Childbirth Is a Mythic Journey and You Are the Heroine

Julia Roberts playing Erin Brockovich,the dauntless heroine with the baby on her hip.

“Giving birth is definitely a heroic deed, in that it is the giving over of oneself to the life of another.”

– Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth.

 

There’s no denying it: childbirth is intense.

Although nature has honed, over millennia, a strong design for reproduction, it has probably always been hard and its success never guaranteed. Mothers can become ill, and babies can fail to thrive. Sometimes birth is long; sometimes complications develop that overtax the mother or baby.

So we turn, as we do, to science and technology – to medicine – to eliminate the trial and uncertainty of birth. We know intellectually that certainty is rarely truly possible, but everything about medicine suggests it comes close: hospitals are temples of sophisticated technology, staffed by a fleet of highly trained personnel, and directed by doctors, who are products of one of the most demanding educational pipelines that exist.

Medicine has had great success at mitigating the trials of birth, but they are not without cost. It is widely understood that interventions to manage pain introduce risk and can create dysfunction and even harm mother and baby. Less acknowledged is that the medical perspective reduces the full range of sensations of birth to a problem of pain and reduces the mother to helpless sufferer. When she is numbed, the birthing mother may not get to experience how strong and powerful she is and may lose the possibility for ecstasy during birth.

Medicine has mitigated risk in birth, but we’ve paid for that, too. We have adopted medicine’s focus on risk, illness and injury and believe ourselves to be fragile. We have believed in their authority so much that we think we have none, and feeling powerless increases fear. In order to protect the hearts of those who practice it, medicine has drained birth of meaning, reduced it from a birth – redolent of new life! – to a delivery – redolent of . . . logistical efficiency.

It isn’t medicine’s fault. Because it deals only with the physical aspects of birth, it can only take us so far. It certainly cannot eliminate uncertainty. Nothing can. It’s part of every great endeavor. What we need is a model of birth that goes beyond the physical realm to embrace the mental – a model that accepts trial and uncertainty – and one in which medicine is a tool, not the master.

That model is the heroic journey.

Birth and New Motherhood as a Heroine’s Journey

Seeing birth as a heroine’s journey elevates it to a mythic event, rather than reducing it to a physical transaction. With that change of perspective, you, the mother, go from helpless to heroic in an instant. The trials you undergo and the risks you take on your journey to get your prize – your baby – are honored. Your Odyssean return – postpartum – is not overlooked but celebrated. The greatness of your transition from maiden to mother is acknowledged. Myth also provides help to the heroine, in the form of allies and tools, without displacing her.

Here are a few quotes from the great mythologist Joseph Campbell to illustrate my points. The heroic journey:

Embraces trial. “The trials [of a quest] are designed to see to it that the intending hero should really be a hero. Is he really a match for this task? Can he overcome the dangers? Does he have the courage, the knowledge, the capacity, to enable him to serve?”

Motherhood will push you to your limits, so birth pushes you. It shows you what you’re made of.

Acknowledges risk. “To evolve out of this position of psychological immaturity to the courage of self-responsibility and assurance requires a kind of death and resurrection. That’s the basic motif of the universal hero’s journey – leaving one condition and finding the source of life to bring you forth into a richer or mature condition.”

A great, under-acknowledged truth of birth is that you don’t just have a baby at the end of it. You become a mother – a new creation.

Goes beyond the material to acknowledge the spiritual, emotional, mental dimensions of this transition. “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”

You needn’t become a mother to experience this transformation of consciousness, but it is a fast-track to it!

There are two more important points that make myth a rich way of thinking about the transition into motherhood.

Myth encompasses postpartum. After every initiation – the part of the quest in which the heroine faces trials in order to achieve the prize – there is a return, wherein the lessons of the trials and the prize itself are integrated into the heroine’s community. Birth, of course, is the initiation; postpartum is the return. Both halves of the motherhood journey are honored.

Allows for tools and helpers, but you remain the hero. Think of Harry Potter: his friends, the sword of Gryffindor, Dumbledore, etc. Heroes are never alone on their journeys, but their helpers don’t attempt to take the quest off their hands either.

