Doula Diaries Part III: Thoughts on pain-coping
Welcome to my doula life! My main characters are Mike, my superhero of a husband and father to our three children; Jace, my 11 year old guitar-playing, x-box loving, sharp-witted son; Kaia, my 8 year old sunshine daughter; and Ty, my 20-month old whirlwind of a toddler. And then there's me! I've been doulaing since 2011 and have attended around 60 births to date. This is my full-time gig! With three children and a doula business, private and group childbirth education classes, evening sports and afterschool homework, staying at home as a full-time mom and also creating space for my own health and fitness, there is, as they say, never a dull moment.
Look at that photo. That was our Christmas photo from 2015, and Ty was just 16 months old. Look at who rules the roost! I love everything about this photo, and especially how little my kids look compared to today. Time marches on and it's proof that they are growing up! What a delight!
So what's been happening this week in the doula life? Writing and inspiring, for starters. If you missed it earlier, check out this week's post, 10 Simple Tips for an Easier Labor.
It's been a challenging week. It's the kind of week that makes me thankful I'm a doula, having learned loads of pain coping techniques. I'm going to let you in on a little secret today. It's a secret that I learned only through my doula training with Birthing From Within, and specifically from Pam England, BFW's creator. The secret that I learned the very first day of my doula training, the one thing that altered the course of my life and subsequently the way I go about my doula work. It's a gem that was unearthed only because I let myself open up to the feeling of vulnerability, even with strangers. Ready for it?
If you truly want to learn to cope with pain in birth you must begin within, and learn to cope with pain in life.
Mothers, if you want to cope with the pain of labor, you need to explore your mind to see and hear what it feels like to cope with uncomfortable situations in your everyday life. Doulas, if you want to help someone through a physically painful situation, you should probably practice what it feels like to mentally cope through a physically or mentally painful situation yourself (and I mean daily, not just a once or twice type of thing). If you want to be able to cope with life's curveballs, you need to begin, in this moment, to practice coping with life's curveballs. Look within yourself, right now. Explore. Practice. Here's how.
I learned this amazing bit of pain-coping magic called Non-Focused Awareness through my doula and birth mentor training. As soon as I learned it, I couldn't NOT practice it. It became second nature. It became my lifeline. It's a way to practice mindfulness by taking the totality of a situation without getting lost in judgment of any one particular aspect of a situation. In birth, it's allowing your consciousness and subconscious to take in all of what you are seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and always coming back to your breath. As with any important skill, it's one that requires first an openness to learning it, and then a lot of practice. My subconscious latched right onto this concept and took over in sweeping motions. Soon, in any uncomfortable or uncertain situation, I could easily and nearly involuntarily work through this mindfulness practice and bring peace, calm and clarity to my mind. And you can, too.
In order to teach Non-Focused Awareness to my birthing couples, I had to embrace it and learn it and practice it myself. This has been a life changing experience! It is now second nature to "talk a mother through a contraction" because I've talked myself through countless uncomfortable situations, even daily. The first time I was conscious of what I was practicing came before Jace was diagnosed with sleep apnea, back when he was in preschool. He would wake with terrible night terrors which were basically screaming fits that sometimes involved violent bouts of throwing things, or sleepwalking, or crying, and he never remembered them in the morning. We learned that the best thing for us to do as parents was to be physically nearby, don't talk as this often escalated the episode, and to gently guide him back to his bed. It was often sheer torture of the mind to sit next to my anguished child but not be able to do anything to calm or comfort him. Once I learned this Non-Focused Awareness skill , I immediately set to mind-work, noticing what I was hearing (screams, ack), what I was seeing (the blue carpet, books on the shelf, ooh that one is brown, ooh there are other colors everywhere), what I was touching (that carpet is soft on my fingers, let me rub that for a minute) and what was touching me (there is a pillow behind my back, it's cool, squishy), back to my breath (I'm breathing in and out, I am focused on my next outward breath)...Put this on repeat for 20 minutes. It takes dedication of the mind to stay focused and not get lost in the mindless chatter or brains love to create about any given situation ("Ohnooooo! He is still screaming! This is awful! I'm a terrible mom for not hugging him right now! What is wrong with him? What is wrong with me? I need to call the specialist in the morning! I am so tired!" and on and on and on...)
The cool thing is I was able to use this during Ty's birth, too. Instead of "Oh.my.gosh. this hurts so bad! My husband isn't saying the right thing! My midwife isn't here yet!" it was more "Ok Chris, here we go...I'm breathing in and out...noticing what I'm hearing, my husband's soothing voice, the water moving gently...notice what I'm seeing, big spirals in my mind, easily twiriling out and open...notice what I'm smelling...is that lavender? Back to my breath, breathing in and out..." for the duration of a contraction so that my mind wasn't focused on the intensity of the pain. Don't get me wrong; I still FELT the contractions. It's just that I didn't SUFFER through them in my mind. Big difference.
In life, we may still FEEL stressful situations but we don't have to SUFFER through them because of the thoughts we allow our mind to create. Getting it?
So when this week included a fender bender with my baby in my car, a broken finger from basketball practice (Jace), a chest cold (Ty), and tonight's delight, LICE (it happens, darn it elementary school), as well as dealing with ongoing identity theft, numerous cancelled appointments only to be followed by the one thing that no amount of preparation can truly prepare you for, the passing of a dear family friend....well, I found myself relying -OFTEN- on my lifeline, my Non-Focused Awareness, my calming of the mind in order to cope with physically and mentally painful situations.
You can learn this skill in a Birthing From Within class or if you work with me as your doula. Do you already know this skill? Leave a comment if you would, and tell me what works for you and what doesn't. When I recently taught this to an awesome couple in my home for a private class, the birthing mother shared that she had learned this throughout her childhood and it was second nature to her. What a gift she was given, to soothe her own mind and thoughts! Just as in labor, we cannot take the pain away but moreover we can take charge of how we judge and assign the sensation in our own mind.
Feel free to share around with the pregnant mothers you know, and if this was helpful to you, leave a comment and let me know.
Dedicated to Dr. George Kovacevik...gone too soon...loved by everyone who met you. I'll always remember your kindness, your intellect, your humble nature, and the births we attended together. I choose not to suffer...I'll remember your beautiful light.