Dr. Britta Bushnell: Transformed by Birth
TS: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon, I’m the founder of Sounds True, and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools, such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion, regardless of financial, social, or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need, including at-risk youth, prisoners, veterans, and those in developing countries. If you’d like to learn more or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit soundstruefoundation.org.
You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Dr. Britta Bushnell. Britta is a wife and mother, veteran childbirth educator, and specialist in childbirth, relationships, and parenting. For over 20 years, she’s worked with individuals and couples as they prepare for the life-changing experience of giving birth. Her work with parents has been enriched by her doctoral work in mythology and psychology, and her years spent as a co-owner of Birthing From Within. Dr. Britta Bushnell is also the author of the new beautiful book with Sounds True, Transformed By Birth: Cultivating Openness, Resilience, and Strength for the Life-Changing Journey from Pregnancy to Parenthood.
Britta describes birth as the biggest rite of passage that many people will ever go through in their lifetime. She talks about, for new parents, how to prepare for this rite of passage, and then that moment when we look into the eyes of our newborn, how this leaves us forever changed and vulnerable in a new way. Here’s my conversation on what it means to be transformed by giving birth with Britta Bushnell:
To begin with, Britta, and as a way to introduce you to the Sounds True audience, tell me a little bit about how you got into the field of childbirth education and how it is that that is such a fit for you as your soul’s calling.
BB: In some ways, this has been my soul’s calling as long as I can remember, but I just didn’t know it. I’ve been fascinated with storytelling and mythology since I was a little girl, and that may not sound like it’s an easy fit with childbirth, but in the way that I do work, it really is. The first labor support that I ever did was when I was eight years old and my stepmom was having her first child. I sat with her while she had contractions as they came and went, and we played cards. I come from a long line of game players, so we played gin rummy during her labor, and I got to witness, as a young eight-year-old girl, the power and strength of a woman in labor.
Fast forward to my adult life and I was a general manager of Yoga Works in the 90s in Santa Monica and was around yoga teachers from around the world and growth—people focused on growth and development and became a yoga teacher myself.
Then when in 1999 when I was pregnant with my first son, my boss, [inaudible], was like, “Hey—yoga, you’re pregnant, you’re a yoga teacher. I think you should teach prenatal yoga.” And I thought, “OK, why not, I’ll teach some prenatal yoga.” And that was really the introduction for me to the world of birth as a transformative experience. So that—teaching prenatal yoga was the beginning.
And then over and over again, parents would come back to my classes after they gave birth saying, “But hang on, my labor was really intense.” And I had given birth at that point and I knew how intense labor could be. And I thought, “Yes, labor’s intense, birth is intense.” And so I reflected on how I was teaching and realize that in some ways in my yoga classes I was communicating that you could just yoga your way through labor. You know, a couple of deep breaths, but that labor didn’t require much more than a [takes a deep breath] And that’s just not really the case. Labor requires something a lot more than that. And frankly, parenthood requires a lot more than that.
So that self-reflection took me down another path, led me into a training organization called Birthing From Within. And I worked closely with its founder, Pam England, for several years. And kept seeking, kept seeking, and engaging with birth as a transformative, as a transformational experience, which ultimately led me back to graduate school in mythology and psychology where I went in thinking, “OK, how can I branch out?” And instead I felt like I was in grad school with glasses on that had birth-colored lenses. So every single class I took, I felt like I was looking at this mythology and cultural mythology and looking through a mythological lens at psychology, and I was seeing birth. And I was seeing how much, how our culture and our society speaks about birth, and how we engage in life, in modern life, influences and impacts how we give birth and how we parent.
So it just kind of kept building and kept building, and that led to the writing of this book. And I’ve been working with parents as they prepare for the transformative journey of giving birth and becoming parents since that—since 1999 in various different ways. First as the yoga teacher and then as both a doula and a childbirth educator. So it’s just kind of been—it’s almost like I’m sharing with you the threads that woven together are the tapestry, and it’s hard to pull any one thread out and say, “This is what happened.” It was more like a perpetual 20-year weaving process that has led me to this point.
TS: I want to start by highlighting this role of mythology in helping us understand the transformational aspects of giving birth. Because I think that’s something that a lot of birth educators and birth doulas probably aren’t trained in, certainly don’t have a doctorate in it the way that you do. What aspect of the myths do you think are most helpful to people who are looking at having a baby?