Gather your birth team – partner, doula, midwife – and your home / postpartum team – partner, family member, friends and neighbors – to you. But never forget that you’re the heroine. Be like another popular hero, Luke Skywalker, who, Campbell says, “found within himself the resources of character to meet his destiny.”

Fear accompanies every journey that involves trial and risk. We cannot vanquish fear, but the empowering perspective of myth helps us to put it in its place. We cannot eliminate risk but a mythic perspective elevates it. We cannot forgo the trial if we want to know how powerful we are.   You deserve a team on this journey, and all the tools you need, medical or otherwise. But this is your quest. You are the heroine.

Does this argument resonate with you? Does this shift in perspective make you sit up a little taller? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!

The Right Way to Fight with Your Spouse

[Above: This intimate moment brought to you by clear communication.]

It’s 2 a.m. Baby cries. Mother wakes immediately. Father snores on. “Typical,” she huffs and tears herself from the sheets again to go to the baby.

I’ve been writing about how to thrive postpartum. In my last post I took exception to our culture’s demonization of postpartum hormones. I argued that, rather than being rogue agents within us, they ultimately play a constructive role. By intensifying our emotions, our postpartum hormones force us to reckon with the changes the new baby brings and to get our (new) needs met.

“Ultimately” is a tricky word, though. It acknowledges that there will be mess before you arrive at the new normal. In order for your life to expand to accommodate baby, the old will have to be torn down: established patterns dismantled and built to new specs. The “Ten Steps to Postpartum Thriving” will help you build a solid foundation.

Established relationships – namely your relationship with your spouse – also will have to be renegotiated as you grow from couple to parents. There’s a lot to figure out, and you won’t always agree – like the couple I imagine in the epigraph to this post. But you can learn to “fight right,” and your relationship can be better than ever for it.

That’s what today’s post is about. I give you my formula for Clear Communication so you can see yourself and your partner clearly and then communicate in a way that invites intimacy and problem-solving.

The Clear Communication Formula:

  1. Notice Your Judgment.
  2. Ask, “What Am I Afraid Of?”
  3. Do the Work.
  4. Reflect & Invite.

Notice Your Judgment.  You love each other, and you will judge one another. As Byron Katie says, it’s what we humans do here on Planet Earth. Judging the actions of others is so ingrained that we may not even notice we’re doing it. It’s also so taboo that we may tell ourselves that we’re not doing it. That’s why noticing that you are judging is the first step.

What you may notice more easily is contraction or heaviness in your body. You make a face, hold your breath. You may want to say something but stop yourself.

Ask, “What Am I Afraid Of?” Once you notice those physical sensations, ask, “What am I afraid of?” This simple question, posed in the privacy of your own head, will get to the heart of what’s bothering you right away. Go with the first image or phrase that pops into your head, before you have a chance to censor yourself. That’s your painful thought.

Do the Work. Once you have identified the thought that is causing you pain, do the Work on it. Chances are you’ve made the judged behavior mean something enduring, catastrophic and probably untrue.

  • If you’re new to this blog, the Work is Byron Katie’s process for questioning thoughts that cause pain. You read about it, watch Katie do it, and do it yourself at her website. I’ve also shown you my Work here and here.

The Work will help you see yourself, your partner and the situation more clearly.

Reflect & Invite. Having done the Work, you are now ready to problem solve with your partner from a place of curiosity and openness. Begin the conversation by reflecting and inviting.

To reflect is to name, simply, what you see, as if you were holding a mirror up to your partner. For example, “You’re crying.” This little technique contains so much compassion. It says, “I see you.” It doesn’t place any demands on the person I’m talking to or make his behavior about me.

Invite dialogue with the words, “What do you want to tell me?” This technique is much gentler than asking why. “Why” requires the person to justify herself. Invitation tells the person, “I am here to listen.”

Now let’s go back to our imagined couple and see how the clear communication formula would work for them.

It’s 2 a.m. Baby cries. Mother wakes immediately. Father snores on. “Typical,” she thinks. . .

