When it comes to childbirth, every mother has her own idea of how she wants it to unfold. And then there is the reality of how it actually unfolds. I honor every mama and baby's path. When I became pregnant with my first son, Kai, I knew I wanted to at least try natural childbirth. I had no idea how that would look, feel, unravel—but I knew I wanted to try.
In the event that it was completely unbearable, my husband, Shaun, and I had a plan. I would simply speak the obscene code word we had decided upon (code word so he'd know I was serious, obscene for levity), and he would make sure I got the drugs.
When I went into labor, the early contractions were consuming and uncomfortable, but I could manage them. It *kind of* helped when Shaun played the didgeridoo in the direction of my enormous belly, just like we had planned.
Before long, my contractions were blatantly painful, and I think I told Shaun to get the fucking didgeridoo away from me, not to touch me, and to just call our midwives. In that order. I had had enough of my ideal of laboring at home. I wanted to get to where I would deliver the baby, which was Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington, about 45 minutes away. I staggered, awkwardly, to the car, climbed into the backseat, and we were on our way.
As the intensity of labor grew, I drew more deeply from my yoga practices:
Feel it all.
Allow it to flow.
Breathe into it.
See the strong sensation not as pain, but as energy and aliveness.
It worked. For a little while.
Soon the contractions elevated from painful to excruciating. I remember being in the back seat of our Hyundai Santa Fe and looking out the window at a farm as the sun was coming up, just as a contraction was tearing through my body. I was practicing staying present and framing the sensation as aliveness, rather than pain. The *sensation* was so intense that I recall screaming to myself in this animal-esque mode, I’m more fucking alive than I’ve ever been in my life!
I think that was the last moment when I was even aware that I had “tools” or a yoga practice. From that point on, it was moment-to-moment survival.
By the grace of God, I did survive. I never spoke the obscene code word. I made it all the way through my own personal hell to the positively rapturous moment when Kai emerged from my body into my husband's hands. I had never seen a being so flawless. I had never felt a love so expansive. Kai was laid on my chest, bare, brand new, and fully mine. I attempted to comprehend the fact that he was here, and he had come out of me, and we had created him. Amazing. Insane. Sublime. Glorious.
This past summer, I once again moved from earth-shattering agony to euphoric bliss as we brought our second son, Tayo, into the world. A couple hours after I yelled "I want to die!" during labor, my heart and spirit were blasted open in all directions and I lay staring at this perfect little creature, filled with all-consuming love and disbelief at the wonder of him.
Somewhere in between the torture and ecstasy of natural childbirth, I found some incredible life lessons that changed me forever.
Lesson #1: Let go of the contraction.
Each time my uterus began cramping, I dreaded what was to come. But the contraction still came like a freight train, railing through me for what felt like a mini eternity, and then subsided. As it faded away, my midwife, Sushila, said, “Let go of that contraction.”
Those words helped me beyond what I can explain.
They helped me melt and rest into the space between contractions, so I could gather my energy and experience the stillness. Otherwise, I was holding tension in my body and mind; I was never fully resting, and the next contraction would bulldoze me without my ever having had a break. When I let go of the contraction, I experienced the moments of grace waiting to soothe and replenish me.
We have so many opportunities to "let go of the contraction" in daily life. As harsh as life can be, there is softness and sweetness, too—don’t miss it.
When Kai throws a tantrum, really pushing my buttons, I notice myself holding onto anger, frustration, and angst, even after we've worked through the turmoil. Then I hear the words “Let go of that contraction” in my mind, and I remind myself not to carry the tension with me on to the next thing. The tantrum is over. My handling of the tantrum—whether skillful or disastrous—is over. Let it go.
Letting go of the contraction helps me to rest and live in the spaces between life’s intense moments.
This is one reason why I always lead yoga students into postures of letting go throughout a class—the more you can learn to move between intensity and rest in yoga practice, the better you can do it in life.
Lesson #2: Go into the contraction.
The only way out is through.
As some of the stronger contractions came, I was almost crawling up the bed to try to get away from them. One of my nurses whispered in my ear, “Go with the contraction. Don’t move away from it.” Once I began doing this, my delivery progressed more quickly. I was working with it, rather than against it. I was embracing the intensity as power that I needed to harness and use to move through it.
