Saturday, September 4, 2010

Change #1: How We Tell Birth Stories To, or Around, Children

Hi Birth Peeps,

Over the years, you have probably heard a lot of birth stories. Perhaps you have heard so many, you almost take them for granted. When you listen to a story, you may even have the feeling you "know where this one is going" even before you hear the end of the story.  This is especially true for birth peeps, birth junkies, and birth activists who read, think, and talk about birth in our culture--all the time.

In fact, birth story telling has become very casual and impersonal. Birth stories are told everywhere and anywhere. Someone even felt compelled to tell me their birth story during a workshop break when we occupied adjacent stalls in the bathroom! Birth stories are told around children, who we think are playing and are not listening or don't understand. Children love stories, especially juicy ones; they are always listening. And it is true, they won't fully understand the story and that is where the problem begins.

I am proposing that the first way to change birth in our culture is to change how we tell children their first story, or stories, about birth. Not only the stories we tell children directly, but also to become aware of the birth stories we are telling adults within earshot of young children.

When an adult hears a birth story, they make mental pictures of it, or make sense of it, based on complex layers of life experience and adult understanding. If a hundred randomly chosen adults were to hear the same birth story (at the same time) and they were polled, I expect we would find shared agreement about what was said. Even so, based on each listener's past experiences and beliefs, there would be differences among listeners about how they felt about the story, about the mental images the story evoked, and their conclusions. 

What happens when a child hears a birth story? Try this:

1. Go back in time. Go back to a time, as a small child, when you were innocent, trusting, and had absolutely no idea or understanding about where babies came from, about doctors, hospitals, medical interventions or birth politics. Your little world was what was day-to-day; what was, was, always was, and always would be. Now picture yourself as a little girl or a little boy who knows nothing about  where babies come from. 

2. Think of the last birth story you heard or told, it could be "positive" or traumatic. 

3. As you replay the story in your mind, try to imagine hearing this story as that small child with no template for birth stories. Try to feel the feelings your "Little Child" might have, or the mental pictures you might make, and the meaning you might give the story--as that small child with little understanding.

4. Contemplate what you saw, felt or believed from a place of innocence. What assumptions or promises might you have made as a child hearing that story?

I welcome you to share your experience with this little exercise. We'll spend a few days on Change #1.




  1. Hi Pam.
    I love this idea of changing the birth from the roots, from the next generation! My first experience with birth was not from a story but I remember my mom going into labour with my sister, I was 7 years old. She was on her bed in our house, and she seemed very uncomfortable, I remember bringing her pillows and water, and my step father rushing around, getting ready to go to the hospital. My grandparents came, picked me up, and took me to their house. I recall being quite concerned about my mom. Day after next I was taken to the hospital, in my best dress to meet my baby sister and see my mom. I don't remember any discussion about the process of her being born or how it had all come about (what a great opportunity that would have been to have made a positive impression on a young person, if it was even a positive experience, I still don't really know).
    My next experience with impressionable birth stories comes when I was expecting my first, and in my early 20's. I was working in a children's retail store and a supplier came in, she had just had a baby and proceeded to tell my boss about how she had "32 hours of grueling labour the ended in a caesarean section." She broke down and cried right there in the store! Here was this woman, who had been committed to a natural birth, absolutely traumatized!
    It was shortly after that I became a doula, and am now working on my childbirth educator certification. My older son was with us when I gave birth to my youngest in a cottage in the woods, with the loving guidance of a midwife. I hope I have used the opportunity wisely, and made a positive impression on him. I am a birth junkie, and a HUGE fan of yours.
    I don't know if either of these stories is what you are looking for, but they are what I have to offer! Thank you, Pam for making a difference in the birthing community!
    Much Love, Mel Cotterill.

  2. What a great exercise...I dont really have many memories of birth stories from my girl hood days. I was born in 1962...and in my family it just wasnt discussed.
    Reading your post I reflected on a meeting I had just yesterday with a soon to be mama and her interest in working with me as her doula. She is coming to birth with a lot of fears and they seem primarily associated with the tramatic death of a child, her friends, a couple of years ago during birth. It is not clear to me how many other stories she may have heard prior to her own pregnancy but I get the feeling that it was not so many. We did get around to other, more positive, birth stories which she had also heard recently. Although she can talk about birth positiviely, the tramatic birth seems to be the outstanding birth. so it seems, that as in childhood, birth stories told at any age can have a dramatic effect on the images and agreements we create-especially if they were vague as a child. I hope that we can all find ways to normalize birth in an open, loving and real way in our families and communities. Thanks Pam.
    ~Shari in Vermont.

