Empathetic Medicine

My daughter turned seven this past weekend. I wanted to post about her birthday, but I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say. Thinking about my children’s birthdays is equivalent, for me, to thinking about their birth days. And my feelings about my daughter’s birth are still so complicated, it’s difficult to know what to say.

Then yesterday I was driving around without the kids in the car, a rare and precious thing in and of itself, and I heard a story on NPR about the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University. In this optional program, medical residents read literature and write narratives from their patients’ perspectives to help them better understand where their patients are coming from. I really like the idea of fostering empathy in doctors, especially given the by-and-large un-empathetic treatment I’ve received from doctors.

One of the residents interviewed for the show talked about how she becomes so frustrated when a patient won’t accept her advice. She said that she was hoping that the class would help her to understand her patients better so she could better convince them that the advice she’s giving is the right advice for them.

That statement led me to thoughts about the interactions I had with doctors during my pregnancy and birth with my daughter and why it’s so difficult for me to feel heard by physicians.

My experiences with doctors during my first pregnancy and birth were rushed and filled with coercion and scare tactics, out-and-out misinformation and power struggles. I was experiencing a miracle, but they were experiencing a day at the office. I felt like an individual engaged in the incredible task of growing and nurturing a living human being, but the doctors saw me as a bundle of problems and potential problems that each had a clear-cut solution. I saw myself as the necessary part of a natural process, but the doctors saw me as an inconvenient interloper between them and the fetus in my belly.

My midwife, on the other hand, recognized and celebrated the miracle. When I went in to interview her, before I’d even decided for sure I wanted her to be my midwife, she offered to let me listen to my baby’s heartbeat on the doppler. With excitement and wonder in her voice and her eyes, she led me on an auditory tour of my belly. At the end of the visit, she hugged me and we celebrated this momentous occasion together. Contrast this with my first belly-listening session with my doctor, in which I got about ten seconds of the baby’s heartbeat before the doctor said she couldn’t stand the sound of that doppler and shut it off.

I had planned to have a home birth, but on the advice of my midwife, I had tandem care between my midwife and an OB, just in case we ended up at the hospital. I hated my OB. I hated the whole practice. As soon as I got my GBS test results back, I quit going. Even though it cost more, I preferred to go to my midwife for the last month of my prenatal care.

But I ended up at the hospital to give birth—pitocin, epidural, absence of informed consent, and all.

I’ve spent the past seven years trying to figure out how to frame that birth experience. There were so many very positive things about it, not the least of which were the healthy baby I birthed vaginally. There was the incredible L&D nurse who helped me maneuver the baby into a favorable presentation so that labor could finally progress. There was the opportunity to (gently) tell off my OB, who was intent upon performing a surgical delivery even when everything was finally moving along and baby and I were looking great. There was the power I felt as I pushed my baby out. There was the wonderful postpartum nurse who taught me how to co-sleep with my baby.

But there were so many other things that haunt me about my experience in the hospital and have left me with an anxious and pervasive sense of powerlessness and an almost pathological distrust of doctors and hospitals.

Let me be clear: I am not upset with myself for having an epidural or even for going to the hospital in the first place, even though I can think of things I could have done differently that might have kept me at home to birth. I am uncomfortable with the feeling of being funneled into a system in which the only options are the ones that someone else has pre-decided for me and in which I am irrelevant as an individual, thinking human being. It’s the objectification of my Self that I have so much trouble working past.

My primary memories of my daughter’s birth are fear, confusion, powerlessness, and loneliness. There were times when I didn’t know where my husband or any of my three doulas were. There were times I didn’t know where my baby was. I was stranded among strangers and unable to make myself understood.

I wonder if the residents in the Narrative Medicine program would be able to put themselves in my shoes and see why being treated with kindness, empathy, and compassion would have made so much difference. I wonder if they could understand that there is more than one way to reach a “healthy outcome” and that there isn’t one right answer to most of the questions that arise. I wonder if they would be able to recognize and share the miracle rather than taking it as their own.

That resident who wanted to understand her patients better so she could get them to accept her advice? She makes me doubt that any of this is possible.

