“One kind of learning comes from books. But the learning necessary for you to participate completely in your birth must come from you.” Pam England
It seems that we have gained the science, but lost the art, of birthing.
As expectant mothers we are bombarded with information; we know far more than probably any other mothers before us, about how we and our baby look on the inside, the intricacies of hormones and the details of the child’s development from dreams to eyelashes. We know, and yet we do not know. Birth has been colonized and controlled by medicine, there is no room for mystery, no sacred spaces. We turn away from the answerless questions, we have no time for uncertainty. But each new mother is full of uncertainty, she contains within her the biggest unanswered question mark of them all: Who is this being? Will I be a good enough mother? Can I love this child?
The body of birth has been sectioned and neatly divided between doctor and midwife. What is the mother’s role? Is she no more than a heaving lump of flesh? How and where can she learn the art of birth?
“One kind of learning comes from books. But the learning necessary for you to participate completely in your birth must come from you.” Pam England, Birthing From Within
When I was pregnant, despite reading everything I could get my hands on, I felt afraid, alone, daunted and unprepared for this rite of passage which lay before me. I knew the facts, but I did not know if, how, I could give birth. The doctor and midwife team knew the exact proportions of my blood and urine, and listened to the butterfly beat of my unborn‘s heart, but knew nothing of my heart, my deepest fears, those things which would have probably more impact on the birthing process than anything that they were testing. There was not time. It was not their job. I knew I needed to prepare, but how? Asking questions of those who had gone before me was a start. But their unconsciousness of their own birthing processes created as many new worries for me as it gave reassurance. And so I continued to read, haunting myself with visions of caesarians and episiotomy. My husband would come in from work to find a sobbing wreck curled up in bed, and pleaded with me not to read any more. But I needed to know: what is birth, how can I do it?
Fast-forward a year. My birth was a textbook delivery at home: a powerful, erotic, spiritual, grounding, exhilarating, profound experience. But this was not inevitable. I truly believe that I gained the physical (through yoga) and spiritual and emotional (through Birthing From Within) preparation that allowed me to step out of the way and allow the birth process to do its work.
“Women have to prepare for birth with their heart, body and soul, not just their head.” Pam England.
Can we prepare for birth? Can we influence a positive outcome? I do not know how it would have been had I not prepared. I know other friends who have prepared and yet had hard, traumatic births. But I believe strongly, that the more preparation one does, the less one leaves up to chance, the less one has left to come up in the maelstrom of the birth process. Birth is a messy business; it is deeply tied up with our feelings about ourselves, our families, our partners, our sexual natures, our feminine bodies, ourselves as creative or spiritual beings, our mortality – there is a lot to be looked at. Making space for deep reflection on these issues during pregnancy, when we are naturally slowing down and becoming more emotionally sensitive, can only be beneficial. So now I am teaching these techniques which I learnt to other pregnant friends. This preparation is too important to miss and so I pass it on, woman to woman, as happened in times gone by.
One friend, a little bemused by my fervor, had experienced a traumatic birth already and was pregnant with her second asked me to clarify: what do you mean by preparation for birth? And so I told her. In the past this knowing and preparation for birth would have been passed down from woman to woman in the community: it was raw, not medical text-book stuff, but a fuller, female initiation into what to expect.
Pam England’s Birthing From Within is this long-lost wise woman, who has taken her wisdom from many different cultures. She whispers in your ear of your deepest fears and how to contact them. She sings the joys of pregnancy that you cannot express. She speaks of how it is to birth from within, not how it looks from outside. With the shared voices of women who have gone before you, she initiates you into this world: through breathing, awareness, the process of creating birth art, and wisdom. She leads you through what most people who deal with birth in our culture either don’t know, or don’t care about: the spiritual, emotional, the dark corners which must see the light in order to make way for all the processes of birth.
Two of her most influential techniques are making birth art and mindfulness techniques. Whilst the pain management techniques were extremely effective in my experience, they are rooted in reasonably well-known meditative practices. Her emphasis on birth art, however, is, as far as I know, unique. It taps into an ancient lineage of art celebrating the female form, and harnesses the creative power that all pregnant women are immersed in, as their bodies build new lives within.
“Few women acknowledge or even know what their image of birth is. Yet it is their images, whether ignored or acknowledged, that will determine how to prepare for and experience pregnancy and birth.” Pam England
We are used to rationalising our feelings. But when we do this the really uncomfortable, messy ones are left untouched and untouchable, huddled in the corner. These are the ones we will come across when the social niceties have been set aside and we are in the primal throws of birthing. These are the ones which birth art gives a voice or image to.
And so I found myself 38 weeks pregnant, molding clay figurines, hypnotically squeezing the clay through my fingers, allowing my subconscious thoughts to guide me. A tiger-woman emerged, birthing on all fours; she was there with me, sharing her animal instincts during my birth. As was a beautiful breastfeeding Madonna and child which I gave to my doula friend to make the peace after we almost killed each other trying to establish breastfeeding. A chubby baby reminded me of the final result during the pushing. A watercolour painting of a waterlily opening, reminded me of the need to mindfully open during the birthing process. The process of engaging creatively with the birth was satisfying in itself – in my creative episodes I churned through emotional stuff below the surface: automatic drawing, pictures of the journey of birth, archetypal images pouring from my hands, through paintbrush or clay, wetted by my tears. Soon my house was littered with my own personal imagery to do with birth: they remain powerful images of my own deepest birth wisdom, my connection to myself and all women.
By writing, talking and teaching about the art of birth, it is my dearest wish to share these skills, so that more women might have the opportunity to prepare themselves for their birth on all levels, to enter deeply into their own creative process in order to facilitate a positive birthing experience. The knock-on effects for ourselves as women and mothers, and for our families is too precious to squander. For too long birthing has been out of our hands, we now have the possibility to take it back, to learn its lessons and grow through our inner experience of it. Birthing from Within offers us all that possibility.
Birthing from Within: An ExtraOrdinary Guide to Childbirth Preparation. Pam England
Lucy Pearce, founder of The Happy Womb – A version of this article first appeared in JUNO magazine