Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Two perspectives

After reading my son's first university History essay, I've been thinking about perspective and truth. History is all about viewing the past through a critical lens. There are many truths. We must all make sure that we do not view history through a single homogenizing lens.

This is also true in birth.

When I attend a birth, I take notes. I try to avoid making editorial comments, or passing judgement. I am only an outside viewer. The husband and the medical staff see other truths, they view the birth from their own perspective.

The woman in labour lives her own truth. Those of us around her are guardians of her memory, and protectors of her emotional space, but we must be careful not alter her perceptions of her birth with our own observations, values or prejudices.

This is such a critical time in a woman's life. She is open and vulnerable.

What is her history that is being created on this day?

The post below is one woman's history. I wrote my own history of her birth on January 5th.

Two perspectives... But her truth is enduring...

Grandmother’s advice: “"A cup of tea and a bran muffin, and off you go.”

Thoughts on birth... by Andrea
Don’t we overplay most major events in life? Don’t we overuse words like “excellent”, “amazing” and “excruciating”? Use “never” and “always” out of context?

So why, for certain major life events, like marriage, birth and death, does it seem that we underplay them? Marriage, modeled after some Disney version, is for another blog, on another day. So, for now, is death.

But birth is current for me, and Rosie’s arrival has me wondering why, apart from humorous musings of people like Carol Burnett (to paraphrase: ‘It’s like this: take your upper lip, pull it out as far as it will go, now lift it up and pull it over the back of your head.”), no one says anything, really, about it. Other moms smile a secret, knowing smile, now that you are part of the club. The nurses at the pre-natal classes show drawings, with the mom’s face getting progressively… well, squiggly. I have never felt “squiggly”, so this didn’t mean much to me. The baby books say things like “How you might be feeling: anxious, in pain, worried about the baby.”

But no one said:

You will go inside, deeper than ever before, and a fog will descend on the outside world.

Time, as you now think of it, will change. Contractions will last for eternity, yet the hours will go by like minutes.

At times, you will not just be in your body: you will be your body.

The word “excruciating” will, at last, mean something to you.

You will have to reach for strength in places where you have never looked for it. There is no way to practice this.

And no one said:

If you are lucky, there will be a moment where heaven opens up and pours its light down on your child. You might even hear a moment of angel music.

Memories of a birth...
From the first birth, by caesarian section, I only knew a bit about the contraction part. Before I went under the epidural that time, I got up to move and had one brief and, to me, terrifying glimpse of immense pressure. Wow, I remember thinking. If that’s what’s in store, I’m just as well to go for the anaesthetic.

And yet, after, as I reveled in my healthy boy, I had regrets. There was such a slim chance we’d get pregnant in the first place, and now I had missed the opportunity for this supposedly life-changing event of a “proper” birth. Had I wimped out too soon? Had I done something wrong?

I was able to push these thoughts away and delight in my blessings. But when the miracle of pregnancy happened a second time, I felt that this – a non-anaesthetized delivery - would be part of the lesson. My life often seems to me to be a series of lessons missed, lessons repeated, and I felt this would be one. Or rather, I really, really wanted it to be one, and so it was.

So I dug through files and friends to find you again, Jacquie. My rational mind (what an Anishnabe friend would call “monkey mind”) said things like: You won’t need a doula this time. You’ve basically been through this before. You and Mike and some nurses can handle it. It will probably be another C-section anyway.

My instinct, which I am continually trying to listen to with more open ears, said, call Jacquie. So I did.

Several months later, as I entered the chute into labour about a week early, I found myself panicking, despite weeks of pre-natal yoga meditations and some conscious effort to prepare myself for the event this time around. Last time, I had avoided thinking about my fears, and the pain. This time, I try to welcome those thoughts, especially when Jacquie asks me, is there anything on your mind this time? Pain, I hear myself say. Yeah, she replies, it’s there. You just have to go through it.

But as the early contractions drew me into the cave, I had an initial fleeting panic. I’m not ready yet. I had other plans this week. This baby can’t really be coming now. And then the panic was replaced by the simple thought that, at any point, we could call Jacquie. So we did, and it was off to the hospital.

At first, I was as I say “in the cave”. You can stand up and move around in the cave, you can talk to other people. As dilation progressed – way, way too slowly for my liking – I was still able to respond to her suggestions. Gently rubbing my back; let’s shake those hips, dance that baby down; why not try the shower? In the moment, all movement seemed ridiculous to contemplate, and yet once encouraged, there was always new relief.

And there was her anticipation and reassurance. In the cave, you don’t try to stop your body, or, as my g.p.friends put it, ‘smooth muscle has the power of veto’. With every new turn, Jacquie is there. You’re safe. You’ll feel pain here, and here – it’s safe to feel that pain, go with that pain. (I had a yoga teacher once who tried to get us to meditate through itches, to get us not to lift a finger to scratch at a nose or cheek. “Go into the itch instead”, he would say. “Become the itch”.) So it is with the pain, except that I have no power to do anything but go into it, to become it, or to try to resist it, which doesn’t work. Let go, says Jacquie. Unclench your hands and see what happens. Not believing but trusting anyway, I let go my hands, which have been clinging to Mike’s, and feel myself drop. I’m dropping out of the cave. It’s time to push.