But wait! She knows the clear communication formula, so she doesn’t huff and tear herself from the bed this time. She (1) notices her eyes roll and her face scrunch up in a look of contempt. She moves to step 2:

  1. What am I afraid of? That he’ll never wake up for baby. I’ll have to do it forever. Nothing in his life has changed, but everything in my life has changed! He gets to sleep all night, wake up rested, then just leave us behind without a second thought, while I stay here trapped. Ah! That’s what kills me, the belief that I’m trapped and he’s free.
  1. Do the Work. “I’m trapped.” Is it true?  “Nothing in his life has changed.” Is it true?  Doing the Work she notices all the ways she is not trapped, but rather would feel trapped if she could not be with her baby. She notices how helpful the father has been, remembers how he wishes he could take more paternity leave. This doesn’t take away all her fatigue, but it helps her to feel less burdened and to enjoy this moment with her baby.
  1. Reflect & Invite. In the morning she broaches the subject with more clarity and neutrality than she had before she noticed, identified and questioned her thoughts.  She reflects the circumstances: “Baby got me up three times last night. I’m so tired. Here she is reflecting what’s going on with her, because she’s the one with the problem. She could also have said, “The baby didn’t wake you last night.”  Now she invites problem solving with curiosity and openness: “Let’s talk about how I can get more unbroken sleep in the night.”

Do You Want to Be Right, or Do You Want to Be Happy?

Every judgment you have about your partner is an opportunity either to erect a barrier between you or to grow more intimate. As Dr. Phil says, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” The clear communication formula is a formula for happiness. It directs you to take responsibility for yourself first, before you bring your partner into it. It helps you to see yourself, your thinking and your partner more clearly. In my experience, clarity always increases love. When you begin a conversation with your partner from a place of clarity and love, you problem-solve more effectively and intimacy blossoms.  That’s fighting right.

The transition from couple to parents is not for the faint of heart. It will be messy and probably tear-stained, but like every other aspect of this transition, an opportunity for conscious growth and, ultimately, thriving.

Do you and your beloved have a tip to share for resolving differences and increasing intimacy? Let us know in the comments!

 

Optimal Cord Clamping the Culture of Medicine

Which cord seems right to clamp? The full one or the empty one?

Which cord seems right to clamp? The full one or the empty one?

Expectant parents are increasingly aware of the benefits of delaying the clamping and cutting of their newborn’s umbilical cord, and they are insisting on it for their births.  This is great news because there are no benefits  to early cord clamping without a specific medical indication.  Whereas, there are abundant benefits to delaying; in fact, the best term for it is “optimal cord clamping.”  The question becomes, how long do you wait? More importantly, how long do you wait if baby seems to be having difficulty taking his first breaths?  It turns out that, contrary to common practice, it is important to keep the cord open and baby attached to the placenta until baby is breathing well on her own.  The fact that this is not common practice tells us something important about the culture of medicine.

 

First, here is a very simple explanation of the physiology of newborn transition.  (For a detailed discussion of this transition, visit the brilliant Midwife Thinking.)  In the womb, one-third of the baby’s blood volume is outside of him, in the placenta and umbilical cord, so that baby can exchange nutrients and waste products with the mother, through the placenta.  When he his born, the placenta transfuses the entirety of the newborn’s blood volume, and stem cells from the umbilical cord, into him.  This blood is needed for the full, independent function of the baby’s organs – notably the lungs, which must now accomplish the gas exchange that the placenta was completing in utero.  After birth, you can see this transfusion in the pulsing of the umbilical cord.  It takes 2 – 10 minutes for complete transfusion.  As long as the cord pulses and baby is not held aloft, he is receiving this transfusion and continues to be oxygenated by it.  This means that he does not have to rely solely on breathing air to get the oxygen he requires.  If baby is not breathing well on his own, assistance can be given by the mother or by staff while baby remains in mother’s arms or beside her, attached to the placenta.

