Elder midwives say that labour happens here: in the woman’s mind. The Taoists said that a woman being present in her birthing was worth seven years’ meditation.
I have teased out the threads within the INTERNAL INDIVIDUAL further to identify EMOTION, INTELLECT and SPIRITUALITY. At base, this is how we and the woman make sense of the world. Through an alchemy of internalised stories, our lived experiences (many as children without the capacity for a wider appreciation of context), and the beliefs we inherit from our cultural matrix, we have a concept of how life “works”. We have unconscious perceptions of what we may or may not “deserve” in terms of luck or happiness or success or punishment. We have unconscious perceptions of what we can expect from life, of what we should fear, of how free we are, of the fairness of things, of what we may “deserve”, both positively and negatively.
All of these perceptions are coloured for us by our socioeconomic, cultural and historic experiences. More than this, they are fluid and changeable with further experience and time. An Indigenous woman in Darwin has a very different lived experience from a white woman in Darwin, or a young first-time mother in Afghanistan, or multiparous Sudanese refugee woman newly arrived in the Netherlands. These different women’s perceptions may align in some areas and wildly differ in others. Many of these perceptions are TRUE to a woman’s lived experience. The women’s perceptions may or may not align with the perceptions of outsiders looking in, who interpret what they see and are able to understand through the filters of their own lived experience and subsequent meaning-making. But every woman makes sense of what she can, as best she can, with what resources she has available to her or is able to access, both internally (spirituality, insight, reflection, intellect) and externally (education, mentoring, guidance).
The spectrum of understandings of how life works and our place within it is virtually infinite, because it is not only deeply personal but also fluid and evolving from a base of survival up to radiant thriving.
We have a huge evolutionary drive to be connected to others. We survive best through cooperation. Humans have always banded together for strength and survival. All traditional taboos have to do with collective health, such as polluting water sources, or harvesting resources in a way that will be sustainable through time as future generations were considered to be an extension of community. Shame has been a powerful tool to ensure connection, as has love. We very usually even cooperate to have the best advantage for competition. Emotional intelligence is when we are centred in rightness within ourselves – completely free but aware of our responsibility to the wholeness. The paradox of being alive: we are completely free – all the rules are made up! – BUT, everything is interconnected, and we have a responsibility to the whole.
EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE , OR: THE HEART
Emotions are the woman’s felt response to her life. Emotions are felt in the physical body and are like sign posts from ourselves, to ourselves. These emotional signposts tell us whether we are feeling safe, understood, or connected. Our ability to feel anger, sadness, love, joy, fear and satisfaction help us to negotiate our lives and keep us safe, not only physically (fear and being cautious, taking calculated physical risks) but in our whole lives – prompting us to walk away from what is harmful to our souls also.
Rather than being overwhelmed by our emotions and locating ourselves in them as an endpoint in themselves, we deepen our emotional maturity when we are able to see our emotions as signposts to the deeper things we need to pay attention to.
When we can be with the hardest feelings and follow them through to their roots, through the honest and hard work of self reflection and/or with help from insightful therapy, we are able to lighten them out of our soil and see them in the light – they lose their power over us and we feel clear. The strongly-felt emotion gives our intellect the signal to dig deeper and do the work to free ourselves.
Emotional intelligence is to feel and recognise our emotions, but not be ruled by them. For our emotions to be sign posts only, and not the drivers of our car.
Our emotions are experienced in our bodies – hence like rings in a tree they have a strong relationship with memory. It is easy to understand that there is a physical imprint in every cell of our bodies that holds a record of our experiences, like the record in the rings of a tree. Today we even understand that these imprints are handed down through generations; that our bodies hold the imprinted record of things we have never experienced ourselves, that our bodies nevertheless hold to be true. When a strong emotion is attached to something, we remember it better. Of course memory is our way of telling ourselves who we are and what has happened to us/what we have experienced; it is the story we stitch together of who we are and how life works from our interpretations of our experiences, coloured so strongly by our emotions – especially as children, when we did not have a greater appreciation of context – and to a greater or lesser degree, refined by our intellectual interrogations and reflections.
What role does our capacity for the richness of emotion play in our birthing?
