Introduction to Birthwork

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‘Birthwork’ is a guide intended for anyone who is working with, or caring for pregnant, birthing and new mothers. This includes professional and lay people alike and may also include support people, the father or co-parent, or the mother herself. Though I have not addressed mothers directly, I strongly believe that the mother’s self-awareness and self-care is paramount in ensuring an optimal maternal experience.

Childbearing is a normal life event. But it is also a deeply significant, intense, and often stressful experience. Without a doubt mothers do the hardest work of all in growing, birthing, and raising a child. But also for those in the extended field of birth care, it is work that brings both difficulties and joys, and often challenges behavioural habits.

To be effective and compassionate as a care-provider within such a significant field requires some understanding of relationship dynamics and personal transformation within the childbearing process. By its nature birthwork stimulates self-inquiry and increasing self-awareness.

This book confronts and explores some of the issues that exist between care-providers and their experience, care-providers and mothers, mothers and babies and their experience, and their whole experience within cultural context. Together in birth they face love and fear, and confront myriad aspects of the body, mind, emotion and spirit. And just as a mother can enrich her experience by surrendering to change and growing awareness, so too can birthworkers enrich their experience through working with her.

My first aim has been to offer the possibility of a birthing paradigm that is rich in support, self-knowledge, and satisfaction. Secondly, to address some of the many challenges faced by birthworkers. Thirdly, to cover some topics that are dear to my heart and that I know from experience are also dear to the heart of mothers. Especially in relationship to care-providers.

The joy inherent in mothering and caring for mothers makes our hearts open wide. We experience deep satisfaction and unparalleled confidence in our abilities to care. When it’s tough we easily contract into self-doubt, sadness and even anger. At these times we often hunger for the resilience to deal creatively and positively with unwanted and unexpected situations. And we often need encouragement and strategies to change our reactions and emerge renewed and wiser.

Our role in caring is to ensure a mother feels prepared, confident, supported and ready for the important task she has before her. Ideally, preparation for mothering begins well before pregnancy. But as families become smaller and natural birth becomes rapidly more elusive, pregnancy can mark the beginning of a harried, complex, and often confusing process toward birth and parenting.

Birthwork for the mother and those who care for her may therefore involve fast-tracking the exploration of awareness, accessing of information, and building skills and health over the months of pregnancy. Sometimes it needs to happen within moments. Then, we are suddenly opened and exposed to a macrocosm of physical, emotional and spiritual possibilities.

Though we may be conditioned and motivated to work well under pressure in order to complete tasks and achieve goals, the long-term reality for both mothers and birthworkers is that the assignment is never complete, it is more of a work in progress.

Amid the specialisation and separation that now exist in our lives, we strive to adapt to change, surrender to the flow, and integrate our experiences. We need to know how to do this alone and with others as is necessary. Within a somewhat fragmented, disjointed social reality, we need to create, capture, and encourage a sense of self-continuity and self-care. The human qualities needed for this cannot be measured, only experienced and inextricably woven into each precious story, strengthening the web of compassion and birth wisdom that will hopefully endure forever.

Information in this guide is intended to complement and enhance birth care, whatever the setting. The strategies and reminders are to offer support through many of the situations and challenges you may encounter in birthwork. The self-awareness exercises provide the opportunity to enrich and refresh your experience and perspective, at your own pace, within your own sense of comfort. Please adapt them accordingly for either a personal or group exercise, or for mothers where appropriate.

I have had the great privilege, and rare opportunity within a modern culture, of supporting and attending many women through their pregnancies, labours and lives postpartum. This work began in the community where I have lived for 25 years. I now travel widely in service to mothers seeking complementary or alternative care to that provided within existing models of health care.

Over the years I have been a friend, confidante, counsellor, therapist, bodyworker, birth educator, birth attendant, keeper of stories, – and a human being with vulnerabilities and strengths. Within the context of women’s homes, families and lives, I have been invited to care for them, witness their births, and share their journeys. I have become part of their stories – stories full of courage, triumph, disappointment and transformation. Over and over again I have been humbled by the power and beauty of birth, and also shared with the mother in feeling empowered, potent, and wise.

For most of these women it seemed that how they were cared for and communicated with was at least as important as what happened. Sometimes in the story, how things happened became intertwined with, and even influenced, what things happened, contributing to the whole outcome in either a positive or negative way. By whole outcome I mean the physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing of the mother, baby and even her care-providers. How each woman dealt with, remembered, and integrated her experience seemed to some extent depend on the style of contact and care she received. It also depended on how focused, prepared, informed and skilled she was through her birthing time.

I have learned over time that the qualities of respect, attention, sensitivity, positive communication, and presence are most effective in working with fear, and engendering satisfaction. As an independent care-provider without the sanction and structure of an umbrella institution, I have been compelled to cultivate these qualities. This has become my life’s work, and I still have a long way to go. I hope my endeavours will serve others well, and ultimately imbue every aspect of my life.

Inherently, we have the ability to use our positive human qualities skilfully. We often do so in our intimate relationships. However, there is always the possibility that lack of confidence, fear, or judgment of some kind, will prevent us from using them in our working relationships. My hope is that ‘Birthwork’ will help care-providers experience and practice these human values more often, thereby promoting positive interaction with mothers.

Though I refer to ‘the mother’ most of the time, it is intended to include the child with the understanding that the mother’s wellbeing and experience influences and reflects that of her baby. I also acknowledge that fathers, partners, and other family members are included in, and profoundly affected by, the birth journey. However, without a doubt, the mother and child are more directly affected and therefore are the main focus of attention.

I have sometimes separately addressed different aspects of emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual awareness. However, this presentation aspires to affirm the interconnectedness and dynamic interplay between all these levels of being. They can be worked with and understood separately, but are inextricably intertwined – as is the mother with the child, the mother and child with their family and care-providers, and all of these with the environment, and the past, present, and future.

Jenny Blyth