Because from out of the mouth, the heart speaks.
A really good storyteller casts a spell. Whether through the written or the oral word, the storyteller takes the listener captive and transports them to another place that transcends the reality they currently inhabit. And the story can do this because of the words that the storyteller chooses to use and the exquisitely sensitive emotions and unmet needs that these carefully chosen words trigger and invoke. In indigenous cultures, the story might be known as ‘pointing the bone’, or we might say, it plants a seed. Someone particularly astute once said that when you change the meaning of a word, you change the culture. Words are symbols, imbued with well-trod meaning, which whether used as socio-political propaganda, or used in individual relationships can change the culture, or story, of that relationship. It changes trajectories and affects outcomes. And I could wax lyrical about how religion has done this, and how politicians do this, and how the gazillionaire puppetmasters who really rule the world do this – and have you noticed how it starts as a subtle tweak, here or there? Changing the meaning of words like Love, and God, and Choice, and Privilege. (No? Maybe that’s just me.) But this post isn’t about that. It’s about the words that we as individuals choose to use and how they ripple through other people’s lives. In this regard, we are all storytellers. But where does the story we tell come from? And what is its purpose?
“Whoever guards his mouth and tongue
Guards his life from distresses” (Proverbs 21:23)
This story begins at a point during the birth of my youngest son. I had been labouring for about 19 hours, managing well – I’d done this before and so far, the labour was unfolding as expected and surprisingly much the same as my first birth with my eldest son exactly three years and 51 weeks before. In the lead up to this birth however, I had been working as a doula for about two years and had been mindful of the influence of other women’s birth journeys on my own, because someone once said, ‘worry is the work of pregnancy’. That is, women at this time of their lives are particularly vulnerable – not just physically but also psycho-emotionally. It is during this time, more than any other, that supressed emotional traumas – whether lived or inherited, and the beliefs they generate, tend to surface, and other people’s stuff can trigger it, thus adding to the burden. With this in mind, I embarked on some self-nurturing via the means of guided relaxation and visualisation techniques (The ‘hypnodoula’ process as I had learned to facilitate from my mentor Denise Love. The process is more commonly known as hypnobirthing.) throughout the pregnancy. By the time labour had established itself, I was somewhat relaxed even in spite of a hot water system breaking down in the midst of filling the birth pool, and the arrivals and departures of various family members that invariably always show up during my births. My mother still remembers me making Steiner-inspired dolls in between contractions, stopping only to breathe and let the wave pass, before picking up from where I left off, cutting and sewing wee felt outfits.
Birth is a journey of going inward. Of leaving the thinking, analytical brain behind, and dropping into the instinctive, primal cradle of the womb. It is a truly embodied process, and it has to be this way. If we look at it through the lens of mythology, it can be likened to the hero’s journey of descent into the underworld, to a place where our deepest fears are confronted and overcome, and we emerge the triumphant warrior into the glorious light of a new hope, bringing with us the dawn of a new era. It is during birth that we learn to be mothers, whether it is our first or our tenth baby, where a new facet to the archetype – to our role, is also born. The birth process follows a specific design, or pattern. Of ripening and blossoming, of contracting and expanding, of working and resting, of opening, of surrender, of breathing and letting go. And always, at some pivotal point the process – of facing the Void. In my previous post on working with the forbidden, I likened the journey of walking with cancer to walking with birth. At some point, a surrender to the design must be acknowledged in order to be strengthened and move forward in the journey. I reminded readers that this doesn’t equate with defeat or giving up. On the contrary, surrender in the form of allowing the process to unfold, to be able to read its terrain and work with it – rather than against it – is paramount to survival.