BB: Yes. Well I think that there’s—I mean, there’s a couple of ways to answer that, but one of them is to understand how the body and the brain works in labor and new parenthood, thanks to all of the hormonal baths that we’re marinating in during that, that hormonally rich time, and it makes us very susceptible and receptive to story and imagery. And so right now it’s very common in our culture that is very focused on evidence-based and information-based learning to forget that sometimes it’s hard to access information that is just coming in kind of in a download perspective when we are in this hormonally rich experience of birth. So storytelling is a way to help us understand and reflect and process information in a way that we can retrieve it later in birth and in new parenthood, particularly in the postpartum period.
So storytelling for me and mythology is a way to help make things accessible. So in my book I talk a lot about Artemis and Apollo, and I use these two Greek twins to help illuminate ideas around the difference between sort of the cultural understanding and structure for birth and Artemis for that representative of the wild bodily nature. And when I use this metaphor with parents, I find that they’re able to understand it, like they drop into it in a way that is not . . . it’s so universal and yet personal at the same time, they can see themselves within it. And I think that’s true of storytelling and mythology in particular, and I’ll just say one other piece with that is when I’m sharing mythological story, there’s a way in which they are so archetypical, they are so universal and yet in their universality, they are also highly personal. So it’s like you can see yourself in the story without it being about a particular person.
There’s a tendency right now to share a lot of birth stories, so people go around and share their stories and tell people how to give birth based on their own experience, but the receiver of those stories can have a hard time seeing themselves within that story, or in their labor having it come back and resonating for them because it feels like it’s somebody else’s story. So archetypal stories, Greek mythology, can allow us to see ourselves within something that we can … It’s like the skeleton that our experience adds the muscle and tissue and skin to the skeleton. Rather than looking at the body and saying, “Oh, that’s somebody else’s body.” It’s like we get to add our own texture to it.
TS: Now you mentioned Artemis and Apollo, and I can imagine people dredging up their mythological education and say, “No, Apollo’s the sun god, Artemis, she’s there. She’s out there hunting someplace. How is that going to help me with birthing?”
BB: Yes. Well, there’s a few different ways, and these two are two of my favorites, but Apollo really is—yes, he’s the sun god. He likes bright lights. He likes things that are put together and orderly. He likes things—his son is the god of medicine and so he’s all about those things that reside within a cultured society, put together orderly. He likes music and things that can be predictable and make sense. And then his twin is Artemis. Now Artemis is thought to be the Greek goddess of childbirth because she actually was the midwife at the birth of her twin brother Apollo. When their mother was having a hard time giving birth. She finally gives birth to Artemis, Artemis pops out a fully formed goddess woman—I can’t imagine that labor—and pops out and then helps her mother birth her brother.
But I think it has a lot more to do with the fact that Artemis represents everything that lives outside of the bounds of cultured society. She lives in the wild, she lives connected to the cycles of the moon, of the seasons. She is connected to both birth and death. She likes privacy. She is somebody who lives close to the earth and is untamed, uncontrolled, connected more to impulse than to what is acceptable in a societal context.
So when we think about this, Apollo represents modern birth culture. In many ways, hospitals are temples to Apollonian values. They’re bright, they’re public. There’s a structure, there’s an order, it’s made to be clean, and there’s particular ways to behave within this structure, and they have the tools of medicine.
Now Artemis, you could say, is more like what is the natural tendency of the body in birth, in labor. It likes privacy. It likes darkness. It tends to move more with the cycles of the moon and the sun than of clock time, which is more Apollonian. Birth likes to be done without people observing it. Now there are stories that go back talking about what Artemis would do if she’s observed without permission, and they’re kind of brutal.
But these—understanding how these two energies operate can be helpful in understanding what is needed in labor. So the body needs one thing, it needs more of that Artemesian quality, and the cultural energy is sort of the other side of the coin of that. It’s that Apollonian, bright light, public environment. So knowing this, we can say, “OK, what is it that my bodily needs need in this moment? They need more of that Artemesian quality. How do I bring some of that Artemesian side of myself, even if I’m birthing in an Apollonian state?”
So it’s not about making one right or wrong, it’s understanding how they each have a value and when they—when each can be used and supported. So if you’re in a hospital setting and there’s available all of the wisdom and skill of a hospital setting is available to you, but the body needs some of that Artemesian energy, then can you go in and turn off lights? Can you make it so that there’s fewer people in the room with you so that you can connect in with that Artemesian side, so that the hormones that are going to be driven by that Artemesian run wild part of the body, not the Apollonian modern neocortex, the neocortex can actually influence and shut down the labor process. So having that and saying, “OK, I know Apollo has its value. Right now, I need to connect with my Artemesian side so that I can let those hormones flow.”
So it’s a way to understand sort of, “OK, is this piece Apollonian or is this piece Artemesian? What piece do I need right now to help in my labor? Each has a value, but which one is needed right now?” So I use those metaphors to help people see and understand in a visual and metaphoric way what it is that labor needs.
