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?

Feeling Thankful…

Thankful

I am thankful for a break.

I am on break from teaching for the next nine days. I know when I actually count how many days I’m off, and start telling other people about this out loud, that I really, really need a break. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I am one of the few lucky people who can actually claim that they would do their job even if they weren’t paid (if you’re reading this, and you’re my boss – please disregard that last statement. Thank you.) But what I do for a living requires a certain kind of energy, a certain level of engagement that fills me up – and after some time without a break – can drain me as well.

My schedule in the past ten days or so has been unusually full. I started very early one morning to teach a full weekend seminar, both Saturday and Sunday. I had a couple of days off and then began the team-teaching portion with two newly hired educators to get them up to speed in their training. I love this aspect of my work, but it usually involves extra hours after class has ended to recap and look ahead to the next week. I had a day off and then I taught a full-day weekend intensive followed up by a day of walking groups through the hospital for a tour of the unit where they will deliver. By the end of it all, I was pretty zapped.

I probably only put in about 45 hours over 10 days – but given the fact that most of that time is spent actively engaging an audience, it ends up feeling a lot more than that. What I find most interesting though, is that even if I end a full day only to have to get up early the next morning and go again, once I’m in the classroom and up in front of the group, I feel full of energy. To me, this is a sign I’m probably doing something that I’m supposed to do. Being “in the zone” much of the time I’m working means that I’ve finally put some of my individual strengths to good use. Let me explain this a little bit further.

I have four children of my own and they’re really great kids. I’m always amazed at how the same DNA can come together and create such different creatures. Not just in how they look but in who they are. My third child is a firecracker. Every family should really have one of these. They can make parenting super challenging sometimes, but they’re also really fun and highly dramatic. I love her to pieces but she’s been giving me a hard time since before she was born.

The night before I reached the 40 week mark, I woke up with a start. I didn’t have to go pee, so I couldn’t figure out why I was awake. The next morning I realized that she’d flipped during the middle of the night into a breech position which is why I woke up. I grabbed a bag of frozen peas and placed them directly on what I thought was her head. I switched out frozen corn for peas all day long and that night I slept with my bum straight up in the air to see if the cramped space between my ribs would be annoying enough to make her flip back into a head down position – and thankfully, it worked! (Sometimes you have to teach them a thing or two even before they’re born!) But she still managed to have the last laugh as she came out of me looking like Superman with one of her hands up by her face. Ouch.

This child is most like me. And parenting yourself is not always easy. I don’t want to sound arrogant, so let’s just say she’s got some of my good qualities. But unfortunately, she also has some of my not-so-good qualities, too. She’s independent to a fault, stubborn, impatient, and refuses to ask for help unless it’s absolutely necessary. Oh, and she talks – a lot. Every single parent-teacher conference we go to, the teacher says something along these lines. “She’s a great addition to the classroom, but if we could just work a little bit on her chatting with others while they’re supposed to be working…”

Hmmmmmm… I wonder where she got that from? I’m pretty sure if I asked my Mom what my parent-teacher conferences were like so many years ago, they’d be pretty similar. I got in trouble my whole life for talking too much in the classroom. I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, I’m just the most social person I know. Seriously, I haven’t met anyone who craves to be with people more than I do – except maybe my own little mini-me daughter. I’ve had more than one conversation with her about how she needs to try and control her talking out of turn (I still struggle with this – meetings just about kill me!) but that she can look ahead and actually find a job, a career even, that supports her desire, her need to talk and be social with others. How do I know? I’m living proof!

The engagement that my job requires in order to be an effective educator is intense. And for the most part, I thrive on this engagement. I look for the opportunities for an exchange between myself and one of my couples to happen that causes an “Aha!” moment of clarity, understanding, or self-discovery. When this happens, I can literally feel it and I realize that what I do matters. Maybe not to everyone, but at least to this one person, in this exact moment. String a whole bunch of those moments together and you get to see what personal and professional alignment looks like.

I have no idea what my daughter will want to do with her life when she grows up. I certainly had no idea that I would ever end up being a Childbirth Educator when I was her age. I’m pretty sure I was close to thirty years old before I even knew such a job existed. But whatever she decides to do, I hope she’s as lucky as I’ve been to find something that aligns with her spirit.

I know that in about a week, I’ll start to get that itch again – the desire to get back to what fuels me, what fills me up, what I’m supposed to be doing with my life.

And I’m thankful for that.

This is my official recruitment blogpost. :O) If you’ve ever considered working in the field of Childbirth Education, consider this a little voice whispering in your ear, “You’d be great at this! You should check it out!” Leave me a comment if you’re really interested and I’ll follow up, I promise. And one more thing… I’m super thankful for those of you who read and leave comments.

Are you doing something that fuels you, that aligns with your spirit? If so, how did you manage to discover it?