Musings on Story, Experience, & Choice…

“Power consists to a large extent in deciding what stories will be told.” –Carolyn Heilbrun

A lot of thoughts and ideas have been swirling together in my head during the last couple of days. I read a thought-provoking post from Navelgazing Midwife about choices and the prevalence of the phrase “‘If women knew their options, they’d make different choices.'” She continues by saying, “The first is the assumption that she doesn’t/didn’t know her options, the belief that if she just knew them, she would have made different (my) choices.”

I have at several points in my life had the realization that I persist in thinking that if only people were “enlightened” (i.e. like me), they would make different choices, but then I am confronted with the fact that many people ARE aware of their choices and actively choose differently.

I was then reading the book Sacred Circles (not about birth, about creating a women’s spirituality group) and was interested to come upon this section:

People can feel especially fragile about giving birth because they hate to think they ‘did it wrong.’ We may defend one way of doing it because it is too threatening to think that there might have been a better alternative to the way we gave birth…go gently, and avoid the impulse to polarize or convert. Encourage each person to speak of her own experience in ‘I’ statements…”

Having a miscarriage has led me into a whole new blog world of miscarriage/stillbirth blogs, which often overlap with infertility blogs. There is such vast and deep pain associated with childbearing losses of all kinds. It is staggering—the weight and variety and prevalence. One babyloss blog I have been enjoying recently is Knocked Up, Knocked Down and in a stroke of synchronicity, she also wrote recently about choice and birth advocacy and minding your own dang business. She writes about talking to a friend about her plans—lack thereof—for upcoming birth of her child (following miscarriage and stillbirth). The friend begins to “push” midwifery and other “birth choices” and the KuKd authors writes this:

“And the conversation sort of fizzles there, because by that point I’ve shut down. I mean, I sort of pretend to carry on in conversation, talking and not talking, smiling and not smiling, but my brain has gone elsewhere – because the person I’m conversing with has just morphed from friend-on-equal-footing into a Homebirth Amway Salesperson in a blue suit and tie, standing at my doorstep with a clipboard in arm. And suddenly I’m too busy to talk, with WTF’s swirling around inside my head.”

I think we really need to hear this. There are any number of women out there who are not waiting to be “enlightened” by our “superior” homebirth wisdom! She continues:

“WTF is UP with the homebirth salespeople, and W(hy)TF do does it matter to them how I choose to deliver this child? In what way does my personal choice of baby-delivery affect anyone else’s life besides mine, my husband’s, and my baby’s? WTF is up with anyone believing in something – a religion, a product, anything – so righteously and rigidly that they feel compelled to convert others into following their so-called enlightened path?”

And then she reaches into “choices” that brings us back to the theme of Navelgazing Midwife’s post:

“My friend Jen explained it like this: ‘…but a lot of women don’t know they HAVE other options besides just a routine hospital delivery.’ Maybe true – but so what? Let’em find out on their own! Let’em read about it, ask about it, think about it like the smart people they probably are.”

There is SUCH a difference between sharing your story and “proselytizing” or trying to convert others (i.e. how our dearly held “birth advocacy” efforts may feel to others :().

And a final quote from a much longer and very good post:
“Just know that childbirth for a KuKd momma is psychologically complicated, and there’s a reason for every choice we make. Do not be alarmed by the sinister terms ‘hospital delivery’ and ‘no birth plan,’ as these do not necessarily equate to ‘poor ignorant woman who needs to be saved in the name of Jesus Christ the Lord of Homebirth Wonderfulness.’ Relax: things will be okay.”