In the state of pushing, I am in a tunnel. I’m not just watching – I’m there. It’s brown in there, and as I push further and further I go through large, flat bubble-like things which are light brown. They are the pain. The tunnel, I now believe, is the birth canal.

The first time I push, I do so naively. The pain is quite something, and I’m just wondering how I’m going to manage it (assuming I’m not one of those moms who later says, almost blithely, well, it was intense, but he was out in 2 pushes), when I hear Jacquie again. She’s farther away now – no one can come into the tunnel with me, there isn’t room for one thing – but I hear her say: push through the pain; there is another side at the end – a place you can push off from. Some people say that it actually feels good there.

Again, I don’t really believe it, but since I’m going to have to push anyway, I go as far as I can. Descent, pain, pain, and – there it is! A push-off place! Now, the descent into the push is like wading through a gooey swamp, and at the end is dry land, terra firma, where I can gather my strength and really step off, back up towards the light, the room, breath, and water. It doesn’t exactly make me look forward to the pushes, but it gives me something to reach for, that will provide some relief and also sense that I am doing something, that we are going somewhere.

I wonder if I can put into words the incredible bonding I now feel to this woman, who can issue directions I don’t believe and have me follow them anyway, only to discover they are true. No, I don’t think I can put it into words.

I am pushing in series of 3-4 pushes per contraction. The tunnel looks the same each time, it feels the same each time and this is odd to me in the moment: why am I not feeling – or “seeing” - forwards progression? Why, indeed, is this kidlet seeming to move, and then slip back? I am tired and tiring faster still, I want to quit, I am not proud, I can’t do this, I feel free to tell anyone who will listen. And, there is Jacquie again, bringing Mike in with her – they are my pit stop crew as I come around the circuit and wait for the next contraction; they whiz around me getting water, moving blankets, getting cool cloths, and always, always, cheering me on, with an energy that only later strikes me as incredible, given that they do not have the adrenaline of labour, and have not had any sleep.

But even the pit stop crew can’t give me muscle power I don’t have. My legs and arms are starting to shake. I find myself mentally ready to push harder but physically, I am just giving out. Even my uterus must be getting tired – the contractions are coming less frequently now (how can that be? I wonder fleetingly) and seem less intense. And my will to descend again and again into the tunnel is waning. Unbidden, I am hearing the voices of women saying “just two pushes.. two pushes… two pushes”. I am starting to feel resentful – where are my two pushes? I’m working hard here! Where the heck is this baby? At one point I reach down to touch the head – I saw this in a pre-natal video, and always thought it must surely be one of the most inspiring things a mother-to-be can do. But as I touch it, all I can think is – great: now where’s the rest of her?

I am spent, but no one seems to be rushing to get me out of this. And now, without knowing where the energy comes from, I try to drown out the womens’ voices. I reach, and what I come up with is what the pre-natal yoga instructor said, as she had us pump our arms to banish our fears. We would pump, in and out, out and in, eyes closed, well past the muscle-burning point, and as we huffed and puffed and squinched our faces up, she would say, calmly, Keep going. You can do this. You will need all your strength and more. You can do this.

So I say, weakly, barely whispering: I can do this.

I can’t imagine anyone will hear me, but Jacquie does, she picks up the line and throws me an end and then pulls, hard: that’s right Andrea. You can do this. You can do this. I allow myself to be pulled along, and we go through some more contractions.

And at last, it is time for the baby to be born. The doctor will help, there will be an episiotomy: OK Andrea, one more push, and you’ve got a baby. Suddenly, the tunnel widens, I can sit up in it, and there is a doorway coming closer and closer. At the last minute, Jacquie calls into the tunnel “Andrea! Open your eyes NOW!

And I do, and there is the light of heaven and the moment of angel music, and my daughter, and my tears and laughter and joy all filling the room, as she, and I, emerge into the daylight, into the world.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Birth is a challenge of the mind, not the body

Think of all the challenges that you have faced in your life - physical, emotional, and intellectual. You have been preparing for this for all your life. You will need to draw on all your life lessons to make it through labour. You don’t need to have experienced extraordinary pain - this isn’t like breaking a leg, or undergoing surgery. All you need is to have lived, faced difficult times, and struggled through to the other side.

Have you ever walked out of your house, and been amazed that everyone is walking about, laughing, doing their shopping, unaware of the challenges that you are facing? You have been facing such a trial that you have stepped out of space and time for a while. You ask yourself, “When will things go back to normal?” This happens in labour.

Have you faced adversity with your partner, greater than anything that you could ever have imagined, only to find that it has forced you to live more deeply and fully together, to love each other without masks or pretense? This happens in labour.

Have you ever lost a loved one, only to discover that you now see the world with greater clarity? You are surprised that there is intense joy even in the face of such pain. This happens in labour.

