The Power of Story

Hero's Journey

I am a really, really big NPR geek. It started when I was a stay-at-home Momma after the birth of my first baby. My girl never slept during the day through that whole 4th Trimester – unless I was holding her. (This was sixteen years ago! Long before the ubiquitous smartphones and Netflix that today’s parents have access to.) So, I strapped my kiddo to my chest and went about my day with NPR and talk radio as my constant companion. I’ve never been as educated about world events than I was during that time in my life, and it felt good to still a part of the world during those cold winter months that followed my baby’s October birthday.

I think it was then that the power of story really began to take hold of me. I’ve always been an avid reader and a well-written story has the power to completely transport me to another world. I can visualize the events as if they’re a movie being played inside my head. It’s super cool! But I think there’s even more power in the spoken word and last night I got to experience that power in person. 

For those of you non-NPR geeks, The Moth is all about true stories, told without any notes. A dream of mine, which may not surprise any of you, would be tell a story on The Moth Mainstage at some point in my life. I don’t really have an actual “bucket list” but if I did, this would be right at the top. I bought tickets for this event seven months ago and last night I sat in my seat and waited for the storytelling to begin with the same excitement reserved for seeing an all-time favorite rock band.

The stories that make it to the Main Stage are ones that have been finessed and the storytellers have been well-coached so that their 10-12 minutes long story has, as all good stories do, a beginning, middle and end. The narrative should be easy for people to follow and it must be compelling in some way. Humor is welcome, but not necessary. Feeling as though the reader has taken you on a journey, is.

At the end of last night’s two hour show, I felt full. That’s the only way I can describe it. My heart was satiated and I was content. Five amazingly brave readers, in front of the largest Moth crowd ever assembled, told us their stories. Some were laugh-out-loud funny, some were so intense that I found myself holding my breath, waiting to hear what happened next. All were moving in the way only story can move us.

And this got me thinking about the power of telling our own stories. About how vital it is for all women to be able to tell their birth stories to someone who is willing to listen with that same rapt attention. Someone who resonates with shared experience, who gasps at the exciting parts, laughs at the funny parts, and cries at the parts that are still painful and raw.

When I teach my classes we discuss how often pregnant women feel “assaulted” by others, oftentimes complete strangers, who are compelled to tell them their birth story. It’s rare that those stories are ones full of joy and excitement, wonder and awe. No, too often these stories are filled with pain, regret and disappointment.

And it’s my theory that this sharing of “The Negative Birth Story” is an unconscious deep-seated desire to process this life-changing event with someone, anyone, who’s willing to listen. I believe these women have been told, over and over again, that they should, “Move on!” or “Healthy Momma, healthy baby – that’s all that matters, right?” They are told, in effect, to shut up and stop telling their story. Often by those who are closest to them and the birth they just experienced: their providers, their friends and family, even their partners.

But these stories need to be told, they must be told. For how else are these women supposed to assimilate this event, if not by telling their story? Birth is the most profound story that can ever be told. It always has a beginning, a middle and an end. There are most certainly obstacles that need to be overcome and it is for sure a hero’s journey in the greatest sense of that phrase.

I think “The Birth Story” fits perfectly with Joseph Campbell’s, “The Hero’s Journey.” When a woman says “yes” to pregnancy, she’s answering the call to adventure, even if she’s reluctant at first. She might need some form of supernatural aid to assist her in this process and she’ll most likely check in with guides and mentors, those who’ve made this journey before her to make sure she’s on the right path as she moves from the Known to the Unknown.

The start of her pregnancy marks the beginning of her transformation process, but she’ll still stumble through many different challenges along the way. Maybe she’s sick in the beginning, maybe she hates how her body is changing. Anxiety might be ever-present on this journey. Maybe she and her partner experience relationship issues. Maybe there’s an unexpected health issue for her or the baby, or both. She’s faced with serious questions: What’s the “best” way to bring her baby into this world? Who will she be once this journey has ended? 

But the biggest challenge for her will come during the birth itself.