As one of the extra-enthusiastic myself, perhaps a bit uncomfortable to read, but also upfront and honest and really important. One of the most important lessons I learned from my miscarriage is that I finally get HOW and WHY some women just don’t care about the birth. I have new clarity as to why everyone isn’t all fired about the miracle of birth and the glorious rite of passage. And an understanding of why women say, “as long as I have a healthy baby.” I feel like one of the gifts my little Noah brought me was not to be smug anymore. While I feel like I have always had a fairly good capacity for empathy and compassion and also the ability to see other peoples’ points of view and perspectives, I can now see that I also retained some measure of smugness that I, I get it. If my third pregnancy had ended merrily in another full-term, triumphant birth at home, I would still have some smug satisfaction at my core. It’s gone. Smug no more. For some women—me included—the end result of pregnancy and birth is a dead baby (whether a full-term baby or an early second trimester baby like my own) and the simultaneous birth of unquenchable, indescribable wells of grief and loss (and your little three year old saying, “but I was going to be the big brother. Why did our baby die, Mama? We will never get to hold his hand. He will never crawl all around our house. We will never get to play with him”). It can be hard to get all fired up and excited and “GO Birth Energy!”  if this is your reality and your experience of birth. Because I have other healthy children and because, along with the grief and pain, I experienced my own miscarriage as another “empowering” birth, I retain much of my fascination with birth and my love of the subject. However, my heart, eyes, and compassion have been opened to the larger breadth, depth, and range of being female and the breathtaking spectrum of childbearing experiences contained therein.

Last fall I attended a performance of Birth, the Play in St. Louis. During the BOLD Talkback following, a volunteer with ICAN made a statement that had a profound impact on me: “We believe that every woman has the right to define her own experience.” This struck me deeply as a core truth and it is becoming a foundation of how I work with and speak to women. How would the world look if this is truly how all birthworkers believed and worked and lived our lives? Instead of “hearing” what could have been done differently or seeing how “if only she had made different choices then XYZ,” we could simply listen to each woman’s own experience as she defines it—whether or not her experience supports or defends or challenges or disproves our own philosophies, beliefs, and experiences. And, whether or not her story is a “good” or “bad” one. Guess what? This also removes the tendency to take responsibility for other people’s experiences (i.e. “she took my classes and she had an epidural, so I must not be a very good childbirth educator,” etc., etc.). Additionally, and sort of on the flip side, what if we could listen to other women’s experiences that are very different from our own without “hearing” a subtext of, “you should have made choices like I did,” or, “the way you did things was wrong” and what if we could share our stories—our experiences—without feeling a need to explain ourselves or to “prove” anything about “our side”?  I have written before about needing to be able to hold two truths simultaneously (see this post) and my current train of thought is a continuation of that idea. I define my own experiences of giving birth as the most transformative and empowering experiences of my life (and, as another point of definition that is perhaps not shared by everyone, I give my miscarriage experience of my third son full and equal weight as a “birth experience” in my life)—these are my experiences as I define them, but I can hold the space for the “opposing” truth simultaneously, that to some women giving birth really is “just another day” or “just get it out, I don’t care how!” and I do not need to convert them to the “wisdom” of my own “right way.” Every woman has the right to define her own experience.

As my opening quote indicates, I also believe deeply in the power of sharing stories—but sharing stories without promoting analysis or defense. This can be a tricky balance to maintain, especially because what we say and what the listener “hears” can be two very different things—another reason to come back to the right of each woman to define her own experience. If women do not talk about the power and transformation and rewards they have experienced in giving birth, then that story—that power—is lost. If women do not talk about miscarriage and childbearing loss because they do not want to be “negative” or “depressing” or “fear-based,” then that story and scope and range of experience is lost. Likewise, if we are unable to hear that another woman did NOT experience “birth power” and in fact DOES NOT CARE about birth, but solely wants a living child then that story and the lessons therein are also lost and so may be lost the very important, human element of simply relating to one another and listening deeply to our personal stories about our lives as women.

I think the sentiments and perspectives  from all the quotes I’ve shared in this post are extremely important and I think it boils down to the essential fact of a woman’s right to define her own experience (I could have made a much shorter post if I’d just said that!).

