Zack’s birth was a highly medical experience. My recovery – physically, mentally, and emotionally – was very slow, but it did happen. I share my story and his not to gain sympathy, but to say clearly that I know what this experience feels like. I have been there. I’m not there anymore. I’m not, as doula, asking any woman to go with me anywhere I haven’t also been. A better experience is possible. I know. I’ve lived it. I’m not saying that the details of my lessons are the same as anyone else’s; only that there are lessons in every life experience, and that this was mine.
In the year following Zack’s birth, I began to ask questions. I joined a mothering support group at my church, and an online community, and a playgroup. I asked every women I knew – and even some I didn’t know – about her birth story. I wanted to hear the details of the births that were different than mine. I wanted to know what they did to make it easier, or what happened that made it difficult.
I want to be clear that I don’t blame my doctor for the experience I had. In fact, I’ve said many times in the years following that I wish he were now in the state I live and serve in. I wouldn’t hesitate to send any mama to a doctor that knew my body was strong, my baby was fine, and that natural birth is completely do-able. He’s radical enough in his field that he’s affectionately known as Dr. Cowboy by his colleagues. I know I’m lucky that he was patient with my progress, and that with many other practitioners, I’d have had a surgical birth.
I don’t blame the hospital nurses for my birth experience, even the ones who were snarky or “just being honest”. They were just doing their jobs. They worked in a hospital that continues to have over 4000 births a year, very few of which are unmedicated. They were doing what they knew to do, working with a frightened woman with the skill set they had to offer. They didn’t do anything wrong.
I don’t blame my now-ex-husband, who slept through most of my labor. He, too, was doing what he could with the knowledge and skills he had.
I don’t even blame myself. I was young, and scared, and clueless. I was doing the best I could with what I knew, which in hindsight I realize wasn’t much. The problem was that not only that I didn’t know, but that I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I thought I did. I had read things, took classes, listened to the stories of my family and friends (not one of whom had had a low-intervention birth, except for the friend who had her baby two weeks before me). I didn’t know that it was ok to ask questions. I didn’t know that it was ok to ask what my options were. I didn’t even know that there were options to ask about. My birth was culturally normal. There are many stories like mine.
I felt powerless, and I was. I did as I was told. I was polite to a fault, and didn’t make waves. I surrendered to powerlessness. I surrendered to medically managed labor. I had no trust in my body, my baby, or the process of birth. That’s nobody’s fault – it’s just what was. Realizing that I had the responsibility to be an active participant in my own experience was the first step in what would be a long path to knowing birth in a different way. That’s where the journey began.
Many midwives share the opinion that women birth as they live. In the same vein, Buddhists say that how we do anything is how we do everything. Our births are not exempt from who we are. It’s true – in my life, I didn’t know the value of the work of inner growth. I expected myself to always know everything I needed to know. I expected that I would be taken care of by my husband, my doctor, and my hospital. I put the opinions of others over my own, always, and trusted that experts who surely were wiser than me would tell me what to do, and how. I didn’t know the difference between asking questions to seek information for informed choices, and being rude and de-valuing their input. I thought that being a “good” patient was all that was necessary to have a good birth.
The change within me began with breastfeeding. Dear Dr. Cowboy was, in fact, a great source of support in the weeks following my birth, telling me that he knew I would succeed at breastfeeding. His wife breastfed all four of his children, and he required that all of his office nurses were trained in lactation support. I happened to check out Dr. Sears’ The Baby Book from my local library the week before Zack was born, and this was the beginning of my learning about a whole world of birth and parenting that was beyond what I had known. I had a baby that ate every hour, didn’t sleep when he wasn’t in my arms, and cried when anything touched his feet. I learned that there were ideas that worked in theory, and then there was what really worked for myself and my son. I learned for the first time to listen to my body and my baby, rather than watching the clock. I learned that some experts, even well-respected ones, might give information that wasn’t actually right. I learned how and where to seek out sound, medical-fact-based information about the choices I was making with my child. I learned that the experts didn’t always agree – not even with each other. I learned to respectfully disagree, rather than go along with, friends and family and even <gasp> nurses at our pediatric doctor’s office, and that I could choose practitioners willing to have a conversation with me instead of telling me what to do. I began to learn that I had a voice, and a powerful mind, and that I had the right and the responsibility to use it for the good of my child. I learned to say “I’ll consider that. Thank you.” In short, I woke up.
In time, it became clear to me that while I had always wanted to be a mother, I had looked to the process of becoming a mother itself to fix something within me that had longed to feel whole, secure, and “good enough” in the world. I was longing for a sense of completion that I hoped existed somewhere, that I thought would magically happen with the birth of my own child. I began to see that parenting a child could not mend life’s wounds, or magically fix where I was broken. I learned that, no matter what life challenges I went through, I couldn’t run away from ME. I began to listen closely to my own mind, noticing my own harsh self-criticism. Some had come from my childhood, and some from the world around me, and I had willingly taken them on as my own. I began to understand that my own mind – the critic who would call me a wimpy, foolish girl and would remind me that I was surely doing everything wrong – was like a machine that had been programmed to destroy me, and that I was the one allowing it to happen. I began to practice deeper compassion, gentleness, and love for myself, and healing my own fears and doubts. This powerful shift – from needing to be told what to do to accepting guidance and taking it into consideration – began a profound change in my view of the world as I knew it.
What this experience taught me most of all is that I had to be my own inner advocate for my mind, my body, and my child so that I could make informed choices that felt right and good to me. I couldn’t expect my own wholeness to come from outside of myself by way of approval for being a “good” daughter, or a “good” patient, from having a “good” pregnancy, or being a “good” mother, or being in a “good” marriage. While I could – and did – learn to reach out for help, I was going to have to begin to trust myself.
This journey was long and hard (and continues to be ongoing), but rewarding. As I grieved the loss of the positive birth I had hoped for, and my losses past and present, my outward behavior changed. I began to stand up for myself and set healthy limits. I began to feel ok with stating what I needed and didn’t need in my daily life. My prayers shifted from “help me, help me” to “thank you for giving me the strength to do this”. I was becoming my own internal mother, taking care of my own internal child, and being my own friend as I was mothering my own child. My presence in my own life began to feel stronger, and my interactions with others became more grounded. These were not just birth lessons, but life lessons. Along the way, a year to the day after Zack was born, I learned that I was having another baby. I knew that this time would be different. I was right.