by Sandra Vander Schaaf
We’ve come to think of myths solely as pernicious lies that misinform, mislead, and cause mayhem. These myths are the fools and bad guys that need to be disarmed before they do any more damage. They can be put in their place with a careful and studied application of facts and figures, made powerless by the force of reason and scientific method. Or so we would like to believe.
I’d like to propose a humbler approach to myths—a way to understand what makes a myth, what roles myths play in our lives, and how to find a way through the maze of myths that surround childbirth.
The Making of Myths
Once upon a time, myths were the stories that helped us survive. In the face of great perils, we told each other stories—how to summon fire, where to find food, how to heal a wound, how to coax the supernatural powers of the sun, rain, and seas. We also told stories to preserve social order and enforce conformity in the community because it became clear that we were more likely to survive as a group than on our own. The stories that proved themselves particularly useful were repeated from generation to generation, taking on the power of myths.
In other words, our very evolution depended (and still depends) in large part on our story-telling abilities. In Wired for Story, writer Lisa Cron describes it this way: “We think in story. It’s hardwired in our brain. It’s how we make strategic sense of the otherwise overwhelming world around us… Story is the language of experience, whether it’s ours, someone else’s, or that of fictional characters… Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them.” (page 8)
So, not only are we biologically wired to pay attention to stories as tools for survival but a compelling story can get so thoroughly under our skin that we can respond to the experience of the story-teller as if it were our own lived experience. The higher the stakes, the more powerful the story’s effect.
Is it any wonder that some myths persist no matter how many facts and figures we throw at them? Our post-Enlightenment love affair with scientific method and reason is less than four hundred years old. Myths have guided us for millennia. In the grand scheme of things, logical arguments and statistics are tadpoles picking fights with gorillas.
Myths and Childbirth
Let’s set this perspective on myths in the context of childbirth, a realm where fears of the unknown run particularly high, where the desire to survive and thrive undergirds every decision, for you and your offspring. The fears have changed over the course of time—we’ve gotten over our fear of sabertooth tigers hiding in the bushes to make room for a fear of congenital diseases hiding in our DNA—but the stakes are still high and stories still guide us.
Long before you even announced your pregnancy you’ve been hearing stories—vividly-detailed, personal stories. Stories of how women in your family “always” have big babies, how your best friend’s labour lasted sixty hours, stories of emergency caesareans, episiotomies, engorgement and cracked nipples. And those are just the friends-and-family stories, the close-to-home stories. Mixed in with these are stories that fly fast and furious around the community campfire we call the internet—stories that stack up high on the dark side of important matters like home water births, infant sleep safety, formula feeding, vaccines.
What’s an expectant parent to do? You pour over textbooks, review the statistics, seek out evidence-based research, take the most reputable of childbirth education classes. You do everything you can to lay these stories to rest in comfortable categories of “true” and “false”. And still, in spite of the facts, figures and positive thinking, niggling fears wake you in the night. You know better but that sick, worried feeling in your gut just won’t go away. Why? Because your prehistoric brain has taken in that story—that family prophecy, that cautionary tale, that internet horror story—and made it yours.
Myth Management 101
Where’s the good news in all this? Understanding what’s going on under the surface when you are feeling bewildered and overwhelmed can be the start of an empowered path through the maze of myths and into your own story. Here are some tips that I hope will get you there:
- Be patient with your prehistoric brain. Recognize that the unsettling gut reaction that sometimes competes with your thoughtfully-researched position on an issue is normal. Don’t beat yourself up about it—not every solid decision will feel good. While you’re at it, be patient with the prehistoric brains of others. When tempers flare on opposite sides of a contentious issue, remember that prehistoric brains crave social order and conformity. This may not make the tension easier to bear, but it might make it easier to understand.
- When a story inspires fear, take a closer look. The best material I’ve read on how to deal with gut-level fears in childbirth is what Pam England and Rob Horowitz put together in Birthing From Within. In Chapter 20 they write, “The autonomic nervous system is not able to discriminate between real or imagined ‘tigers’. It simply responds to imagery. That’s why it’s important to bring your images, beliefs and fears to conscious awareness, where you can tame, eliminate, or even harness them.” Facing your fears is hard work that will be solidly rewarded. Don’t be shy about getting help with this. Talk it out with your partner, doula, midwife, doctor, or therapist.
- Seek out hopeful and inspirational birth stories. Give your prehistoric brain something beautiful to take in. For every labour horror story, there are hundreds of untold stories of the power and beauty of birth. Many women never share their positive childbirth experiences because they feel their stories are unwelcome and lack the appeal of the more dramatic, traumatic stories. Ask the quiet ones in your social circle how birth was for them. Get the details. Let the good stuff soak in, deep.
- Remember that you get to write your own story. A millennia of birth stories and innumerable statistics may have some bearing on how your pregnancy and birth will unfold, but not every detail of your story is written. You are unique. Your baby is unique. Your birth experience will be unique. Take what you can from the experience of others but never confuse their experience with your own.
- Befriend the unknown. Know this: Good stuff will happen in your life. Bad stuff will happen in your life. You can neither predict nor prepare for all of it. The more lightly you hold your expectations for the future, the more likely your hands will be free to accept the good and do the hard work of dealing with the bad. Humility in the face of the unknown will keep you open to solutions you may never have considered in the face of outcomes you could never have imagined