If a doctor is listening only to try and get me to come around to her point of view, that’s not really empathy. On the contrary, it’s just another form of coercion. If a person—including a doctor—truly understood my perspective, she would accept that the choice she’s trying to make for me really isn’t the best choice for me. She would accept that I can make an informed decision that is contrary to her advice.

I had my second baby in a portable tub of water in my dining room. My primary memories of that birth are the feelings of profound connection between me and my body, my husband, my daughter, my son, and my sister, midwife, and doula who were also there. My midwife steadfastly refuses to take any credit for how well his birth went. She insists, rightly so, that her moms do all the work and she’s just privileged to be invited to a part of that miracle.

I so far haven’t met a doctor willing to step that far back. I know they must exist, but they seem to be a rare breed indeed.

Related Posts:

-My Son’s Birth Story, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

My Son’s Birth Story, Part 3: The Awesome Calm

My son’s second birthday is today. I’ve been thinking a lot about his birth, reflecting on how much he’s changed in the past two years, how much he’s still the same little guy he was in utero, and how much his birth and his existence have changed me.

I’m posting here my “for the public” birth story, split into three parts. If you were friends with me on Facebook last year, this is very similar to the birth story I posted for my son’s first birthday.

This was my second pregnancy and second birth (and most likely my last pregnancy and birth). After a fairly traumatic birth experience with my daughter, I did lots and lots to prepare for this birth. One thing I did was practice my Hypnobabies hypnosis multiple times a day from about eleven weeks gestation on. When I refer to hypnosis tracks in this birth story, they’re Hypnobabies tracks.

Oh, and in real life, we all referred to one another by our first names. I’ve taken out all names but mine for the “public” version of the story.

*********

The baby’s back is covered in thick vernix, and I rub it in. The baby begins to cry.

“You’re safe and sound, baby. You’re safe and sound, baby,” I repeat, my voice hoarse and sultry from all of the yelling. “You’re safe and sound, baby–” I lift the little leg and take a peek, “–boy. You’re safe and sound, baby boy.”

This is my son. This is my boy. I’m tired and happy. I look up at my husband and we kiss. I help my son maneuver on my chest to help him nurse. He latches on a little, then pauses to look around. Latches on, then looks around again.

“Charity, I want you to give a little push,” my midwife instructs.

I push, thinking that birthing the placenta will be a cinch after pushing out this baby. It’s easier, but certainly bigger and less comfortable than I expected.

It is 3:13am.

The placenta is floating next to me in a pink basin. My midwife clamps the cord and helps my husband cut it. We rest for a while while my midwife inspects the placenta. It looks great, apparently, and is quite large.

My doula brings me a glass of Recharge, and I suck it down through the straw.

My midwife explains that the baby had his right hand up by his face, and this pushed his elbow against my back and his head caught that anterior lip of cervix as it came down. She checks his arm, and it’s fine.

“I was a little worried about his shoulders, but he fit fine,” she says. “If you can birth a baby this size with a nuchal arm, you could birth an 11-pound baby in a favorable presentation, no problem.” I smile and feel a sense of pride at this proclamation. My midwife quickly apologizes, but I love her comment. My body can do all this and even more.

My husband considers the baby and says, “He doesn’t look like a Franklin,” which is our top choice for a boy. My husband suggests another name, not really on our list at all.

“Well,” I say, not ready to commit to a name just yet, “Let’s try it out. See if it fits.”

Someone takes my son, and my doula and midwife help me up and out of the pool, draping my bathrobe over my shoulders as quickly as possible. I notice that they’ve put some kind of paper runner all the way from the tub to my bed. We’ve already double-made the bed with plastic in between the two sets of sheets, so I can just walk straight there. I’m shaking incredibly, though, and pause in the doorway.

“Just keep moving, Charity,” my midwife urges.

I make my way to the bed supported by my midwife and doula. They help me in and stack blanket after blanket on top of me as my teeth chatter and my body shakes. My son is placed on my chest, naked, and covered with the blankets, too. Gradually, the shaking subsides. I help my son nurse. He suckles for a while, then falls asleep.

I feel bliss. I feel powerful. I feel part of something huge, something epic.