TS: So let’s say we have a pregnant woman and this person’s partner, whoever that might be, or really it could be any couple or any configuration having a baby, and they listen to this and they go, “OK, I want this part of the Artemesian approach and this part of the Apollonian approach.” But the two parents-to-be don’t agree. How do you help them come up with a shared birth plan?
BB: So there’s a couple of things and one of them, “plan” is a term that I don’t use a whole lot, but I think a strategy I guess, or a plan for even understanding where and how they want to birth is something that is good to be, in some way, in agreement. It’s a tricky one. I don’t think that you have to end up on the same page, first of all, I want to say that. I do think that being in the same chapter or at least the same book is a good idea for couples.
TS: Sounds reasonable. Let’s at least be in the same book. We can find each other somewhere.
BB: Exactly. Being on the same page, I think, is wildly overrated in relationship in general. This idea that we need to be in utter agreement, and that actually is a setup for a lot of relationship challenges, and challenges that move forward into parenthood when there are so many things that you might agree about or disagree about, like parenting strategies or birthing strategies. It’s like, “Do we have to be on the same page?” I don’t think we do. So my first response to what you asked is to soften your ideas about what agreement looks like, expand them. Allow the possibility for what really matters, and allow the other parts to fall away. In birth, that can be, “OK, what really matters to the birthing parent? Is it that they work with a midwife? OK. What really matters to the partner? That the birth occurs in a hospital. OK.” There’s an option for that. That isn’t what I would call the same page. That isn’t necessarily the same page. Maybe the birthing parent wants to birth with a midwife at a birth center and the partner is like, “Well, I really want to work with a doctor in a hospital.” It’s like, OK, but what really matters? What matters to the partner is they have to be in a hospital. What really matters to the birthing parent is to work with a midwife. There is a way to make that work. There are midwives who work in hospitals. So it’s like, discover, what it is that really matters, and find ways to work together to get the needs met that are most important while allowing some of the other ones to fall away.
The other thing is to explore more deeply together. Pregnancy is a powerful time to grow your skills as a couple, in time for this transformative experience of giving birth and for new parenthood. New parenthood asks a lot of a relationship. There’s a lot of challenge and intensity that shows up. And so use the pregnancy time and the conversations around the birthing process to deepen your skills of communication. I share in the book a couple of communication practices that I think are really powerful for that, and I don’t know if you want me to—
TS: Yes, yes, go ahead. Go ahead. Just briefly. Yes.
BB: Yes. So, so one of them that I think is incredibly powerful is used especially when things are heated, when it’s a little elevated, and that’s a practice of sitting in sort of a ritualized space together and practicing listening from the heart and speaking from the heart without interrupting. You light a candle, you have something that acknowledges who is the speaker, and you take turns speaking to each other and diving into what deeply matters.
Now Louis Mehl-Madrona is a wonderful psychiatrist who speaks to this practice in some of his work and it has roots in Native American tradition and also in practices really all around the world, in sitting in circle of equality. And in partnership, having this kind of structure that says, “My voice is as equal as your voice” is a really powerful practice to do with your beloved. Because it’s—in these situations where it’s heated or feelings are intensified, it can feel like one person’s voice is heard more than the other. And so taking some of that and placing it into a structure can really help relationships thrive and to get through some of those stickier, harder moments.
TS: Now, Britta, you mentioned that when you were a pre- and perinatal yoga teacher, your students would come back and after they’d given birth say, “Wow, that was a lot more intense than I thought it was going to be.” And that you yourself had not gone through the birth process when you started teaching yoga and that perhaps you are making it sound kind of, “We’ll do these breathing techniques and the baby will pop out.” Now, I’m exaggerating a bit to make my point.
TS: But what I’m getting at is I’m curious to know, what do you think are the biggest misconceptions that people have? When, let’s say they come to you and they haven’t gone through the education experience that you offer. They come in with ideas and misconceptions in their own mind about what the birthing process is going to be like. What do you think those are?
BB: There are many of them, and some of them are really influenced by the conversations that happen within society and within this culture, this modern culture, and aren’t necessarily even their own fault. In terms of like . . . I’m not really a firm believer in fault anyway, but that idea that somehow it’s just unique to that particular parent. I think some of them are really part of what’s happening in the cultural story as a large piece, not just about birth. And I would say one of the key elements is that belief that if they do enough preparation, if they read enough books, if they listen to enough podcasts, if they take all of the right classes, that they will be able to control and dictate how their birth happens.
