After a difficult or disappointing birth, these words can not only be unhelpful or dismissive of a person's experience but actually serve to deepen a mother’s (or partner’s or birth attendant’s) experience of trauma. But it’s true, no? Well on one hand yes, it is. We live in death phobic culture where even though our infant mortality rates have dramatically improved, there are still no guarantees with any pregnancy, or birth that the life created will make it to their first birthday. But it is also a somewhat simplistic way of perceiving human nature and birth in our culture.
One of the beautiful things about being human is that our reflections on and feelings about an experience can be paradoxical, or seem contradictory. A parent can be simultaneously thankful for having a healthy, happy baby and disappointed about the birthing experience. We don’t need to choose only one way of seeing the birth, just as it can be helpful to recognize that our birth stories will continue to evolve, just as we will.
But the statement also assumes that the parent’s experience of their child’s birth doesn’t matter, or matters less. We forget that becoming parents, or deepening into our role as parents with another child, is not just about growing a family, it is a rite of passage: which involves a transition from one stage in life, or belonging to a particular group, into another. A rite of passage is something to be acknowledged and celebrated as both culturally and personally significant. But what to do if you feel far from celebrating after your not so rock star birth?
Soon after the birth of the baby, if a parent or birth attendant is brave enough to trust a friend or a family member with parts of the baby’s birth story where the mother felt she was mistreated emotionally or physically by another person and is told that she should be thankful that at least her baby is happy and healthy, she will learn early on which parts of her story are “shareable” and which parts she could consider censuring. It can ignite feelings of shame or blame and make it challenging to integrate the birthing experience or disrupt the sense of belonging to the social group. And please remember that it is only in our brief history that humans have identified and valued ourselves as individuals. Our feelings of self acceptance and social connectedness, as well as our sense of belonging, can be seen as defining characteristics of being human. In fact, belonging to a community or a group not only promoted healthy physiological and social development but also increased our chances of survival.
Another thing that I wonder about is what gets said immediately after a parent is told to be thankful that their baby is happy and healthy. Sometimes there is this one upping that happens, like the new parent’s story reminds the listener of an even more awful birth story, almost as a way of proving how lucky this new parent should be that AT LEAST this other thing that happened to so-and-so didn’t happen to them. Pamela England, writer and creative director of Birthing From Within, cautions against the effect of Birth Story Morphing and Birth Story Virus. Morphing happens when someone gives you their own perspective on the birth experience and has the potential to alter how you feel or think about that birth story.
Pamela England’s Birth Story Virus refers to the idea that: “life and birth stories are told to entertain, bond, compete, but inadvertently birth stories teach and entrain a culture in what to expect, believe, and do regarding pregnancy and birth”. Perhaps Birth Story Virus might be one reason why much of our culture now sees birth as a medical event where an emergency could happen at any moment? A question that I am wondering about these days, is what would happen to birth in our culture if, instead of seeing a happy healthy baby as the most important outcome of a pregnancy, we were to reclaim birth as a rite of passage so that we can encourage a happy healthy family is born after the birth of a baby?
Check out Jennifer's virtual courses integrating challenging birthing experiences in the upcoming events page at birthstoryhealing.ca.