Remembering this has helped me when life situations arise and I want to avoid them, move away from them, hope they’ll go away. What I really need to do is acknowledge the situation, look it in the eye, have the difficult conversation, feel the strong emotion, do the loathsome task, move through the experience—and come out the other side.
Lesson #3: We have WAY more strength than we can possibly imagine.
I can’t stress this enough.
I had no idea what labor would be like. No amount of books, classes, discussions, videos, or articles could have prepared me. But if there was some way for me to know ahead of time how painful it would be, how I would feel hopeless and would want to die, I never would have believed it possible that I could get through it.
But, when the time came, I was in that moment and I rose to it, just like hundreds of thousands of women do every single day.
Larger than childbirth, the potential and capacity of what you could do right now, in this moment, if necessary, is just astonishing.
Childbirth allowed me to feel that firsthand—and that lesson has stayed with me.
I felt this recently when a leisurely walk around the neighborhood with my boys turned into a mad dash home through a hailstorm. Kai, now four, was wearing shorts. Tayo, nine months, was riding in his stroller. It started drizzling, and I said to Kai, “Come on, buddy, let’s walk a little quicker.” Within seconds, we were being ambushed by hail. I covered the baby as best I could, started running, pushing the stroller, saying, “Come on!” to Kai, whose little bare legs were getting pelted by hail. Usually a tough little kid, he stood still, looking helpless, crying, “Mommmyyyy, I neeeed youuuu!”
I squatted down and told him to climb onto my back, and then I sprinted the whole way home, pushing one kid in the stroller, while the other one hung from my neck. For a moment, I wondered if it was possible to get the three of us all the way home in this way, but that moment was fleeting, as the thought of what I had accomplished in childbirth popped into my mind. This happens regularly when I have the thought that I can’t do something. I laugh as soon I remember what I am capable of, thanks to the epic experience of childbirth.
Whether or not you’re a woman or have had babies naturally, with an epidural, via C-section, or not at all, you too are capable of the impossible.
Our minds, our conditioning, and the stories we tell ourselves limit us. Nothing else.
Lesson #4: Don’t think about how many more contractions you’ll have, because there’s just no way to know.
My midwife said this to me at the height of my pain and wanting out. It helped me because it was honest, and it brought me back to the moment. If someone had said, “It will be over soon,” I think I would have bitten their head off and screamed, “HOW DO YOU KNOW?!?!” It would have felt like an empty promise. But the advice was: Don't go there. That, I could hear. That felt real. The reminder spoke to the uselessness of worrying and the need to be here now.
Now is all we have in life, so why waste another moment worrying?
This is easy to say, but so hard to do when we have responsibilities, relationships, mistakes to dwell on, and futures to figure out. We need practices to keep us present: yoga, meditation, drumming, exercise, mindfulness, music ... What works for you? Dirgha Pranayama, or the complete yogic breath, is one of my go-to tools for coming back to the moment when I need a quick shift anywhere, anytime. (You can practice or learn it now with my free download.)
Lesson #5: You can’t go it alone.
I’ve never been more vulnerable, primal, or exposed than I was in childbirth. At the same time that I was most in my power, I also needed support in a way that I never had before.
We were blessed with a beautiful scenario for Tayo’s birth. It was the middle of the night. Sushila, Shaun, and I were in a hospital room with a beautiful birthing tub that looked like a hot tub at a spa. We rode out the labor together, the four of us. When a contraction came, I’d gesture for Shaun to come closer, wrap my arms around his neck, and hang from him. I’d lean my weight on him and pound on his back with my fists. He chanted with me and groaned with me. He and Sushila tended to me and reassured me.
Their love and care was essential to my being able to move through the most vulnerable and most paramount experience of my life in exactly the way I wanted to. This lesson shows up for me often, as well, as I am reminded that when I am feeling discouraged, overwhelmed, sick, defeated, there is always someone I can reach out to for help. The hardest part is making the move to ask.
All five of these lessons show up for me regularly.
In addition to the amazing little creatures I now get to love, cherish, and learn from every single day, I have these gifts from childbirth. Do I want to do it again? Not really. Am I thrilled that I did? Absolutely.
I wonder, What experience have YOU had that seemed impossible, but left you with an invaluable life lesson?
Please share in the comments below. I'd love to hear from you.
Always with my love and gratitude,