So that illusion of control comes up so hugely in, in the birth process. That idea that you just have do it, quote unquote, “right” and then it will work. And birth is . . . that would work perhaps in an Apollonian sense, but it doesn’t work because there is this Artemesian quality, this wild, unpredictable, untamed element that is dictated by the fact that we are humans that are animals, we are human animals. We don’t like to think of ourselves very often as animals, but we are, and as such there is wildly unpredictable elements brought to us by our nature, by our animal nature.
So that’s one of the biggest ones, and helping parents to find out how do you keep going even when what you thought would happen doesn’t, when what you hoped would happen doesn’t, is a huge part of what I do in my work. How do you keep going? Because that happens not just in labor but in parenthood. Parenthood is nothing if not a practice in facing that which you didn’t predict on a regular basis. I mean, over and over and over again. It’s just not controllable, and so that’s one of the big ones. The other ones are that they can … one that I hear frequently is that if they think positive thoughts, they will have a pain-free or orgasmic birth. And that one has some challenges to it as well. And then there’s … And then probably other ones are the innocent belief that just says, “I don’t need to do anything. My doctor will take care of it all.” So they’re conflicting in some ways, but there are some similarities and threads that weave through expectations for birth.
TS: Now, Britta, you mentioned that a big part of your education is helping people navigate when things don’t go the way that perhaps they wanted or thought they were going to go or had intended that they would go. How do you help people when that happens? So here they are, they’re in the birth process and something unexpected happens and it’s a whole change of approach suddenly.
BB: Well, a lot of my work is done as a preparation, not necessarily in the moment of birth. So yes. So one of the things that I do is help to expand expectations rather than narrow them. One of the things I see happening in a lot of birth preparation, frankly in parenthood and life preparation, is a narrowing of expectations about what will happen. “I want this to happen and then I want that to happen.” I mean, often birth plans these days are written out, double-sided, single-space, bullet point list of how things are going to go, and that’s a narrowing of expectations.
I feel that it’s my job to help expand expectations to say, “OK, so if it doesn’t go that way, and instead it happens in one of these other possibilities, what would you do to keep going?” And expand their ability to keep moving forward, to find their own resilience. And I do that with—we practice with a negative stimulus. So holding ice in the hand; rather than in the early days of childbirth preparation, there’s a lot of focus on comfort. Like how do you find comfort? Bring pillows, we’re going to get super cozy and relax and we’re going to just work with your partner to help you find that deep relaxation. What would end up happening often was then in labor when that deep state of relaxation was not able to be found due to the intensity and the unfamiliarity of the experiences of labor, the parents would feel like they didn’t know what to do.
So I bring in a negative stimulus in the form of ice, hold it in the hand, put it behind the ear on the inner wrist, under the foot, a couple of different ways, I got lots of tools for that, and help them find ways to navigate a negative stimulus that isn’t pleasant. Holding ice is not a pleasant experience, but how do they help their mind keep going, or to soften and release even while irritated and disliking what’s happening? How do they receive the support of their partner in that moment? It’s one thing for a partner to learn how to help a parent relax and get comfortable while they’re propped up on pillows. It’s a whole other thing to have your partner know how to support you when you’re in a state of discomfort. And so putting parents in a situation where they actually have to work through that together builds their ability to do that in labor and in parenthood. And then I also have a ton of metaphors too.
TS: Let’s stay with this one for a moment, and then we’ll get the metaphors.
BB: Yep, you got it.
TS: So let’s say someone wants to practice this at home. “OK, I’ve got ice in the freezer, the baby’s coming in approximately six months, how do my partner and I practice with the ice tray?”
BB: Great. So you need a couple of things. You need some kind of absorbent cloth. I love cloth diapers because, well, you’re becoming a parent, so having those cloth diapers around is often a good reminder of why you’re holding ice. You can use a dish towel or a bowl, something that will catch the drips. You need something to time an ice contraction. So a smartphone or an egg timer, something of that sort works great. You’re going to set the timer for one minute and grab your ice and put the ice in your hand. And the first thing you want to do when you put the ice in the hand and start the timer is to pay attention to what you already do that supports you to get through that experience. Do you look around? Do you close your eyes? Do you tighten up? What is it that you do? Do you soften in your body?
Pay attention to what you go to already, because there’s no way that you’ve gotten to this point in your life where you don’t already have some skills for navigating difficult situations. Life gives us opportunities to grow skills for navigating hard moments all the time. So use the ice to begin to understand and pay attention to what you already do. Then put the ice down after one minute-long contraction, and then you can bring your partner in to begin to work with you as well. Share with your partner what is helpful. Pay attention to what kinds of touch you like, or no touch at all. Pay attention to whether you want words, and what kinds of words your partner can offer.
