I help expectant parents prepare for birth. They obviously wonder about the future. They know they are facing a big change and are concerned about how it will affect them. While we can’t know the future we can deal with the uncertainty that accompanies it. Asking a well-chosen daily question can help transition feel less threatening, more normal.
In my classes I don’t lecture about the anatomy and physiology of labor. I know that the intellect is not what controls the birth process. People already know how to give birth, anyway. My job is to help them access the place inside where their birth knowledge is stored.
I guide these parents to find meaningful questions to ask themselves every day. Although I teach Finding Your Question in birth preparation classes it can be used by anyone to successfully navigate life. By following this procedure you can find your own question about a challenge you may be facing.
Guidelines for Finding Your Question
* If your question can be answered yes or no it isn’t deep enough
* The answer to your question will be found within, not given by an expert or intellectual pursuit
* Ask your question in the present tense
* Ask your question every day
* As you answer your question something about you will change
* If you fully answer your question you need to find a new one
How It Works in the Classroom
It is the first night of class. Moms and dads to-be are comfortably settled around the room. I pass out pencils and paper. I ask if there are any questions. Sometimes a mother or father asks me what time class ends or the location of the bathroom. I give the answer and ask if there are any more questions. Rarely does anyone ask anything of substance. I remind them that they have paid money and changed their schedules to take my class and learn SOMETHING. What was it they were hoping to learn? “Are there any more questions?” I ask.
I tell them I know that each person has a significant or compelling question about pregnancy, birth, becoming parents, or raising a child. It may be something they have been afraid to ask out loud.
I ask my students to take a minute and allow their questions to come to mind. Some of them begin to write. I don’t tell them all the rules for question-writing in advance. Most people will have editing to do. This is rarely a tidy process. It can take some guidance to pinpoint the core of one’s concern. Yet, the question is usually not far below the surface. I ask anyone who has a question to speak up.
A Painful Question
Sarah speaks first. “Will I be able to handle the pain?” she asks. I pick up my Magic 8-Ball and read the answer. It says to ask again later. We all have a good laugh and I tell them that questions requiring a yes or no answer can easily be answered by the 8-Ball. They must dig deeper. Some students erase and re-write. I ask Sarah to tell me what about the pain is troubling her. She says she’s afraid that she will panic and “lose it”.
“Why is that a problem?” I ask.
She hesitates and says, “I’m afraid Jeff will get scared and he won’t be able to help me.”
I stand up and walk across the room. Breathing heavily, I clutch my belly, scream and grab Jeff’s hand. I wail, “You must help me! It hurts too much! I can’t do it! Ohhhh, it hurts so baaaad!” Between gasps and moans I pull him to his feet and into the center of the room. I beg him to press a certain spot on my back in a particular way. He does it just right. A minute later, Labor Theater is over. Everyone is now sitting up straight and paying attention.
“Now, what concerns you about the pain?” I ask.
Her eyes tear up as she says; ” I’m afraid that if it hurts too much I will take pain medication and feel bad about it later.” I ask whether her question is about not wanting pain medication or about not wanting to feel bad about her birth.
Sarah answers, “It’s about not wanting to feel bad about my birth.” She thinks about it some more. “That’s it!” she says. “My question is, will I feel good about my birth?” As I reach for the 8-Ball again, I remind her about the yes-or-no-question rule. I mention that the question must be stated in the present tense. If we write and ask our questions in the future tense we can procrastinate. It will always be about tomorrow. If we ask ourselves how we are acting or responding now we are in the place where we can make change. It’s a way of coming face to face with ourselves to practice our inner work.
Sarah thinks about her question, then offers, “How am I feeling good about my birth?” She got it! I ask her to write it big on a 5X7 card so I can hang it on the wall. Sarah can work on living the answer to this question every day. I tell her to make a take-home copy to put on the refrigerator or bathroom mirror.
At this point I could deliver a lecture about the mechanics and pros and cons of pain medication for childbirth. Or perhaps I could teach students a bunch of medication avoidance strategies, but what’s the point? The part of the brain that worries about medication is not the part of the brain that gives birth. Teaching avoidance strategies leaves people out in the cold if the thing they wish to avoid happens anyway.
Coping In the Moment
My teaching goal for Sarah is to help her find ways to cope and be in the moment during her birth as a mother. I want her to be able to do what needs to be done to give birth in awareness in the best way she can regardless of the hand she is dealt. It’s guaranteed that Sarah’s birth will have elements she can’t control. Birth is famous for dishing up the unexpected.
Sarah’s partner, Jeff, has a question that needs no editing. It’s one of the benefits of not being first. You get to hear all the rules for Finding Your Question before it’s your turn. His question is, “How am I supporting Sarah in birth?” Sarah and Jeff are now ready to work together. I am always touched by the willingness and ability of my students to go deep inside themselves and discover a heartfelt and meaningful question.
We move around the room as students read and revise their questions. At the end of the process we have cards on the wall that say: How is having a baby changing my life? What is my role? How am I helping my child be his own person? What am I giving up to be a good parent? How am I protecting my child? How am I knowing what needs to be done? How am I preparing for a long labor? How am I finding enough love for two children? How am I coping with unwished-for events? How am I nurturing myself?
Questions for Rites of Passage
Mainstream American culture lacks appropriate rituals and preparation for rites of passage. Parenthood is no exception. While women are being born as mothers and men are being born as fathers we are busy perfecting the baby shower. We barely acknowledge the huge transformation in the lives of the parents beyond the acquisition of diapers and strollers. I speculate that if parents were guided to ask their questions and given time to explore the answers they would be better prepared to embrace the unexpected and less invested in trying to plan and control the uncontrollable.
It’s unreasonable to expect that some brand-new, highly effective coping style will spontaneously appear in the middle of a challenging experience. When we are faced with something that’s hard we fall back on trusted, practiced strategies regardless of their effectiveness. When we wonder how we will feel or act in the future, the answer already exists in the present.
As a teacher my practice is to keep my own question in mind as I teach. I can’t expect to take students to a place I haven’t been myself. My teaching question is: how am I guiding my students to learn what they already know? If I ever fully answer it, I’ll have to find a new question.