I’ve come to believe there’s a specific mourning process when women have a birth different than they envisioned/wished for. Similar to the Kübler-Ross stages of mourning (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression & Acceptance), the Birth Mourning stages are:
- Sadness for Naiveté
- Anger & Blame
- Sadness for Experience
- Assimilation & Preparation
As with Kübler-Ross’ stages, some steps are extremely abbreviated and others exaggerated in length. Women may skip one step, jumping directly to another; fall backwards to an earlier one and then leap-frog to two ahead. (The steps are generalizations. As with everything, everyone is individual. ) It also isn’t uncommon for women to embrace more than one stage at the same time. Sadness tends to hang as a pall over most stages.
Adoration – In this stage, women are grateful for their care providers. They embrace the experience; bathe in the wonder of having a new baby, thanking their provider over and over for the “gift” of their baby/birth experience. This stage can last an hour or a year (or longer). I was in this place for 18 months after my son's birth. It took until I met a group of Bradley women for me to see there was another way of birthing.
Disbelief – Women seem to shake themselves awake to get here. They remove the veil of beauty that covered their eyes and hearts that kept them from falling apart while they bonded with their babies. Small, gradual realizations creep slowly through her skin. She blinks in the sun, wondering how she could have missed this information before. Sadness is a whisper.
Sadness for “Naiveté” – “How could I have not known this?” is a common refrain. Women want to know how they missed vital pieces of information when the entire World Wide Web sits holding it right there in front of their faces. Women cry and cry in this place... feeling so ignorant, so blind, so stupid for not knowing what (it seems like) everyone else knew, but didn’t say. Of course, how could anyone know everything? This statement is wasted when a woman is in this place; she needs to feel the full impact of the sadness.
Anger & Blame – This is often the longest and most oft visited stage. Almost anyone that had anything to do with the birth is now suspect. “Why didn’t you tell me!?” “How could you let them hurt me?” “I can’t believe she used her power to abuse me this way.” I see doulas, midwives, doctors and nurses collectively demonized, sometimes right alongside family members who didn’t protect the woman as she felt she should be. Women are usually extremely angry with themselves, as well. This stage ends marriages and creates unassisted births.
Sadness for Experience – Once she’s filled in the information gaps, this woman in mourning falls again into sadness, this time for what she didn’t have with her child. She finds a deep sadness in remembering the pain of the body, the separation from her baby and/or family, the death of the dreams she’d had during the pregnancy and the evaporation of all she worked so hard for. I find this as one of the later stages because she needs to walk through her naiveté first and pummel her fists through the stories before finding her head bowed, noticing the dripping tears.
Re-framing – Not all women come to this place or the places after this. I find that many, many women stay in the Anger & Blame stage, but have nuances of sadness with it. To get to Re-framing, I feel there has to be a battle plan for never letting “it” happen again. “It” being: being taken advantage of, being abused, being hurt in that way, trusting [fill in the blank with the care provider, her mother, the doctor, etc.] with her care and the desire to surround oneself with truly trustworthy folks. When women can take all of the information they’ve learned and super-impose it over the birth experience, they have begun to re-frame. To be able to see the situation from different angles, from different points of view, even from her different life-times, all of these help women to adjust her thoughts about how and why her birth happened the way it did. I see re-framing as an enormous leap towards healing. It isn’t discounting the experience. Re-framing doesn’t minimize, erase or invalidate the pain and trauma a woman might have experienced. Instead, it softens the colors, blunts the swords and begins to put things in the greater context of one’s life. Women who accept they cannot live a life of anger slip into re-framing effortlessly. Women, who find attention and solace in remaining in anger, struggle to move to re-framing.
Acceptance – After re-framing, women are able to say to themselves, “I did all I could with what I knew at the time. I wish I’d known more, but I didn’t and, for whatever reason, I wasn’t supposed to. Now, I will take the information and use it in my life to never allow that same experience to happen again.” Women in acceptance are fantastic support and information for women in earlier stages. Angry women spit information; Accepting women offer it on a rose petal plate. Women in this stage are not resigned. They have found true self-empowerment by bathing in the waters of their birth experience. They offer what they know selflessly, in loving words and through methods that aren’t accusing or angry.
Assimilation & Preparation – Pulling the birth into her heart, she embraces it for all the lessons, the beauty that it was and the miracle that she still stands. She finds immense pride in her strength and feels crone-like, having seen “death,” but still pressing forward into the unknown of the future. She takes her place next to other women who’ve had similar experiences, but not in anger... in the realization that life has some really dirty tricks up its sleeve sometimes and all we can do is stand toe to toe with them – and believe we will never repeat them again.
Preparation occurs for women about to have another baby or for women who become “doulas” for others who are having their children. Birth abused women tend to become experts in childbirth information, encyclopedic in their knowledge of options and choices women might choose. Women who’ve healed well tend to hold the information gently without dumping it over someone else’s head. They offer it to someone walking by, but shrug if they keep walking and don’t take it. These women acknowledge that sometimes women have to become part of the fire before they can learn to walk around it. As much as she’d like to help her avoid the mistakes she sees heading towards her friend/sister/acquaintance, she remains close, letting them know the information is right here for her; all she has to do is reach out and take it. This prepared woman creates a birth that embraces unpredictability and the unknowns. She nods to the forces she can’t control, yet she choreographs flowing, lovely ballets for her partner, care provider, family and friends to use as guides – and insists they stick to the program as long as she or the baby don’t falter on stage. She merely asks for applause and love as she crawls, walks, runs, FLIES towards the birth awaiting her just over there in that dark corner. She gives everyone flashlights so they can help her illuminate the stage, but she also knows slivers of night hover over there, where no one can shine their lights. She doesn’t hesitate to walk on that side of the stage. She holds her head up high and floats determinedly towards her goal.
I’ve rarely seen a woman who’s gone through these stages falter in her next birth. Women who get stuck in any of the first stages have a much more difficult time creating the next birth, insisting instead on creating “the perfect birth,” or “an ideal birth.” What is sad about that is there is never such a thing. Even the most exquisite birth stories I have heard have had elements the women wished they could change, even if it’s something as small as what music was playing during the labor. If there are women who’ve had perfect births, I applaud them! How glorious for you. But, for most of us, perfection is forever elusive and not something we should spend inordinate amounts of time pursuing. We have so many other things to do, write, say and experience. We know that it is in the imperfections of our lives that we come to find our own perfect beauty.
I reach forward for mine.