Spiraling back around into the language of choices and birth advocacy though, I have recently had the delightful experience of “talking birth” with my brother’s girlfriend. She is an aspiring writer and I finally shared some of my own published writing with her—said writing is almost all birth, midwifery, and childbirth education related, which is not her “world” and I wasn’t sure she would care about it or be interested in it at all. (She is a college student in her late teens, no kids.) I shared my articles because of our shared interest in writing, not because I had any plan whatsoever to “convert” her. Well, lo and behold, she read everything—cover to cover, not just my articles—and said…wait for it…”I had no idea there were other choices. You’ve really opened my eyes! If I had gotten pregnant, I would have just gone and done what everyone else does. I had no idea I had choices.” She also said she would like to give some articles to her pregnant friend because, “I don’t think she has any idea she has other choices.” (Sorry if I’m not getting the phrasing exactly right, as well as for writing about you without telling you I was doing so, J!) So, all of the sudden this brought me full circle from the posts quoted above about choices—and how as birth advocates we may be stuffing them—uninvited, unwelcome, and ineffective—down other women’s throats. I began thinking about how there is truth to the need for birthy folk have to share information about “options” so women can make “different choices” and that that sharing does have value after all…I also was reminded how perhaps the best avenue for birth advocacy is to back up and start talking to young women in high school or college, not in trying to “preach” to other adult women who in all likelihood have very complicated reasons for making the choices they are making (and not being “enlightened” as to the “empowering way!” is not one of those reasons). This brings me back to the first quote from Sacred Circles—if birth advocates are actually going to make meaningful changes (instead of enemies, or at least making women feel “unheard,” unacknowledged, dismissed, or misunderstood) they/we probably need to reach women before they are in that “fragile” or defensive state with regard to their own experiences.

I’d like to close with another quote from Sacred Circles (again written with regard to women’s spirituality, not homebirth, though homebirth was actually also mentioned in the same paragraph):

“Once the imagination has been kindled, we begin to see choices  that we had never even seen before…but just seeing that we have different options and choices rarely gives us the strength we need to exercise these options. For this we need more than imagination. We need the courage to reach beyond ourselves, extending our hands to one another…” –Robin Deen Carnes and Sally Craig

Extending a hand–not judgment OR enlightenment–and listening to each woman as she defines her own experience

25 thoughts on “Musings on Story, Experience, & Choice…

  1. What a lovely post; thanks, Molly. I began to see some of the things you’re saying here when I started reading infertility blogs a couple years ago. Which is interesting, really, because that suggests none of us should stop telling our stories–it’s been so valuable for me to hear those stories, and your stories! I think people sometimes forget that other people have had other experiences that do in fact matter: say, infertility and/or pregnancy loss, or a history of sexual abuse they haven’t shared with us, or whatever.

    It would be wrongheaded to assume that the most familiar form of ‘birth advocate’ stories (low-intervention births, home births, VBACs … you know, all our earthy-birthy tales of empowerment) are any less valuable than these other stories (of women who choose/need differently)–or any more valuable. Or that your full-term births are any more or less valuable or important to communicate than your most recent birth.

    I’m more interested in thinking about what helps women to feel good about their births after they happen, regardless of how they happen (feeling respected and safe, etc.) than about ‘the right way’ to give birth. Of course, that is … as you say … tied up with informed consent and everybody knowing they have options in the first place. I suspect part of the problem is that what needs changing is at the institutional rather than the individual level, and maybe people’s frustrations at not being able to create structural change leads to proselytizing?

  2. Yes! I guess my basic conclusion with this post is that we definitely should NOT stop sharing our stories–perhaps what most needs to change is how we *listen* to stories. And, perhaps also our approach at story-telling itself needs to change–to being about our experiences and not trying to “convert” anyone. Bottom line for me is that I value WOMEN the most–not birth or giving birth the “right way.”

    And, I think the KuKd author made a good point–most women are “capable” of seeking out the information they wish, without having it handed to them (that supports the blog theory–the value of sharing our stories via blogs and letting people find them as they wish!) Though, then my recent experience with my bro’s girlfriend shows me that maybe some people really don’t even know that they’d *like* to seek out the information and I’m back to the beginning again…

    This was an awfully long post–I’m not sure that anyone will actually read it–and as I joked, perhaps I should have just said what I just said in my first paragraph above and leave it at that!

    Thank you for commenting–glad someone read my thoughts…;-D


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  4. Wow. I’m going to share this one. It is true and common that we, the “enlightened”, tend to get caught up in “our” way and forget that “our” way may not be everybody’s way. Thank you for the reminder.

