Note: Mostly written pre-COVID
Birthing from Within’s Birth Story Listening ™ and Birth Story Medicine ™ have been cornerstones of my learning. These trainings helped me to deeply listen to birth stories and provide an opportunity to find health in these same stories. Just like in birthing babies, us midwives, most of the time, we just stand back and hold the space. Now and then, we guide parents in helping them find their strengths and internal coping skills. In the same way we mid- wives, we can step back and guide them as needed as they work through their own birth story. Sometimes what is needed is asking the right question.
Why is birth story important anyway? Its origins are in the very fabric of what makes us women and mothers. They shape our belief systems on the conscious and unconscious levels. The way that we connect and (re)member our births affect our relationships not just with our partner or care providers or baby but also affects our relationships with ourselves and others around us. It is a ripple affect. It can affect our previous children or our future pregnancies and births. Many will also say that it can affect our grandchildren as we pass on our negative self beliefs or experiences in story.
However, when I do listen to birth stories, as a midwife it isn’t about my birth or my baby anymore. Yes, my experiences affect me as a mother and as a midwife as I was gifted with a broadened view of normal. This is my story. And theirs is theirs. Whether hospital or home or unassisted or cesarean – it is theirs. It isn’t about judgement or victimization or saying what is right or wrong. It is about internal power and peace that they can find without a do-over, be- cause no one gets one. Another baby where we know differently, yes, maybe. But a do-over, no.
But how do we hear pain or suffering and find the sacred? So not the sacred in what someone else might have done, but the sacred in the moment that was experienced? How do we guide the woman to look at something that is in her cellular body and not minimize it or gloss over it or ignore it or even perpetuate a story of powerless victimization that haunts her? How can we use word medicine to guide so that one can feed their own soul? Reframing these mo- ments can be revolutionary and freeing. Such perspective with guidance allows one to (re)member or (re)vision one’s experiences. Small questions rise from deep listening and memories that matter come to the surface. Memories that may have been wrought with trauma may shift so that that the power in one’s experience becomes a gift.
When we are looking at difficult births for a birth worker, be it our own or others we at- tend, the path is different. Sometimes it is through birth or life wounds that we become healers. Sometimes it is us working through the gates of our own mind that we discover pathways for others to find health. It is through the awareness of our birth stories and our internal maps to health that we are able to assist women on their journey without judgement in integrating their own stories.
Storytelling, Healing and the Birth Worker’s Journey is looking deeply at various ways story becomes part of our cellular and psychological make up. As birth workers we carry many stories to the births that we attend which are influenced from within and from the cultures we are exposed to around ourselves. All of these stories create agreements or rules and can affect the birth worker psyche. The latter ones may contain ancient templates for healing from difficult ex- periences. As birth workers, truly exploring these stories can lend power to how we guide oth- ers through theirs and through their subsequent births. Such personal tools can essentially gift ourselves the skills of cellular memory and internalized story to how we manifest health even when birth doesn’t “look like it is supposed to.” Such vision may open our perspectives and shift our judgment about “how birth is supposed to be.” In doing so we may realize that our story of birth may not be, and probably isn’t, someone else’s. If that is the case, then how do we hold them on their journey?
We know cellular memory affects birth. It affects birth physically through the fascia and ligaments and tissues that surround the baby and make up the pelvis. It affects birth as the emotional memory travels up uniquely arranged neural networks straight from the vagina to the brain and has the potential to activate memories of abuse or even pleasure. The information and energy in the body and its cells are sometimes not released by people in the same way as animals. After animals in the wild have an intense or life threatening encounter, they shake it off, and pop back up to join others. In studying Peter Levine’s book, In an Unspoken Voice, I came across some aspects of flight, fright and freeze mechanisms that affect such cellular memory. As midwives we already know the importance of fear and how it affects the birth set- ting. We know adrenaline can wipe out oxytocin. We know that the parasympathetic nervous systems of those in the birth room can affect the mother. The scared midwife can trigger others who see her face, see her fear, and feel fear as well. These are survival mechanisms. If the midwife was looking around the corner at a tiger, the person who couldn’t see the tiger would know by the look on her face that something wasn’t ok. It would heighten their adrenaline and responses to probably run or get ready to fight.
As midwives we know in their subsequent births following through on this action can be a potential healing opportunity, but we can’t guarantee this will happen and they shouldn’t have to wait. We must recognize such situations outside of that next birth and uncouple this biologi- cal response from her birth story. Unlike animals in the wild, people usually don’t shake off these moments immediately following the birth. As the act of releasing these frozen events or reactions can also help release the process of that internalized freezing, we also must learn to release these experiences ourselves. Sometimes uncoupling is just acknowledging that biologi- cal responses are protective and survival mechanisms are present in all mammals. Acknowl- edging that the mind and the emotions may have different experience than what her body was able to do while it protected her. It wasn’t necessarily what she chose to do.
