“When I dare to be powerful–to use my strength in the service of my vision–then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
As I was writing about shifting the “what if” dialogue of birth to “positive” anticipation rather than fear, another spin on the relationship between pregnancy, birth, womanhood, and what ifs began to emerge for me. I thought about the what ifs that crawl out of our dark places and lodge in our hearts. The what ifs that snake around the edges of our consciousness in the early hours of the morning. The what ifs we try to push down, down, down and away. The what ifs that stalk us. The what ifs so very awful that we fear in giving voice to them, we might give life to them as well.
We may feel guilty, ashamed, negative, and apologetic about our deepest “what ifs.” We worry that if we speak of them, they might come true. We worry that in voicing them, we might make homebirth or midwifery or whatever look bad. We don’t want to add any fuel to the fire of terror that already dominates the “mainstream” birth climate. And, we don’t want to lose “crunchy points.” We want to be blissfully empowered, confident, and courageous. And, guess what? We are. Sometimes that courage comes from looking the “what ifs” right in the eye. Sometimes it comes from living through them. My most powerful gift from my pregnancy with my daughter, my pregnancy-after-loss baby, was to watch myself feel the fear and do it anyway. I was brave. And, it changed me to learn that.
What if we can learn more from our shadows than we ever thought possible? There is power in thinking what if I can’t do this and then discovering that you CAN.
“It is so easy to close down to risk, to protect ourselves against change and growth. But no baby bird emerges without first destroying the perfect egg sheltering it. We must risk being raw and fresh and awkward. For without such openness, life will not penetrate us anew. Unless we are open, we will not be filled.”
I also thought about an experience I had recently at a gathering of midwifery supporters. It was an interesting and insightful presentation about language and the impact on birth. The woman speaking urged us to talk in “positive” ways about birth, to use “positive” words and to avoid “negative” stories. As I listened to her, I thought of my own loss story and knew that my experience in giving birth to my little dead baby would likely have ranked way up there as a “negative” story. And, that bothered me. Giving birth via miscarriage to my third son was the most transformative, formative, and powerful experience of my life. He gave me many gifts, he taught me many lessons, and I am a better person than I was without that experience. So, what does it mean for women when we hide away the “negative” stories? What might we be missing by making sure we never hear about a bad outcome? I wondered what if by avoiding “negative stories,” we also miss out on powerful stories of courage, growth, and transformation…
What if she suffered and survived?
What if she danced with death and she’s still here?
What if she faced fear and held on?
What if she was scarred and broken, but she healed?
What if she hasn’t healed, but she’s working on it?
What if she grieved deeply and came out the other side?
What if she felt fear and did it anyway?
What if she was so scared and felt so weak and so helpless and yet she persevered?
What if she sacrificed her body for her baby?
What if she couldn’t keep going…and then she did?
What if she is stronger in her broken places?
In another woman’s strength, may we see our own. In another woman’s fear, our own becomes acceptable.
I have two personal experiences to share with the healing power of other women’s scars and fears. When I was in the middle of my first miscarriage and I was thinking, “how will I do this?!” the faces of other women I knew who had experienced babyloss came floating through my mind. I saw them all and I knew that if they could do it, so could I. After my own baby’s miscarriage-birth, I then made a list of these women. There were 27 names on the list. As I shared my experience and came to know other women’s stories and as multiple friends then experienced losses during that same year, the list grew to at least 40 names (personal connections, not “online only” friends).
The second story is an amalgamation of multiple encounters with in-person acquaintances. After I shared Alaina’s birth story online, in which, as part of the narrative, I mentioned various fears that went through my mind as I was in labor and then concluded with, I was still worried she was going to die until the moment I held her, I spoke with multiple women who thanked me deeply for having shared those “bad” thoughts.
When I read your story and I saw that Molly, Molly, who lives, breathes, and sleeps birth every day, still worried about those things, it healed something in me. I have been carrying around guilt about my own birth experiences. Feeling like I didn’t ‘trust birth’ enough, like I didn’t ‘believe’ strongly enough in homebirth. Reading your story helped me know that my thoughts and worries were okay after all and that I wasn’t a ‘bad mom’ for having fear…
What if I’d been careful to keep anything “negative” out of my story?
“When one woman puts her experiences into words, another woman who has kept silent, afraid of what others will think, can find validation. And when the second woman says aloud, ‘yes, that was my experience too,’ the first woman loses some of her fear.”
I first came across the phrase “worry is the work of pregnancy” in my most favorite of birthing books, Birthing from Within by Pam England. I’ve noticed that women often feel like they shouldn’t have worries during pregnancy and that talking about their fears is somehow “dangerous” (like it will make the fear come true). Bringing fear out into the open and “looking at it” instead of keeping it tucked away and bothering you is actually one of the best ways to work with it. Another common concern is that your worries are “silly” or unfounded. It is okay to have worries, even “silly” ones. The strategy Pam suggest for exploring your worries is as follows:
Explore each worry with questions:
° What would you do if this worry /fear actually came true?
° What do you imagine your partner and/or birth attendant would do/say?
° What would it mean about you as a mother if this happened?
° How have you faced crises in the past?
° What, if anything, can you do to prepare for, or even prevent, what you are worrying about? What is keeping you from doing it?
° If there is nothing you can do to prevent it, how would you like to handle the situation?
(For more see: Tracking your Tigers: Effects of Fear on Labor)
During my pregnancy with Alaina, I actually took some time one night to let myself mentally walk through the worst-possible-outcome scenario. I let myself see/feel it all. I’d become tired of stuffing it down and blocking it out and decided to get it out and look it right in the eye. It was amazing how letting the fear wash through me completely, lessened its power and influence.
As I’ve previously written, I’ve also come to realize that despite the many amazing and wonderful, profound and magical things about birth, the experience of giving birth is very likely to take some kind of toll on a woman—whether her body, mind, or emotions. There is usually some type of “price” to be paid for each and every birth and sometimes the price is very high. This is, I guess, what qualifies, birth as such an intense, initiatory rite for women. It is most definitely a transformative event and transformation does not usually come without some degree of challenge. Something to be triumphed over or overcome, but something that also leaves permanent marks. Sometimes those marks are literal and sometimes they are emotional and sometimes they are truly beautiful, but we all earn some of them, somewhere along the line. And, I also think that by glossing over the marks, the figurative or literal scars birth can leave on us, and talking about only the positive side we can deny or hide the full impact of our journeys. What if it was okay to share our scars with each other? Not in a fear-mongering or “horror story” manner, but in honesty, depth, and truth—what if we let other women see the full range of our courage?
And, also as previously shared, during Pam England’s presentation about birth stories at the ICAN conference, she said that the place “where you were the most wounded—the place where the meat was chewed off your bones, becomes the seat of your most powerful medicine and the place where you can reach someone where no one else can.”
What if we withhold our most powerful medicine?
“The purpose of life is not to maintain personal comfort; it’s to grow the soul.”
“The emerging woman..will be strong-minded, strong-hearted, strong-souled, and strong-bodied…strength and beauty must go together.”
~Louisa May Alcott