What labor and death have in common
by Sharon Tjaden-Glass
I had been told that labor was painful. That it could last for days. That drugs help.
But I never expected that experiencing labor would mimic the process of dying.
I first realized this when I wrote a poem about giving birth. As I reread a certain group of lines, I saw the connection. Here, I describe what it was like when I fought against the pain of the transition stage of labor.
I clutched. I gripped. I clawed. I seized.
I groaned. I moaned. I moaned. I groaned.
I reasoned. I pleaded. I begged. I shrieked.
I cursed. I cried. I cursed. I hated.
I doubted. I despaired. I questioned. I bargained.
Until I surrendered.
And then I believed.
The turn in this poem (highlighted in bold) shows me giving in to birth and allowing myself to feel the pain. And this helps me re-imagine labor—as a form of dying. It’s right there in the lines of the poem—You go through all the same stages of grief. Reasoning, pleading, begging, cursing, hating, doubting, despairing, questioning, bargaining…
And finally surrendering.
Unbearable, incessant, rhythmic pain will do that to you. It will grind you down into the salt that you really are.
Some who read this may think, Oh God, that sounds awful! I would do anything to avoid all of that. No one should have to suffer.
Part of me agrees with you.
And part of me now acknowledges that suffering can also open your eyes to greater truth—realizations that you cannot grasp until all of the anchors have been ripped free and you find yourself floating away on powerful currents. But there is beauty in surrender, in reaching the edge of your abilities and reason, and acknowledging that you are not so important that you can’t be completely humbled. That you are not so special that you just get to say “pass” on this one.
And that is what labor and dying do–they reduce you. They re-orient your compass to true north. You are not the center of the universe. You are a small part of something much greater and much more powerful than you will ever be. We call it “God,” but that word is not enough. No word will ever be enough.
So stop fighting.
Stop asserting your own will and power.
Just stop. And feel.
Perhaps it is a combination of belief in our self-importance and our own powerlessness to protect that self-importance that drives us to try to control birth and death. Perhaps this partially accounts for our eagerness to hook ourselves up to machines which we believe to be more powerful than our own bodies. Or even to distrust our own bodies’ signals in favor of data pouring out of those machines.
Certainly, there is a time for using medical technology to mask or relieve our pain. When our bodies run amok with cancer and chronic, degenerative diseases—conditions when nature goes haywire—I am grateful to live in a time and place where I have options for healing or palliative care. But there is also a time to acknowledge what birth and death really are—natural processes. Stages of life. And denying or being afraid of them only intensifies the pain.
In my own experience, I know now that the urge to fight childbirth and escape the pain originated from outside of me.
It crept in when the doctor told me that I wasn’t progressing quickly enough,
or when the lines on the EFM monitor pronounced double-peaked contractions,
or when the doctor suggested that I could make all the pain go away if I just got the epidural.
After each of these in moments, I doubted the power of my body to get through the experience.
They knew what was going on with my body more than I did. That was how I felt.
But then I regained my focus. And I was able to take myself into a space where it was just me, the pain, and the moments between the pain.
With each contraction, my pain threshold rose and rose. I savored those moments between the pain, rather than focusing on the moments with the pain. When I was left alone, the messages from my birth attendants—my husband, my doula, and my nurse—were that what I was experiencing was normal. None of them acted like there was a reason to freak the hell out. I was not like other hospital patients, sick or diseased with a body gone haywire. What I was going through had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And what I needed was assurance that we were getting there.
It took some effort and planning to create this “birth as a process” environment in the hospital, where the assumption is typically “birth as a potential problem” in need of regulation and control.
But at least it’s not taboo to talk about birth like this.
Death, on the other hand, is far more likely to be seen as a problem, rather than a process. It’s the worst possible outcome. It’s failure. It cannot possibly be what we want.
My father died one year ago. Bipolar depression robbed him of his spark. Parkinson’s disease stole his smile and his gestures. Then, it ultimately caused him to lose his footing, fall, and break his neck. Gone was his ability to walk, and temporarily, his ability to independently breathe. He lay in the hospital for a month, unable to move and barely able to talk. When he recovered enough ability to lift his arms and breathe on his own, doctors started making plans for him.
Plans? Really? Plans for what?
My father was depressed. Unable to walk. Constipated and unable to relieve himself independently. His ongoing insomnia was exacerbated by the challenge of sleeping in a neck brace. It was a C2 vertebrae injury, so there was little hope of restoring many typical bodily functions—all of those small movements that we take for granted, but make us feel human. Feeding ourselves. Putting a shirt or shoes on. Picking up a pencil for a crossword.
So I wondered what these plans for the future were. Returning home? That seemed unlikely since he required someone to lift him and my mother certainly couldn’t do that. Going to a nursing home? Separated from his wife of 38 years. Confused by the constant shifts in caretakers, as nurses clock in and clock out. These were the plans? Were these the plans that the doctors would have wanted for themselves?
After my father fell, I admit that my prayers were not for him to heal. At best, they were vague prayers asking for God’s mercy or asking for God to ease his pain. At worst, they were prayers that his life would end soon. That he wouldn’t suffer in such conditions for weeks and months and years, according to the doctors’ plans. That his last moments of life wouldn’t be confusing or difficult. That he could understand what was happening to him so he could accept it instead of fighting it.
But then again…
Would I be able to accept the end when I know it’s near?
These are questions without answers. Thoughts for the thinking, not for the deciding. At the end of life, it’s hard to know what we’ll want. Just as it is when we are in the hardest hours of labor. Our birth plans may be clearly and precisely articulated, but when the shit hits the fan, it’s hard to anticipate where everything will land.
But what I am sure of is that the experience of labor has prepared me for that winnowing down of self, that preparation to join a grand Divine, beyond human comprehension.
I think about what the end of life is like for women who have gone through labor. As they are dying, do they remember labor? Do they remember the way that it reduced their existence into a singular point? Are they better able to accept what is happening to them?
Is labor a special glimpse into the spiritual world that only women are fortunate enough to be able to access?
Because something happens once you become a link in that chain of life, a witness to life’s awesome resilience and power of renewal.
When you give life, life gives you something back—wonder.
The kind of wonder that results from the utter destruction of all your previous understandings and assumptions. The kind that forces you to re-examine all the surviving shards to see which ones deserve to go on and to acknowledge which ones have become dust, lost to the wind.
Over so many things.
How could my body do that?
How could this baby already be breathing on his own?
What will I do if this child dies? How could I go on?
Do all mothers feel this way?
What did I do to deserve any of this?
Thoughts for the thinking, not for the deciding.
Or watch this short related clip of me reading my favorite passage, in which I describe an unexpected spiritual moment.