I can tell that I’m in the right line of work by the way the lessons I learn in life inform my birth work, and the lessons I learn in birth inform my life. In this year of my first twenty births I’ve learned a lot, but it all boils down to this: everything is all about perspective.
Last winter I began an experiment, and decided that I was going to truly enjoy every yoga class I went to. Somehow I had fallen into a rut of going to class with excellent intentions, but finding myself discouraged and uncomfortable and wishing I could see a clock. I wasn’t going to let this happen anymore. Yoga is something I do for myself, something I pay to do, something I’m good at, something that I want to enjoy, that I do enjoy! And so, whenever I felt crappy, I took a deep breath, told myself I was stronger than I thought, and forced myself to actually smile. It was a bold move. By smiling I was sure that I was aligning myself with the yoga crowd who openly moans and farts and places their mats uncomfortably close to others. I may live in Vermont, and I may not always shave my legs to go to class, but this is not a crowd I want to be associated with.
At my first class of “smiling through it,” I felt like a phony, but I noticed that the class felt more enjoyable. After my second class, it started to feel more natural, and I really started to enjoy the difficult moments in practice, and to be able to embody the reasons I do yoga. After my third class of smiling through it, I felt like a rock star and apparently I looked it too: a complete stranger in the class told me how beautiful my practice was! (Surely a true yogi wouldn’t glow in the compliment the way I did.)
“Smile through it” was my first mantra. I’m usually apt to associate mantras with the moan/fart in yoga crowd, but it’s actually incredibly helpful to have one little thought to focus on; a phrase to help re-frame our whole attitude. Women in labor often have their own ideas of thoughts, words or phrases to think or say, but it is also my duty as doula to come armed with some others in case they need a spare! I started jotting down mantras that I thought of, or read in books, or came across on the internet. A quick note turned into pages in my journal. Here are some of my favorites, for birth and life:
“Pain is just sensation.” This was given to my by a massage therapist almost ten years ago, and I have held onto it ever since. I had somehow worked my neck into such a tizzy that I couldn’t turn my head more than one inch in either direction. As she worked on my spasming muscles, I tensed more and more, and she repeated “pain is just sensation; relax into it.” It’s easy for us to equate pain with harm, or even death. That’s its job, to get our attention so we can fix the problem! I was already working on the fixing, and needed to get on top of the pain mentally, remembering that a biological nerve response does not necessarily mean harm. With practice, mind over matter really can conquer a lot!
“Pain is temporary.” Even when pain becomes too great to process cerebrally, it’s valuable to remember that it will eventually stop! This is helpful for emotional pain too. Yes, it’s terrible to hurt, it really is, but when you can imagine a finish line, it makes pain much more manageable.
“Feel what you’re feeling.” I use this a lot Sure, I think it’s important to try to manage physical pain with a positive attitude, but handling emotional pain is different. Not letting pain hurt isn’t healthy when it comes to emotions, and allowing ourselves to really feel something is helpful for processing those emotions, and moving on. We’re all human, we’re all emotional beings, and there is no point to pretending that we’re not. It’s normal to be angry, sad, frustrated, confused, or insecure and it should be normal to express those feelings in addition to our joy! I’m a huge advocate for having a good cry. Kelly Kravitz, a doula on Twitter, recently put my thoughts on crying into great, succinct thought: “Crying doesn’t indicate you are weak. Since birth it has always been a sign that you’re alive and full of potential.” Even if crying isn’t how you feel your feelings, let ‘em rip when you need to!
“Inhale peace, exhale tension.” And then there comes a time when all that cathartic crying needs to pass, and we need to move back into controlled, calm life. Good, deep, breathing is the original epidural and the original Prozac. It’s amazing what fresh oxygen does for pain and frustration, and important physiologically in birth. In order to properly and fully contract, the strong muscles of the uterus need a steady supply of oxygen, and the baby, who is also working hard, is (of course) reliant on the deep breaths of the mother to fuel his own journey. Sometimes a reminder to breath is enough, but other times it’s nice to have a thought to focus on to keep the pattern going. In with the good, out with the bad.
“Take a deep breath and blow that last contraction* away.” [or terrible commute, long day, disagreement, etc.] Related to the above, breath is cleansing. As a doula, this mantra is probably the one I use most frequently. It’s often difficult for women to relax between contractions during the pushing stage with all the excitement and energy and sometimes anxiety or fear in the room. They hold their breath while pushing, and then forget to resume a normal pattern for their time off, holding on to all that emotion, and depriving themselves and their baby of vital oxygen. And we all fall into this trap in our daily lives too! Take a deep breath, blow the tension away, let the past be in the past, and focus on how you’re feeling now.
“Trust the wisdom of your body.” There are thousands of stories out there of women who felt they were about to push their babies out, only to be told by a medical professional that they were wrong. What happens then? Birth, of course. We know ourselves better than anyone. Regardless of how much training someone else has, they are unable to know for certain what is going on in your body or your head. We spend all day, every day with ourselves. We know when something is amiss. Trust that, whether it be physical or emotional. We know what we know; no one else can.
“I am in charge of my own experience.” Ultimately, it is up to us and us alone to create our own life, or birth experience, or vacation, or career, or whatever else. Sure, things come up that are out of our control, but we are the captains of our own experience and we can steer it in whatever direction we choose and choose how we handle any obstacles in our path. Take ownership!