When I was pregnant, despite reading everything I could get my hands on I felt afraid, alone, daunted and unprepared for this rite of passage that lay before me. I knew the facts, but I did not know if or how I could give birth.
The doctor and midwife team knew the exact proportions of my blood and urine, and listened to the butterfly beat of my unborn’s heart, but knew nothing of my heart, my deepest fears, those things which would have probably more impact on the birthing process than anything that they were testing. There was not time. It was not their job. I knew I needed to prepare, but how? Asking questions of those who had gone before me was a start. But their unconsciousness of their own birthing processes created as many new worries for me as it gave reassurance. And so I continued to read, haunting myself with visions of caesareans and episiotomy. My husband would come in from work to find a sobbing wreck curled up in bed, and pleaded with me not to read any more. But I needed to know: what is birth? How can I do it? Fast-forward a year. My birth was a textbook delivery at home: a powerful, erotic, spiritual, grounding, exhilarating and profound experience. But it could have been different. I truly believe that I gained the physical (through yoga) and spiritual and emotional (through Birthing From Within) preparation that helped me to step out of the way and allow the birth process to do its work.
Can we prepare for birth? Can we influence a positive outcome? I do not know how it would have been had I not prepared. I know other friends who have prepared and yet had hard, traumatic births. But I believe strongly that the more preparation one does, the less one leaves up to chance and the less one has left to come up in the maelstrom of the birth process. Birth is a messy business; it is deeply tied up with our feelings about ourselves, our families, our partners, our sexual natures, our feminine bodies, us as creative or spiritual beings, our mortality - there is a lot to be looked at. Making space for deep reflection on these issues during pregnancy, when we are naturally slowing down and becoming more emotionally sensitive, can only be beneficial. So now I am teaching these techniques which I learnt to other pregnant friends. This preparation is too important to miss and so I pass it on, woman to woman, as happened in times gone by.
One friend who, a little bemused by my fervour, had experienced a traumatic birth already and was pregnant with her second child, asked me to clarify: “What do you mean by preparation for birth?” And so I told her. In the past this knowing and preparation for birth would have been passed down from woman to woman in the community: it was raw; not medical textbook stuff, but a fuller, female initiation into what to expect. Pam England’s Birthing From Within is this long-lost wise woman, who has taken her wisdom from many different cultures. She whispers in your ear of your deepest fears and how to contact them. She sings the joys of pregnancy that you cannot express. She speaks of how it is to birth from within, not how it looks from outside. With the shared voices of women who have gone before you, she initiates you into this world: through breathing, awareness, the process of creating birth art, and wisdom. She leads you through what most people who deal with birth in our culture either don’t know, or don’t care about: the spiritual, the emotional, the dark corners which must see the light in order to make way for all the processes of birth. Two of her most influential techniques are making birth art and practising mindfulness. Whilst the pain management techniques were extremely effective in my experience, they are rooted in reasonably well-known meditative practices. Her emphasis on birth art, however, is, as far as I know, unique. It taps into an ancient lineage of art celebrating the female form, and harnesses the creative power that all pregnant women are immersed in as their bodies build new lives within.
We are used to rationalising our feelings. But when we do this the really uncomfortable, messy ones are left untouched and untouchable, huddled in the corner. These are the ones we will come across when the social niceties have been set aside and we are in the primal throes of birthing. These are the ones which birth art gives a voice or image to.
And so I found myself 38 weeks pregnant, moulding clay figurines, hypnotically squeezing the clay through my fingers, allowing my subconscious thoughts to guide me. A tiger-woman emerged, birthing on all fours; she was there with me, sharing her animal instincts during my birth. As was a beautiful breastfeeding Madonna and child which I gave to my doula friend to make peace after we had a difficult time with each other while trying to establish breastfeeding. A chubby baby reminded me of the final result during the pushing. A watercolour painting of a water-lily opening reminded me of the need to mindfully open during the birthing process. The process of engaging creatively with the birth was satisfying in itself - in my creative episodes I churned through emotional stuff below the surface: automatic drawing, pictures of the journey of birth, archetypal images . pouring from my hands, through paintbrush or clay, wetted by my tears. Soon my house was littered with my own personal imagery to do with birth: they remain powerful images of my own deepest birth wisdom, my connection to myself, and all women.
My dearest wish is that more women might have the opportunity to prepare themselves for their birth on all levels, to enter deeply into their own creative process in order to facilitate a positive birthing experience. The knock-on effects for us as women and mothers and for our families are too precious to squander. For too long birthing has been out of our hands; we now have the possibility to take it back, to learn its lessons and grow through our inner experience of it. Birthing From Within offers us all that possibility.
Lucy Pearce is a teacher, writer and dreamer of community and creativity. dreamingaloud.net
First published in Issue 12 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.