The freeze mechanism may allow the opossum to live when predators think it is dead already. And as the papa opossum said in the movie “Over the Hedge,” “We die so that we may live.” In trauma, a part of us dies so that we can live. Yes, this may manifest physically and it may manifest emotionally when our stories do not align with our agreements formed by our childhood or our birthing culture -whatever that may be. But as birth givers, we come back to life and are resurrected even if we are still looking for restoration. We birth ourselves again as mothers, partners, women. How we do this may be a long journey in itself.
Birth workers have a unique opportunity to assist by broadening potential story. Being honest with variations of what birth might look like as well as not handing guarantees out flip- pantly are some basic steps one can take in trauma prevention for families. The most important step is in the healing our own stories of our births and valuing those moments that we may wish to avoid or decide not to share. It may be our lifelong work is that of walking the path of what Carl Jung called “The Wounded Healer” while the gifts of this birth journey are not just for you or those you serve in practice but also for those generations to come.
On this Birth Worker’s Journey, we must also continually seek awareness and respect to understand the story we have as a birth community. It, too, needs healing. There are ancient wounds and not-so-distant wounds to be acknowledged. Wounds of oppression of not just gender or fear of sexuality but also of a subversive birth culture. Wounds of being forced not to practice or being arrested. Inter-generational wounds of midwives being burned at the stake and forcing a childbirth culture of silence. These experiences are not limited to birth workers but affects the unconscious story of the entire culture. How do we as women or midwives carry this today? There are midwives shoulders upon which we stand who have gifted us wisdom and practices, and their wounds and gifts must be acknowledged. You may know and carry the names of many that I don’t. Let us continue to keep that history, that story, so that it can be passed to the next generation. The Grand Midwives of the southern US upon whose shoulders we stand. Let us listen and hear their experience and story. Let us take initiative to research and explore so as we form an awareness of this story and how it has gifted our work. The tra- ditional midwives from around the world upon whose shoulders we stand. Let us listen and hear their experience and story. Let us take initiative to research and explore so as we form an awareness of this story and how it has gifted our work.
Wounded legacy is also an embodied story / reality that we also must acknowledge when truly listening deeply to women’s stories and maybe our story. It affects individual birth sto- ries but also ripples throughout the culture. It is deep and if only asking the right questions would be so simple for a larger movement towards health, but it is a start. For some stories it takes an entire culture to change and form an awareness and ask the right questions. Experi- ence and oppressive reality create story that runs throughout various cultures and it affects the women with whom we work. It may be intergenerational, it may be personal, and it may be both. Such has recently been brought to light with the killings of Tayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Garner here in the US, but has been present for hundreds of years. We must acknowledge
the affect of such abuse on African American birthing families in what midwife Racha Tahani Lawler has deemed “Genocide Dystocia.” That women before, during and after pregnancy fear for the lives of their children, and this affects birth. This embodied story /reality of stress and racism in white supremacy culture understandably perpetuates fear and affects neurophysiolo- gy. Intergenerational trauma amidst this culture continues in our midst that we must acknowl- edge this as an entire birth culture.
These are deeper stories where healing in birth culture have a long way to go. Midwives in hearing such story as a community are still learning its affects and solutions. I encourage all to go outside of the possible single-story of our birth history, if you have not already. Our first step is acknowledgement and recognition that our stories are varied, that trauma exists, and it must be looked at from all perspectives and not avoided.
So as birth workers, let us stop and look at healing our personal stories. Do work to see the power of our powerlessness. The strength of our weakness. Our intense connection where we may have been disconnected. Let us as a midwifery community delve into our personal, col- lective and intergenerational story and see what we have avoided or obsessed with or been haunted by and expose it and see where we find health.
May birth workers as a community hold one another in their story, hold the birth giver on this path that they travel to meet and return with their babies. May we learn to honor the per- sonal story without judgment, guilt, or blame with deep listening to the soul finding its way to- wards health.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED talks, July 2009. < http:// http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en> .
England, Pam. “Birth Story Listening.” Online Course.
England, Pam. “Birth Story Medicine.” Online and integrative coursework.
Lawler, LM CPM, Racha Tahini. “Genocide Dystocia.” < https://www.facebook.com/video.php? v=10205367898587312&set=vb.1544285599&type=2&theater>
Levine, Peter. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Good- ness. Berkley: North Atlantic Books, 2010.
Mehl-Madrona, Lewis. Healing the Mind Through the Power of Story: The Promise of Narrative Psychiatry. Rochester: Bear and Company, 2010. 1-14.
Menakem, Resmee. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mend- ing our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press, 2017.
Morales, Aurora. “Historian as Currendera” https://jsri.msu.edu/upload/working-papers/wp40.pdf Berkeley: March 1998.
Wolf, Naomi. Vagina: A New Biography. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012.