I eat some melon, drink some juice, cuddle my son.

After a while, my midwife takes the baby to the other side of the bed for his newborn assessments. I watch as she explains to my daughter each thing she does. She weighs him (9.0 pounds) and measures him (21.5 inches long), takes his footprints, checks his reflexes (the cool “walking on the bed” thing midwives do). My husband diapers him and swaddles him, helps my daughter hold him while my midwife checks me. I’ve got a 1st-degree tear, and she gives me two stitches. Then, I’ve got my baby back on my chest again.

My husband takes my daughter back to bed. We call the grandparents and give them the news. The doula and midwife leave. My sister heads upstairs to bed.

My husband curls up beside the baby and me.

It’s about 6am.

We sleep.

***********

You can find Part 1 and Part 2 of the birth story here:

Part 1

Part 2

My Son’s Birth Story, Part 2: Show Time

My son’s second birthday is today. I’ve been thinking a lot about his birth, reflecting on how much he’s changed in the past two years, how much he’s still the same little guy he was in utero, and how much his birth and his existence have changed me.

I’m posting here my “for the public” birth story, split into three parts. 

This was my second pregnancy and second birth (and most likely my last pregnancy and birth). After a fairly traumatic birth experience with my daughter, I did lots and lots to prepare for this birth. One thing I did was practice my Hypnobabies hypnosis multiple times a day from about eleven weeks gestation on. When I refer to hypnosis tracks in this birth story, they’re Hypnobabies tracks.

Oh, and in real life, we all referred to one another by our first names. I’ve taken out all names but mine for the “public” version of the story.

*********

In the birth tub.

I decide to take a shower to speed things along, and my husband joins me to offer support—literally—during contractions. I direct the hot water at the underside of my belly, and around to my back. It helps between contractions, but during contractions, I need to hang onto something and I can’t do that holding the shower head. I want to get down on my hands and knees, but the new bath mat is really rough. It hurts the soles of my feet and leaves chevron-shaped ripples on them, so I know it won’t feel any good on my knees. My husband turns off the water and helps me out of the bath. He helps me dry off and put my clothes back on between contractions.

We move into the bedroom, and I lean my forearms on the bed with my knees on the floor while my husband tries the counterpressure and hip squeezes that felt so good when I wasn’t in labor. I’m disappointed to find that these moves do not feel good at all during labor.

I want to get lower. My midwife and my husband help me onto all fours on the floor, my arms leaning on a stack of pillows. I rock my hips and moan loudly during contractions.

I hear my doula’s voice and feel her hand on my shoulder.

“I made record time!” she exclaims in a quiet voice between contractions. “You called around 11, and it’s 11:45 now.” Her hair is darker than it was the last time we met.

“You changed your hair,” I say.

“Even in labor you notice something like that,” my midwife says.

“No, I saw that it was different in an album on Facebook,” I explain, as I feel the wave of another contraction moving over me. When it’s through I burp several times.

“I feel kind of ill,” I say.

“Pukey or just burpy?” asks my midwife.

I think for a few moments then answer, “I don’t know.” An empty trash can appears in front of me, and I lean on that during contractions.

I don’t know who makes the suggestion, but the decision is made to move to the birth tub again. My midwife and my doula help me go to the bathroom first. As I rise from the toilet, I have another contraction. I’m out of my rhythm and don’t know what to do with myself. I lean forward with my hands on the edge of the tub, then I move to hands and knees on the floor, then to my forearms.

“I want to get…under the floor,” I say. I can tell that my midwife is amused by this, and through the roar of sensation I feel a muted sense of pride.

Out in the dining room, I strip down again, as fast as I can between contractions, and everyone helps me step over the high edge of the tub. I sink down into the water and let my arms float as I did earlier in the evening. When the next contraction comes, I lean over the edge of the tub. I call out loudly.

“Low tones, Charity. Keep it low,” my doula reminds me, and I lower my voice. “Good, good.”

The sensation. There’s a big sensation in my back and a pinch in the underside of my belly, but the overriding sensation is like a very loud noise in my midsection. It’s a roar in my belly that comes out through my mouth, builds and builds and then finally recedes.

