"The Wisdom of Birth"
The Wisdom of Birth
PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED IN RESONANCE NO. 1, VOLUME 5
I grew up in a country town in Australia. I became a physical education teacher and taught for a few years and then I travelled overseas and eventually lived in London where I met my husband who was a Subud member. I was opened in 1975.
Four or five months after we married, Ramadan came. We did it together with our friends. On the first Night of Power, I did a latihan and received I would become pregnant very soon. My inner was leading, planting a seed that I would then have to come to terms with. With my strong feminist ideas, I had never expected to have children so that latihan experience helped to prepare me and some months after I did become pregnant. When our first daughter Matthia was four months old, we came back to Australia to live. We’d had a conventional hospital delivery with Matthia and it left me feeling sad and unempowered. When it came to our second daughter’s birth, we didn’t assume that other people would know more about it than we did. We were determined to be in charge and decided to have a home birth. It wasn’t even a decision, really. There was just no question about it. In the course of preparing for her birth, we went to classes at the Childbirth Education Association. This was a revelation to me. I found that there were other people who felt exactly the way I did and also that it was possible to work in this area. I began to work for the Childbirth Education Association, giving talks in schools about pregnancy and birth. This led to what has become my life’s work as a birth attendant and birth educator.
The Process of Birth
The process of birth, physically, emotionally and spiritually is one of letting go and opening up. The body has to let go and open up and emotionally the same things happen. The mother has to let go of the relationship she’s had with the child in her womb. She has to let go of the life situation she’s known to that point. You are opening to something quite unknown. Women who are used to facing the unknown and opening into its challenges, generally let go into the birth process more easily. They have flexibility in their bodies as well as their attitudes and emotions. Women who have a lot of fear facing the unknown and need to strongly control their lives may have more difficulty.
Although there are some elements of birth and parenting you can shape and control, there are many areas where we have to trust and surrender. The essential aspect of ‘natural childbirth’ to me is that women see themselves as having power. It can happen in hospitals, but it’s very difficult to achieve within the hierarchical structures where medical experts are the ones who hold the power. But at home the woman is in control. A home birth is part of your own life. Especially when you already have children, the birth of the new child is a normal part of the life of the family. The usual argument for having babies in hospitals is ‘in case there’s an emergency’. There is a lot of fear, and while there are obviously situations where difficulties and dangers can arise, they don’t come as a sudden emergency without any indication. If everyone at the birth is in tune with their finer feelings, the first thing that happens is, even before any physical symptoms present themselves, an uneasiness develops. There’s something not flowing. During the birth I may experience a disturbance in my feelings. I ask myself, why am I getting this? I will compare notes with the midwife who will often have noticed some physical signs that something is not right. The finer the feeling is, the easier it is to intervene before the disturbance manifests in a dangerous situation. Emergencies don’t come out of the blue. They are connected with the mother and the baby’s story. From my own experiences when pregnant and talking to other Subud women, there is an inner connection with the baby and an inner understanding of the baby’s nature even before conception. We always had a feeling at the conception of our three girls that they were there, and what we felt at the time was something to do with their natures which we can observe as they’ve grown up.
A Dramatic Change in Consciousness
Women experience a dramatic change of consciousness giving birth. You can see it happen. A more primitive part of the brain takes over. The woman begins to flow with the energy from the body. If that doesn’t happen, the birth will be more difficult. At this point the body’s natural pain suppressants flood the body and while it’s hard work - it is labour after all - the pain is transformed. Perhaps this experience can be compared to what happens to athletes when they push through the pain barrier. There is a softness that happens to women in pregnancy and giving birth. It has a physical element, hormones which surge through the mother’s body, relaxing muscles and ligaments and preparing the way for the birth. It also has an emotional and spiritual counterpart - a softness, a giving, a surrendering, a ‘LOVEliness’, an ‘OPENness’. The more women can trust and flow with this process, the more the birth will go easily and well. What I teach people in my classes is to become aware of their bodies through exercise and relaxation. A lot of it is teaching people how to breathe for release. But there is an emotional side as well. Birth is not only about opening up our bodies, but also our hearts and for many women this may be a very painful struggle to become wider in their feelings. Ultimately it should be an experience of joy, but fears may be intensified along the way. If we can explore these issues before the birth, then perhaps the struggle may be lessened and the joy more present.
I always check inwardly before I go to a birth about how I should be, so that I have a guide. At the birth, I’m generally, inwardly praying. It’s also very physical. I help the woman to move around, to change position. I support her while she walks. I rub her back, massage her. Through touch I try to give her emotional support. I encourage her. I will tell her if it’s becoming obvious, about something she’s doing or not doing. I always have to ask myself, is this some real need of hers, or is this just something I want to happen? The difference between interference and support is a very fine line. There is an interesting experience I have quite frequently. You know how you see these computer images of someone performing a physical movement? They show the whole range of the movement in a series of stepped drawings. There are times when I’m with a woman in labour when I’ll get an image like that. I’ll see her where she is now and I’ll see where she needs to be and then I do act with certainty and usually it causes some beneficial change. Subud women generally experience latihan when giving birth. However the same fears that can block that change of consciousness I talked about can also block the flow of latihan. When I’m at births, I’m aware my latihan is very strong. People speak of birthing energy. You can feel it. Sometimes it doesn’t flow and you need to help it. There is the influence of the mother and father but there is also the baby. As well as mothers having difficulty with surrender and flow, some babies also appear to be in resistance. They don’t do anything to help themselves be born. Sometimes when you look at the situation they’re coming into, we can understand the reluctance.
