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12 Ways to Change Birth in Our Culture, Part 3: Initiating, Nurturing and Supporting Birth Workers

Birthing From Within Blog, Through The Labyrinth
Lead Co-Author

In 2010, Pam England wrote a series of pieces about ways in which we can change birth in our culture. The Birthing From Within leadership and blog team has chosen 12 of these pieces and updated them to reflect current understandings within the birth world as well as our current approaches and offerings as an organization. We will be sharing one piece for each month of 2018, both on the blog and in our monthly newsletters. We hope you enjoy this wonderful material, both as archival treasure and as new, innovative insights!

When someone is drawn to birth work, we often say that they were “called.” Don’t think of this Call in a romantic, adventurous sense, but rather as a soul-calling. Birth work is not a job that simply falls in your lap; it is, at its core, soul work that you are compelled to choose and re-choose again and again.

What calls someone to birth work? Sometimes it is a tangible event in our lives that awakens the interest. Some philosophers say it is work we “agreed to do before we were born.” So, at some point after first hearing it, we say “yes” to this Call, and off we go!

Every experience a birth worker has when training and then working with an expecting family ignites many sparks, guiding them further down the path of deeper knowing and wisdom.

This is good, but it is not free from challenges and discomfort that can spark anger, fear, and disappointment; without the proper support, this can lead to depression, inflexible thinking, and/or burnout. Unhappy, inflexible, burnt-out birth workers cannot keep themselves healthy, let alone the birthing people with whom they work. This brings us to the next important shift that needs to happen in order to change birth in our culture: initiating, nurturing, and holding space for birth workers during their training and throughout their careers thereafter.

To “initiate” someone means to guide them through a transformative experience that allows them to experience the personal development necessary to join a new group within their culture. For example, many traditional cultures included initiatory ceremonies, rituals, and experiences meant to mark the passage from childhood to adulthood. Within such traditional and wise cultures, initiates often had to fully participate in the preparation for their ceremonies. They had tasks to complete, and were often guided in these tasks by elders. A Great Story often provided a “map”for the initiates to follow, and preparation often included real or symbolic risk, illustrating the death of the initiate’s old self, and allowing a new self to be born. The preparation was itself a soulful journey, taking the initiate away from an old life toward new understanding and self-knowledge.

Childbirth educator and doula training organizations often neglect this initiatory function, and they fail to provide the support that fledgling birth workers need in order to complete their transformations. They tend to value, and therefore focus primarily on, “evidence-based” material, techniques, performance evaluations and outcomes. They also tend to value the concept of objectivity – the ability to remain impersonal, professional, and in-service to the client or corporation, rather than to themselves.

As a result, there are many birth workers who are taught to give endlessly to their clients, without being adequately supported by their training organizations. This is problematic because birth work, while beautiful, meaningful, important, and inspiring, can exhaust a person who is not held by a supportive community of others on similar initiatory journeys.

The intensity of birth work requires community, wise counsel, emotional support, safe spaces for processing, and a lot of soul exploration. With these things in place, a birth worker can evolve spiritually and emotionally with the work, rather than remaining perpetually exhausted and wounded by it.

Without others to lean on and seek counsel from after beginning such a profound journey of service, it is far too easy for an initiate to become lost and strangled by doubts, fears, traumas, and pure emotional fatigue. A lack of true soul preparation and support can result in defeating burnout, which is itself a harrowing journey.

Equally important to providing soulful trainings is the willingness of the initiate to participate in and take advantage of all that is available to them, without any concern of appearing incapable or weak. Just as a new parent needs validation, support, story, ritual and ceremony to complete their journey, so does a doula, mentor, midwife, obstetrician, labor and delivery nurse, pediatrician, and so forth. In the absence of these components, the likelihood of feeling that something is missing from the preparatory process is strong.

For birth to really change in our culture, childbirth educator and doula training organizations must understand the initiatory nature of their work, recognize and welcome their trainees as initiates, and deliberately nurture and grow them as they evolve. These organizations must become the elders who answer their own Call to “heal the healers,” not only in training but throughout the new birth workers’ careers.

Birthing From Within’s childbirth educator and doula trainings are specifically designed with initiation in mind, and include the ongoing community and support that all birth workers need to maintain the integrity and health of their work.

