This week, my daughter turned ten, and my oldest son turned twenty. Talk about milestones! Both my family and my husband’s have instilled many threads to our family rituals of celebrating birthdays. One particular ritual that we have woven together has become a cornerstone; it is the tradition of sharing the Birth Story with the child on the day or week of their birthday.
Settling in next to my daughter after a long day of spontaneous birthday celebrations, I use the story as her lullaby.
I tell her about leaping out of bed when my water broke in the middle of that October night a decade ago. We discuss the walk her dad and I went on with the wet autumn leaves plastered to the sidewalk as we tried to coax labor into starting, pacing until we decided on her first and middle name. I tell her about the castor oil I drank mixed in the chocolate milkshake. I continue on with the well traveled details of her labor and birth, as well as the moments recalled from the days that followed, sprinkling details all the way up to today – turning 10 years old. As I share the windy journey of her birth and life, I feel the balm of the lullaby soothe my soul as well.
Why is the telling so compelling and important? What happens when we share the birth story or the story of a loss out loud or write it down? Why is this process so impactful for many of our clients as well as for us?
A colleague once used the analogy of a beaded necklace. She said imagine the necklace is broken open and the beads disperse everywhere — under the couch, in the corner of the room, in the dog’s bowl… everywhere. It is difficult to appreciate the intricacy and beauty of the necklace when it is dispersed all over the ground. As we gather each unique bead in our hands, we begin to feel the weight and significance of the necklace. As we re-string the beads together, we can see and even feel the story that they create as a whole.
How we remember our Birth Story
While we navigate birth – vaginal birth, cesarean birth, birth at home, at the hospital or birth center, birth of a soon to be adopted child… with all of birth’s unexpected turns, it is a lot.
For the 20% – 50% of women who experience their birth as traumatic, and for the other 50% who are equally navigating unknown and uncomfortable terrain, birth may elicit stress. This stress, or fear, may propel us into the stress response (fight/flight/freeze response) at different points in the labor and delivery. When this happens, our brain tries to manage the situation that feels potentially out of control and possibly threatening.
When we experience stressful events, we actually store memories differently than when we feel at ease. While under duress, the hippocampus (the part of our brain where we store memory) and the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that makes sense of experiences) go “off line”, and the memories get stored in the body (sort of like the dispersed beads). When we try to recall the memories of the birth, we may get a bit stuck. As the memories are not connected to the other more organized ones, they may feel fragmented or incohesive.
So, how do we reorganize and make sense of the events? How do we gather up all of the beads? Moment by moment, we construct the narrative and tell or write down the story. In doing so, we are not just picking up the fragments, we are restringing the beads and connecting the explicit memories of the labor/birth (what actually happened) with the implicit experiences (emotions, sounds, smells, sensations). As we do this, we are integrating the pieces and… healing happens!
For many, the telling of their Birth Story is therapy in itself.
It may be in sharing the details of the story with a loved one, or a dear friend, or a support group. Or it may be the process of going over the story with a compassionate birth provider. It may be the experience of narrating the story as part of therapy with a skilled counselor.
As we share the details of our stories, we connect the disparate parts and reconnect them to the greater whole of our life. For our children, the story starts the important journey of their unique becoming. As we share with them, we support them in integrating all of the parts of their life, a valuable reminder of their resilience and wellbeing.
So for the next child’s birthday, or possibly the anniversary of a lost pregnancy or of the loss of a child, perhaps you can set an intention to connect with someone with whom you feel safe and supported. Or take out your journal and experiment with sharing (or writing) your story from just before the event started all the way through to the present moment. If you are able to, tell it again.
With courage, curiosity, and vulnerability, take a deep breath and notice what the telling/sharing feels like. Then jot down on a sticky note this sound bite:
“Reconnecting Through My Birth Stories”
And invite yourself to continue the process.