Stories of Birth – A Journey to Women’s Wisdom
By Georgina Kelly
A friend told me, that when she was pregnant, almost all the women she came into contact with told her birth stories – their own or someone else’s. Most of these were what she termed ‘horror stories’. “Strangers in shopping queues would approach me to tell me of their neighbour’s labour that ended up like a nightmare.
By the time I went into labour myself I was terrified. I expected it to be a totally traumatising experience that I had to endure as a woman for the sake of having a baby.” We women have always told stories to each other. For women in our past, literacy was exceptional and opportunities for formal education were often minimal.
Women were therefore compelled, beside the cooking fire, in the fields, in their domestic sphere, to tell stories which were preserved through the ages. Through the telling of our stories, we are keeping alive an important tradition of our women’s culture. We consequently spin ourselves into self reflection; clarifying personal meanings, uncovering motivations, gaining awareness and understanding of our behaviour.
Generally, we women value ideas, context, creativity, complexity and drama. We weave words into stories as we long to express ourselves, to see ourselves reflected in others, to celebrate our uniqueness, and to celebrate our kinship and connection to others. The ancient oral tradition has been a crucial repository of meaning where our secrets and experiences have been passed on. For this reason, in the workshops I run called “The Art of Mindful Birthing”, I ask the women to bring along with them a birth story they have heard in their family.
We sit in a circle, and one by one the women recount the tale told to them by maybe their mother, grandmother, sister or aunt. Through keeping this tradition of story telling, particularly about pregnancy, birth and motherhood, we are keeping alive the wisdom of our past, and recounting instructions of the feminine mysteries. Medicalisation of Birth and Horror Stories Regrettably, stories told in our present time are reflecting the experience of current generations of women immersed in the medicalised culture of pregnancy and birth.
Their experiences have been shaped by the cultural framework where women have been subjected to intervening birth practices, in which their needs for integrity and autonomy may not have been met. They may have been isolated in labour without emotional support or coerced into using drugs to desensitise them from their birth experience. They may have been forced to surrender to the authority of the medical establishment, which fears birth and mistrusts women’s bodies. The collective history of these women, who have passed on their stories of birth as a medical event, has lead to a further demoralisation in women’s self-confidence today (Farley and Widmann, 2001).
The ‘horror stories’ pregnant women are hearing seem to reinforce the medicalised view of birth, being “proof” that women’s bodies do not work as well as technology; and that women need experts to safely deliver their babies for them. They are hearing the ‘same old story’. They are travelling along on their journey to Motherhood with disconcerting images and negative narratives as guides. Within these stories we can clearly hear the voice of the ‘wounded mother’, depicted by Benig Mauger (1999) which cries out that ‘this is not how it was meant to be’; the protesting inner voice that had believed in birth as meaningful and momentous.
If we listen well, we can hear the disappointment as her innate need for connection with the sacrality of birth was not met; and her magnificent power as a woman was not revealed in the way that she had longed for. A woman may tell her ‘horror stories’ for many reasons. One reason is to give voice to her story, passing on her experience. She may be telling her story to make sense of the memories she has of this momentously life changing event. Perhaps for another, seeing a pregnant woman may trigger unresolved and tumultuous emotions about a birth that was traumatic, cold, stressful, or painful.
She may feel a strong unconscious desire to prepare other women for their ‘inevitable’ experience too; an inopportune expression of a genuine desire to inform, share, and contribute. Sadly, for many, the ancient initiatory process of birth story telling, has evolved into a practise that prepares women to be possibly shamed, objectified, and redundant in the face of technology, professionalism, and medicine. The stories may be teachings that: this is how it is; prepare yourself; don’t get any romantic ideas. They may also be validations for the outcome stimulated by feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and shame.
“The baby would have died if they hadn’t used forceps”; “I am so lucky he cut me or I would have torn horribly” (Rabuzzi, 1994). The covert message may be – do not trust yourself; do not trust your body; do not trust birth. If you do, you will be broken hearted. One truthful moral of the so-called ‘horror story’ is that labour can be very difficult and that pain for many women is real. It is true that babies and women sometimes do die and that no birth is controllable. Birth is part of Life; and Life is imperfect – seasoned with loss and pain and death. The untruthful belief that stems from hospital culture is that pregnancy is pathology and birth is dangerous.