One of the things that can be tricky is that we often want our partner to support us, and we want them to support us perfectly from the first time we try. I mean, this is just kind of how we operate often in relationships, but we need to actually understand that there’s two things happening. We’re building the skillset of our partner to be able to support us, while also strengthening our own ability to receive support. It’s a two-sided coin. It’s not just about our partner learning how to do it right. It’s also about softening our need for them to do it perfectly so that we can receive the help they are able to offer us. So how do you do that? You hold the ice during a contraction, during an ice contraction for a minute, and your partner tries things. During that one minute, practice receiving their positive support, whatever that looks like. When the minute is over, put the ice down. Then give your partner feedback.
Now, the feedback is really important how to do it. So you want to give the feedback first by acknowledging what they did that was helpful. This is key. This is really important because you’re wanting to grow their skills and their confidence. It’s both. You don’t just want them to be competent. You want them to be competent and confident, so sharing what worked. Even if it’s like that you were a foot away from my face. It’s like, be as specific as possible. Give one thing that they did that was helpful. After you’ve shared that, then you want to share what they could do to improve, what they could do to support you even better.
After you’ve shared that feedback, try it again. Try it again. This time the partner can put into practice the feedback that they received from you. That really helps them start to grow their skill. Partners want to pay very close attention to what their beloved is doing, what they see their partner is doing. Overall, you want the partner, you want the birthing parent to soften and to release in the face of the tension. So if they start to have their shoulders rising up towards their ears, then that’s a time to encourage softening and releasing of the shoulders. The jaw, the eyebrows, the hips and buttocks. Those are all places that laboring parents tend to hold tension and so partners can watch their beloved and encourage those specific areas soften while also putting into practice the feedback that they’re getting from their beloved.
Over time . . . this isn’t something that’s going to happen by doing one or two ice contractions. It’s a skill set that develops over time and practice, so I highly encourage parents to do multiple sets of contractions a few times a week leading up to the birth.
TS: Now, it’s interesting you’re calling them ice contractions. Does a contraction normally last in the 60-second range? Is that why you’re calling it an ice contraction?
BB: Yes. I mean, contractions happen in a variety of length of time, but when contractions are creating kind of a pattern and a rhythm to them, usually a little deeper into labor, it’s pretty common for them to be somewhere between 60 and 90 seconds. And so that’s why initially I start with a 60-second piece of time to mimic that. And then to have the period of time between the contraction when parents can offer feedback and then do another contraction. So that kind of then mimics the contraction, rest, contraction pattern that can often develop in labor.
TS: And when people get really good at this, with holding ice in their hand for 60 to 90 seconds and then doing it again and again and again. What internal capacities do you think the person has developed to be able to be like, “Yes, I got this.” I mean, I’m not looking forward to trying putting ice on my hand for 60 seconds. I can imagine myself screaming, dancing, I don’t know, doing all kinds of weird things to, to hold ice like that for that long. So what kind of inner capacities does someone develop to be able to do this with strength?
BB: Yes. Well, I think that it helps develop resilience, which is probably one of the key things needed for both labor and parenthood. It also helps to develop an ability to let it be. To—there’s this weird connection that happens in labor where you’re both trying to cope and also trying to not try, where there’s this letting go quality. And it can be difficult to understand how you can both be efforting and letting go at the same time. And practice with ice helps to develop some of the skill of both letting go, being in the moment while also having this piece of effort of keeping the ice in your hand. And those are skills that are needed in labor, to be able to do the hard work. Labor is called labor for a reason. I mean, it’s hard work. It takes effort, it takes energy, and it also takes a huge amount of surrender. And so that dance of both effort and surrender is often confusing and feels contradictory, but it’s so powerful and necessary for labor. And so practicing with the ice gives you an opportunity to work with that.
TS: Now, first of all, I just want to say it makes a lot more sense to me just intuitively to practice with ice than getting all comfortable in a bunch of pillows and cozying on up with my partner behind me, with their arms lovingly around me. I mean, I get it. I get why you would work with a negative stimulus.
BB: Right. Which you can still do that and hold ice. [Laughs]
TS: Yes. Yes. My question is, I want to circle back. You mentioned that you also offer people metaphors that can be helpful to get through the difficult parts of labor. What are the metaphors that you find help?
BB: Well, one of my favorites is to talk about labor. The dance of labor between couples, very much like a river, and the energy of labor is like the movement of the water of a river. It’s powerful. It has a force to it. Sometimes on top it can look placid, even though underneath the movement and current of the water is strong and even dangerous. There are places where the water can kind of get stuck and spin around in an eddy looking like it’s going nowhere. And then there are times where the water is going over rapids, and it’s seemingly out of control and wild. That is often the energy that birthing parents feel when they step into labor, that feeling of that changing, flowing power of the water, and what that energy needs is supportive banks. And this is where the partner comes in, is to have that energy of, “I’m the banks to this wild moving, shifting and changing energy of the water.”