We humans, so finely tuned for relationship and community, are able to empathise with other’s emotions, and in this way we can take on the strongly felt emotions and stories/memories/life interpretations of others, anchored in our own empathetically-felt, mirrored emotion. This is especially pertinent when in comes to the internalisation of other’s birth stories, and even deeper than that – our perceptions of the value of women.
There is so much more to say! For example: how women are conditioned to please others, how women are conditioned not to be difficult – which conditions us to be hyperaware of others’ feelings to the detriment of listening to our own. Place that into industrialised birth settings….
PSYCHOLOGY/INTELLECT, OR: THE MIND
I have separated intellect from emotions to highlight reason, understanding, comprehension, perception – even though of course these things are so greatly served and informed by emotion. The more emotionally mature we become, the more we can then interrogate our thoughts, and live in greater and greater clarity.
Like this: we feel unease in our stomach.
We notice, I am feeling uncomfortable.
Why am I feeling uncomfortable?
I’m not sure if I know enough to do this.
Do I know enough to do this?
Actually, I do know a lot, I just am not sure about this little part, and I am feeling vulnerable about being exposed for not knowing and then shamed.
Ok, can I gather resources around that?
Yes, I can ask that person, she knows that bit, and I can write it down to follow until I know the process properly.
Ok, how do I feel now?
Clear in my body, relief – I have solved that problem.
Instead of defaulting to, I’m not smart enough and stopping trying, we have problem solved – led by our bodies – into further dynamic action. By checking in with our bodies, our intellect can work with our emotions towards greater clarity and mature agency.
We now know that intelligence is learned and grow-able. We are not “smart” or “dumb” so much as able to problem-solve, gather resources, collaborate, learn, gather more information, imagine alternatives, create… The brain is an incredible organ that the body seems to prioritise in all its systems – but intelligence seems to be a whole body experience, not only located in the brain. The information we use to negotiate our lives is stored in muscle memory, the feelings experienced in our bodies, and of course in the grey folds of our incredible brains. Our brains are creatures of habit up there inside our skulls; nerve pathways that are used often become like default superhighways – but we now know that for our whole lives our brains are able to lay down new pathways, and we can consciously practice them until they turn into our new super highways.
Meanwhile, even as our knowledge of the elasticity and capacity of our brains has greatly expanded in the past 10 years, we are learning so much now about the contribution to our health and wellbeing of our gut, and the gut/brain connection. In another 10 years imagine what we will be able to write about our selves, as served by our gut.
And so intellect is not fixed but dynamic. Intellect can be served by education, mentoring, reading, curiosity, creativity. It can be shut down by lack of stimulation, criticism, the crisis need to survive.
In another illustration of the brains rootedness in the body, we have learned how critically important physical touch is for healthy brain development in babies and children.
SPIRITUALITY, OR: THE SOUL
Spirituality is what makes life mean something and matter. It is whatever makes us mean something and matter. It is the feeling underneath everything that we matter, and that we and/or life are precious.
At base, the woman explains to herself through a patchwork of stories, beliefs and experiences, how the world works, how life works, what her role is within it all, and even more fundamentally – who she is. And underneath that – she explains to herself whether she is safe or not safe. Whether she is loved or not loved. Whether she is respected or not respected. Whether she is any of these things in reality or not is in a sense unimportant – her perception is what matters.
Of course the journey of growing our babies, birthing them through our bodies and into the world is laden with meaning for us – what it means to give birth naturally, to breastfeed, to be a mother. All cultures through time and across the planet have had ritual and practices relating to women’s journeying into mothering. In much of Western culture those traditions have been shattered and the process of birth itself completely industrialised (see https://birthecology.com/2019/12/06/i-internal-colective-culture-systems/), leaving women floundering for a way to recognise the bigness of what they are experiencing, floundering for anything to latch onto that supports the huge shifts occurring in themselves as they travel through birth and the intensity of change that early parenting requires of us.
HEART, MIND & SOUL
I have written elsewhere that we exist along axes of survival to thriving, and this applies to the healthfulness or otherwise of our inner selves, our emotions, intellect and spirituality. When care acknowledges the complexity of self that women bring to their birth journey, we can acknowledge that there is a far deeper and more complex journey happening for the woman than only the physical birthing of the baby from her body. The woman’s meaning-making matters, as she births into mothering this child. We want her to feel strong, capable, fierce and proud, however the birth may have physically played out, because she has been listened to, respected, and her needs supported; what she values, uplifted.