As is my primal wont – as it is with most mammals – my body slows labour until such a time that I can birth my baby in peace, quiet, safety, privacy, and stillness. For my first two babies, this occurred just on the breaking of dawn, for my third it occurred at sunset, all in the comfort of my own home. During my second birth, after some 19 hours of labour things were still moving along at a slow but steady pace, so I went to bed around 11pm to get some rest for the harder work ahead. Around 3am I was awoken by stronger contractions and so I woke my husband to let him know and he graciously went to stoke the fire in the loungeroom, and then check on the warmth of water in the heated birth pool (the hot water system had been fixed the previous afternoon), so I could labour in the glow of the fire in peace and quiet whilst our eldest child and my mother slept on. As the waves started to intensify, we decided to call our midwife, who was also a good friend and colleague. She arrived about 40 minutes later, and we sat and chatted as she watched me labouring in my comfortable little nest that I’d made out of one of our beanbags, breathing into the contractions and breathing them out as they diminished, and then carrying on our conversation. At one point I remember saying to her that I felt a little nauseous. After about an hour, she said, “I think you’re still only in early first stage. You should go back to bed and get some rest for the hard stuff ahead.” I remember thinking, “no, I’ve been labouring for the last 23 hours. I know I’m well into established labour now.” I didn’t voice this, but my husband did. They debated back and forth for a bit, my husband being deeply in tune with my birth rhythm knew where I was at, but my midwife had come in mid-story. The point that she had observed me in, was during the transition phase.
The Transition phase can last anywhere from for a couple of minutes to an hour or more. It is known as Transition because it signals the changing nature of the birthwaves from contracting and expanding and opening the cervix, to the contractions that push. And sometimes during this transitional phase, labour can seem to slow right down or stop all together. Oftentimes, a woman may feel nauseous like she is about to throw up (she may simply voice this, or she may do it), or she may suddenly say that she doesn’t want to do this anymore and she wants to go home, or she may suddenly get really scared as somewhere deep in her subconsciousness she is standing on the precipice staring into the Void – the abyss of the unknown. Will I live or will I die? Will my baby live or die? Am I ready to be a Mother? How will I cope? What if I’m not good enough? These are all worries that confront us in this phase. The reality is about to hit us that very shortly we will be holding a baby and our whole life will have permanently changed. For many women, especially when we have supressed and unresolved emotional wounds, this is a huge confrontation, and requires a huge leap of faith.
But leap we must. And the story begins to birth itself.
The debate ended with our midwife deciding that her observations were sound and that she was going home. She lived a 25-minute drive away across a meandering gorge. And so, with that, she got in her four-wheel drive and left.
And then several things happened seemingly all at once.
“I think [the midwife]* is wrong.” I said. “I know she is.” said the husband.
“I need the toilet” I said, as I lumbered as quickly as I could up the stairs from the loungeroom to the landing where the bathroom was. As I sat on the toilet, an overwhelming urge to take all of my clothes off took over and I shouted out to my husband that I needed to get into the birth pool, but I needed his help. He came in and helped me into our spare room which was right next door to the toilet, and where we had set up the birth pool. The urge to bear down that I began feeling on the toilet became stronger once I had settled into the warm water. My husband said that he was going to go and call our midwife to suggest that she come back, and so off he went back down to the loungeroom. Left by myself, my body began to push in earnest. I had learnt that with the change in contractions from opening to pushing, to also change my breathing. I began to pant to help my body relax and, in an effort to steady the power that was now surging through me. I could feel the pressure grow between my legs, so I reached down and felt a huge bulge in my perineum. Suddenly, an odd thought crossed my mind, “What in the world could be causing that bulge? Is my uterus falling out?” You see, in my vulnerable state during transition a seed had been planted. ‘But I’m only in first stage’ I thought. ‘The baby can’t be coming yet. It’s too soon.’ I began to feel very dazed and confused. I reached down again, and I could feel the top of my son’s head. Suddenly I got my wits about me, as if a switch had been flicked. I was back in my body and my body was telling me that my baby was crowning. This was the moment of truth.
I called out to my husband to tell him that the baby’s head was crowning. He rushed into the room, along with my mum and our eldest son just as I was lifting our second son out of the water to lay him on my breast. It was an extraordinary experience for all of us. Our midwife did come back and swallow her words. I think we all learned a very valuable lesson that day.
The lesson that I learned from that was indeed about the power of words and what we say and when we say them. We affect the story. Oftentimes, we say the words because we don’t listen, we don’t read the terrain. Most of the time, this is because we are projecting our own needs, or our own interpretation on things through a lens that might not match the reality.