These banks are not like LA riverbanks where it’s concrete and directive and saying, “This is the only way to go.” Even more the banks that say, “I’m here, I’m responsive, let me help contain and hold and make safe this wild energy for you.” And what helps with that is partners can be like, “OK, what could I do right now to help my partner know that I’ve got the banks of their wild water? I’ve got them, I’m right here. Not—nothing that happens, no matter how tumultuous the rapids are, I’m still here, I’m still there. I’ve got you. I’m right here.”
What can happen sometimes is that the energy of . . . watery energy can sometimes take over all of us. And so if we’re trying to be the banks and we get really watery, and then the person who is giving birth, who’s supposed to be in the water of it but is instead directing things and saying, “This is what needs to happen.” That becomes more of a swamp and it makes it so that very few things can actually move. Swamps can be wonderful in certain ways if you’re not trying to get anywhere, but labor needs that energy of moving and progressing forward. And so to have that, we need both the energy of that wild river and the containment, the “I’ve got you” energy of the banks. So when I share this metaphor with parents, it’s often helpful because they look at their own relationships, and frequently I find that the birthing parent is the one who is used to being the banks of their relationships. They’re used to being the one who says, “We’ve got this, we’re going here, make sure you’re on time.” This is bank kind of energy, directing and guiding. Have you built the crib yet? What about the car seat? Let’s go to this doctor’s appointment. It’s very bank, it’s very directive. And then they wonder why it’s hard to step into the power of the river when it comes time to give birth.
And so I encourage parents to, OK, if you are the one birthing to practice letting go and stepping into that unpredictable energy and let your partner start to step in and hold the experience, hold your journey. So with the practice of ice or in life, in things like preparing for the baby’s arrival, be it putting in a car seat or taking particular classes you want to take, to actually practice switching it up so that the birthing parent gets an experience of being supported rather than being the one guiding and directing. And light bulbs go off because they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so the one who tells and directs and does all of that. Wait, in labor I’m not going to be able to tell my partner, ’Do this, do this, do this, do this’?” And I’m like, “Yes, you can say it, but you may not have the same kind of operating system working thanks to all of the hormones, and you may need to practice receiving support in a different way. So practice that ahead of time now.”
TS: Very helpful. And I love the nature metaphor. It’s so gender-free and just so helpful. Thank you.
BB: Yes, and I find that that partners really have an easy time with that because they’re able to go, “OK, wait, I’m the banks.” And they just go, “OK, if I’m the banks right now, what does that look like?” And they can put that into an in-the-moment response. It doesn’t matter if they know the exact words to say or if they know exactly how to touch their partners so that it’ll be helpful. They just go, “OK, I’m the bank. So if I were the bank and I were containing and holding and supporting, what would I be doing?” And that’s helpful in guiding their actions.
TS: Now, Britta, there’s one last big topic I want to talk about, and it relates to the title of your new book, Transformed by Birth. And I want to talk some about the identity transformation and the spiritual transformation that happens through the birth process, and how you articulate that.
BB: Great. That’s a topic I love to talk about. What do you want to know?
TS: Exactly. Well, let’s start with the identity transformation. I mean, there’s a death of a certain identity that existed before you have a kid. You’re not the same person. You’re a different person. You’re a parent. That’s different.
BB: Yes. And that’s something that’s not talked about a lot. It’s a sticky conversation to bring the word “death” into a conversation about birth. Like those are not easy bedfellows, right? And that comes from a history of, as a culture, I mean as a species, birth sometimes had death involved in it. Far less frequently today than ever before in history. But they are uncomfortable things to talk about, but I think it’s an important piece to speak about the part that the identity death that happens within the person who is becoming a parent. We like to think that we just have a baby and then we carry on with our life and we just have this really cute, bubbly, sound-making accessory that comes along with our life unchanged.
But that’s not the case. Becoming a parent has a part of us that dies forever. It’s a death so that a new part of us can be born, and it’s that metaphoric process of death and rebirth. We have to go through part of the death to really fully transform and step into that new identity that is parents. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy. It’s not like you change your shoes and just go, “OK, I’m a parent.” It’s much more than that. There’s a letting go of ideas. There’s a death of an innocence and of an immaturity. When we are responsible for somebody’s welfare and well-being and survival, there’s a kind of maturation that happens very quickly that can be striking and unsettling.
TS: There’s the potential for that maturation to occur.
