Author and childbirth educator Britta Bushnell describes eight deeply-entrenched cultural ideals that can unconsciously— and even negatively— impact the course of your labor and how you parent. She and Adriana share how to reframe these beliefs to uplift realistic expectations.
How do you invite curiosity and wonder into pregnancy and parenting? Share with our community on Instagram @birthfulpodcast.
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- Transformed by Birth: Cultivating Openness, Resilience, and Strength for the Life Changing Journey from Pregnancy to Parenthood by Britta Bushnell
- Transformed, a podcast about transformation with Britta Bushnell
- Artemis and Apollo
- Baby on Board Mad Libs, by Molly Reisner
Related Birthful episodes:
- The Purpose of Childbirth Pain
- How Will Birth Transform You?
- Healing Your Birth Story and Birth Trauma
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What Cultural Ideals Will Shape Your Birth Experience?
Adriana: Hello, hello, Mighty Parent or Parent-to-Be!
Welcome to Birthful. So glad you are here. I’m Adriana Lozada and this is the first episode in our series on Models and Places of Birth.
To start the series, we are going to pull waaay back to a birds-eye vantage point and look at the cultural ideals that shape and impact how collectively we approach to birth and postpartum. And really, even shape our day-to-day lives.
If you have a need for control and certainty. If you are a perfectionist. If you value knowledge and technology. If you pride yourself in doing all the things. If you find yourself resisting when things get wild…
If you identified with any of those statements, hang on tight because this conversation with Britta Bushnell is likely to blow your mind.
To get us started, let me tell you a bit about Britta.
Dr. Britta Bushnell is a wife, mother, celebrated speaker and veteran childbirth educator. She also has a PhD in mythology with an emphasis in psychology, and is the author of the book Transformed by Birth: Cultivating Openness, Resilience, and Strength for the Life Changing Journey from Pregnancy to Parenthood. And her book centers around the eight cultural ideals that we are going to be talking about today.
Now, Britta has been on Birthful a couple of times, so for any references that we make to other episodes, you can find the relevant links on the show notes. Let’s dive right in.
You’re listening to Birthful. Here to inform your intuition.
Adriana: Welcome, Britta! It is so lovely to have you back on the show.
Britta: Oh, it is so good to be back! I always love sitting and having a conversation with you.
Adriana: First, where do these ideals even come from?
Britta: Which is a great and juicy question! I mean, so first, it’s— I could have probably identified, oh, I mean, I got to the point where I was in the 15 (almost 20!) different ideals that I had sort of identified. I was required for my dissertation to narrow that down. And then for my book, even more so. So what they are is sort of the way that this culture/this society kind of addresses life. So some of them, like the “glorification of independence” and the “go it alone” mindset, I mean that one is woven into the fabric of democracy of— and Western culture, especially in the U.S.— I mean, the U.S. is built on the Declaration of Independence.
We hold the ideal of independence and the “go it alone,” the “pull it up by your bootstraps” mentality is woven into the tapestry of— even the foundation of— the nation. And so that seeps in. That leaks into how many of us operate in our lives without necessarily even noticing it. It’s just there. It’s part of how we move through the world. And, you know, the idea of you’re “supposed to” be able to just do it on your own (and I’m putting “supposed to” in air quotes, right?), because it’s… that’s that overarching kind of societal expectation. And that’s kind of what I’m looking at here, and how those seep into how we address even how we’ll move forward in our birth and our parenthood.
Adriana: And these ideals, as we go through them, I think the notions of them are not necessarily like, good or bad. It’s just things that we do.
Adriana: I think it’s more of how we tend to lean the pendulum— so way off, over to one side, that then it becomes a detriment.
Britta: Yeah! So really, each of these that I identified and looked at has a functional side, has a way in which it helps us in our lives— but it’s tested in birth and new parents. They’re each tested. They each have an element that you go, “Ooh. Wow.” And it makes modern birth more challenging, because some of these have gotten heightened over the years and decades and centuries. There’s ways in which it’s gotten more challenging to address them.
I mean, as we become more technologically-savvy and have information in our pocket at all times, in the form of our cell phones, it’s gotten harder for us to sit in wonder. That’s become a harder, less familiar feeling. And so there’s… it’s like, yeah, intellectual knowledge and technology are wonderful tools. They’re fantastic. When we swing the pendulum to the side of, they are the only form of wisdom, that’s when we get out of balance. And we need to find a way to balance the veneration of intellectual knowledge and technology with an acceptance of wonder, a curiosity about wonder.
Adriana: Yeah, and I love going deep into this because it allows us for even curiosity within our own lives of like, “Oh my goodness, this is what I do! And I never realized as a culture/society, this is what we do. And I didn’t quite realize that we did it.” And then it gives you the opportunity to step outside of it and play with doing things a little bit differently.
Britta: Right? I mean, and that’s what’s fun about using a mythological kind of mindset, is that pulling back exercise, that exercise of pulling back and looking and saying, “Okay, what are the stories? What are the beliefs? What are the ideals that are the water within which we swim?”
Adriana: And Britta, you identified eight different ideals, and I wanted to go through them and also think about a little bit about how they impact birth.
Britta: So the first one— that really in many ways influences the additional seven— is the need for control and certainty. This one is woven into the fabric.
I mean, frankly, it’s part of the human condition. It’s not even Western culture or modern, it’s… but it has gotten more extreme as the possibility of being in control. The reality of it has gotten more possible over… through, through technology, through science, through predictability. We’ve actually gotten to a point where we have started to really believe that control and certainty are possible.