Crossing the Threshold and Heart of Mentoring are coupled initiatory offerings (one in-person, one online) that are to be experienced and completed before doing any other part of the Birthing From Within certification programs – and they can be taken independently from the certification programs as well. This is Birthing From Within’s way of providing heart-opening initiatory ritual and ceremony to those answering the Call to birth work. These offerings allow initiates (some of whom may already be established birth professionals) to take the time and space required to look within themselves and discover new insights about what they believe to be true, and why. This is such a crucial part of laying the foundation for a sustainable birth work career; we must tend to the soulful aspect of the person answering the Call before they can share their soul with the families they support.

Of course, setting aside a month or so to do the above is not the only piece required for a more holistic way of training and nurturing birth professionals; the support must continue. This is why we also conduct regularly scheduled live calls and online support groups for all initiates and members, certified or not. We encourage all of our members to reach out to their peers and colleagues when they feel they need to work through something they’ve experienced, or are struggling with some of the more emotional aspects of the work. We also offer personalized one-on-one mentorship and Birth Story Listening support for birth processing purposes, as doulas and other birth professionals are unavoidably affected by the births they attend.

As an organization, we continuously work to establish a stronger foundation upon which birth professionals and care providers can build their practices, filling them with a sense of deep meaning for what it is they do or hope to do.

Through our enhanced training and certification programs, specialty workshops, and active, inclusive member community, we are taking the initial steps required to truly change birth in our culture. Stay up to date on all of our offerings by signing up for our monthly newsletter, The Compass, and checking out our upcoming trainings and workshops page on our website. Together, with proper preparation and support, we are bringing about the change that we seek and crave.

This is part of a 12-part series about Changing Birth in Our Culture.

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12 Ways to Change Birth in Our Culture, Part 2: Embracing Our Elders

Birthing From Within Blog, Through The Labyrinth
Lead Co-Author

In 2010, Pam England wrote a series of pieces about ways in which we can change birth in our culture. The Birthing From Within leadership and blog team has chosen 12 of these pieces and updated them to reflect current understandings within the birth world as well as our current approaches and offerings as an organization. We will be sharing one piece for each month of 2018, both on the blog and in our monthly newsletters. We hope you enjoy this wonderful material, both as archival treasure and as new, innovative insights!

In January we tuned in to how the way in which parents speak to their children about their births can have a long-lasting impact on their children’s perceptions of birth, both now and in the future. This month, we span the years to explore how our relationships with our elders can impact our understandings of birth both for ourselves and as a component of our shared past. In order to invoke true change, we must reach down deep to our roots and call forth our elders to do what only they can do: patiently instruct us through the telling of cultural and mythical stories, and preserve and perform the rituals that guide us across thresholds that we might hesitate to cross on our own.

If we reach far enough back, we will find that all human cultures have traditions of initiating their youth; the practice of initiation and moving into elderhood is thus in all of our blood. Being cut off from this practice is affecting us in the same way that we would be affected if a vital nutrient went missing from our diets. Our growing lack of true relationships with elders and resulting lack of initiatory paths are part of the roots of sickness in our modern systems.

To regain our well-being as a culture, and to change the ways in which we perceive and prepare for the life-changing experience of giving birth, we must once again draw upon medicinal stories and rituals of initiation.

In cultures that utilize the wisdom, extra time, and patience of their older members to initiate its youth, there is a bridge by which youth can cross over into adulthood. But not just any older person can build that bridge, as author Michael Meade points out. Meade makes a humorous distinction between elders and “olders.” He says that most people — particularly in our culture as it currently stands — just get old and become “olders.” All of us become older without effort. Few become elders.

This isn’t to say that the olders of society are to blame for their lack of bridge-building skills. If they themselves had been truly initiated into adulthood, their story would likely be different. Their knowledge would encompass more than just our modern stories of order, hierarchy, and facts. They would be more in tune with the cycles of life and familiar with loss. They would not be at all ashamed of imperfection, for they would know that in imperfection lies wildness, and that wildness is a cornerstone of growing into a true elder, one who is not to be contained, controlled, or subdued.

