Birthtellers: Healing Birth through Conscious Storytelling
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 99, Autumn 2011.
Subscribe to Midwifery Today Magazine
Storytellers are the weavers of the imagination, bringing light to the collective consciousness, and giving rise to new thoughts and ideas for creative cultural shifts. Throughout time, people have gathered to hear the tales of storytellers, bards and sages, circling together to be fascinated, entertained and educated by stories of how life was and how it could be. The inspiration of courageous heroes, the lessons of foolish souls and the prophecies of times ahead shape the human psyche and cultural cosmology. Therapeutic storytelling is a skill that can amplify the effectiveness of conscious birth advocates in co-creating the new birth paradigm.
The most powerful stories of all may be birth stories. Stories—creation myths, the birth of the divine child, the stories women tell to each other privately—shape cultures, beliefs, choices and lives. Women used to learn about birth and mothering through the stories of their mothers, sisters, grandmothers, midwives and friends. Today, that knowledge is transmitted primarily through television, movies, peers and the Internet. Now is the time for the Birthtellers to arise and once again share our inspirational birth stories—both within our communities and globally through new media technology.
Birthtellers can guide women to find courage and inspiration through positive birth stories and educate people about empowered birth. Mothers can heal their own birth trauma through sharing their stories to compassionate listeners, whether in a birth story circle or privately with a mentor or counselor. The power of a good birth story, regardless of how it is transmitted, is profound. Within our voices and stories is the power to change the culture of birth and bring healing.
My mother was a professional storyteller, teacher of therapeutic speech at a healing arts school and the owner of a children’s bookstore. I learned from her to adore a good story and how to tell one (or a few!). As a child, I watched my mother craft stories with rhythm, rhyme and movement. I witnessed how my mother would get together with her women friends to share stories in privacy, to process and heal. Thanks to her, I’ve been fascinated with the healing and transformative power of stories since childhood, and it has shaped my work in the healing and birthing arts. In the final times we spent together before she passed, my mother’s favorite stories to tell were those of the births of her children. I find it indicative of the importance of birth stories, for these to be the stories she shared before transitioning on.
Stories and Rituals
In my work as a Conscious Birth Emissary, I find that carefully crafted stories are an effective way to both educate and entertain clients, students and the public with whom I interact. People learn better and retain information more fully when it is presented in a personally engaging manner. One of my favorite ways to share the principles of conscious birthing is to share inspirational birth stories and rituals.
I was a birth doula for a teen mom who was giving her baby up in an open adoption to a kind couple of her choice. The adoptive parents arranged for me to be the doula because the birth mother did not have anyone to support her during the labor and they did not want her to be alone. She was a friendly young woman who was positive about life, yet had limited resources and was unable to take on the responsibilities of a child. She was fearful of the pain of labor and birth. She scheduled an induction and was emphatic in her plan to have an epidural during labor.
On the drive to the hospital and upon checking in, she was nervous and afraid. After settling in and having a Pitocin drip started, she decided to try to nap until things started picking up. She lay down in the hospital bed while I curled up on the little couch in her room with the lights dimmed. After an hour, she called me over to her bed and shared that she was no longer afraid of labor—she was ready to birth this baby. She had prayed for that whole hour, in the dark, in her hospital bed, and her fear had been transmuted into acceptance and love. Contractions soon began and she went on to have a pain-free labor without anesthesia. Upon greeting her baby with joy, she declared that she looked forward to doing it again someday, when she was ready to have another child. Through the power of prayer, this young woman transformed her fears of labor, had a pain-free birth and set the foundation for empowered motherhood in the future.
I’ve always recommended that pregnant women having their second child or beyond request their medical or midwifery paperwork from previous births. While expecting my second child, I was surprised to discover that my son (born 11 years prior) was a whole pound larger than I had always thought! My confidence in my ability to have a successful second homebirth was enormously boosted after learning that I’d actually given birth to an almost-nine-pound baby with no tears. I also have a greater understanding of why I’d had such a long labor and pushing stage—my son was a big baby!
I was fortunate to travel to Bali, Indonesia, in 2009, and asked a talented Balinese healer and priest with whom I became acquainted about the practice of honoring the placenta in traditional Balinese culture. He shared that babies come into the world with four spirits who guide and protect them throughout their lives. For boys, this is the Four Brothers, for girls, the Four Sisters. They are represented by the placenta, umbilical cord, amniotic fluid and vernix. These four substances are collected after the birth, placed inside a coconut shell and planted outside the front door of the family home in a special ceremony, then honored regularly throughout the child’s life.
He explained that planting the Four Brothers at home keeps the spirit of the child grounded and happy, and keeps the child close to the family compound throughout their life. If the parents tossed the Four Brothers into the ocean, or other location, the spirit of the child would become restless and long for travel. Family life is of the greatest importance in Bali and is honored and nurtured from the very beginning through rituals such as this one. This story makes me wonder about the impact of all the placentas that are taken away from children in hospitals today, and of all the restless human souls living within Western culture. Cultivating family integrity includes honoring the placenta—recognized by many cultures as the source of ancestral wisdom.
Story circles are another way to share stories. The birth story circle can be a powerful support in building a conscious birth community and creating a safe, therapeutic space for women to share their experiences, to be heard and to heal. The facilitator sets the tone through breath, intention and ceremony to create a conscious container where people can share, laugh, cry, celebrate and support each other. Each person gets the opportunity to speak and share a story if she or he chooses.
I have led birth story circles with various groups over the years and it is always a profoundly transformative, bonding experience for all, including pregnant women, mothers and birth practitioners. It is optimal for the facilitator to begin the circle by clarifying the intention and format, to guide the flow of the circle sharing and to have an inspirational closing story and activity planned. This is a great event for midwives, doulas and birth advocates to share with their local communities.
The stories heard by pregnant women, expecting fathers and couples planning to conceive can have a dramatic impact on their emotions and beliefs about birth and should be consciously shared with love for the highest purpose of all listening, not to incite fear or unnecessary worries. We live in a unique time and have access to powerful and effective communication technology that connects us all. Together, we can midwife the new paradigm of empowered birthing. We are the Birthtellers—let us raise our voices and share from our hearts!
Six Principles for Storytelling Success
There are fundamental qualities of a good storyteller that enhance the experience of listening and sharing. A well-told story takes root in the heart, blossoms in the mind and nourishes the soul. An integral idea presented in an understandable way is a seed of wisdom that is always within the listener and will slowly grow, regardless of whether the listener agrees with the idea when it is introduced. By stepping into our power, speaking our truth, acting with grace and integrity and representing confidence and trust in our own unique choices, we can model the new paradigm of integrated birthing globally.
Passion: Care about what you share. The storyteller must be passionate about the topic for people to want to listen and be engaged.
Facts: Spread the truth. In order to be effective and share with integrity, the storyteller must have the facts straight.
Intonation: Your voice sets the tone. Intonation and tone of voice are important qualities for the entrancement of the audience.
Body Language: Be expressive. When sharing a story in person or through video, the expression of one’s body language and the use of visual imagery through props or graphics are important communication elements.
Audience: Know to whom you are talking. It is essential that the storyteller know who the audience is and tailor the story to its listeners.
Media: Be social networking savvy. The evolving art of storytelling includes understanding and utilizing new forms of media, including social media networks, Web sites, online videos, blogging and teleconferencing, to communicate stories more effectively and to reach a wider audience.