“One kind of learning comes from books. But the learning necessary for you to participate completely in your birth must come from you.” (Birthing from Within: An Extra-Ordinary Guide to Childbirth Preparation by Pam England and Rob Horowitz, p. 32)
I was raised to work hard, be committed, push myself and to never stop striving — because as soon as you paused someone that was working just a little bit harder than you would pass you. I expected that life wouldn’t be easy, and that you don’t quit, stop, let up, or let go — mentally, emotionally, or physically. You push through, bear down, grit your teeth, and keep going.
There are many principles about this mentality that I am grateful for and have helped me become a more thick-skinned version of myself. But I’m also noticing that it doesn’t allow for a lot of space to let down defense mechanisms or sweep the fast-building residue of gunky pride from your soul that it fosters. It can stagnate truly learning, growing, or enjoying where you are at the moment. It doesn’t allow for rest, relaxation, or rejuvenation. It doesn’t teach you balance or how to let go. Or to just be still. Or to be. Or to have trust. Or to exist as your very creation — a human being. There isn’t a lot of room to treat yourself with grace, kindness, or compassion.
Which is why when I started digging into books about pregnancy, birth, and labor, I felt like I couldn’t quite reconcile the idea of RELAXING during LABOR being the most essential thing I needed to grasp. Being in labor seemed like it would be a horrific experience of pain that I would just need to grit my teeth, push through, bear down, and keep going. To know that eventually it would be over, but until then, I would will myself to push this child out — much in the same way I’d willed myself through my life to begin reaching my goals and dreams.
This is what my entire childhood of "sucking it up" and "pushing through" has prepared me for, I thought. But I was wrong. Very, very wrong. I’ve been retraining my thought patterns on what it takes to have a healthy mindset for labor — and as I’m learning — for life.
Take a look at these phrases in The Natural Pregnancy Book by Aviva Jill Romm:
“The ability to give birth requires an ability to yield and let go. While this does not mean giving up the control associated with autonomy, it does mean that you must give up a sense that you can make your body do whatever you want it to do.”
“Don’t resent your body for its physical needs — if you need to rest and not workout, that’s OK.”
And this in the Essential Exercises for the Childbearing Years by Elizabeth Noble, PT:
"During pregnancy you learn to relax passively, like rag doll. You recognize the state of blissful restfulness of a released mind and body, usually in a position of recumbency and complete comfort.”
I read similar sentiments in numerous books, and I couldn't reconcile that during this momentous process of BIRTHING A CHILD there are words like yield, let go, relax passively, blissful restfulness, released mind and body, complete comfort, non-striving.
These are not things I would consider doing to get through a difficult time. These were SOFT words, gentle phrases — language I equated with laziness and giving up. But I’m learning these words, too, are work. It takes a lot more work to be kind to yourself, and let yourself truly relax. These ideas began clicking when I read a little further in the Essential Exercises for the Childbearing Years by Elizabeth Noble, PT:
“In labor, many of these things change and you have to be more alert, but by non-striving to maintain as complete a state of relaxation as you can.
“Relaxation is more than just rest and stillness. Genuine relaxation requires we gain insight into our muscular system, with which we make all purposeful actions in life and express our emotions. It involves learning to recognize, and release, excess tension, which may be present although the muscles are performing no activity.”
Relaxation to me used to mean flipping through channels or having a glass of wine — it was something that I resigned to when I was so exhausted mentally and physically that I couldn’t do anything else — but was too wired to sleep. And yet, Noble talks about relaxation being an active and alert state of awareness. This is interesting because it begins to speak to being present. It shows the necessity of taking a break and a way to live that engages more of my humanity.