TS: And it’s interesting because I’d like to hear a little bit more about that, because sometimes I see new parents and there is this tremendous growth maturation, a feeling of a newfound responsibility and protectionism. And other times people seem to be sort of stuck on the other side, unsure how to inhabit this new identity as a parent. What do you think helps people with that maturation, that I would call “adulting process” that many people never actually make it, with or without kids?
BB: Yes, no. And that certainly . . . I agree with you wholeheartedly and I think that this is an opportunity for that. And birth allows us an opportunity, becoming a parent allows for a tremendous opportunity for growth, especially if growth is something that is of interest. Now, people who don’t want to grow aren’t going to grow. We know that. They’re going to move and bumble through life in the best way they can.
But when a rite of passage like birth shows up in someone’s life, there is a way that people, that even those who haven’t been interested in growth can be slapped upside the head to a moment of, “Oh my goodness, I actually have to grow here. Like I really need to do this.”
So it happens. I see it happening more with birth than other rites of passage like marriage or things of that sort, partnering; that with birth there’s more of a likelihood that you will be put in that pressure cooker of great change. What you do with that really depends on your own makeup, your tools, who you have available to support you, and whether or not you want to grow up.
One of the things that I talk about in my book is about the turning of the archetypal wheel in family, and this can be one that can be a really tricky—can play a tricky role in this maturation process. It’s like when you don’t have a child and you still have a parent that is alive, you inhabit the place of the child, the archetypal relationship as “I am my parents’ child.” But when you become a parent, your child becomes the child, you shift into the position of parent, and your parent shifts into the position of grandparent. And that shift can be really clunky, because grandparents are used to having control and direction and the ability to tell their kids what to do, and those kids are used to being told what to do and how to do it.
So parents who keep directing their children who are them themselves now parents can actually make it difficult for those new parents to grow into the archetypal position of parenthood. That can be—there’s a whole lot to talk about, about that shifting dynamic within the greater family, but that stepping into the role of, “I have a voice, I get to make choices,” is a key piece on this archetypal transition into parenthood, and shows up with those—circling back to the beginning of your conversation, even to those conversations that couples can have with one another around what kind of birth they want to have. That’s stepping into, “Wow, I’m becoming a parent. What do I want for myself? What do I want for my family?”
The definition of family itself changes once you have a baby. When you say, “I’m going to spend the weekend with my family.” Prior to having a kid, that generally means you’re going to go see your parents or your siblings or some form of your family of origin. But once you have a child and you say, “I really want to spend the weekend with my family,” it generally means you’re going to spend the weekend with your partner if you have one, and your child. So these are big changes, big identity transformations that occur, and they’re a maturation. They require a maturation.
TS: Now I want to ask one other thing about the identity transformation and the loss side of it. What do people lose when they become parents? We need to be aware of this and name it. This is what you’re going to lose.
BB: Yes. The main thing that parents lose . . . I mean, they lose a lot of things, but is an innocence. There is—once you’ve looked into the eyes of your newborn child, there is no going back to the person you were before you had that initial gaze. Something in who you are is altered forever, and there is an innocence about indestructibility, and innocence about impenetrable feelings. And once you have that look in your child’s eyes, there is a way in which you know that you can be mortally wounded in ways you never previously expected. And that moment is a huge moment of awakening as well as a moment of death of innocence.
TS: Tell me what you mean by that being a moment of awakening.
BB: It’s an awakening to this new identity, an awakening to “Wow, something matters more than me.” That’s a different feeling than what has happened before. That feeling of becoming somebody who cares about the survival of another being in a way that before, you can’t even fathom. That is a change and a loss of selfishness, of I matter most, that is hard to understand prior to having had that moment. So that independence, that feeling of “All that matters is what I do and how I do it and I can do all things by myself” is shaken to its core when one has a baby, because no longer is that always true.
Least of all, the fact that you pretty much are always connected to a baby in those early first weeks. It’s like a true loss of independence happens, not just the figurative version of that. It actually—you suddenly are connected in wildly physical ways as well as spiritual and emotional wise. I mean, I think right now, I put my kid on a plane back to college just yesterday, and there is this feeling of that stretch in my core as he flies across the country to continue his college journey. And while I am now separated from him, a part of my consciousness lives 3,000 miles away. And I don’t know that that will ever not be the case. I support his growth and his transformation and his independence, but I have a spot in my belly that feels still connected to him all the way spanning those miles. That’s something that changes. That’s a loss of independence. That’s a loss of innocence that happens when we become a parent.
