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Birth As Initiation

Imagine yourself in a large, dark room lit by the flame of a single lamp at the center of a table in front of you. The air is thick and warm with the humidity of the 50 people who have remained seated behind you for two hours. You’re tired, yet you’re still excited. As you look down, you can see you’re barefoot but dressed in a thin white cotton gown, and as you look back up a small group of people have been standing in front of you. They are arranged in a half-circle behind this altar, and you recognize them as seven of the most important people in your life, all reading your expression as shadows from the lamp’s flickering wick dance along their faces. Their words, which you’ve just faithfully repeated, still echo in the chamber around you. The lights come up, and they are smiling. Cheers build like a wave behind you. Unrestrainable tears well in your eyes as, one by one, they hug you and welcome you into their bond.

Graduation. Quinceañera. Confirmation. Bat Mitzvah. Getting your driver’s license. Sorority initiation. Voting for the first time. All of us have undergone at least one rite of passage, a stepping stone from one state into a new way of being. In every moment prior to that ritual, you stood outside the circle looking in. But now you’d gone through your proof. You’d been admitted. You have the privilege of being tested and emerging through the other side as an initiate of that experience.

For most of my professional career as a chiropractor who primarily works with pregnant women and young children, I’d seen birth as an outcome-driven event. Chiropractic is a healing science and art concerned with the clear communication of the nerve system. Most research shows that people seeking a natural way to relieve symptoms like back pain or headaches find what they’re looking for in chiropractic. Because of the vitalistic philosophy our profession is founded on—that each person holds within them an inborn capacity to heal, and that the body is innately intelligent—you’ll also find chiropractors like me aligned with the natural birth movement. Truthfully, you could say I was the next level of advocacy, an “anti-interventionist.” I’d read the research, honed my technique, and watched in awe as women transitioned from pregnancy to birth. I saw my job as balancing the pelvis and clearing the system that drives labor so my mothers could have a safer, more comfortable natural delivery. But I was missing something.

In my office I kept track of the births to better understand the work I was doing. While the number of my patients who delivered by cesarean section was half the Lee county average, it was still higher than what I thought it ought to be. I found common factors involved in those births, such as the mom’s weight early in her pregnancy, or that for various reasons the baby wouldn’t turn head-down. Occasionally her race or age seemed to matter. Some of the babies were head-down, but still too high to engage mom’s cervix once their estimated arrival date passed. Those mothers rode the intervention train of Pitocin to Cervidil to an epidural to the C-section. I was struck by those births the most, because deep inside I wondered if there was something else I could have done. Those births made me sad, as if I had failed those mothers.

I empathized with my patients who have confided dissatisfaction with their birth process. Our society doesn’t teach young women anything about normal birth, and doesn’t teach providers how to handle it if things don’t go as planned. The media certainly seems to imply that the more impoverished or uneducated a woman appears, the more likely she is to have a trail of hungry mouths following her cart at Walmart. That archetype makes birth look easy. Our environment certainly teaches us the medicalized version of birth in doctor-centric television dramas. It makes it look like this process simply happens, with quick editing cuts between the laboring mom wailing in transition as she’s wheeled on a gurney through the ER doors, to the group of gloved hands holding a grape-jelly and Vaseline-smeared 3-month-old, body glistening in the lights of the operating suite. More and more women have never seen a litter of puppies born, let alone a sibling. So these docu-dramas are the only image of birth in their heads before their own child greets the world. Intuitively they know they don’t want this, but they have no idea what they can do about it.

I began a conversation about my feelings with Chris, a doula friend of mine. I’d created space in our clinic schedule for her to teach a birthing class because I truly felt that a doula was the difference between our mutual clients having the birth they had and the next level of intervention. I’d seen doulas almost as my voice inside that birthing room, politely turning away the nurse with the drugs because we hadn’t reached that stage in my patient’s birth plan yet. For me it was pretty clear: My job was to get the mother’s body physiologically prepared for birth, and a doula’s job was to handle the mental and emotional aspect before and during the delivery. If these two were aligned, intervention would be prevented. But this, Chris pointed out, was where my paradigm was completely wrong.

Plainly speaking, there is no right or wrong to you. You were born, just like the other trillions of humans who have been born before you. Likewise, your child will be born. This is a fact. You will go through the process of pregnancy, and at the end of it become a mother to this child. The universe has a way of unfolding regardless of human plans, and part of the allure for those of us who work with this elemental stage of the human experience is the wonder and mystery that still exist in the transition from womb to the outer world. Every birth is an initiation for both the mother and the child; there is a transmutation from one state to another that can never be undone.

If you are to be the initiate in the white cotton gown, this is a critical point: You must prepare physically, mentally and emotionally in order to be fully present in the process. Can you get yourself into that room without preparation? Of course you can. But I’ll argue your experience of the rite is going to be vastly different. To paraphrase from the film Her, the truth of where a satisfying birth experience lies is somewhere in between the words on the page. Chris taught me there’s a difference between expecting or visualizing a desired outcome, like I was doing, and this centered state of being. What I’ve also come to realize is there’s a subtle distinction between “going with the flow,” allowing whatever outcome to unfold during birth, and this level of conscious preparation and presence. Most pregnant mothers operate from either a place of conscious thought or subconscious emotion. We encourage you to go to a state of mindfulness, a connection with the broader consciousness that you get to through rehearsal and by acting on clear, unmuddled messages from your intuition.

The godmother of midwifery, Ina May Gaskin, says, “Your body is not a lemon,” meaning your body is intelligent, and knows what to do during birth. I tell patients their bodies will always do the right thing if given the opportunity. The small print to these statements is that in order for the body to do the work that comes naturally, it needs to be receiving clear messages. The physical separation between the mind and body was an ill-conceived notion that dates back to Descartes, yet still persists in the practice of medicine. The truth is, there is no separation between your thoughts and your physiology. Science shows us that every time we have an emotion, our brains release chemical messengers that implant themselves somewhere in our bodies and change the tissues around them. Likewise, the more restricted the body, the less clear the thoughts. That’s why the adage “Fear is the enemy of labor” is so true. To clear your fear and worries, you need to know—and I mean really be present within—all delivery outcomes before you begin laboring. While it’s beyond the scope of this article, Birthing from Within is a fantastic resource for rehearsing and roleplaying. Doing it literally impacts your cells’ and hormones’ ability to function the way they should.

For the next step, to clear the communication pathways between the physical structures of your brain and body, you need to seek the help of someone who is trained to assess that balance. Years of studying, the late-night partying of your wilder days, that time you fell off your bicycle as a child, and even the grief of losing your first cat have created webs of static in your nerve system and separated you from expressing the full potential of that innate intelligence inside. It’s your job as an expecting mother to transition from the busy-ness of life into the centered place in preparation for this birth ritual. One of the things I do is get an expecting mom’s pelvis balanced and ready for delivery day so she and her baby can have a safer, more comfortable birth. But it’s also my job as a chiropractor to unlock the wisdom that’s lain dormant within her—to integrate not only her neurology, but allow for the smooth dissolution of her sense of separate individuality into the expanse of divine consciousness in preparation for her initiation into new motherhood.

A chiropractic adjustment really can be that big. This is the preparation work every expecting mother should engage in at least three months prior to her baby’s arrival. The birth is going to happen; how you choose to prepare for it is entirely up to you.