Monday, March 31, 2014

misconceptions: birth and fear

I'm writing some short posts inspired by Naomi Wolf's book "Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood".  You can read my first post here.


I deeply appreciated the chapter entitled "Fifth Month: Mortality".  It begins with a Beriba Proverb,

A pregnant women is a dying person… An often-told tale depicts the ancestors in the act of digging the woman's grave throughout the pregnancy.  If she survives the days after the delivery, they begin to shovel the sand back; forty days after the delivery, the grave will finally be closed without her.

The Sudanese mamas would walk five miles each way in hottest sun to learn about their bodies and pregnancy and birth - education could bring life-saving knowledge to the women in their villages; a Nigerian father wails outside the labour room finding out his beloved wife was no longer alive; twin girls in India lost their mother to Eclampsia, she gave them life as she lost her own.  So much of the world knows that surviving your child-bearing years is somewhere between a hope and a miracle.

The statistics are fairly grim for reproducing women in the developing world, which is where 99% of maternal deaths occur.  Lack of resources, lack of education, poverty and powerlessness all put women at risk when pregnancy and birth don't follow the normal rhythms we expect.  People work hard to see these stats change - and they are changing - but having a baby in Australia (where I've given birth) is drastically different from the risks so many women face in other parts of the world - especially in areas of conflict, where women's access to any care available is obstructed by violence.


Deep inside me there has been a very real fear of death in childbirth - that I'll leave my husband and small children to live their lives without me.  That fear has nothing to do with the Australian statistics, the amazing care I'll receive during my pregnancy and the attentiveness and skill of my midwives during birth - not to mention the emergency personnel on hand at all times.   It's almost an instinct, a primal sense of vulnerability.  My son was born with an Apgar score of 2, he was resuscitated then transferred to a larger hospital to be 'cooled'; I hemorrhaged substantially and developed a uterine infection.  It all ended well and we were soon both healthy and bonded and relieved. 

When I faced the impending labour with our second child, I didn't have fears that she would die, my fear was for my own life.  I felt very, very ashamed of that, certain those thoughts were "bad mother" thoughts, as I should have been more concerned for my unborn child.  But that's what was real.

Naomi Wolf writes of her pregnancy,
Suddenly death seemed everywhere.... Why was I so surprised at this new sensitivity to the loss and decay of things?  Many cultures pair birth with death and treat women's fertility as the gateway to both states.  But our culture, by insisting on revealing only the life-affirming aspect of pregnancy and birth, seemed to make the darkness more palpable....From such cues that are so dismissive of one's fear, it seemed that it was acceptable to express fears of one's baby's death but impermissible to talk about or contemplate the not entirely unrealistic fears we had for ourselves.

The risks of death are extremely low for women in Australia throughout their pregnancies, but there is always still a risk.  Are some of us oblivious or free from sensing this?  Or do we all carry it as a secret we dare not speak out to our partners, family members and close friends?   Do we believe that to acknowledge such dark thoughts will increase the chances of the unimaginable happening?  What kind of sub-concious fear do so many of us bring to the birthing room?

I wonder if naming our fears is what sets us free from their power - not that the actual risk is lessened, but our fear of the future can be disarmed.  Before our second birth Chris and I met with someone we trust and respect, who has weathered a decade more time on the earth than we have.  We let our words flow freely, the things we assumed would shock or we believed should be brushed away.  We named our fears one by one, spoke out the moments from our last birth together that haunted us, shared the lies we'd believed about ourselves in those moments, how the world was spinning and where God was in all of it.  I remember crying as it was all welcomed, and I could see it laid bare on the table, the light shining bright, the shadows evaporating. 

I prayed out what I knew to be truer than all my fears, prayed the truth would bury itself in the places that those fears had left vacant.  I went into my daughter's birth with an urgent excitement, surprising joy and deep expectancy.  There was no promise that it would be easy or go as I planned or even some Divine assurance that my child and I would survive.  I wasn't looking for that anyway.  I just didn't want to be afraid.

