Our American culture loves sensationalism and loves to scare women about childbirth. Women who have already given birth can be experts at zeroing in on unsuspecting and unfortunate others, whose blossoming bellies they take as an invitation to recount their carefully crafted birth horror stories. Even family members, friends, and coworkers jump on the scarey birth story band wagon and relate not only their fear conjuring stories, but their idea of “the only right way” to give birth. The media depicts birth as a horrific event with mothers screaming out of control, and fathers running around like blithering idiots now knowing what to do to help them. Corporate America adds their bit by assuring us that we don’t have what it takes to give birth, breastfeed, or mother our children, in order to create feelings of inadequacy and need, so we buy their products. Everywhere they turn, our culture is determined to scare expectant mothers, and to impart the message that birth is horrific, all about pain, and that they and their bodies are inadequate, incompetent, and somehow not good enough to successfully navigate the challenges of labor. In a myriad ways we assure them that they will not be safe enough, they will not be strong enough, they will not be wise enough, or in some way good enough to manage to give birth on their own. We instill fear, doubt, a sense of inadequacy, and then we tell them that in order to combat these, they must be at all times, staunchly in control, have a definite, set in stone plan, not trust anyone, remain hypervigilant in case some villainous medical professional should try to pull a fast one, and never, ever appear, or act vulnerable at any time. In this light, how can we truly expect mothers to surrender to the wisdom of their bodies, and have the gentle, peaceful birth they desire, deserve, and need for the health of their baby, a successful mother/infant bond and breastfeeding, her transition into her new role and life as a mother, and a loving, healthy start to their life together as a family?
After nearly ten months of pregnancy, when labor begins, there is a deep, heartfelt connection between mother and baby urging her to follow her intuition, her body’s leading, and allowing the two of them to work beautifully together, to dance her precious child courageously into life. To do so there must be quite the opposite of the rigid control American birth culture claims she needs and instead, an aspect of vulnerability, of letting go and allowing herself to be utterly open to, and embracing of, every physical sensation, thought, and emotion. She must be vulnerable in a way that allows her to surrender to the innate well of feminine wisdom inside, and to the natural flow and unfolding of her labor and birth. A laboring mother must fully embrace and inhabit it all, even in the face of unknowns, risk, inability to control, plan or direct the course of her birth; and the lack of guarantees about the process or the outcome.
Sadly, many mothers listen too closely to the barrage of fearful messages sprinkled liberally over the long months of pregnancy, and succumb to the mistaken notion that they must become birth warrior maidens to be able to endure labor. To protect themselves then, they begin to construct castle walls, towers, and fortifications, a garrisoned stronghold defended with an army of justifications and anxiety ridden excuses why they must never remove their armor, or let their guard down. Next she must devise a perfect strategy to protect herself and champion it with staunch resolve, refusing to allow herself for a moment to feel vulnerable or to surrender in any fashion. Vulnerability is just not an option and must be avoided at all cost.
There are a number of ways mothers run from vulnerability in pregnancy and birth:
1.) Avoidance of talking about, researching, reading, preparing or practicing for labor and birth. Focusing on everything else possible except, her upcoming birth.
2.) Believing labor can be scripted, managed, and tackled in the same fashion as a well ordered and organized to-do list.
3.) Insisting on their way and refusing to hear suggestions or receive help or guidance from anyone else, even though as first time mothers, they don’t know what to expect, and in fact, don’t even know what it is they don’t know.
4.) Anger at anyone who would question, disagree with, or expect them to deviate from, or make changes to the “plan” they downloaded from the internet, even if they did not understand much of what was on the plan, or if it actually applies to them, and their medical , pregnancy, and birth history.
5.) Blaming everyone, anyone around them, for anything that goes wrong or differently from the script they created of how they expect their birth to go, or how they have chosen to manage and direct it.
6.) Blindness and refusal to look at, admit, or deal with the real reasoning behind the staunch need to control their birth, which is usually fear, shame, and concerns they may be seen as weak, incapable, or unworthy.
7.) Perfectionism and trying to do everything in consummate fashion as a means of self- protection,
( from feelings of failure or inadequacy) not to work toward a glorious, peaceful, sacred birth experience.
8.) Rigidity and refusal or inability to just let go, surrender, and let their body do the work, and things to unfold in whatever way they will.
