Right after giving birth to my daughter I was unbelievably proud of myself and being told by everyone around me what an amazing job I had done. I was filled with relief and joy and living in a haze of adrenaline and endorphins from what I had experienced and that feeling most any mom gets when she finally meets her baby.
It wasn't until years later, when I started to listening to other women's birth stories through my podcast, that I realized there were aspects of my birth story I hadn't properly processed. Pam England, author of the popular book Birthing from Within, describes understanding of your birth story in terms of nine gates you must pass through. This method has helped me drastically in the processing of my own birth story.
The first gate is one in which the mother has no birth story in her mind but everyone around her is telling her their version of her story. For me, this was limited to my husband and my midwife. My husband was telling me I was a superhero, and my midwife was mostly concerned with my afterbirth complications, which included a manual placenta removal and 17 stitches and making little comments about things she had "never seen before."
I was definitely relieved to have finally given birth to my baby, who was 16 days past her due date, and I was so grateful my midwife had taken care of my baby and me and that we were healthy. I didn't dwell on the aspects of my birth story that were traumatic and instead was grateful to be alive and holding my baby.
The third gate is about relationships and how the mother examines the connections closest to her and how they relate to the before, during and after of the birth. I felt good after succeeding in having the home birth I'd been hoping for, yet I felt very alone at the same time. My husband had been there the entire time during the birth, and I felt great about the way we worked through 34 hours of labor together, but I realize now that I felt a little abandoned by my midwife after the birth.
My daughter was born on New Year's Eve, and after such a long labor, my midwife had other clients she had to see to, and I had no other women to support me. My mom came to visit but only for a few hours due to the way her holiday plans were scheduled, and I really lacked the support of a sisterhood that had been where I was — which I now know is so very important. I struggled with breastfeeding and was weak from losing so much blood, and there was no one to show me how to do all of the things for which a first-time mother in our society isn't fully prepared.
The fourth gate is the story that you tell friends, acquaintances and even strangers, and it is often used for bonding, story swapping, bragging and even “competition” between mothers.
The social gate begins with that first phone call announcing your baby's arrival. Looking back now, I can see how skewed my fourth gate was. I didn't want to alarm anyone with details of how much blood I'd lost or that I couldn't even walk to the bathroom after giving birth without feeling like I was going to faint. Many of the people in my life had expressed concern about my choice to have a home birth, so I felt the need to present it as the picture-perfect experience and prove them wrong. Also, the only mom friend I had at the time to swap birth stories with had had an ideal picturesque home birth, and recovery for her was a breeze. After hearing her story, I found myself feeling jealous or less than for not having such a beautiful birth experience, even though I initially thought it was amazing.
This gate includes the medical facts about the events of the birth. Many women use this story to justify an experience they don't feel emotionally OK with, and I was no different. I shared the story of my midwife having to reach up into my uterus and scrape the walls to make sure there was no placenta remaining, and I justified it in my mind — despite it being the most excruciating pain of my life — as being a good thing because she took care of it at home and I didn't have to go to the hospital.
Gate six is all about the inner dialogue of victim versus judge. For me, this was largely centered around how hard my recovery was. I would tell myself, There was nothing you could've done, you had a nine-pound posterior baby, and then I would counter that with, You should have pushed in a different position and eased up when the midwife asked you to. These moments swirled in my head, leaving me never at ease about my experience.
The seventh gate is where the mother opens up to how she feels emotionally about her birth experience and sheds those initial surface feelings. This stage has played such an important part in the processing of my birth story, as I accepted that I am a completely new person as a mother and all of the preconceptions I had about how my birth "should be" were irrelevant. I was able to hone in on the aspects of my birth story that made me cringe and get to the bottom of why I was feeling that way.
The eighth gate is where you carefully track your birth story to the details that stand out as unsettling and focus on redefining them in a way that releases some of the burden. For me, this stage was all about giving my tale new meaning. Rather than thinking, I'm a bad mother because I couldn't figure out breastfeeding right away and couldn't move around right after birth to care for my baby, I was able to reframe that into, I'm sad I didn't have a magical post-birth bonding experience, and I recognize that I did everything to the best of my ability in that moment. It's all about using the word and so those feelings aren't mutually exclusive. I can still mourn the loss of one aspect while recognizing that I did my best with the experience I was dealt.
The ninth gate is where you come full circle and actually go back to the same mentality of the first gate, where there's almost no story at all in the sense that you are at peace with your story and no longer dwelling on it. For me, this has been by far the most important phase in the work I do with my podcast The Birth Hour, because I am able to hear other women tell their stories without imparting judgment from my own birth experiences. In this gate, when someone asks a mother about her birth, she recognizes who is asking the question and parses out aspects that will be helpful to the person in an effort to give what they need to hear and why they need to hear it. I only share the aspects of my own birth story with the podcast guests when I feel they will be helpful for the listener, and I really listen to where the guests are coming from in order to offer up only what they need to hear for their own healing.
This process of taking the time to go through and process my birth story step by step has been invaluable to me, and I highly recommend looking into the resources available in Birthing from Within to learn more.
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