Imagine how birth would currently be perceived had all of our grandparents and great-grandparents been celebrated at their time of puberty and menarche, and supported in being conscious and wild when birthing their babies.

Perhaps we would have very different understandings of the importance of these life events. Maybe we would be less fearful, confused, and overwhelmed. Maybe we would be more connected to our bodies and our lush inner worlds. Maybe we would be more confident in our ability to create life, and in our worthiness as parents. We can only wonder how different the rates of induction, cesarean, and postpartum depression would be, both nationally and worldwide, if only today’s “olders” had been nurtured and initiated as the elders they were meant to be.

So what happens to a culture – a birth culture – with few elders? Just look! It becomes a culture populated by uninitiated adults who are trapped in eternal adolescence.

Adolescents who are victims, rebels, or princesses; who are following ego-centric whims; who seek security and avoid risk, age, or death at all costs; and who are depressed and numbed. A culture without elders becomes eternally adolescent in this way because when it was time to “leave home” and leave the adolescent identity, there was no elder, no death-embracing or death-defying tasks, no ritual to allow the child to “die” and the adult to be “born.” Today’s adolescents are primed for career and material gains as opposed to true life success. They are encouraged to find ways to ensure that they are always comfortable and never lacking in “things” to solve their problems and provide entertainment, and they are taught to market themselves from a young age so they always have something to sell. These values lack soul, and soul is a crucial element of being human, particularly for a human who is about to embark upon the winding journey that is the childbearing year.

In his book Nature and the Human Soul, Bill Plotkin, the founder of the Animas Valley Institute, addresses the “indigenous process by which a human child grows into a soul-initiated adult…Every step of leaving becomes a step of arriving…As you separate from your former society-centered identity, you claim more of your nature-and-soul-centered identity.”

What does an elder look like? Plotkin captures the essence as follows:

A genuine elder possesses a good deal of wildness, perhaps more than any adult, adolescent, or child. Our human wildness is our spontaneity, our untamed vivacity, our innocent presence, our resistance to oppression, our rule-transcending vivacity and self-reliance that societal convention can never contain. We are designed to grow deeper into that wildness as we mature, not to recede from it. When we live soul-centrically, immersed in a lifelong dance with the mysteries of nature and psyche, our wildness flourishes.

If you are not yet an elder, commit yourself to knowing yourself and to completing the tasks of each stage of life. Prepare yourself to become an elder, not just older. Prepare yourself to be approached and asked for guidance by those in generations to come: those who you’ve helped to be born; those who you’ve fed, clothed, and prayed over; and those who you’ve observed from afar as they grew up around you.

One day you will be an elder, so long as your wildness remains reachable and your fear does not cause you to recede from it.

The mechanisms of modern society are no replacement for our children, family, elders, and ancestors – the individuals who are listeners and givers of rich stories and life experiences. In nourishing our relationships with those to whom we are directly connected, especially those who have come before us and have much life experience to draw from, we nourish ourselves and build the potential to nourish those for whom we will be elders. This change is a beautiful one and can lead to the weaving of a deep spiritual and familial tapestry for all who commit to diving in deep.

Though our “olders” may not all be the elders for whom we yearn, many of them are ripe and ready to burst with the fruits of their lifelong labors. Often they are simply waiting for someone to show some interest in what they have to offer, to acknowledge them as people of value who are worth engaging with and listening to, and to truly appreciate them as members of society who want to see things improve for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They may not have many rituals to pass down, as they too suffer from the lack of eldership, but they very likely have recipes to share, stories about becoming parents, stories of failure, stories of accomplishment. The possibilities are innumerable and intriguing.

Let us cherish our elders and remember how they can make a lifelong impression on those who are willing to call on them to share their wisdom and insight.

This is part of a 12-part series about Changing Birth in Our Culture.

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12 Ways to Change Birth in Our Culture, Part 1: Magical Birth Stories for Children

Birthing From Within Blog, Through The Labyrinth
Lead Co-Author

In 2010, Pam England wrote a series of pieces about ways in which we can change birth in our culture. The Birthing From Within leadership and blog team has chosen 12 of these pieces and updated them to reflect current understandings within the birth world as well as our current approaches and offerings as an organization. We will be sharing one piece for each month of 2018, both on the blog and in our monthly newsletters. We hope you enjoy this wonderful material, both as archival treasure and as new, innovative insights!