The Latihan is Practical
Other times the situation seems lovely, but for some reason, the baby doesn’t feel ready for this world. My experience of the latihan at births is that it is extremely practical. Well, it is far more than that, but at the time it is very practical. Move here, move there, do this. It unlocks something and allows some flow to happen. Sometimes I feel I’m not there for the mother and the father, but for the baby. It is as if the baby has manifested a situation so that I, or someone who carries a capacity to open to spiritual energies, will be at the birth. There are some births where I’ve felt this very strongly. Often it’s a birth where, on one level, I feel superfluous. Perhaps something is happening that deeply saddens me. A difficult birth, a caesarean, the situation is being dealt with in a way that’s upsetting to me. I hold the woman’s hand and feel the latihan. Though I seem to be having no effect on the physical outcome, I know this baby needs to feel, whatever the contact. Perhaps it will be something that will be valuable for them later in life.
I remember one particular experience in which the latihan had an objective reality that I recognized and other people did too. I’d been at a home birth and it was going on for a long time. The birth wasn’t developing. The doctor had gone to sleep and the midwife was half asleep. I felt I still had a little energy left and I explained to the woman that if things didn’t change soon she’d have to go to hospital. She asked me if I could see what was stopping the birth, or if I could suggest what she might do. When she was coming to classes we had already discussed her pattern of holding her emotions and feelings in, which also affected her body, creating tension and a tendency towards constipation. Now she was holding back the birth. We talked about this and she began to cry and release and that changed everything. The birth developed and the doctor and the midwife woke up. But then it got stuck again and the baby’s heartbeat was slowing. The doctor said, ‘We’ll have to help it’, and began preparing to use the forceps. He and the midwife were setting up, pulling on surgical gloves. The baby had a few minutes to come out or they would need to use the forceps. My prayer at these times is that I may be guided to assist the situation if it is not necessary for the interventions to be used. I was kneeling in front of the woman who was squatting, being supported by her husband. I saw the stepped computer image and at the end of it was the woman holding her baby. I was inwardly praying and talking to the woman, then my hands were guided to the position for receiving the baby and the baby came just like that. Everyone was amazed. Including me. But since then I’ve had this experience with touch many times at births. It feels that if my hands are really ‘alive’ with the feeling of the latihan then the babies often respond.
The Birthing Wisdom Centre
A major change in my work in the last five years has been the establishment of the Birthing Wisdom Centre which represents a consolidation of the work I have done up to this point, and a platform to take me into the future. I continue to do the work I have always done such as classes to prepare women for the birth; workshops for couples; postnatal groups for mothers and babies; and parenting groups for couples, but now I also do much more. I obtained a qualification in counselling and this has become an ever expanding part of my work. Naturally, it began by focusing on issues around birth, but has now expanded to include people who bring other, more general issues. At the Centre, as well as the things I do myself, other people come to run specialised activities. There is a fathers’ group run by a male councillor; there are baby massage classes, and massage for pregnant women. A number of the organisations involved in birthing hold their meetings here, and a real community has grown up amongst people at whose births I have assisted and families who have been part of the activities at the centre. At first it was a virtual community, people exchanging e-mails, but now it has become a real living community. I also run a Birth Attendant (doula) Training Course, and my role as a public speaker has expanded to midwives’ seminars, birthing conferences and other events. I am now welcomed into the mainstream of people involved in birthing and I am appreciated as someone with something to contribute. This is a big change from my early years where I was very much on the fringe. Now my ideas and attitudes have been adopted by a wider audience.
Concentrating on the Inner Work
This has partly come about because of changes in the law in Australia which have enabled midwives to be autonomous in their practice rather than under the direction of a doctor. It has made a big difference to my role when I attend births. It means that I can focus more on what I consider to be my real gift which is to do with the psycho-spiritual aspects of birth. I am part of the team and the midwife is responsible for the physical and medical aspects which enables me to concentrate on the inner work. It means I can be fully immersed in this aspect, whereas previously, part of my attention had to be devoted to overseeing the whole situation, including medical aspects. It means that I can follow the guidance which comes to me, and guidance at the moment of birth has become increasingly important, as I am now so busy that often I do not get to know the women beforehand as well as I used to do. I do not spend as much time with them, I do not know as much about their life histories. What happens now is that what I need to know comes to me in the form of intuition during the actual process of birth. Previously I might be anticipating issues that might arise; now they come to me as receiving in the moment.
The form this guidance takes is that I am prompted by something that might be happening in the birth, particularly if the birth is difficult, to perhaps talk to the mother about some issue that seems to me relevant. Sometimes I am made aware by the nature of the woman's movement. Sometimes it comes to me as a sense of a particular kind of energy which alerts me to the fact that perhaps sexual abuse is part of this woman's background; or perhaps she is carrying unresolved grief about someone who has died. So I will begin to talk to her about this, and it will lead to a release which enables the birth to go forward. Birth is of course such an intense experience for a woman that often issues which have been long buried, or even assumed to have been resolved, may arise at that moment and interfere with the birth process if they are not dealt with. I do not necessarily talk explicitly about Subud to people. What happens nowadays is that I use the language of Subud.
I talk of surrendering to the birth energy, spontaneously giving expression to the sounds and movements that manifest. So my work at a birth is comparable in some ways to the work of a helper who tries to feel the member’s state and is then prompted to find the right way to help that person into a deeper surrender.