holding on pretty dang tight to something that I thought was The Right And Only Way, trying to control, when what I needed to do was take a deep breath, trust, and let go.
In what was an enlightening two pages of a chapter, England and Horowitz say that when you write a birth plan, “a woman focuses on fending off outside forces which she fears will shape her birth.” Um yes, I pretty much have spent my whole life trying to fend off outside forces that I have no control over. I could so relate to this. I then reflected on the countless hours I had already spent stressing over the worst case birth scenarios. As in, Ok what happens if my baby is not in an optimal position to be birthed??? or What if my labor does not progress and I have like a 36 hr labor?? I felt somewhat confident I could handle the intensity of an unmedicated labor, but What about an emergency c-section??? And from there I dug a little deeper… Why would I feel lesser than if a medical intervention was a part of my birth story? Why would I feel like I had failed at birth or was not strong enough or not feminine enough?
And then I read more from the Birth Plan Trap chapter. “This effort [a birth plan] distracts [a woman] from trusting herself, her body, and her spirituality...rather than planning her own hard work and surrender, her energy is diverted towards controlling the anticipated actions of other.” In creating a birth plan, a woman “risks creating defensive, resistant, and hyper-vigilant mindset… You may feel a sense of power during this process, but it’s an illusion.” Another big and emphatic YES for me. Sigh. I had never thought about having a hyper-vigilant mindset, but when I read that term, I realized omg YES, my entire life. Think, trying to eat right/exercise right/sleep right/do right/be right ALL OF THE TIME since I was 16 years old. So, in writing my birth plan, I realized I needed to do this differently. Fight the perfectionist, the fear, the gripping so fiercely to what I had created as the one and only outcome, and to TRUST, let go, and let be.
That’s not to say there isn’t a time and place for discipline, or for setting and reaching goals. I agree that a birth plan has its rightful place in our Western medicalized culture. It can help organize thoughts and intentions, and it can be a great communication tool for those helping you in your birth. But what I realized after reading the Birth Plan Trap theory was that the deeper stuff - the letting go of fear and expectation, trusting your intuition, being in the NOW - that was something a childbirth plan could never achieve for me. What it could not do for me was open my heart and spirit to the realm of possibility that is childbirth. And this is why, when I sat down to write my birth plan, it did not feel right. And more importantly, it did not feel sincere. What I needed was more than, This is how I want this to go.
What I needed was, Let me surrender to wherever this journey takes me. Let me feel safe and supported. Allow me to be okay with whatever journey brings this child safely into my arms.
My son is almost 3 months old now (!!!). He is amazing and beautiful and my husband and I are so blessed to have this little human in our lives. About a week after he was born, I ventured outside for a walk, I think my first walk postpartum. It was a cold and beautifully bright December morning, quiet - kind of perfect and blissful. Crazy hormones I’m sure added to the magic of the moment. As I walked slowly, I remember reflecting on all of the hours (seriously, hours) I spent during my pregnancy in fear. Fearful our son would not be healthy, that I would not be able to give birth (like my pelvic bone was too narrow or something?!), fearful birth would not go as planned -- just fearful of all of the unknowns. So many hours spent worrying, mind-loops of worse case scenarios… and here we had at home this perfect baby boy, brought into the world in his own way, a journey that is all his own and unique to him. On that walk I cried, tears of joy and gratitude and amazement and relief. In childbirth I was shown once again that I am not in control. None of us are. Forever being shown this in our lives, right?! My childbirth experience taught me that it is possible to trust my body’s wisdom, to feel scared and empowered in the same nanosecond, to feel a little out of control but also present and connected. And to let that which I have no control over unfold.
Talk about the ultimate surrender.
I would love to share more of my birth story with you. It was an intense and beautiful experience. Transformative. But I’ll save that story for another time. Rather, I’ll conclude by honoring the millions of women who have been challenged by a traumatic birth, or a birth where they felt disrespected or lesser-than. Or the women who are getting hit hard by postpartum depression and anxiety. And DEFINITELY the single mamas who are doing this whole damn thing without the support of a loving partner. Not to say this whole birth and motherhood thing has been a walk in the park for me. But it’s important for me to recognize that there are women who are having to dig deeper and go to darker places than I will to find healing from their birth.
I never want to take for granted the freedom and power and pain I experienced when bringing my son into this world. But I want to recognize that this is not every woman’s story, and I will always respect a woman’s choice to birth her baby in whatever way feels the most authentic and true to her. Meanwhile, the balance of envisioning what I want or where I want to go in life without hardcore trying to manipulate every little thing outside of my control continues to be work for me, and probably will be for always. I’m pretty excited to be a new mom, to navigate what feels like these unchartered waters. My experience as a new mama has been pure joy, pure exhaustion, and is not without it’s low and overwhelming moments. But what’s amazing is that my little guy constantly brings my awareness to the present, and he has so much to teach me.