When I found this particular image of The Hero’s Journey above, I knew I wanted to use it because it calls the big challenge: the abyss – where death and rebirth will occur, where revelation can be found. So appropriate for what happens to a woman when she is in the throes of labor. She will be challenged physically, emotionally and spiritually as never before. 

This can be an incredibly transformative experience for a woman if she feels like she had supporting, loving guides who accompanied her on this most intense part of her journey. If she feels like she was never alone, and was given the tools to make sense of this metaphorical death and rebirth, then she can emerge on the other side of her abyss experience, truly transformed – feeling like the hero that she is.

There needs to be some time for atonement – but not in the sense of reconciliation. No, atonement in the ancient sense of the word: unity. A time to re-unite oneself, body and spirit, in the immediate hours and days following the birth. This is the time where a woman can assimilate who she is now – who she has become since her journey began nine months prior.

She needs to relive her journey vicariously, give it words and tell the story, her story, so she can accept the gifts of the goddess. The baby, her partner, their new family, her new self – are the rewards for the Hero’s Journey she’s just completed. When we downplay that essential piece of atonement, of telling the story, we rob the woman from ever being able to find closure – personal unity. She is compelled to continue to try and find meaning and resolution from her journey, seeking out those who will help her process this life event.

The power of story is palpable. The words, both spoken and left silenced in our hearts, need to be heard before final transformation and closure can occur.

For all women reading this who are feeling the deep need to tell their birth stories (even if your birth happened years ago!) there’s a way to do this. The Birth Story Project is an online forum where you can write your story, even anonymously, and be heard. Where you can string your words together to help your new Hero-self make meaning of the intense journey you’ve been on.

You don’t need to be a writer. You just need to be yourself, letting the power of what you’ve experienced be transformed into your story. You won’t be on the receiving end of any comments from readers, that’s not how The Birth Story Project works. So be prepared to leave it all on the page for your readers so they can be carried along, transformed with you, by your words. And see if this helps you reach atonement – unity – in your new identity as mother.

You are a hero. Your story is important. It needs to be shared.

Have you ever told your birth story, fully and completely, to someone who not only listened, but heard what your heart had to share? How has the telling, or the not-telling, of your birth story affected you?

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3 thoughts on “The Power of Story

  1. I think–and have found in my own life–that part of the compulsion to share stories of powerful or traumatic events is seeking an audience to whom the story is new. In other words, we don’t tell our birth stories to our partners because they were present or involved in some way. Our friends and support network have their own version of what happened during an intense time in our lives, whether that is pregnancy and birth or some other equally joyful or sorrowful but equally powerful experience. When we tell our stories to strangers, we shape those stories, free of other people’s expectations or the need to gloss over anything or take others’ perspectives into account. Recognizing and valuing others’ perspectives is ordinarily such a positive thing that it’s hard to let go for, at least for me, but I think it’s absolutely necessary to sometimes tell MY story and have it be just about ME. Finding someone who is willing to listen to a story, start to finish, has allowed me to feel what I needed to feel and then move forward. The story becomes a story, and not something I’m still living and still telling to myself in the quiet hours when I don’t sleep.

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    • Wow, Janice – I love this! And this might also explain the airplane phenomenon. You know what I mean? You’re sitting next to someone on the plane and you have 2 hours before you say your goodbyes, never to see one another again, and you tell a story that’s so very different from the ones you share at parties in front of those whom you’ll see again and again. Maybe you’ve never shard THIS story with anyone before. Yes – that power in telling your story to a stranger can be cathartic in a way that doesn’t happen with those you know or who have knowledge about the event. My only issue with this and my Mommas in my classes is that they are in a place of great vulnerability and they are often unable to hear another’s birth story without taking it in deep, causing themselves even greater anxiety. I wish I could clone myself because I have a deep desire to be able to listen to women tell their birth stories. They matter so much to me (the women AND their stories!) and this is why I do what I do – to hopefully help women have birth stories that they are happy and proud to tell – even if it’s only to themselves in the quiet hours when they don’t sleep. (Beautiful writing! Thank you for sharing!)

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  2. Pingback: To Clone or Not to Clone? | Birth Happens

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