I’m loud. I know that I’m loud, but I can’t seem to keep the noise inside my body.

I start to wonder if I’m doing it wrong. I’m fixated on the idea that I’m still at 3 cm, and I’m embarrassed at how much noise I’m making so early in the game. I’ve been practicing my Hypnobabies hypnosis for months, and I’ve had a vision of riding the pressure waves with my eyes shut, maybe making some small moans at the peak, but mostly just breathing deeply. This doesn’t look like what I’d envisioned. It’s also much more intense than I’d imagined.

During contractions, I lean on the side of the tub and call out. My doula reminds me to keep my tones low. She puts her hand on my shoulders and says, “Relax,” and I do my best to let go.

“I can’t do this,” I say.

“You are doing this,” she assures me.

As a former doula, I recognize this response, and I’m a little surprised how comforting it is to hear even though I know it’s standard doula-speak.

Between contractions, she gives me sips of water or I rest on the little step we’ve made under the floor of the tub. I lie on my side with my head resting on my arm on that step, and I doze off. I worry vaguely about drowning in the tub, but that’s not a thought that takes hold. I see the flash of my doula’s camera. Once I wonder, “Why is she taking a picture of this?” But mostly the flash exists in another realm. It’s something that doesn’t concern me.

At some point, someone takes my glasses off.

I start to feel my body pushing. My midwife is sitting in the child-sized armchair against the opposite wall.

“I’m pushing,” I say. “Are you sure it’s OK to push?”

“Has the pinchy feeling gone away?” she asks, still sitting in the little chair.

“No,” I answer. And I’m carried away by another contraction. I bear down and feel the bag of waters break. I have a mental image of how it must look, shooting out behind me at high pressure.

“My water broke,” I say. I don’t hear anyone answer, although someone might have.

During contractions, I’ve been holding husband’s hand with my left hand and my doula’s with my right. I notice that my husband is gone. “He’ll be back before the next contraction,” I think, and try to relax.

The next contraction begins to build.

I ask for my husband.

“He’s in the bathroom. He’ll be back soon.” I’m disappointed and for a moment wonder how to get through a contraction without holding his hand, but I turn my mind around. This is the reality. I’ve got my doula, and of course I can do this contraction. My husband will be back soon.

I come out of a contraction and notice that my daughter’s next to the tub. She says something to me. Maybe, “Hi, Mommy.”

“Hi, Honey,” I say. I intend to kiss her and give her reassurance that I’m doing well, but I can’t quite do it. I hear my husband reassure her that Mommy’s doing fine.

Now that I’ve started pushing, the contractions are carrying me away in a different way than before. I try to go with my body, try to just ride the push.

“Let it be strong,” my doula tells me, and I try to relax and let the power move through me.

“No, no, no!” I shout.

“Yes,” my doula says, calmly but firmly. “Yes.”

“Yes!” I try to yell it with feeling, but I remain unconvinced. I think, “I am so glad I’m not in the hospital, because I would ask for an epidural, and I don’t want one.”

“Charity, you might want to try to go to the bathroom,” my midwife suggests.

“I already peed in the tub,” I admit weakly.

“Good girl.” I don’t exactly hear laughter, but I hear that amusement again. I like the amusement. It helps me feel like everything is normal. Everything is fine.

Another contraction. At the top of this one I start repeating, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” As the contraction recedes, that changes to, “Oh, my crap.”

Another contraction.

“I just want a nap,” I’m pleading to no one in particular. “Just a little nap,” I bargain, “and then I’ll go right back to it. Just a little rest.”

Another contraction comes and goes.

“The pinchy feeling is still there,” I say in the brief calm between contractions.

“How about let’s try reclining,” my midwife suggests. “Maybe I could check you and see what’s going on?”

“OK,” I agree. Somehow I turn over. My midwife checks me.

“The head is very low,” she says. “You’re complete, but you have just a little anterior lip. That’s the pinchy feeling. On the next contraction, I can try to push it over the baby’s head.”

“OK.”

“If it hurts a lot, tell me and I’ll stop.” The next contraction builds, and I don’t feel anything more intense than usual.