  5. Your website has been a real inspiration to me. This post is something that I feel like I have learned the hard way. When I first became a birth advocate, after experiencing birth that was intervened in unnecessarily, I wanted to tell everyone that there was a different choice. I had been drawn into my first birth experience because I too didn’t know that I had any/many other options. I did what I thought was the best thing I could do. It was only after my experience and through my grief that I found that I had had other options. So, I began thinking if only that sort of information was readily available to those who don’t know to look for it – like I had been. Thus, I wanted to share with everyone, which was okay, but the presentation of the information was more like I was approaching my own naive self with all the wonderful information I felt like I should have heard from somewhere. There was no need to preach a sermon.
    Now, that I am a childbirth educator, I am realizing that the real goal is that a woman comes out on the other end of her experience satisfied with the way things went. That she feels informed/confident enough to make her own choices whatever they may be. I appreciate this post very much. Thank you.

  6. I’m glad my own introspections nudged yours along. Thank you for quoting me.

    I’ve learned over the years, one of my best skills as a midwife is helping women to re-frame their birth experiences into what they wanted/needed them to be. I sit quietly and let women wander their paths, backwards and forwards, stopping when they need to and skipping whole sections that (at least at the moment) are irrelevant to them.

    There is nothing more exquisite than a woman who has found peace with her birth experience (and, as you know, sometimes birth/death experience)… even if it doesn’t “fit” with what everyone else in her world might expect or think it should be.

    I’ve long ago left that judging place, where I sat as The Official Who Named Her Birth What *I* Thought it Was. (Of course, I do have my moments, but I work hard to keep them in check.) I’m questioned about my values since I work so much with women birthing in hospitals or because I’m not a rabid doctor-hater, but I don’t give a whit anymore. I serve women. I. Serve. Women. (period)

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  8. Well of course, I enjoyed this post. 🙂 Glad I could shed one a sliver of perspective on this. Regardless of my own choices, I really respect the homebirth experience and enjoy your (and others’) stories about it.

    • I noted the Amway-homebirth-salesperson quote is making the rounds on Facebook today as various peoples’ status lines. It is a good reminder to the birth-advocacy inclined among us!

  9. Thank you for this. I know EXACTLY what you mean about the smugness being gone after your miscarriage…I feel the same way after mine. And now, being one of those people hanging out on infertility forums (having been trying unsuccessfully to conceive for 9 months now), I also why understand some poor momma who lost her last babe at term to a cord accident during birth would decide on an elective c-section. And I’ve SO learned not to judge their choice based on my own. Good post. Very good.

  10. Wow!….This is exactly what I needed to hear! My husband and friends and family have been telling me this, but I “could” not hear them. I realize I have been this homebirth-my-way-is-better birth advocate. I found myself stagnating in my own self-righteousness. Thank you for opening my eyes! I want to be helpful, and in that, I realize that just living our lives can be the best testament and “help” for others whether it be birth, religion, or whatever else. Great post. I will keep this on hand to remind myself of who I want to be.

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  17. I’m so glad Science and Sensibility linked up to this because you said it so well Molly.

    I’m to the point where I feel like I have to actively separate myself from NCB movement/homebirth because women are so turned off by it. I can see both sides–how everyone has the best intentions, but unfortunately ncb has turned to a near religious experience and I’m just not comfortable with that.

    My journey has taken me from thinking homebirth is best (so not true!) to realizing that what is really empowering is making sure women have access to options and information. Bottom line.

    Thanks for sharing–I really enjoyed reading.

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  22. I just came across this post and it really hit home for me. I recently heard a story about someone who had had a stillbirth, and in her subsequent pregnancy she chose a high-risk OB practice and had a massive amount of testing and surveillance, and had a medicalized hospital birth. Even though technically she had no reason to be considered high risk, that level of intervention was her choice – and she chose it because it made her feel safe. She knew she had other options, and she chose what gave her the feeling of protection SHE needed to birth her baby comfortably.

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