Ames, Iowa 1960
no female friend to confide in
no woman to tell it to
A male doctor who patronizingly
calls me by my first name
while I’m supposed to
call him Dr. So-an-so
A husband so afraid of
his own fear that
He’s unwilling to know it’s there
not the person
to listen to mine
Where are the witches, midwives
to belly dance and chant
while I deliver
to hold me and breathe with me
as I push
to touch me and comfort me
as I cry?
Where are the womyn who know
what it’s like
to give birth?
–Antiga in The Goddess Celebrates, p. 152
This poignant poem spoke to me from the pages of an anthology of women’s rituals recently. It made me think about my plans and visions for the birthwork I’d like to offer to my community. Some friends/colleagues and I launched a local Birth Network this year and one of my primary hopes for it is that it will provide easy access to the women who know. And, that in simultaneously creating access for pregnant women to each other, the opportunity arises to uncover their own deep knowing, rather than needing expert advice or opinions. To that end, we’re planning a series of birth workshops (more details soon!) and hopefully a birth circle.
In the novel The Heart of the Fire recently I marked these two quotes:
“A woman who has borne children…loses many of her terrors.” The character speaking goes on to explain, “…for a Priestess it is, a path. A path of opening.”
Later the main character is attending the birth of one of her siblings and observes, “[the midwife] says the most important thing is to never bring fear into the room of a laboring woman. ‘A woman must be completely open to birth a child,’ she says, ‘and so she is unable to defend herself from the thoughts of those around her.'”
I’ve written about birth fear several times before. I think many women underestimate the potent impact the emotional condition of birth witnesses of all kinds (including doctors, nurses, grandmothers, doulas, and friends!) can have on their own birthing times. Women in labor enter a timeless, liminal space, and use their right brain–the primitive brain, the “birth brain” as I call it or “their monkey” as Ina May calls it–to dig deep and access the inner resources they need to birth their babies. When other people in the room are fearful or agitated or even just too talkative, the laboring woman has a heightened vulnerability to and awareness of those emotional states. This is what the fictional midwife quoted above means about being “unable to defend herself from the thoughts of those around her.” This is an important understanding. While to the birth attendant, this is just one more birth in a lifetime career, for the mother giving birth this is potentially a peak experience and definitely something she will remember for the rest of her life. This is a sacred moment and one deserving great care, tenderness, and respect.
In my ideal vision of the world, pregnant women would have ample access to other women who know what it is like to give birth under their own power and self-authority. And, these women who know would likely be women who have lost many of their “terrors” in the process. Access to women who know would render most traditional forms of childbirth education unnecessary, offering instead what Michel Odent would deem “new style childbirth education”:
“…for the most part, these are mothers who have no special qualification but, having given birth to their own children, feel the need to help other women who could benefit from their personal experience. They organize meetings, often at their own homes. They do not usually encumber themselves with any particular theoretical basis for their teaching, but may find it useful to give this or that school of thought as a reference. Their aim could most accurately be described as being to provide information and education, rather than specific preparation.” (previously quoted in thoughts on epidurals, risk, and decision making)
So, this is really what I’m hoping to be a part of creating for the women of my own community. I want to help open the door so that the women who know and the women who are preparing themselves to know can meet in safe space and in so doing lose many of their terrors and joyfully uncover their own unique strengths. I believe I’ve already seen it working.