There was a moment, around six in the morning after labouring all night with my daughter, when I burst into loud sobs as I rocked through another painful contraction.  My midwife ran into the bathroom where my friend and husband were with me.  As tears streamed down my face and I reassured her:  "I just feel so, so happy right now."  

The reality was that my daughter had turned posterior and my labour wasn't progressing as fast as the hospital required without intervention.  But my heart - it felt alive and hope-filled - despite the past, the present, and the future's possibilities.  My heart felt so very free.

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

On Naomi Wolf's book "Misconceptions" and all the things I feel.

Cover of "Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, an...
Cover via Amazon
I'm trying to get my fingers typing again on this little blog, so you'll have to bear with me.  I've really enjoyed a book recently and feel inspired to write out some of the feelings it's uncovered and the thoughts it's generated.  I'm planning a few short posts that will hopefully give you an idea of what I'm thinking about at the moment.  //

A dear friend picked me up a thrift store copy of Naomi Wolf's "Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood" and it has been a very refreshing read.  I feel so much permission in reading the story of her pregnancy and her analysis of the United States' maternity system in the late 1990's.  She shares her own unique journey as an influential feminist, pregnant for the first time in her 30's, in an egalitarian marriage as well as the stories of many of her friends and women she meets as she digs into these topics.  It's a bit of an exposé on the way the American health care system treated/treats it's pregnant women and new babies, but more than that it's women being honest about their experiences, throwing off the sanitized versions of pregnancy and motherhood bliss that we often feel we must share louder than any of the challenges we face. 
"Becoming a mother requires a kind of supreme focus, a profound discipline, and even a kind of warrior spirit.  Yet our culture prefers to give women doggerel: it often suggests that motherhood is something effortless.  It calls motherhood "natural," as if the powerful attachment women have to their babies erases the agency they must show in carrying, birthing, and caring for children...  There is a powerful social imperative to maintaining our collective belief in the "natural bliss" of new motherhood.... Birth is viewed through a softened lens of pink haze: the new baby and radiant mommy in an effortless mutual embrace, proud papa nearby.  Because of the power of that image, many women feel permitted to ask few questions; we too often blame ourselves, or turn our anger inward, into depression, when our experience is at odds with the ideal." (page 4)

Wolf is so honest with her feelings throughout pregnancy and I found myself realizing that my feelings are okay  -- they are just feelings.   I'm not always super ecstatic that another human being has taken over my body and will take over my life for the next twenty years, but probably forever.  Excitement, ambivalence, vulnerability and fear are all completely normal feelings throughout pregnancy, ebbing and flowing like the powerful hormones that bring such change to our bodies.  Perspective is so important.  Gratitude is vital.  But it's okay to be honest with yourself and people you trust when the feelings you actually are feeling might not be what you hoped for or expected.

When I was pregnant with my daughter (a surprise pregnancy when my son was 8 months old) I was very scared and intensely feeling not-ready until about a week before she was born.  I think those feelings were actually present and demanding I face them because parenting two babies under 17 months was going to be very tough, and I needed to realize that.  Going into labour with my daughter after an extremely traumatic birth with my son was going to be tough, and I needed to be ready for that as well.  None of my fears were crazy or delusional or kept me from doing the things I needed to do, but it's amazing how shameful they feel when you try to restrain them deep inside.

I want to keep exploring my feelings of fear in these last eight - ten weeks of this pregnancy - I want to welcome them and learn from them as well as name them and let them go.

Wolf begins her chapter entitled "Mortality" with this Beriba Proverb:

A pregnant women is a dying person… An often-told tale depicts the ancestors in the act of digging the woman's grave throughout the pregnancy.  If she survives the days after the delivery, they begin to shovel the sand back; forty days after the delivery, the grave will finally be closed without her.

Any act of opening ourselves up vulnerably to the joy and pain of newness also runs closely alongside the possibility of uncertainty, loss and grief.  How do we keep our lives open to any kind of fertility when we've ached with disappointment before?

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