That technology can safeguard the woman and baby and deliver a perfectly healthy infant into her mother’s arms. This is the falsehood that may seduce women and partners into the doors of the obstetric units. As the midwives’ t-shirt reads: “Birth is as safe as Life gets”. Yet, Birth has her own will and beside her beauty and luminosity, there is her shadow aspect in which pain, mystery, loss and death dwell. As a midwife who believes and trusts deeply in Birth, I also stand in awe of her uncertainty. If we women cling on to a plan of how we expect a birth to be, she may refuse to comply and teach us that she has other plans.
We are asked to release ourselves from attachments and judgements that may blind us from our power in coping with the power, loss, surprises, mystery, and pain that Birth may bring us. We are asked to embrace the unpredictability of Life and the unpredictability of Birth. We are called to trust that the journey will meet our needs for meaning and growth, regardless of where the path takes us. Listening With Creative Ears So when I ask women participating in my workshops to ask a family member to tell them their birth story, I request that they also ask the woman further specific questions. Pamela England (1998) writes, despite the wounds women have suffered from the medicalisation of their births, they have learnt something about themselves and about life. This is of immense value. She has written a series of questions, to gain a deeper understanding of a woman’s birth. They are:
• What helped you most when you gave birth? • What was your spiritual experience of giving birth?
• If you could do it over again, what would you do the same?
• Is there anything you would do differently?
• What do you wish you had known beforehand? (Ibid, 1998)
In answering these questions about her birth, the woman is acknowledged as ‘knower’ and given validation for the mighty experience she has gone through. She is potentially able to view and acknowledge more truth about her life, and develop a deeper understanding of who she is through reflection on this significant rite of passage. Hopefully, she will have the chance to perhaps mourn the loss of dreams and any regrets. She may also get to celebrate what was positive – perhaps the joy of meeting her baby, and the learning she gained.
Here is the opportunity to take up the influential work of Joseph Campbell, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Robert Bly, Carl Jung, and James Hillman. Their writing transcends the Literal and spirits us into the imaginative and soul making realm. We can translate the birth stories told as a mythic adventure to gain deeper illumination of the woman’s experience. Campbell wrote of the archetypal hero/ heroine’s journey; the ordinary woman with a unique gift, faced with a dangerous and seemingly impossible challenge. She sets out on an inward and outward journey with many dangers and obstacles to be overcome and transcended. When she completes the tasks, she receives a special gift or power or knowledge. She must then return to where she began the journey with her treasure to be used for compassionate acts (Bubic et al, 2000).
The ordinary woman with a unique gift is the pregnant woman, and Birth is the mythic inner journey where we confront testings and struggles, the valleys and the heights. We face the Wild Woman archetype in the Underworld, and must do whatever she bids us to do to return safely, with her teachings and our new power. It is a process that births us into the land of the initiated woman: Motherhood. By listening to birth stories with creative ears, we hear that birth is always a practice to enlarge us and mature us – to teach us about ourselves and our lives so we can cope with the emotional and physical hard work of mothering our children. It ripens us in preparation for the imminent new stage of life. Power of Listening When a story teller is connected to her feelings (perhaps disappointment, sadness, satisfaction) and able to identify her needs that have or have not been met (perhaps integrity, self-worth, respect) the listener is able to connect more genuinely with her (Rosenberg, 2003). This process may progress the woman along the path towards wholeness – the healing of the wound deep in women’s hearts, (and indeed men’s too), caused by the repression of the Feminine in our culture (Mauger, 1999). This wound manifests as a mistrust of subjective or intuitive knowledge, aversion for women’s mysteries, lack of connection between women due to fear and conditioned competitiveness, and the alienation we experience from our own inner wisdom and inner lives.
When women are able to move closer to one another and listen sincerely to one another’s authentic story; bonds are made, and the bonds give them power (Galland, 2000). Through listening deeply to the story of another – hearing the grief and triumphs, acknowledging the beauty of every woman’s birth and of every woman’s heart – we women become united. In the early Chinese Literature of Zen Buddhism, intimacy was used as a synonym for the breakthrough that is known as ‘realisation’ or ‘enlightenment’. When you are intimate, you are ‘one with’ (Aitken and Steindl-Rast, 1996, 5).
