Every decision we make is informed—by something. Research-based evidence has become the holy grail, and yet in any given moment, more often than not, we are informed by old beliefs, habitual assumptions, or a more profound knowledge. When we come to a fork in the road, there may not be time to search for the right answer; we often trust the way that seems familiar. Familiarity can be seeded by early birth stories that were heard or overhead, or by witnessing a mother giving birth, or on television, or an animal giving birth to her young.
A student-birth story listener who was raised on a farm shared her first birth stories. She was eight years old and awestruck when she and her dad, out delivering hay, came upon their nanny-goat giving birth to her kids. She had also heard her grandmother’s stories of giving birth to nine children. Influenced by these early impressions, her “first birth plan” was that “no one would tell me what to do when I grew up and gave birth.”
(Austin, Texas, 2006) I glanced down at a small, somewhat archetypal drawing of birth in our culture made by a workshop participant in a birth art exercise. For some reason, I wondered what was the first birth story the artist ever heard. It was the first time that thought had ever come into me. I was curious, so I asked her, “Do you remember what was the first story you heard about how babies are born? Or, maybe you saw a birth?”
She cocked her head as she thought it over and remembered that her mother was in labor at home when an ambulance came to take her to the hospital. (She assumes now that for an ambulance to come, her mother must have been progressing very fast.) “I was standing by the door, watching the ambulance drivers strap my mother to the table on wheels before rolling her into the ambulance.” I asked about how old she was, “Five.” When asked what she might have been thinking about as a five-year-old girl (not now as an adult), she answered quickly, “My mom was weak for letting them do that to her. I’m never going to let them strap me to a table.”
That was interesting because she could have been describing the image she had just drawn about her experience of giving birth; but, I didn’t ask about the drawing. Instead, I asked her how that promise she made to herself as a child might have influenced her experience of giving birth.
She cocked her head the other way and smiled as she realized, “But I wasn’t actually strapped to a table. I just had monitor straps around my belly.” The image of her mother strapped to an ambulance gurney overlapped with the image of monitor straps on her body. Her childhood belief that “my mother was weak for letting them do that to her” was mirrored back on herself; she had been telling herself she was “weak” for being strapped to a table in labor. In a brief exchange that followed, her limiting belief collapsed.
Was that a fluke exchange, or had I accidentally discovered a simple process that could help other storytellers unlock deep-seated beliefs about themselves and birth in our culture? For a while, I asked everyone to recall their “first birth story” and to consider what influence it might have had on how they prepared for birth, or the place of birth to which they were drawn or felt an aversion. In many cases, storytellers felt they had found a missing piece in their puzzle.
Our earliest experiences, relationships, and family stories make lasting impressions. From the ages of two to six, a child’s brain generates predominately theta brainwaves, which produce a state of dreaminess and imagination. Kids at this age mix up what is real in their environment with their imaginary worlds. For the first six years of life, children are in a tremendous state of learning, absorbing vast amounts of information just through observation.
During next stage, “the age of reason” from six to 12 years of age, children want to know how to be a good human, how the world works, and what are the rules and consequences. They are imagining themselves when they “grow up” and unwittingly make plans and promises about what they will or will never do, including their first birth plan. “When I grow up, I will have an epidural.” Or, “When I have a baby I will never go to a hospital.”
“My mother is a midwife. When I was about seven years old, my mother told me she was very disappointed in my birth because I was born by cesarean section. All my life she told me that having a vaginal birth is ideal. I remember telling myself as a child that when I grew up, I would have to birth normally so my midwife-mom could deliver my baby. I somehow wanted to make up for making her birth experience a disappointment.“
Even when someone can’t recall an early birth story, we know they absorbed the expectations of birth in our culture. At a young age, most children assume babies are—or should be—born in a hospital and already accept many other collective norms. Felt-images and “first birth plans” are stored in our unconscious where they remain dormant until what we are living brings them to the surface. The reason we trust or feel deeply opposed to certain ideas or options may go back further than the recent gathering of information. Furthermore, early conditioning influences the selective reaping of information; it is not uncommon to avoid information that does not agree with our core beliefs.
No one chose their first birth story or beliefs, or any of their core conditioning. The adults who were our role models and shared their dream of the world did not choose the experiences that shaped them either. In empathically acknowledging this reality, we may avoid a tendency to judge ourselves and others for inexplicable choices or behavior, or falling into innocence wishing things had been different.