Preparing for labor is not about gritting my teeth and pushing through. It’s about months and months of preparation — even when you’re throwing up everyday, not sleeping, and feeling altogether awful — of softening into yourself. Of little by little surrendering, yielding, and letting go — of the process happening to your body physically, but also the psychological, emotional and spiritual impacts. During labor your cervix literally has to soften in order to birth a baby. Your muscles need to be relaxed enough to dilate, and allow the baby to move into the correct position, and then through your body. The more relaxed you are, the less pain you experience, and the less likely you are to tear. When your jaw is slack and your mouth is relaxed, your lower body relaxes as well.
These have been hard-learned lessons that I'm still trying to fully grasp. I know I’ve learned some invaluable things about my body, ways to move, and have dug uncomfortably deep into a lot of my fears about having this baby — which happen to translate into most areas of my life. I’ve see-sawed between angry, fearful, positive, excited, and depressed emotions too. It’s been a frustrating 39 weeks because I feel like I have no control over my body, mind, emotions and spirit, or this human moving around in my belly. I could say it's because of the stretch marks, muscle pain, fear, unknown, lack of sleep, and other people's comments (just yesterday a man outside the library said to me: “Uh-Oh. I know what you’ve been up to.”), but the crux is one word: Control.
In Birthing from Within: An Extra-Ordinary Guide to Childbirth Preparation by Pam England and Rob Horowitz they put it so well:
“It’s important to notice how you approach making birth art because it is a metaphor for how you approach doing other things in your life, especially things you are unfamiliar with, such as birthing. Do you say ‘I don’t know how to do this’ and hesitate, or give up altogether? Do you find yourself comparing and competing with the artwork of others? Or can you be curious and say ‘Let’s see what I can do?’” — p. 33
Exploring these things reveals that the same threads that are twinging at my core run through other areas of my life and speak to how I approach the unfamiliar. They just seem more exposed right now — as if the larger my body grows, the deeper the insecurities, strengths and coping mechanisms seem to be revealed.There will always be the discomfort, the unknown, my own mind battlefield — and the constant comments from others. But what do I do with them? Who do I become in those moments? What do I choose?
In 2013 Health Foundations (where I’ve been attending prenatal care, classes and hope to birth this baby) interviewed Blooma’s Sarah Longacre. One of the questions they asked her was what advice she had for pregnant women. When I read her response, it literally brought me to tears. Because it’s this core piece this pregnancy has been nudging me toward all along — and a very hard place to come to. She said:
“The biggest advice I have—and I feel like I have said this before but I mean it now more than ever—to be so loving, and so kind, and so gentle to yourself. The pressure that is put on pregnancy and women—it’s huge. Overall, I think that we don’t teach ourselves to love ourselves unconditionally. I feel nothing but compassion for the pressure that women feel. I can be in a class of 30 moms and ten of them couldn’t be more excited about being pregnant—they’ve been waiting and trying for years. Another ten of them, they are scared out of their minds. And ten of them, they go in between. And there is nothing wrong with any of that.”
Longacre spoke so much truth in these few sentences. The reality is I don’t know how to be SO loving, SO kind, and SO gentle to myself — especially not for an entire pregnancy and beyond. That just feels selfish and excessive at times (as you can see I have a long way to go!). And there IS a lot of pressure put on women in pregnancy. And there is EXCITEMENT and FEAR. I love how she normalizes that and says there’s nothing wrong with any of it. Because there isn’t. When did we stop being compassionate to ourselves and the other women around us? We used to be in this together, and now we are separated, isolated, and divided over the hundreds of different fertility, pregnancy, birthing, and parenting techniques. I can imagine this only heaps on the frustration, comparing, and fear.
All that to say, what I’ve learned through this difficult pregnancy, and what I’m most grateful for is that I don’t need permission to be loving, kind and gentle to myself. It shouldn’t be a luxury or seen as trivial or “soft”. It’s the work of being a human. And it’s something I hope I can continue to grow in, teach my daughter, and give to others. And yes, pushing through, being committed, working hard — these are all amazing traits and lessons to learn as well. But I think they need to be grown simultaneously along with the grace, kindness, and love for oneself — and that may be the hardest lesson of all.