This being ‘one with’ is allied with the notion of empathy, and is a process which brings about understanding and knowing. The harvest of this intimacy and empathy is a revival and celebration of the Feminine: and this is our power. Stories of Transformation In my mind, there are no ‘horror stories’; just women’s stories. Using evaluations and judgments like this only narrows our capacity to listen well, to grasp the meanings and be present to the woman before us. We are consequently not able to grasp the essential truth for the woman; that which she has learnt of herself. Through self reflection, and coming to know herself more deeply, she can see life more clearly, and thus recognise her own inner wisdom and divine light (Das, 2003). And then, she will more easily find it in others too.
This realisation can transform her life, her behaviour, and ourselves too; if we allow ourselves to open up to her story. Honour Stories Women soon to give birth have an increased sense of fragility of self (Rabuzzi, 1994, 55). They are vulnerable as their hearts and souls along with their bodies are yielding, softening and opening up in preparation to give birth. Their feelings and thoughts impact upon their babies’ well-being (Luminaire-Rosen, 2000). Effectively, their babies are listening through their mother’s senses. Consequently, it would seem advisable for women on the cusp of birthing to avoid stories that might provoke fears or doubts. It is the time for them to relish the ‘honour stories’ of inspiration; to remind them of the power of their bodies; to remind them that they can indeed trust themselves and trust birth. It is the time for nurture and gentleness and blessing by those in their community. Meeting the Need to Tell our Tale Unfortunately, there are few forums today in our society that allows us to gather around and listen to each other’s heartfelt stories about birth. So women may vent in the shopping queue. There are few opportunities for women to meet safely, to talk and listen without fear of judgement, advice, one-upping, or correcting. When telling their stories, they may be repeatedly told that they ‘should be thankful’ that they have a healthy baby. They may be criticised for their choices or criticised for anticipating a gentle and blissful birth.
Their innate hope for birth to have been an experience that reflected love and profundity is often nullified. There is little context for women to express their sorrows or joys about birth; for them and the listener to connect to the mythic message and universality of Birth. As women, we have a need to tell our tale, and a need to be heard, recognised and understood. Story telling in a safe circle provides a strategy to have these needs met. Birth stories welcome us into the new world of Motherhood. They confirm the plethora of possibilities in pregnancy and birth. They may alert us to take responsibility for our births and to not hand over our beautiful and womanly power to others. They may remind us that birth is more than a procedure for getting a baby – it is a process that guides us into deeper maturity and self-discovery. Birth stories may stimulate us into choosing a birth attendant who shares and honours our values. They may embrace our profound need to celebrate our creative and marvellous capacity to give birth.
They may kindle the longing of our heart to to mourn the losses we have experienced in our own lives. If we listen well, Birth Stories will lead us to the heart of the story teller and to our own heart -where the divine and dynamic Feminine Wisdom dwells.
References: Aitken, R. and Steindl-Rast, D. (1996)
The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian. Shambhala: London. Bubic, L., Portfilio, M., Ressler, G. (2000)
Story goes to work: Developing Respect for Diversity Through Storytelling. Source: Avalon Consulting & Associates, Opportunities Conference. Link: www.edgeofavalon.com Das, Lama Surya. (2003)
Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be. Random House Inc: London. Farley, C. and Widmann, S. (2001)
‘The Value of Birth Stories’. International Journal of Childbirth Education. September Issue. Galland, C. (1998)
The Bond Between Women: a Journey to Fierce Compassion. Riverhead Books: New York. England, P. and Horowitz, R. (1998)
Birthing From Within: An Extra-Ordinary Guide to Childbirth Preparation. Luminare-Rosen, C. (2000)
Parenting Begins Before Conception: A guide to Preparing Body, Mind, and Spirit For You and Your Child. Healing Arts Press: Vermont. Maugher, B. (1999)
‘Wounded Mothers’. Birth Matters. Journal of the Maternity Coalition Inc: Australia. Rabuzzi, K.A. (1994)
Mother with Child – transformations through childbirth. Indiana University Press: Indianapolis. Rosenberg, M. Ph.D (2003)
Nonviolent communication: a language of compassion. PuddleDancer Press: NY.