Turning Labor into Personal Power
All this week I will be posting sections from Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing by Christiane Northrup, M.D., Chapter 12: ‘Pregnancy and Birthing.’ Today’s section, Turning Labor into Personal Power:
“Trusting the birth process and knowing how to tune into the baby are abilities that enhance labor and make it an experience that offers us the opportunity to empower ourselves. Instead of running from these lessons, we as women could learn a great deal if we were willing to embrace them.
“Dr. Bethany Hays, one of my colleagues, is the mother of three songs. She wrote me the following reflections on the pain of labor and how we can best work with it:
“‘I used to think that labor was just a matter of dealing with pain and the fear of pain. I knew that with labor the pain was qualitatively different from any other pain experienced in our bodies. I never subscribed to the punishment theory of labor pain. I was looking for a natural and reasonable explanation. I did not believe labor pain was a whim of Mother Nature any more than it was a punishment from God.
“‘With all other forms of pain, the pain is there to tell us that something is wrong. ‘Stop walking on your foot, there’s a piece of glass in it.’ ‘Don’t eat any more chili, it’s giving you heartburn.’ With labor, I knew that the reason for the pain, at least in most cases, is not related to anything being wrong. The physical process of birth is completely normal and exquisitely planned by nature to ensure the safe delivery of an infant with minimal trauma to the mother. Pain was a part of that plan, and I had but to view it in that context to understand its purpose.
“‘As I observed women through their pregnancies, I began to understand that nature would have to have a signal to get women to stop what they were doing, to find a safe place to give birth, and to gather people around them to help. For some, nothing short of a sledgehammer would do. It needed to be a signal that no one could ignore but that left the mother able to participate in the birth if there were circumstances requiring her to do so.’
“Certainly, the pain of labor is a strong signal that says, ‘Stop what you’re doing and pay attention.” Instead of the ‘no pain, no gain’ cultural mentality that often leads to self-abuse, gaining from the pain of labor is an entirely different way of being with pain. Once a woman has stopped, gathered support people around her, and gotten herself to a safe place to birth, she has reached the point where she must use the pain for something else. Dr Hays suggests that at this point the pain is something to allow, and she points out that one of the meanings of to suffer is ‘to allow,’ as when Christ said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.’
“Once settled in, women in labor, then, must allow the pain. Thrashing about doesn’t help. Going deep within yourself does. Dr. Hays and I were talking recently about the pain of labor and how to help women work with it, and we exchanged a few stories about women who appeared to ‘go to another place’ when they were in labor.
“She told me about the wife of a medical student she once worked with who sat quietly in bed with the lights dimmed during her labor and was so focused that her mother and husband figured that she probably wasn’t in labor. Not only was she in labor, however, when she finally opened her eyes and spoke, she said, ‘I think it’s time to push.’
“‘After the birth,’ Dr. Hays told me, ‘my curiosity prompted me to ask here where she had gone when I instructed her to go somewhere else.’ [Early in labor she had seemed to be very disconnected from her body, and Dr. Hays had told her to get comfortable, relax and just go somewhere else.] Her answer was totally unexpected. She said, ‘Oh, I was concentrating on the pain.’ Her answer intrigued me. Could a woman really deal with the pain of labor not, as I had been taught, by distracting herself and concentrating on something else – her breathing or her focal point or her fantasy trip to the Caribbean? Could she, rather, focus on her body – on the work she was doing, on the pain itself?
“So. Dr. Hays began questioning those women who labored without noise or a lot of activity each time she worked with one. One said, ‘Well, I was just concentrating on my cervix. You know, letting it open up for my baby’s head.’ The common thread running through all these labors was that the women were with the pain. They were going down inside themselves to the place where the pain was and allowing it.
“One of Dr. Hay’s patients gave her the following beautiful piece of birth imagery in answer to the question ‘where do you go during your contractions?’ She said, ‘Well, you know when you are in the ocean, in a heavy surf, if you stay on the surface you will get thrown about against the reefs and the rocks, and you get a lot of water in your nose and mouth and feel like you’re drowning. But if you dive down and hold on to something and let the wave pass over you, you can come up in between and feel just fine. Well, that’s what I did during labor. When the contractions came, I dived down and let them pass over me.’ Water imagery is very common when women describe normal birth.
“During my own second labor, I realized that I had allowed the process quite differently than I had with my first. Labor is a true process – with its own rhythm and timing – and it is a process that is bigger than we are. For tha treason, learning to go with it, to let it sweep us along – is something that we never forget. And it is great training for the give-and-take of parenting.”