2. Pregnant: Dealing With Pain

(Part II in the “My Natural Birth” series – read Part I, Part III and Part IV)

When you’re pregnant, you’re extra sensitive to psychological pain. It is a good – and difficult – time to take care of the past (and present), to get ready for the future.

Wanting a natural birth: a self-contradition

Here is my self-contradiction number one. As I wrote earlier, I decided on a natural birth the moment I knew I was pregnant. Now, if you had asked me a day before I knew myself to be pregnant, I would probably have opted for an ob-gyn and expressed a willingness for at least a mild painkiller.

Finding out that I was pregnant was therefore a profound event. This I realized only in hindsight. The moment itself it was, on the surface, a thrill: checking the EPT again, and again, informing future dad and grandparents and godmothers, a glimpsing prospect of so many lovely and frightening things… But underneath it was obviously life-changing: it seems I went from a conventional childless woman to a veritable “earth-mother,” all in the matter of a day!

Physical pain has a purpose

Let’s make short thrift of the pain issue. Physical pain is what keeps most women from choosing natural childbirth, and this is one of those valid and very subjective reasons that are hard if not impossible to challenge. For me pain was not an issue. In any uncomfortable situation, put one of those “what kind of pain are you in” questionnaires in front of me and I will probably circle “discomforting”, most likely never making it above “distressing”, let alone “horrible” or, goodness: “excruciating!”. This held true, thankfully, even during childbirth (that’s another, very interesting story). So I was lucky: it was easy for me to happily accept the rational but psychologically horrendous truth that, in childbirth, usually, “pain has a purpose”.

Psychological pain has a purpose too: dealing with the past

But what about psychological pain? Psychological health and pain are so much murkier, trickier. And generally we are left to our own devises to self-diagnose and self-medicate this most difficult kind of ache.

Many women, when we find we are expecting, naturally become introspective. And many of us suddenly find ourselves confronted with psychological pain, often originating from our past, if not from present sources. We may have thought it was over and done with, or inconsequential, but now it is back with a vengeance. Often it elicits violent reactions from us and/or undermines us more subtly. We are taken by surprise, may be unable to deal with it, and usually feel misunderstood by our nearest and dearest.

But psychological pain too has a purpose. The fact that it surfaces during a life-changing event like pregnancy/early motherhood indicates that its source, whatever it is and however long ago it happened, is part of who we are. And just as it informs our personalities, it influences our decisions… decisions that we now have to make for our (future) children as well. The pain tells us: address the source; deal with the past to get ready for the future. It can be a unique opportunity for self-renewal.

My psychological pain: lack of confidence

This is what happened to me. My pain, and its source, informed not just my reasons for wanting a natural birth. They also caused the intensity with which I wanted it. And again I was lucky; I knew the source of my pain: lack of confidence.

I was never a very confident person. I was one of those kids who got bullied a lot. But at a certain age I came into my own, mainly by finding excellence in academics. I started to consider myself a rational, principled person, and began the never-ending work that such a self-image entails. I became someone who questions, thinks through, and can explicitly express her principles, and someone who tries, consciously, to act on them.

Principles and ridicule

But that didn’t make me more confident. On the contrary, I felt it made me more of an outsider, and constantly suspected that I was being ridiculed, precisely for the kind of life and “personality-style” that I had adopted. Some found that I “rationalized” too much. Some cynics suspected suspicious moral motives. Others assumed that I must be an automaton who has “no feelings”. Some resented my vocabulary and arguments and found me arrogant. These reactions always left me devastated and confused. I thought being principled and well-informed were something to be proud of, but even my closest family, when I argued in this way with them, found it conceited and embarrassing.

Was I really such a prissy, thin-skinned adolescent? Ha! Well, that’s neither here or there now – and who is to judge? I grew up some more and then moved far away from home (for unrelated circumstantial reasons). Here I chose a new set of friends, among them my future husband, and none of them ever expressed a concern or problem with my personality. But memories of being ridiculed in the past still undermined my confidence. They still haunt me when I returned to my home country, where (I feel) this judgment of me still exists, unchanged, as if I’m still the same person I was 10 years ago.

Get over it already!

Now I was going to have a daughter, who I wished will become a principled and confident woman. So obviously I had to get over it. To give the matter extra urgency, now that I was pregnant I was suddenly extra sensitive to ridicule of that kind, and it spilled over into other areas as well. There are some heart-wrenching entries in my journal about real and imagined words, dang-I-wish-I’d-said-that conversations, and nightmarish dream sequences, all mixed together. Our usual trip to the old county was a careful balancing act, and during a conversation with an aunt I burst out in tears, said some hurtful things, and ran away. And this was not my usual behavior.

Hormones, you say? I hope you say it with respect for the hormones. The brain knows, and it has pushed this issue, long banished to memory and the subconscious, to the surface for a reason.

The over-achiever’s birth

How did all this inform my intense desire for a natural birth? Read this passage, straight from my journal – it was the first time I wrote about the pending delivery, when I was 5 months into pregnancy:

I’m even looking forward to growing bigger and the delivery! (I prob. don’t know what I’m saying here!). I hope I’ll do well.

“I hope I’ll do well”: the characteristic overachiever motto. Mind the commendable aim of “doing well”, but the immediate injection of doubt in the “I hope”. It is a thread that runs through my entire pregnancy, labor and delivery, and the months that followed. It informed most of my early parenting decisions: midwives and a natural birth, organic living and vegetarianism, and after Amie was born, nursing even if it hurt like hell, and now the idea of home schooling… Wanting to do well.

Self-examination

How did I deal with this lack of confidence, my pain from the past?

I examined the external evidence, the remembered events, put them in perspective, for instance by trying to discern the mocker’s motives. Most scrupulously of all, I examined myself. I asked: Am I still being ridiculed? Answer: Not really, only when I speak with the “old people,” and they’re stuck in the past, and I am no longer the kind of person who finds that kind of behavior worthy of attention. So there!

Of course it wasn’t that simple. Here’s a passage from a letter to a friend:

I have so much baggage, big, huge feelings of love and resentment that I can’t ever get to, let alone release, work through & out. One day, I said, before I became pregnant, I’ll sit down and write it all out, craft my sentences so that they grasp, as with tiny sharp hooks, those feelings and pull them up to the surface, for all to see in the light of day: this is it, look at it, it’s ugly, it’s beautiful. It’s there in me, and now I can live with it. But time went by. I’m nearly 7 months now and nothing new has been revealed or relieved. And when I hold Amie for the first time, the second time, for as long as the wonder lasts, more will be added, layer upon layer. I doubt I will have time, or words, to write it down. I will be for later, later, later…

But something helped: my decision for a natural birth…

> Part III: “Giving Nature a Place in My Body”

> Part IV: “My Birth Story”

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