There is a million-year-old person within each of us, waiting to hear a story… Tapping into and practicing the art of storytelling is central to the Birthing From Within approach. We begin with one of the first stories ever written – the story of Inanna, goddess of heaven and earth. We explore our own first birth stories, and we observe how the telling of birth stories can change over time.

In the Birthing From Within professional training programs, we teach birth professionals about the power of stories. We reveal the nine gates that birth stories pass through as they are remembered and told over time. We train birth professionals to listen to birth stories fully so that they can help new parents process their experiences. Finally, we dive into the idea of storytelling itself with our online course Myths, Mandalas, and Storytelling, where we learn to use stories as medicine.

Stories are powerful, and we all love to hear and share them. They often influence our thinking far more than we realize. With this in mind, we might consider exploring a new way to tell a birth story, one that is less factual and more intuitive; one that is magical.

Pam England shares that her mother told several versions of her birth stories. “I relished the ‘magical’ stories about the day we were born. For my younger sister, Laura, my mother would say, ‘You brought the first snow… You were born in the night and when the sun came up, there was a white blanket of snow on the earth.’ I still think of that story and imagine every year on the first snow, ‘My sister brought the first snow.’”

When a child hears a story that conveys that the day they were born was the worst, most most painful day of their mother’s life, that their birth hurt their mother or “almost killed her,” or the details of unwished-for interventions that she had to suffer, what do you think the child feels?

Young children are in a place of “magical” thinking, which means they think that they are the prime movers in everything that happens, that they cause their parents to fight, cry, get divorced, or suffer in labor. They carry this guilt and grief, and from their innocent, misguided beliefs, they create a constellation of stories about their world, their relationships, who they are, and…birth.

Sometimes parents who experienced a traumatic birth carry the weight of their own feelings of guilt and grief. The idea of presenting their birth experience in a magical or positive light could feel dishonest or invalidating for them. In these scenarios it may be helpful for parents to seek out a Birthing From Within Birth Story Listener to help them process the story within themselves before attempting to share the story with their child.

Birth Story Listeners are trained to listen to birth stories deeply, with their whole bodies and minds, so as to build a medicine bridge that will take the storyteller toward a future where self-acceptance, forgiveness, and personal freedom are possible.

You can learn more about the Birth Story Listening program here, and you can book a session here.

Imagine telling a child a sweet, Magical Story of the day they were born. A Magical Story is meant for the child. It is not a medical, factual story; it’s not fantasy; it’s not a “lie.” It is a unique version of the story that focuses on something special about that child’s birthday: it is a story a small child can hear, and wants to hear. As the child grows up and becomes an adult, there will be plenty of time for adult stories about birth, for they will have enough life experience to understand a more complex story.

No matter what happened in labor, a child wants to know about “their” birth and that their arrival was special. Find something that was special about the day your child was born, something you thought about, something funny that happened, or something the child did that was endearing, funny, or cute. Some parents tell the Magical Birth Story on the child’s birthday, a kind of birthday celebration ritual. Each year, it may be told a little differently. Each year, the child hears it differently. Maybe as they grow up, a few more details will be added.

“My 19-year-old son smiled when he heard his birth story again, and that time he heard something he’d never heard before,” Pam shares. “It is still, and will continue to be, his Magical Birth Story.”

Stories have carried, driven, and shaped humankind for centuries.

Understanding how stories work and harnessing that potency can enhance your ability to tell them with intention, to use them to help yourself and others, and to make them a cornerstone of your individual practice and/or the way you guide your children as a parent. Telling a Magical Story of your child’s birth is a great place to start your journey as storyteller and to work toward changing the way we perceive birth in today’s culture.

How do you see storytelling changing birth? How has storytelling impacted your life thus far? If you’re interested in diving even deeper into this topic, perhaps you might begin with the story of Inanna and the concept of the hero’s journey, and then dive into the first birth story that you can remember ever hearing. Notice the connections between these stories and your own life and values. Can you sense their power? Can you feel their medicine? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

This is part of a 12-part series about Changing Birth in Our Culture.

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