“It’s not budging,” my midwife says. “You’ll need to push through it.”

I feel a sense of unfairness. When pushing starts, the other contraction sensations are supposed to recede. This is supposed to be my break, my triumphant time of great energy and joy. Damn that pinchy feeling.

But once again, I resolve myself to reality. This is it. Just more of the same. I’ve been doing this forever already. I can do it a little longer. I’m still somewhat unconvinced that I can possibly be this far along. It’s a strange place, labor-land. It exists outside of time. I’ve been doing this forever and ever, and yet for a very short time, too.

Somehow, my husband has joined me in the tub. He’s sitting on the little step behind me, holding me.

“If you reach down, you can feel the baby’s head,” my midwife says. I reach down, and there it is. Squishy, wrinkly.

I’m holding to two of my doula’s fingers with my left hand and touching the baby’s head with my right. That little growing patch of head has become the focus of my entire world.

With each contraction, I push and push. I start to feel lightheaded, like I’m falling.

“Oh, God! I think I’m going to pass out!” I shout. I’m squirming, trying to get away from the dizziness. “Oh, dear God, would someone please help me!” (A few days later, my daughter asks me about this. “Mommy, why did you say, “Oh, dear God, would someone please help me’?” The following day, my sister tells me that my daughter would retreat with her aunt to the kitchen every time I yelled, then return to the tub when I was quiet. My daughter tells me she was keeping her aunt company.)

“Breathe into my hand,” my doula says, and puts her hand loosely over my mouth and nose. I breathe as slowly and as deeply as I can. I realize that I’m breathing out as I push, but I’m forgetting to inhale again. My doula removes her hand, and I put my left hand over my face.

Breathing in, breathing out. Waiting for the next contraction, keeping my right hand on that little head. Feeling the next contraction build.

“Let it build up, nice and strong, then push when you can’t not push anymore.”

I let it build. I wait as long as I can and then I push. I feel a burning. The burning grows and grows. I fear it, but I also welcome it. I know I need to push into it. I know the only way is through the fire. I go slowly. I try not to push with all my might. I push until the feeling grows too intense and then I let off a little. Breathe into my hand.

“Tiny little pushes, like this,” and my midwife makes tiny little grunting noises. I try to imitate them. I end up doing something kind of like laughing. My back aches. That pinch is intense in the front of my belly. My nethers burn. I cradle that little head in my hand and feel it grow and grow until finally–relief. The baby’s head is out. I rest between contractions.

“OK, Charity,” my midwife says. “On the next contraction I want you to let it build and then push as hard as you can.”

I feel the next contraction build. I wait. It builds. I wait some more. Finally I can’t wait any longer. I put everything into this push. I’m holding my breath and my vision goes black. I can hear, but things seem far away. Suddenly I hear my midwife saying, “Pick up your baby! Pick up your baby!”

I feel my baby with my hands, I see my baby as I lift it to my chest. The baby is calm, not crying, but making little mewling noises. It looks at me, and I know this child. With my daughter, I felt a huge surge of emotion when I first held her. I cried and loved her with a bigger love than I’d ever felt before. This baby, I simply know. I recognize this child as mine.

It is 2:59am.

**************

You can read Part 3 of the birth story here.

And if you landed here directly and missed Part 1, it’s here.

My Son’s Birth Story, Part 1: Ramping Up

My son’s second birthday is tomorrow. Naturally, I’ve been thinking a lot about his birth today, reflecting on how much he’s changed in the past two years, how much he’s still the same little guy he was in utero, and how much his birth and his existence have changed me.

I’m posting here my “for the public” birth story, split into three parts. If you were friends with me on Facebook last year, this is very similar to the birth story I posted for my son’s first birthday.

This was my second pregnancy and second birth (and most likely my last pregnancy and birth). After a fairly traumatic birth experience with my daughter, I did lots and lots to prepare for this birth. One thing I did was practice my Hypnobabies hypnosis multiple times a day from about eleven weeks gestation on. When I refer to hypnosis tracks in this birth story, they’re Hypnobabies tracks.