Have you ever had to take a leap of faith - into love, or a career challenge, into an exam, or even sky-diving? You are open, vulnerable, naked. You have given up control. Yet, how often do you find that you were a prisoner of your own fears, and that the reality of the leap is freeing? In relinquishing control you gain control. This happens in labour.

Are you surprised when you are in the middle of an emotionally painful event, realizing that you are going through what you most feared, and you are making it through, one moment at a time? This happens in labour.

Birth may be sacred, but it is something you will recognize. With support, you will discover so many things which are similar to your past challenges. You have been prepared for this.

"The baby tumbled/head over heels over head/down, down to Earth"

Jaya - one day old

Strength is not in her/but she enacts it as the wind fills a sail

Each and every birth I attend is a profound and unique gift. But sometimes, just sometimes, events conspire to make the day even more inspiring. Tuesday was exhausting, cathartic, and joyful for all of us. I can’t even put it into words. Even talking with my client just now, rare tears flowed when I shared some information about how the obstetrician had helped her. The obstetrician, with her private source of inspiration drawn from losses of her own, trusted my client’s need to do this her own way, and in her own time. The obstetrician agreed that if my client had been given an epidural, a repeat cesarean would surely have followed. We had all reached deeper than usual to support this woman fully through her life-changing day.

So here’s the basics on paper:
Previous cesarean for 10 lb baby
Arrived at hospital 6-7cm after 4 hours labour
Movement, shower, swaying, rocking, gas
Fully dilated after 7 hours at the hospital
No epidural, no forceps, no cesarean (to the staff's surprise!)
Just plain hard work, squatting, moving
Born after 3 hours pushing - an 8lb 5 oz girl!
"You have the most beautiful ears!" says the pediatrician to the baby

My experience was of a continuous flow between us, connecting us like a rope, a lifeline. Her husband would whisper encouraging words softly. With every single contraction I would say, “Breathe in strength...you can do this...breathe out...you are safe...deep breath in...blow it away...breathe in for baby...blow it away...deep breath in...you are safe...you can do this...” On and on, hour after hour, one contraction at a time. Resting in between: “Feel how amazing the rest is, your head is heavy, your face is smooth, your arms are heavy, your legs are heavy, your bottom is loose.” Hips shaking, pelvic rocking, foot massages, constantly moving... If I stopped talking, she would call, “Jacquie!” or “Talk!” I would hear her mouthing the words, “I can do this!”

The mum says she is changed by this experience. Here are some quotes from our talk this morning:
“I will be a different person after this”
“I was reaching to new levels of my own strength”
“One step at a time...like a rock climber...I was putting hooks into things...”
“When I was pushing, you said to push through the pain and I’d come out the other side - it worked!”
“You knew exactly what I wanted even before I knew what I wanted”
“With each contraction, it was like I’d jump over a crocodile laden swamp and would land safely on firm ground on the other side”
“How are you able to translate birth into all venues and all languages?”
“It’s like you are my fairy grandmother”

Many thanks, Andrea, for your inspiration. As your daughter’s birth has changed you, it has also changed those of us who helped you. Thank you for allowing us to bear witness to your strength.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Meaning of Pomegranates and Northern Lights

Birth imagery is everywhere, from the paradox of the pomegranate in ancient writings to the joyful and whimsical life-giving nature of the Northern Lights found in Native storytelling. Whenever I have been challenged by a birth, or face great joy or loss in our own family, I go to my books. Research is my way of coping with challenges. I haunt creaky-floored second hand bookstores, sit on the floor of the library, or google my way to new understanding.

This month, I started with Tomson Highway's prose, both profound and profane. His imagery of the spirit child who is formed in the Northern Lights and tumbles to earth is magical. There is a bubbling life-force in his words. Then I moved on to reading tales of Persephone and the pomegranate; stories of the potency of life. Seven stars on the tiara created a fetus. Seven seeds of a pomegranate forced the eternal union between Persephone and Hades, creating both life and death in the seasons. I seek connection in these writings...

"As its galaxies of stars and suns and moons and planets hummed their way across the sky and back, the Fur Queen smiled enigmaticaly, and from the seven stars on her tiara burst a human foetus, fully formed, opalescent, ghostly."
- Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway

"A single fruit grew on that tree, a bright pomegranate fruit. Persephone stood up in the chariot and plucked the fruit from the tree. Then did Aidoneus prevail upon her to divide the fruit, and, having divided it, Persephone ate seven of the pomegranate seeds."
- The Golden Fleece by Padraic Colum

When I found myself attending my 600th birth on the same day that there was a loss in our family, I drew strength from the words that I had read. To help my client birth her baby who was posterior, a star-gazing child, I gave her images of tumbling and turning, slipping then sliding (thanks to Tomson Highway). Her baby finally tumbled from her body. The next day I bought a pewter pomegranate as a gift, to honour the lives both lost and found.

When I look at the birth books on store shelves, I am saddened by their lack of depth. But when I broaden my search to include ancient texts, modern literature, history books, poetry, and the oral traditions of other cultures, I am inspired. I hope that, in turn, my explorations help others to find meaning.

In memory of the spirit baby...