The birth of my first child was much harder than I’d expected it to be. I was ready for pain, but was also pretty confident that I’d be able to deal with it. What I hadn’t realised was that my mind and my body would be so resistant to the process. I fought every step of the way. Not consciously, but I just couldn’t find any way not to resist. When the surges came, I tensed into them, trying in any way I could to protect myself from the terrible pain that was sure to follow. After many long hours, my son was born, and the pain was gone.
My second birth, a little less than two years later, was different. A deeper intuition about my resistance and tension had led me to Ina May Gaskin, Michel Odent, and Dr. Grantly Dick-Read. These sages of the birthing world knew that resisting birth was futile, and that the very act of resistance is one of the main causes of pain. There’s nothing at all wrong with childbirth. There’s everything wrong with our learned response to it. Centuries of negative conditioning have created deep fear in our minds, and this fear leads our bodies to flood with adrenalin, halting our production of oxytocin, the hormone that’s essential for keeping labour flowing. Understanding this, I used mindfulness and hypnobirthing to prepare for my second son’s birth. I didn’t worry about it being perfect or pain-free. All I knew is that I would trust the process and not resist. I would not create pain with my mind.
And so the birth was profoundly different. When each surge came with all its almighty pressure, my muscles relaxed, and I let go. This time, I knew the pressure would not be too much for me. In the absence of fear, I could sink into the sensations, with no desire to escape, just letting the surges roll through my body. The pain never came. Just a profound sense of pressure and calm, and a newfound amazement at how phenomenally powerful women are when they give birth.
And so to this lockdown. I’m thinking of all the ways we usually turn outwards for solutions when the pressures of life feel like they will be too much. All the countless distractions we can use to resist turning inside to be with sensations that we think will be too much for us. Whether we’re angry, lonely or sad, there’s always something to escape from the pain. A shopping trip, extra hours at the office, pounding the treadmill at the gym, dinner with friends… And they work pretty well, temporarily, at least. But, as any good therapist knows, eventually, at some point, the pain lands.
Here in lockdown, things are far more intense. Just as in childbirth, there isn’t any escape. We can’t use our usual strategies for pushing issues aside or for escaping the inevitable annoyances of life. The buffers that normally exist to dilute our family relationships (friends, playdates, work – the outside world in general) aren’t there. All the things that felt minor are a bigger deal now.
Imagine you’ve thought up some interesting things to do with your child. Activities your child said they’d like to do. You’ve put some energy into getting the materials and figuring things out, and although you don’t mean to, you have a specific picture in your mind of how it will go. Despite the worries of the world, and the limitations of the moment, you are going to make this a lovely morning, filled with fun and connection. But your child isn’t in the mood for whatever you’d planned and gets riled at your enthusiasm. You feel some disappointment, but you let it go. Later, you suggest something else you’d planned. Your child reluctantly joins in but quickly gets frustrated by something. They storm off, cross at their failure, leaving you dejected and annoyed. Or some sibling rivalry spirals out of control and suddenly you’re the referee attempting to restore calm. This is not how the morning was supposed to go.
You feel the pressure of the moment rising. It all feels too much, and you start to doubt your ability to hold it all. A negative dialogue takes over, triggering a familiar thought pattern that you often have. Something about not being appreciated and always getting it wrong or maybe doubts about the way you parent. As you overload the moment with fears and worries, the moment becomes so uncomfortable that you resist it with everything you have. Your body is tense and your mind is racing. If there were an epidural available for this you would take it right now.
So what you can you do? All we can do is choose whether we resist or let go. Resisting will intensify the pain and pave the way to arguments, resentment, the usual grievances, things said that you immediately regret… Eventually it will all land, but it will be a longer path, and you know that the next time, there’s no reason why exactly the same thing won’t happen. In fact, the knowledge that when things ‘go wrong’ you have to go through this pain, is good reason for approaching even the loveliest day with some fear. What if it goes wrong, we ask ourselves?
Just like childbirth, life is out of our control. This strange moment we’re living through is proof enough of that. We can’t create a perfect morning, any more than we can create a perfect birth. All we can do is lay the foundations for the best morning possible, then let it flow, doing our best to not tense into all the things that aren’t as we imagined they would be. And most importantly, trusting that we are absolutely enough for whatever that morning brings.
I had a morning last week very similar to the one I described above. The accompanying picture to this post could well be the clay model scrunched up in frustration or the rucksack with snacks in it abandoned in the hallway. Fortunately, I was almost untriggerable that morning. I had slept well, woken early, enjoyed some quiet time, meditated… I was calm and able to follow the flow. I could still feel the tension rising in my body, but was able to be curious about it, to let it go and stay with the moment. Finally, after a morning that stopped and started and never seemed to go anywhere, with tears and stomping (not mine!), and emotions I just couldn’t understand filling the space, things landed. And sitting playing cards on a bed with a child with tear-stained cheeks and puffy eyes, calm now, trusting, sometimes laughing, and suddenly so close to me, I realised that, for whatever reason, this was exactly where the morning had needed to go. A perfectly, imperfect birth.
We’re all likely to have some more weeks to go in lockdown. It has its challenges, but it’s also an amazing time to work at increasing our capacity to hold and trust, without relying on anything beyond our own innate strength. So, keep your curiosity, learn to spot when you’re tensing up, and breathe into the tension. Nourish yourself with kindness, sleep, good food, and all the small joys that remind you that you absolutely are enough. And most of all, remember that you can’t make things perfect. They will be just how they need to be, and eventually, if we don’t resist, they will land just where they need to land.