Since that experience, I’ve supported numerous other women, and have heard even more birth stories from others. I am constantly saddened by the disconnect that occurs and the changes that are made to people’s stories by the words of their caregivers. Fear-based policy becomes more important than listening to women, to what they say and what they don’t say during their process, or how they sound and how they move. Caregivers are losing valuable old-school skills like observation, the ability to read the terrain, and a trust in the process. I listen to the stories of ‘birthrape’ and loss of autonomy, loss of a vision, of the depression that follows and the acceptance that this is ‘normal’ – at least we have a healthy baby, right? (sure, we’ll only need a few years of therapy when we’re in our forties to deal with the inherited trauma and its aftermath)
But what about a healthy Mother?
And I see the cascade of intervention. (Would you like an epidural? What about pethidine? What about now? I bet you want drugs now, right? Or how about, ‘Oh you’ve laboured for 6 hours and you’re exhausted, quick we need to induce you now or the placenta will fail and EVERYONE WILL DIE!’ Or my personal favourite whilst a woman was actively pushing, “I’M NOT QUALIFIED TO ATTEND A WATERBIRTH! QUICK! PULL THE PLUG AND GET OUT OF THE BATH NOW!! GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!!) And I hear where the words changed the story. The caregivers no longer realise the depth of meaning that their ironically care-less words convey.
Sometimes, there is more healing, more encouragement in saying nothing at all. Just sit, watch, and listen. Really LISTEN. Learn to listen with something more than just your ears. Listen for the intangibles. To walk with a woman throughout her pregnancy and birth and those precious weeks that follow is an extraordinary privilege. Indeed, to walk with anyone within a therapeutic setting is an extraordinary privilege. We don’t pull them along behind us, and we don’t push them in front. We walk alongside and we entrain our footfall to theirs. We learn to listen with our hearts. This is also called empathy. And at the same time, we hold space for their story to be told.
And the story will always, when allowed, follow a pattern. In birth, it is a pattern of contracting and expanding, of opening, of surrender, of breathing, and of letting go. If the story stalls or gets carried away on a tangent, we find our way back to the pattern and keep going. A lovely, and relevant example of this, is the entrainment that occurs between a mother and her newborn. The newborn’s heart beat and breathing rhythms are irregular and erratic. By staying in constant contact with the mother after the birth and in these first few weeks, the baby’s rhythms entrain to the mother. The mothers body ‘teaches’ the newborn’s how to find its own inherent pattern.
When I’m attending a woman during birth, I don’t say a lot. I sit, watch, and listen. If I hear her vocalisations begin to move into the shrill of fear, I match them with my own, gently guiding her down the octaves and back into that deep, primal base note of the Wombsong. This deep intonation that comes from the belly relaxes the jaw, which in turn relaxes and opens the sphincters. If she holds her breath, I breathe alongside her, finding the rhythm of the wave so she can ride it out. I offer a drink, a massage, or a change of position by way of gesture – depending on what her gestures have told me. Birth is a dance, which is not mine to lead, but I do know it’s choreography.
“With great power comes great responsibility.” ~ Voltaire.
The cry for freedom of speech and the right to be heard for every vulnerable minority under the sun has typified our society in this Orwellian era. (Should I point out that there are 7.5 billion vulnerable minorities on the planet?) Everyone has something to say, but no one wants to take responsibility for the things that they speak. Perhaps this is the problem.
So perhaps, we should instead not only listen to what others are really saying, but also listen to what comes out of our own mouths. Is it coming from a place of love or fear? Of care and concern or self-interest. Of patience or impatience?
The mother entrains her baby through the deepest love a human can give. It is instinctive, protective, nurturing, and mindful. The Holder of Sacred Space works the same. We are all vulnerable, but imagine if we were all Holders of Sacred Space.
The words we say can be a balm to the soul, or a poison that we will, in time, have to swallow ourselves. Therefore, don’t point the bone. Instead, let us choose our words wisely.
*the Midwife’s name has been withheld out of respect.