Oh, and in real life, we all referred to one another by our first names. I’ve taken out all names but mine for the “public” version of the story.

*********

The day before my son’s birthday.

I open my eyes in the dark, suddenly awake.

I think I feel a trickle of fluid.

I put on my glasses and look at the clock. 12:00.

I hoist my belly and swing my legs to the floor, using the momentum to lever my top half upright. I pause, letting the blood find its way back to my head. Finally, I press my hands against the mattress and push my body off of the bed. I waddle to the bathroom and shut the door so the light won’t wake my husband. I pee, and when I wipe see just the faintest tinge of pink on the paper. The trickle seems to have stopped, but the rhythmic hardening of my belly and the pink show tell me that something is kicking into gear. I go back to bed, put on my headphones, and fall asleep listening to my Deepening Hypnosis track.

It’s light out when I wake up and see my husband, dressed, standing over me.

He tells me that he, my sister, and our daughter are headed for the Farmers Market.

“Do you need anything before we go?”

My sister has been in town from Ohio since August 1st. It’s now the 8th, 5 days after my due date, and I’m hoping the baby will be born before her return flight on the 11th.

“No, I’m just going to sleep,” I answer.

“I’ve got my cell phone. I’ll see you when we get back.” He leans down to kiss me and the moment his lips touch mine I feel another, larger trickle of fluid.

“Ummm,” I say, “wait just a few minutes before you go.”

On the toilet, the trickle is tiny. The paper comes back with a few hairlike streaks of blood on it. I call my midwife from the toilet. It’s just after 8:00am.

I tell my midwife about the trickle at midnight and this newest trickle. I tell her about the contractions, mild waves coming fairly infrequently.

“The others were just leaving for the Farmers Market. Should I let them go?” I ask.

“What do you think?” She gives the decision back to me.

“I think things aren’t really happening all that fast,” I say. “It’s probably OK for them to go. I’m going to get some breakfast and go back to bed, either way.”

“How about you have your husband time your contractions for an hour and see how they’re going, then make  a decision from there. If things ramp up during that hour, you might not want him too far away.”

I hang up and we commence timing my contractions while I eat some breakfast. After an hour of small, erratic contractions, I send the others on their way, call my midwife to update her, call my doula to give her a heads up, then I head back to bed. I listen to my Easy First Stage track and fall asleep.

The day proceeds. We stick close to home, and I alternate periods of activity, eating, and rest. I take my temperature and a dose of echinacea every four hours, as my midwife has instructed and give her updates by phone periodically. Each time I talk to my midwife or doula they ask, “Do you want me to come over yet?” Each time I answer, “No, not yet.”

I feel calm and relaxed. I feel confident. And I feel like being with my family and no one else.

The contractions have been intensifying by degrees all day, but I’m still greeting them with a smile. I look at the birth tub set up in the dining room but not yet filled. I talk to my baby.

“Mama’s here, baby. You’re safe and sound, baby. Come whenever you’re ready, baby. Mommy and Daddy and your big sister and your aunt are all here ready to love you. And we’ve got the birth tub set up. When you’re born, you’ll be born into nice, warm water.”

I touch my belly, savoring these last hours before my baby is his or her own person.

In the afternoon, I take a walk with my sister around the block. We dodge sprinklers that are watering the sidewalk instead of the grass, talk quietly, and I try to keep walking and look casual when a contraction comes on. After dinner and another nap, I walk the same route with my husband. I love these walks. I love spending this quiet time with my sister and my husband. And I love that by the end of the second walk, I need to stop and breathe at the top of the contractions.

It’s early evening when we call our midwife and ask her to come over and help us gauge things. She arrives around 9:30. I’m vocalizing, moaning quietly and leaning on my husband during contractions. They’re still comfortable, but I find I can’t stay seated during them. My husband and my sister have started filling the tub. My daughter went to bed around 7:30. My midwife, my husband, and I consult and I decide to have the midwife check my cervix.

“You’re about a 3, and very thin,” she reports. “The bag is intact at baby’s head, and I can feel lots of fluid inside.”

“So, what do we do now?” I ask.

