When I was pregnant with my first baby, I read a lot: books, websites, magazines, whatever I could find. In my reflective mode, I’d say that I was looking for resources to help me make sense of this huge transition and who I would be as a pregnant woman, through the birth process, and as a mom. There was lots of information out there, resources that helped me understand what was happening physiologically, and what choices I could make in response to those concrete facts. But there were no definitive resources on how I was going to feel, how I would respond, what the experience would be like for me. Maybe that’s why I loved reading birth stories so much.
Birth stories, written in the first person, struck me as a delicious mix of the facts as they played out in one individual case, and the Mom’s (and sometimes the Dad’s) thoughts, feelings, interpretations, and reactions throughout the process. Reading lots of birth stories, each with a different cast of characters, a different rhythm, and a different woman’s perspective helped me start to get a feeling for what it might be like. It helped me relate to how different choices could lead to different outcomes, and how those choices and outcomes would feel different to different women. It helped me figure out what kind of choices I thought I would want to make. It also helped me feel less like I was doing something new and unknown, and more like I was joining a very big and well-respected club.
Sometimes when I listened to women tell their stories in person, it seemed like I was supposed to learn their lessons, to make the choices they made or wished they had, or to simply marvel in awe of what they could endure. Instead of feeling more ready, I felt like a newbie, like my thoughts, my plans, my voice was less significant, because I hadn’t been through it yet. And at the same time, I felt a responsibility to validate the story-teller’s experience, to hear her voice.
Later, when it was my turn to tell birth stories, I felt the tension from the other side. On one hand, I wanted my voice to be heard, my experience validated. I wanted to pass on the wisdom I’d acquired and maybe convince a new mom to make choices like mine. On the other hand, I knew that there was a good chance the pregnant woman I was talking to, or the other moms I was exchanging stories with, already had their own inclinations about how they would do birth. What really mattered to me was that my birth experience be heard as part of the mosaic of ways that birth happens and people respond. But it wasn’t always easy to get that across without sounding judgmental about other choices, without crossing the line between descriptive and prescriptive.
I wonder why written birth stories can be so inspiring and encouraging, while face to face they can sometimes be a bit intimidating. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of in-person encounters that were pleasant and validating, and I’m sure there are written stories that don’t inspire. Maybe most of the stories I read reinforced the choices I was planning to make. But I think it was more than that. I can read stories of births that are different from my personal ideal and still find them beautiful and feel what a powerful experience it is for the mom. I think the thing about written birth stories is that sitting down to write puts you in a reflective mood. Without someone to convince (either to do things your way, or that your choices were good, or that you really went through a birth ordeal), writers are free to just describe the birth of their child as they experienced it. With plenty of time to think and get the words just right, there’s more room for the wonder, the awe, the gratitude, and the sense of blessing to come through.
But I don’t want to give up on the power of birth stories, shared in person, with the opportunity to ask questions, respond and start conversations, even potentially difficult ones. There’s an opportunity, when we share our stories in person, when we hear other people’s stories with an open mind. There’s an opportunity to connect, to understand one another, to feel heard, and to form supportive relationships and communities. And there’s an opportunity to replace unrealistic or sensationalized images of birth we glean from movies and the media with the range of real women’s experience. So despite the potential for awkward moments, the chance that a birth story might turn preachy or over-dramatic, we need to keep telling our stories, and listening to others’. We need to access that reflective place inside, where the story is about welcoming a new person into the world, or about becoming a parent for the first time or again, where it’s about our experience as we went through it. And we need to listen with an open mind, or at least an open heart.
This week we’re announcing our first local programs and I’m so excited about it. Starting in June, we’ll be offering a Birth Circle each month at a different location around the Boston area. A Birth Circle is a chance for pregnant women and new moms to get together, meet other people going through similar experiences, share their stories, and ask questions. It’s a supportive environment for people with different approaches to birth, different parenting styles, and different ways of approaching Judaism. It’s a forum to share the experiences of pregnancy, birth, and new motherhood with other women who are going through it too, each figuring out the ways that work for their families. Each month will have a theme to help you focus your story and reflect on it in a new way. The first circle, with the theme Expectations, will be Sunday, June 12, 4:00-5:30 at Mayyim Hayyim. Other host locations / co-sponsors include Temple Israel of Natick, and Temple B’nai Brith of Somerville. You can read more about it at http://www.jewishbirthnetwork.com/birth-circles.html, and register at http://jewishboston.com/events/7892-birth-circle. Hope to see you there and to hear your story.