 

Now that you know something about the science of newborn transition at the time of birth, you can confidently insist on optimal cord clamping when your baby is born.  But I’d like to take this post a step further and let the issue of early cord clamping – a harmful intervention regularly practiced on babies – teach us something important about maternity care in general.   It teaches us something about the culture of medicine and the importance of your physician’s practice style and philosophy.  In The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Better Birth, Henci Goer says that “whether you have a c-section or any other procedure or medication during your labor has little to do with your or your baby’s condition.  What happens to you depends almost entirely on your caregiver’s practice style and philosophy.”

 

Doctors are human, like the rest of us.  Humans tend to like to feel in control.  This leads us to value predictability and routine over change, even if the change is an improvement.  In our busy lives, we don’t always make time to keep up with the latest wisdom – until we’re in trouble and searching for help.  (When was the last time you read a parenting book?  Compare that with how many you read when you were pregnant or a brand new parent.)  With those observations in mind, it’s easy to see how physicians would favor doing what they always do, even if their knowledge is outdated.  And if things go well for them – if these practices cause them no obvious trouble – they don’t go looking to change the formula that seems to work!

 

Furthermore, as medical anthropologist Robbie Davis-Floyd reminds us, “Doctors are socialized to find pathology.”  What we look for, we tend to find, and when we find it, our pre-existing belief is reinforced.  Because of their socialization in disease and intervention, physicians don’t necessarily believe that birth, just because it is “natural,” is necessarily “healthy.” Cancer is natural, too, they point out.  Many physicians have never not manipulated a birth, so it is outside their comfort zone.  (I’m reminded of the pre-Columbian map of a flat earth: beyond the horizon, “There be dragons.”)

 

Finally, medicine is a high-prestige profession.  Studies show that even the most well-informed patients can find themselves tongue-tied and uncomfortable when they try to question their doctor.  But question you must.  Despite a mountain of evidence, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) still refuses to admit that early cord clamping is a bad practice.  To do so would be to admit that they have been wrong and cast doubt on their authority.  This is a counter-cultural act!

 

If change will not come from within, it must come from without: from you parents.  Ask questions of your provider.  You are looking not only for answers that align with your own philosophy but for her comfort with having a conversation with you about your care!  If you sense arrogance, it really is best to find another provider.  But if she is open, cultivate the relationship.  She may be willing to step outside her comfort zone to accommodate your preferences.  By doing so she may discover a new way to practice and even adjust her philosophy to allow the idea that Nature’s design for birth and newborn transition is actually a good one.  Thus you pave the way for the mothers and babies who come after you.

Why We Don’t Talk About Birth As a Women’s Issue

The next generation: They deserve more humane maternity care.

Women’s bodies have been in the news lately.  Access to contraception – whether it should be a mandatory part of insurance coverage, who should pay for it, and what it says about women who take it – has dominated political talk the past week.

Also, two states have recently passed laws requiring ultrasounds – not the usual kind, run over the belly, but the trans-vaginal kind, which must be inserted into the most private part of a woman’s anatomy, while she is laying flat on her back with her feet in stirrups – before women can have abortions.  Twenty other states already have similar laws on the books, and seven other states have recently proposed them.

There’s another facet of women’s reproductive health that I’d like to bring into this discussion: birth.  It is well known that as our Cesarian-section rate has been rising, so has maternal mortality and morbidity (illness and injury) risen.  The US now ranks 40th in maternal mortality in the developed world.

This is important, and it gets people’s attention.  But I think it’s wrong to see maternity care as just a health issue.  It belongs in the same category as contraception and access to abortion as an issue of bodily integrity and autonomy that has health implications.  The longer I study birth, the more I see it first and foremost as a women’s issue.

This opinion is not shared by more people because of a widespread misunderstanding of the inherent dangers of birth.  As long as parents believe that birth is dangerous, they will fear it and give up control of it.  Ina May Gaskin recently said, “You can make a lot of money off scared women.”  Here are a few ways that mainstream culture communicates that birth is dangerous and encourages us willingly to surrender our autonomy and bodily integrity in birth.