  3. the birth story (or lack thereof) that haunts me to this day is my mom's "story" about my birth, told in little bits and pieces over the years, filled with her fear, confusion and embarrassment of not knowing what happened. she believes she had "twilight sleep" as she doesn't remember any of her labor or the birth itself, but she doesn't remember asking for pain meds. she doesn't know if i was a forceps baby, but the newborn pictures tell all. my mom has always been defensive over any questions or curiosity about my birth. since i am a midwife, i probably have more curiosity than many daughters would, but my mom's lack of knowledge of her experience disturbs her (and me), so it is not a happy story. what i remember as a child about my birth story that it was shameful, something not to be spoken of, something bad. breaks my heart for that little girl, and for that mother. love the idea of telling a birth story for a child that makes that child feel like the special being he/she is.
    -Rhonda in new mexico

  4. Thank you for the reminder to be more careful about how I relate the story of my 2 year old son's birth in his presence. I've been lazy about it I think and that would be sad for him. I labored for 4 days and had a cesarean and I know that I usually don't hesitate to say it was physically really awful and the recovery was worse still. When speaking to him directly we cut to the chase and talk about how beautiful it was to meet him and how happy we were to see him and all the warm fuzzy details that we want him to know. I hope that's the part that stays with him and not the parts that I hope to never repeat!

  5. Thanks for these posts, Pam; they give me lots to think about.

    I haven't shared their entire birth stories with my children (ages 5 and 7) from beginning to end; but on their birthdays I do sit them down and tell what I feel was the strongest moments of their births. My son loves to hear how my waters released at a dinner out while admiring at a friend's one-month-old beautiful baby girl, and how I knew then that I would be meeting my own beautiful son soon; my daughter loves to hear how I made "ooooooooooh" noises that helped her be born, and how her daddy made the "oooooooh" noises right along with me, with his forehead on my forehead. I have much more to each story - some of which I've had to take time to integrate into myself, but those are the moments that I share with them for now. Of course I can never know really how they are dreaming my stories, and I have to keep that in my mind as well and respect their process as they move to greater understanding. One day at a time...I'm hoping to keep my cup as empty as I can as they grow, and I'm hoping that I will know when it is time to share the parts that took time for me to integrate when the moment comes.

  6. I concur with you. when I was a child I heard thousand times my birth story, but not told to me but to others, and was literally a scary story, my mom says she was dying, three days in labor until a good doctor, checked her and realized that she needed a C-section since her pelvis was malformed, and how she and me suffered. I remember that I felt guilty to cause my mom so much pain, and one day that she could get her hospital file with all the history of the birth. I secretly destroyed it. didn't want to remember my birth! I was only 6 years old or less.
    Now that I'm a mom I'm careful with words I use when talk about my children's stories. I know, the words we use cause a huge impact in their lives. and you don't want to hear that your arrival to this world was a violent or scary event, specially at this age.

  7. My Doula shared with me a tradition she used with her daughters to tell them their birth stories on their birthdays and I thought it was a great idea. So I wanted to start it in my family as well. Well my oldest son's birth was ideal and I love telling him the story. My 2nd born, a beautiful daughter, had a much different story filled with terror and pain, and an emergency c-section with no medication which lead to PTSD and post partum depression in which I couldn't care for her properly for several months. It's hard to admit that I didn't love or like my beautiful daughter until she was about 4 months old. Not that I didn't WANT to love her, I just couldn't at that point. So it's hard for me to tell her, her birth story. I don't know exactly what to share with her. I NEVER want her to feel unwanted or unloved in anyway shape or form because that bond has grown and she's now the apple of my eye. I just am lost as to what to tell her.

    Any Suggestions???

  8. I recently attended a BFW workshop here in Ottawa. The idea of changing the way a child hears there birth story resonated with me so much. I immediately rushed home and re-told both of my sons the stories of their birth as their bed time story. I omitted the parts that might mold their very creative minds into something gross or horrible. I spoke about the weather and how much the mommy and the daddy loved each other and wanted to have babies. The love to hear the parts where we chose their names. It is becoming a ritual bed time story to hear the stories of theirs and their little sisters birth (they know about the little sister as they were there). I love this and wish more people would be aware of and enlighten children on the wonderful bits of birth.

    Thank you,

  9. I honestly don't think there's any way for my mother to make our birth stories "beautiful." I mean, there's nothing beautiful about almost dying. She can sugar-coat it and try to paint it as "miraculous" and beautiful in its way (and she does), but every one of us knows: our mother almost died, when I was born and again when my twin brothers were born. There's also no way in hell to sugarcoat my brothers' birth for me, since I was there. I just wish someone had been honest with her and told her that her pelvis was far too small.

    The "beauty," if there is any in being torn apart, came afterwards, once we were here (and, in my case, once I was finally breathing).