by Pam England
When I transferred from home birth to the hospital and my first child was born by cesarean, I was in birth shock. A friend brought the perfect gift, a cactus; it said so much—and made us laugh knowingly. Cactus are associated with endurance, enduring every hardship in life, and unconditional maternal love. I gave labor everything I had for three days; the cesarean surgery was bittersweet because it was a welcome relief, necessary, life-saving, but still prickly because at the time the meaning I gave it was negatively-charged.
A couple weeks ago I watered a neglected barrel cactus baking in dry, cracked earth where I am staying. A few days ago, it bloomed; two bright fuchsia-colored flowers. Sometimes birth story work is like this: a storyteller brings a prickly story resting on cracked, parched ground and the first thing we should do is give it a slow, deep watering, i.e., empathic listening and validation. Instead of beginning by brushing up against the ‘needles” with a long recounting of the hardships or disappointing memories, consider beginning the session by bringing attention to the Flower, which symbolizes an overlooked, almost forgotten moment of mercy. For example, ask the storyteller to recall a treasured memory that has slipped into the background, e.g., ”Tell me about the moment you met your baby,” (and let your dialogue hover there like a Hummingbird, allowing the storyteller to breathe into a cherished memory). Or, “What was the one thing you did that worked well and surprised you?” When the storyteller is recounting a story of being abandoned or unsupported in the way she had hoped, sometimes it is helpful to wonder who was the most helpful or kind person when you were in the hospital, and how were they helpful? In this way, she is beginning to balance and re-narrate her story right from the start of the session.
Metaphorically speaking, when recounting a recent birth story, some moments sting from the rough, hooked or barbed needles left behind from a brush with a “birth cactus.” Some cactus needles fall out on their own, and others need gentle removal.
A cactus must dry out a while before being watered; the same is valid for birth stories. Typically, mothers aren’t ready to process their labor/birth experience immediately after giving birth. Instead, they are engaged in the early tasks of the postpartum return: self-care, newborn care, and feeding. Three weeks or more after the birth, most moms begin to think about sequencing and exploring their birth story; sometimes, birth story work begins a year or more later.
When it’s time, give the story a slow, deep watering, e.g., mindful processing once a week. Even if some memories remain sensitive, when a birth story is mature and “watered,” it may bless the storyteller with insights as fragrant, vivid, and soft-petaled as a cactus flower. Some cactus only produce a farewell bloom when they are dying. Some mothers equate their initiation through birth with a psychic death and rebirth, so the gift of this fragrant flower would be timely.