“Well, that depends,” she says. “We can try to stir things up, get you up and walking some stairs. Or we can get you in the birth tub, try and get you all relaxed and try to slow things down a bit so you can take a nap and be rested up for when things pick up.”

I chew on this information. At first I’m disappointed that I’m not further along. But after some calm breathing and quiet reflection, I accept the situation, and decide this is an excellent chance to take a rest. This is just what I wanted, a labor that ramps up slowly and gives me a chance to adjust to each increase in intensity.

I strip down to my skin and step into the birth tub. When I sit down, the water comes up to my chest, and I float my arms on the surface. The buoyancy and release from some of my body’s weight is wonderful. I don’t know how long I stay in. The water has taken the edge off of the contractions, but they’re still coming at about the same frequency. I decide to get out, dry off, and try to get some sleep.

My midwife stretches out on the couch and my sister lies on the loveseat. My husband and I curl up together in our bedroom off of the dining room. I put on my headphones and listen to my Deepening track again while lying on my left side. I’m very relaxed in between contractions but during them, I get squirmy. I cannot keep still, and I’m starting to moan again. I make myself lie there through five contractions before I decide sleep isn’t forthcoming.

I get up and walk out to the living room. My midwife sits up.

“Looks like this is it,” she says.

*********

You can read Part 2 of the birth story here.

Going Soft

I’ve decided I don’t do well without a focus, and that apparently “fun” isn’t focus enough for me. I like fun, I just think I do better getting to it from a less direct path than pursuing it outright. More of a Benjamin Franklin approach than a John Adams approach (yes, I’m still watching the John Adams miniseries).

I’ve mentioned it before, but I think there are a lot of unhappinesses in my life that stem from too great a reliance on the “masculine” side of things. Not that intellect and a direct approach and a reliance on the mind is bad. It’s served me well for as long as I can remember. But it’s not balanced. And I think I’m missing out on a fullness in life by having the balance tilted too far over to that one side.

As a result, I’ve decided to focus on softness. I want to practice allowing myself to trust my intuition and my emotions. I want to practice forgiveness and love. I want to connect physically with others—especially my husband and children. I want to touch, to hug, to dance with my kids. Not that I don’t do those things already, I just do them more as an afterthought. I want those things to be part of the entree, not the dessert. I want to bring awareness to my body and how it’s feeling, rather than automatically pushing aside the sensations. I want to allow my body the freedom to move without being judged and controlled by my mind. This will make it necessary to Risk Looking Silly like a sonofagun. So I hope to take baby steps so as not to cause myself too much discomfort and perhaps cause me to scrap the whole plan.

I’m going to make time and space in my budget for body therapies (e.g., massage, facials, pedicures). I tend to view these as indulgent, and maybe they are. But I also think that I need those kinds of things right now to bring me into my body gently.

Yin yoga is another element I’d like to incorporate into my routine. I’ve done one yin yoga class (about three years ago) and two practices on a Paul Grilley DVD I checked out from the library (this past week). It’s a meditative practice that focuses on very gently deepening a pose and inviting openness in one’s body without aggressive movement. I tend to view yin yoga as a waste of time, but this is because I look at it as a type of exercise. If I look at it as exercise, it does fall a little short of other practices. But if I liberate it from the “fitness” label, I can see its value. I’ll stick with my DVDs for a while, the one I have from the library already and the one I’m going to pick up this weekend. Then I might try some of the yin classes at local yoga studios.

And then the same thing I’ve been doing: just breathing and bringing awareness to the moment.

There are other things I’ve considered adding, like music (singing or playing an instrument, especially) and dance, things that allow me to feel music throughout my body. But those things require a little more emotional effort and bravery on my part. I’ll save those for after I’m comfortable with my less scary pursuits.

And I recognize that this list-making and written planning is “masculine.” I’m not scrapping all of that kind of thing. I’m not sure I could function in society if I scrapped it all. I’m just trying to tip the balance a tad more towards the feminine.

Part of what pushed me over to wanting to add more feminine elements to my life was the recognition of how I use my birth experience with my son as a kind of emotional talisman. I instinctively reject the ra-ra, “I birthed a 9-pound baby in a tub in my living room; I rock!” kind of things around the experience, which is a more masculine reaction.