  1. Obstetricians.  OB’s are specialists in the pathology of pregnancy and birth, and they attend about 90% of births in the US.  Like all doctors, OB’s are trained to look for pathology and that’s what they find, even when a midwife – who is trained in a different model of care – would not.  OB’s talk to one another, confirming one another’s biases.  They’ve been doing birth so long this way that their research also reflects and confirms this bias.  In Born in the USA Dr. Marsden Wagner writes, “Obstetricians have no idea what a non-medicalized birth is.  The entire modern published literature in obstetrics is based on observations of medicalized birth.”  There are many other voices talking about the safety of natural birth, but our culture is simply saturated with messages to the contrary.  Obstetricians are also implicated in the next two points.
  2. Routine Interventions.  A timely intervention can be life-saving to a mother or baby, but interventions performed on every laboring woman who comes in the door – from IV fluids to being made to give birth in a certain position – are called “routine.”  Routine interventions communicate to a mother that her body is not sufficient for the job.  This increases her fear, which increases her pain and feelings of dependency on the medical model.  More importantly, routine interventions introduce risk and frequently disrupt the natural flow of labor so profoundly that a “cascade of interventions” ensues, further endangering mothers and babies.
  3. Cesarian-Section Rates.  Before I had my own baby, I believed that if we had a c-section rate of 30% in America, it was because 30% of women and/or babies would die without it.  That made me afraid of birth.  But the World Health Organization has been studying c-sections as they affect maternal-fetal health for many years.  They determined and then recently reaffirmed that a c-section rate of 10-15% is optimal; c-section rates greater than 15% create adverse outcomes.  That is, more women and infants die in countries where there are section rates greater than 15%.  As noted above, that is true in the US, which is even scarier.
  4. Hospitals.  A surprisingly under-appreciated fact of birth is that the same hormone that causes sexual arousal and orgasm, oxytocin, is the prime mover of birth.  So in Nature’s elegant economy, the same hormone that got you pregnant will deliver your baby.  The trouble is that oxytocin is highly influenced by the environment.  It likes a dim, warm, hushed environment that the woman controls and where she is free from observation; i.e. the opposite of what she experiences in a hospital.  Furthermore, fear (see previous points) negatively affects the release of this vital hormone, causing labor to slow or stop altogether.  This makes sense if you remember how most mammal mothers give birth in nature, where predation is a daily threat.  If she senses a threat, her labor needs to stop so that she can move to a safer location or until the predator has moved on.  A human mother’s logical brain, which tells her that the hospital is a safe place, is not actually in charge of birth.  A more primitive part of her brain is, and it doesn’t like the atmosphere of a hospital – the bright lights and the constant noise  – or its messages to her – the machines whisper that her body will break down; the masks and gowns suggest that her bodily fluids are dangerous; the strangers clinically touching her during this most intimate act of opening dehumanize her; the fact that they are treating her like she is sick undermine her trust in her body.
  5. Media.  I’m referring both to entertainment and information media.  Film and television exploit the dramatic and comedic potential of birth.  It’s dramatic to have a doctor rush in and “save” a laboring woman.  It’s hilarious when a hapless father passes out when faced with the sight of a baby emerging from his wife’s vagina.  Folk tales would be nothing without dead mothers to force their children into the homes of wicked step-mothers or into the forest.  Even so-called reality television must create some drama for their viewers, so they focus on interventions and abnormalities, and find a way to leave the viewers in doubt about whether mom and baby will make it.  Most births happen in hospitals now, away from home, so this is the only window onto birth that most people see, and it isn’t real.  Information media also does not disabuse us of this misperception.  It trusts doctors implicitly.  Obstetricians are always consulted when birth is in the news; the news media therefore affirm their authority.  And how many times have you seen a headline like this one:  “Doctor delivers baby in airplane”?  Who is the star of that article?  The doctor who stood by while the mother’s body gave birth perfectly, or the mother?

These are just a few ways that fear is used to control women at precisely the time they are actually the most powerful!  Only when families – women and men – understand that birth is safe for the vast majority of low-risk mothers will they take their rightful place in the event:  no longer patients, but parents and empowered authorities.

Coming up:  Why You Can Trust Nature’s Design for Birth. 

Imagine!  How would it change how we perceive mothers and how mothers perceive themselves if every mother had a birth in which she felt empowered and honored?  How would it change the confidence with which we mother our children?  How would it change who we mothers are in the world?