To be vulnerable is to risk failure, shame, fear, pain, loss of control, even brokenness. Yet, if we try to avoid this place of vulnerability, we also lose the opportunities to know strength, courage, joy, growth, beauty, faith, blessings, exhilaration, ecstasy,belongingness, and love. In trying so hard to keep ourselves from feeling vulnerable, we are effectively cutting ourselves off from all the things that give meaning to our lives, and to our birth.
The poet, Naomi Shihab Nye writes:
“…Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”
In as much as her poem speaks to the importance of knowing sorrow, suffering, and brokenness, in order to understand and become kind and compassionate, I believe we also must embrace a willingness to allow ourselves to be deeply vulnerable in order to know life’s highest heights and deepest joys.
In Japan the art of Kintsugi does not fear broken places, but rather highlights and aggrandizes them. Kintsugi is a method for repairing broken pottery and ceramics which uses resin mixed with gold powder to seal the cracks in a way that accentuates them and makes them more pronounced. It is believed that taking this seemingly ruined, worthless object, and crafting it into a work of art, allows it to be more valuable and beautiful in its brokenness. The cracks serve to illustrate an event in the life of the object, and not to seal a fate of unworthiness or uselessness. Kintsugi is a fitting metaphor for the broken places, and the vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, and fall prey to. The place of brokenness and repair becomes an object of admiration, just as the sting of brokenness in our own lives may flower into a thing of beauty and growth, an instrument of understanding, compassion, gratitude, courage, strength, joy, connectedness, and love.
Kintsugi also speaks to the qualities of impermanence, ephemerality, and the never ending process of change and transformation as the one eternal truth in the dynamic process of life. It is a way of bowing to, and honoring the wounds and wear of time and experience, and the knowledge that the living of an authentic life must be done with the full owning of our stories, and revelation of our scars and broken places. It embraces the Japanese esthetic of Wabi-Sabi, or the beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”, as it admits that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. Wabi-sabi realizes that it is precisely the uniqueness and imperfections in life that make things and people interesting. It believes there is a beauty, elegance, and serenity that comes with age, impermanence, wear, and transformations.
The resin used to repair broken ceramic pieces, in the art of Kintsugi, is highly toxic and poisonous before it dries. This seems quite fitting as it is often the most shattering and toxic things in our lives that bring about the greatest transformations. It takes time, patience, mindfulness, and courage to embrace and grow from such brokenness. Throughout history we can name “broken and wounded”, people such as Nelson Mandela, Steve Bikko, Aung San Suu Kyi, Wangari Matthai, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harvey Milk, among others , yet it is precisely because of the brokenness and transformation they realized that we admire them and the good works they were able to do in the world. These people took great risks, allowed themselves to be highly vulnerable, endured hardships, survived tragedy, pain, and woundedness, and just like the repaired Kintsugi vessels, came out more beautiful than before, when they were whole. This beauty of painful and challenging life experience which they were able to allow themselves to be open and vulnerable to, not only touched themselves, but healed and inspired us all. Ernest Hemingway said, “ The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.”
Similar to the broken and ennobled places in Kintsugi, we know that it is openness, emptiness, and vulnerability that best serve life. The sturdy walls of a house make for a safe shelter, but it is the empty spaces, the holes that were cut, which we call windows, that allow the light to come in. A teacup can be a vessel of loveliness, but it is the empty, hollowed space that holds nourishment. Just so with ourselves, it is the empty space, the deepened well that life has carved in our spirits that allows us the capacity to more fully experience love, joy, gratitude, compassion, connection, empathy, and all the things that are most meaningful in life.
In the children’s story of the Velveteen Rabbit, by Marjory Williams, there is a conversation one day between the Velveteen Rabbit, who is a newcomer to the nursery, and the Skin Horse who has lived with the little boy in the nursery for a very long time.
“The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
“The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him.”
When preparing for your birth, I hope you will give in to the Velveteen Rabbits wish to become “real”, and to the Skin Horse’s wise understanding that surrendering to life, being vulnerable and real, is what makes life worth living. As your birth doula, I promise that your partner and I will be there, right beside you, to protect that beautiful space of openness, surrender, and vulnerability, just bursting with possibility, so you can let go and revel in the sacredness, the miracles, and the joys of giving birth to your precious new baby.