TS: Now you mentioned, Britta, that birthing a being is a rite of passage perhaps unlike any other rite of passage that we might go through as human beings, and for many people in terms of the power of transformation, even more so than a marriage. And when I think of the rights of passage that we have collectively around birth, I think of in just a few days here at Sounds True, we’ll be having a baby shower for one of our employees who’s pregnant and I think to myself, “Huh, is that really the best we can do?” First of all, only the women go to the baby shower. Maybe in some places it’s mixed, but then on top of it it’s a lot about the gifts and we’re sitting in a circle. That’s all we got. Because you have this deep training in mythology and ritual, I’m curious, do you think there are rituals that could help with this rite of passage for people to gather around the birthing parent and the parents?
BB: Yes, absolutely. I was actually at a blessing circle just this past weekend, and it was a powerful one, and some of the things that help to make that a powerful event for that couple, for those parents, was naming the truth of this passage. One of the things that baby showers often do is they can—they’re dressed up more as a party, and parties have a purpose. They’re for fun, they’re for festivity, they’re for joy, but they aren’t necessarily containers for holding growth.
And so when working with couples who … Or individuals who want to have a growth-focused ceremony, one of the things that I think we have to include is we need to invite in the shadow, and often in birth the shadow component is these deaths of identity that we’ve talked about, as well as the truth of the challenge of the process.
So we need to hold both sides. We need to hold the joy, the excitement, the anticipation of all that is good about having children, the hope for the planet through our children. All of that is what’s held in one hand. But we have to hold both hands. We have to be able to hold the truth of all of the experience. And so that also includes how I, as part of this couple’s community, can show up during the hard moments. How will I be there? How do I help hold you through that? How do I share with you what I think you can do yourself through that challenge? We need to invite in all of that and circle around new families and support them.
In this culture that that so values independence and doing it alone, we as the people standing on the outside of birth need to show up for those new parents, rather than chanting at them to do self-care. Self-care can only be done once somebody has healed enough to be able, and has enough time and resources to be able to give it to themselves. We as a community around families need to show up and care for them so that they can do the hard work of caring for themselves and for their baby. And I think rituals help to remind community to do that when we share that, when we speak to both the positive side and the struggle of new parenthood.
TS: Beautiful. OK, Britta, I just have one final question for you, which is, it’s a little bit of a difficult question and it’s going to require me to share a little bit personally here for a moment, which is I spent a lot of time in my 20s and 30s working through various aspects that I identified as being part of birth trauma in my life. And it was hard work, and one of the things that I’m really interested in is how we can, as a culture, create births for the members of our society that don’t generate birth trauma. And maybe that’s an unrealistic goal. Maybe it’s just that we can minimize the amount of trauma that people experience through the birthing process. So my question to you is, if we were to have that as a goal, to minimize birth trauma in the West, what would we have to do?
BB: Whew. Yes, that’s a good one. There’s a few things, and some of them are cultural changes. I’m seeing a huge change happening where I live as a result of the Me Too movement, and how that has been influencing birth, because we as a medical culture have not done a good job of listening to people in labor. And so I think there has been a fair bit of trauma around childbirth abuse and not being heard and listened to. And so I think we need to continue that conversation and start to really listen and value what people in labor say and mean, rather than assume that the people in positions of power know what’s best for an individual. I think that leads us into trouble.
I think we need to practice listening and trusting that particularly women in labor have both the vulnerability of being in such an intense experience, and also being often in a very hierarchical and a patriarchal place, like a hospital that says, “I know what’s best, sweet little girl, let me tell you.” And that puts us into a particularly tricky spot. I think we need to trust and believe people in labor about what’s happening for them. So that’s kind of a cultural side. I would say that’s especially true for people of color. Our birth outcomes for people of color are far worse than for privileged white women. And so we need to practice listening and responding appropriately to what people say.
And then I think there is the need individually, personally, for people heading into the process of becoming parents and going through the birth journey to expand beyond positive thinking. We need to be willing to pull ourselves up. There’s a thing that I often say, that birth does not ask us to be fearless, it asks us to be brave. And I think this is key. We do not need to head in fearless or with only positive expectations. We need to gather strength and resilience and openness to whatever is going to come and know that we can face it. And if we have a challenge during it, that we can find help. That we can ask our community to support us after the fact. So to expand our expectations, to be willing to face the ordeal of the rite of passage, not just the beauty of it.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Britta Bushnell. She’s written a gorgeous and very deep and very comprehensive new book. It’s called Transformed by Birth: Cultivating Openness, Resilience, and Strength for the Life-Changing Journey from Pregnancy to Parenthood. Britta, thank you so much for this conversation. There’s so much in what we’ve talked about here, and so much more in the book for people to really go deep. Thank you so much.
BB: Thank you, Tami. My pleasure to be here.
TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast, and if you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. And also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: Waking up the world.