Birthing my son was an exercise in letting go and trusting my body and allowing myself to feel the love those around me were offering. The fact that I think of it when I feel a need to protect myself leads me to believe that I have a craving for more of that kind of vulnerability, scary as that might be. Upon reflection, his birth was a totally feminine experience. (This would seem to be a given when talking about birth, but birth in the US is often much more masculine than it is feminine. Giving birth to my daughter in a highly-managed hospital situation, it was anything but “feminine.”) Birthing my son involved bringing my awareness to my body and bringing myself out of my brain. It involved relinquishing conscious control and trusting myself, the process, and those around me. It involved vocalization and the physical sensation of the water in the birth tub. And it involved physical touch, both from my doula and from my husband, especially when he climbed in the tub with me and supported me while my body pushed our son out.

My husband sometimes jokes with me that I can relate anything back to birth. But really, isn’t that where everything starts? I’m just incredibly grateful to have this kind of experience to use as a model for embracing feminine energy.

Book Review: Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride

Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride : A Psychological Study (Studies in Jungian Psychology, 12.)Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride : A Psychological Study by Marion Woodman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It probably isn’t quite fair to give a book four stars rather than five simply because I couldn’t understand all of it, but that’s what I’m doing. I think if I read it again, I would absorb more of it, partly because there’s so much there and it takes a while to percolate and make sense to me, and partly because I had very little exposure to Jungian psychology before reading this book, so the language was a little inaccessible to me at first.

Some of the take-home messages I got from Addiction to Perfection:

-We are each, man and woman, made up of masculine and feminine sides of our psyche. The masculine side is the intellectual side, and it’s also the side that strives for order and control. The feminine side is based in the body and the earth, and it’s more intuitive. Neither is better or worse than the other, but if they get out of balance in our selves and/or in society, weird, off-kilter things happen (neuroses, if I’m understanding the vocabulary correctly).

-The impulse toward perfection is the result of an imbalance toward the masculine side. The “cure” is to awaken the feminine side, build trust with it, and bring it out to help integrate the psyche.

-Perfection is static, unlike life which is constantly changing and moving. Therefore, perfection is more closely related to death than it is to life, and the pursuit of perfection can be seen as the unconscious pursuit of death.

-When we begin the transition from an overly masculine psyche to a more integrated and balanced psyche, we can expect to pass through turmoil and fear before we attain the balance and peace on the other side.

This book was very well-timed for me. The practice of shifting my focus from my mind and the intellectual, with which I am most comfortable, to my body and my intuition dovetails nicely with the mindfulness practices I’ve already begun.

One passage in particular resonated with me, as it echoes an impression I got about modern birth practices as I compared the hospital birth of my first child with the home birth of my second. It’s actually a quote from R.D Laing’s The Voices of Experience in which Laing describes the reaction of an obstetrician to a woman’s description of her home birth. The obstetrician didn’t understand why the woman would want to go through all of that when she could have experienced no pain at all in the hospital. The birthing woman explained that she wanted to have a home birth because she wanted to have the full birth experience.

“He [the obstetrician] could not see how such a sentiment could have any value. He evidently sniffed some hysterical-masochistic heresy. Birth: abolished as an active personal experience. Experience: dissolved into oblivion. She is translated from feeling subject to anaesthetic object.

The physiological process is taken over by a chemico-surgical programme. End result: the act, the event and the coherent experience of birth has disappeared.

Instead of the birth of a baby, we have surgical extraction.

This domination and obliteration of the feminine by the masculine in modern obstetrics could go some ways to explaining why women who receive pain medication during labor report lower satisfaction with their birth experiences than women who receive no pain medication. The problem isn’t one of location (home birth vs hospital birth) or whether a woman receives pain medication or not. Rather, it’s based in the marginalization of the experience and the removal of a woman’s participation in her own birth process. For many women, this marginalization is decreased or eliminated with unmedicated and/or home births. That certainly was my experience.

At any rate, I really liked the book.

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(By the way, my NaNoWriMo word count for Day 16 is 28,456)