A few weeks ago my younger son celebrated his seventh birthday. As when my older son celebrated his tenth birthday a couple of months before that, my thoughts went back to vivid memories of his birth: the sensations of it, the pain, the moments of fear, the resources I found within me to get through that pain and fear, and everything else that I experienced through this physical passage into a transformed life.
I don’t think I sentimentalize being a mother. Until my late twenties I was fairly sure I didn’t want to have children. But at some point I changed my mind. And since pregnancy and birth and mothering are a significant part of my life experiences of the past decade, I find Truth (with a capital T) in those experiences. As you will, if you are paying attention, in whatever transformative experiences your life has given you.
Well before my first child was born I thought of birth every time I worked on a big piece of writing. At that time, that writing was often an academic paper or something that had been assigned to me for work. I told myself each time that writing was like giving birth, that it is hard to see the eventual outcome when you are in the midst of the pain and struggle, but when you are euphorically admiring the finished creation, there is no other way it could have turned out. It is real and it is perfect.
Unlike many other preconceptions I held about parenting, this birth analogy still rings true for me. It is true to my own experience. Birth is chaotic and messy and terrifying and painful, but when it is done, the euphoria of creation surpasses the memory of pain. I had both of my births at home, unmedicated. I include this detail as a fact, because it is an important part of my own experience, not as a judgement on anyone else’s story. Despite preparing through yoga, meditation and hypnobirthing classes; despite the excellent midwifery care that I received; despite the constant physical and emotional support of my husband, both births were chaotic, messy, terrifying and painful. Not because there was anything wrong; because that is simply what birth is.
What was different about giving birth from any other form of creation I’ve participated in were the uncontrollable physical waves that propelled the process. My willpower, my active participation weren’t required for birth to happen: it was happening.
My willpower was required, however, to prevent fear and pain from sabotaging the wild physical energy of creation that was moving through me and had taken control of my body. Sabotaging it through tension, resistance, holding on. Sabotaging the final stages, where I needed to become a more active participant.
Recently, I was thinking about fear; the kind of fear that is not about immediate physical threat, not fear of death, but our constant fears of the “little deaths”: loss of identity, loss of pride, loss of security, loss of self. The kind of fear that sabotages us from taking the risks we need to fully birth ourselves. I thought about moments that I’ve experienced recently – and probably in the past, but at that time I was unable to separate myself enough from them to see this – where my fear of vulnerability, of humiliation, of failure threatened to hold me back from taking necessary risks, from telling the truth to people, from staying fully open to the intense moments that every life, no matter how ordinary, holds.
And I thought suddenly back to a moment – the deciding moment, in a way – in my older son’s birth. Birth comes through several stages: the first where you need to let yourself lose control to the waves that are moving the baby into position, where you need to above all make sure you keep breathing and don’t panic; the second, the moment of transition, where you are exhausted and sure you can’t do it any more, but in fact have moved through the worst of it; the last, where you need to actively push, often just a little, but sometimes a lot, to get that baby through that narrow passageway to the outside of your body. With this birth, I pushed for an unusually long time. I thought I was pushing as hard as I could. I was exhausted, close to depletion.
Finally, one of my lovely but tough-when-they-needed-to-be midwives told me that, despite all the progress that was happening in other ways, if the baby’s head wasn’t fully out within the next half hour, we would need to go to the hospital.
In that moment, the part of me that sometimes surprises me, the warrior part that loves nothing more than being given an ultimatum, said to myself “There is no way I am leaving this room, going down the stairs, getting into a car, and going to the hospital right now.” And then I knew, that what I had thought of as pushing was a poor excuse for what I actually needed to do: push right straight deep into the pain and right through it.
My son was born very quickly after that.
I think a lot recently of one of my favourite lines from David Whyte: “All paths to authenticity lead through the doors of humiliation.” Birth is a humiliating experience. At the end, no matter, how pulled-together and in control you are in the rest of your life, when you give birth – in truth or in metaphor – you are naked, sweating, covered in blood and bodily fluids. You are fully exposed.
Early in my labour in the birth of my second son I thought I was further along that I actually was. I was in a moment of hubris, because I had been practicing hypnosis techniques for birth, and I was sure that this birth would be easy. I remember thinking in that moment: “But I don’t want to be naked in front of everyone.” Later, when the real, huge, terrifyingly fast contractions came – in the brief seconds where I was able to breathe in between – I could laugh at myself. When I had to give in to the humility of truly giving birth, being naked and exposed were the last things on my mind. My body was everything, but it was nothing. The experience was huge and wild and overwhelming and messy and so much bigger than my own ego and my own self.
After my first birth, after we were cleaned up, the sheets were changed, the midwives had left, and my exhausted husband and tiny newborn son slept nestled together on our bed, I stayed awake alone, euphoric.
I had passed through a doorway of fear and pain and had come out the other side. “Pain with a purpose,” as my midwives called it. The pain of creation. It was the closest thing to a true rite of passage that I had every experienced. I decided then that I would never be afraid of anything again.
I laugh remembering that promise. I am still afraid of things all of the time, much smaller things than giving birth. But once we set an intention like that, it is impossible to avoid returning to it, to avoid the responsibility of what that kind of promise means.
In truth, I realize that my promise was not about never being afraid. It was about forever holding on to that memory of breathing into the chaos and mess and hugeness of of creation: of life, or art, or of an authentic, integrated self. Pushing through the pain. Moving through the fear. Engaging with humiliation. To get through the doorway to the other side.