And that’s where the pendulum has swung so far to that side, that it’s messed us up a little bit, that it’s actually gotten us into a place of believing that a due date means that that’s when our babies should come. That that’s some… that’s a form of certainty. That we can control things. That if we write a birth plan that is detailed enough, we will create the birth that we want.
These are illusions of control and certainty that have made it in a way. I mean, those are actually symptoms of the desire for control and certainty.
Adriana: And also, why we latch on to them so deeply.
Britta: Exactly! Because it’s not really… one of the things that I think is interesting about looking at these from the ideal place and from this mythological lens is that we actually get to go, “Oh, it’s not just me.” It’s like, this is… of course you’re wanting control and certainty.
How could you not want control and certainty around birth? You’ve been living in a culture and in a society that tells you control and certainty is possible. And so we latch on to ideas that give us comfort, in the form of giving us the suggestion that control and certainty might actually be attainable.
Adriana: Right— and they also provide some sort of coping mechanisms, like they’re comforting. If I feel I can control my day, then I’m… I feel more in… you know, what if I thought I couldn’t control any part of my life? I would be an anxious wreck.
Britta: Exactly. And those same kinds of things show up in childbirth, and that’s one of the reasons why there… you know, we do have birth plans and we do have things. And yet when we hold them from a mindset of “This is going to create a certain outcome” or control or create certainty, that’s when we’ve swung the pendulum too far, and we actually need the balancing side of that. Which is— in the term that I use is— “an openness to the unbidden,” that place of accepting that which we did not invite or control, to come in and have its influence on what’s happening. And that part of what we need as we move toward parenthood and birth is to expand our ability to sit with the unbidden, to meet the unbidden.
Adriana: And frankly, the more we practice or give openness to our lives, to let that unbidden in, the… like anything else, the more we practice, the better we get at it, and the more we can work with it. And that… as you were talking, I was reminded of something that happened a few weeks ago. Um, and you know, those Mad Lib things, right? Britta: Yes.
Adriana: Yeah, of course you do! Like that… and I never heard of a Mad Lib until I moved to the States, right? So there’s that, but—
Britta: Yes. And I grew up filling them out on long car rides, so I know them well.
Adriana: So my daughter was doing a Mad Lib for Thanksgiving, as part of her homework, and it was sitting on the table, and I just went through and read it and it was so fun. And just reading how silly and ridiculous it was truly like, it did a little shift on me! Like, my day was different that day, just from reading it. Of like— Yeah! Have some fun with things, make it silly, make it like, nonsensical for a bit. See what happens.
Britta: Right? And some of that is because the way that Mad Libs work is it has a sentence with a blank line. And without knowing what really the sentence is, you put in an adverb or an adjective or anything like that, if I’m remembering Mad Libs properly, and then you read it.
Adriana: Yes! Thank you for explaining it.
Britta: And then you read it. And it’s hilarious often, because you’ve just thrown in some random adverb. And now it’s worked in with some sentence, and they’re funny and they’re unpredictable. They’re unbidden! It’s like those words pop in there and they— yeah, they toss you a little bit in the realm of ” you’re holding on to control,” because it’s a bit messy… and that’s true of birth and parenthood too. They get messy, and we’ve gotten really comfortable with things being neat and tidy and ordered, well-ordered. So we need a little bit of that Mad Lib energy in our lives: some of that messiness, some of that unpredictability.
Adriana: This seems to be a good segue into— we’re going to skip around— the third one that you have, which is “reverence for order over wild.”
Britta: Yes. So, this one… this one is one of my favorites. And it’s really about that, yes, that part of us that likes things to be ordered, to— you know, we love our lists. I mean, my list helps me in my life tremendously! And this is the one where I use the Greek twin gods Artemis and Apollo to help exemplify what it is that I’m talking about in regards to order and wild.
So Artemis is the goddess of— well, she’s the main goddess of childbirth and she’s also the goddess of the wilderness, so she’s the goddess who lives outside the bounds of culture. She lives close to the earth. She lives with the wild animals, rather than with civilized people. She connects to the cycle of the seasons of the sun and the moon, rather than clock time.
Like, she’s that wild side. Whereas her twin, her brother, Apollo is representative of culture, of being appropriate. And he’s everything that happens within society, within a culture; he’s about music and poetry and the arts and medicine, things that define people as being “cultured,” right? And Western society is highly Apollonian. We love clock time. We love things that are ordered and predictable and make sense and are put together, our “socially acceptable” behavior, you know, being polite… these sorts of things are very Apollonian. And this… and so, so we tend to move again, in terms of that pendulum, we are more on the side of that Apollonian, well-ordered, societally-appropriate side of the pendulum. But what we really need for birth is a little more comfort in that wild, out-of-control, not based on clock time, not connected to being politically-correct, or societally-correct, or pleasing— you know, there’s this whole idea of, you know, you need to be pleasing to people.
That’s more, way more Apollonian! Artemis doesn’t give a hoot about being pleasing to people. She’s like, “Uh-uh, get out of my face!” If you’re… if I don’t want you around me, the stories of what Artemis does when she— when her privacy is threatened or actually when somebody watches her without her permission are brutal, because she’s like, “That is mine. My privacy matters to me!”
Well, Apollo is all about bright lights and keeping things bold and vision— visible and public. And that’s much more what the, you know, this Western culture is more drawn to. But we need for birth some of this Artemisian, this wild side, that allows us to be messy, that allows us to be impolite. That’s what we need in birth! And frankly, in parenthood too, sometimes.
Adriana: Oh, so much! And I was thinking like, newborns and babies and toddlers— they’re insanely Artemisian. Is that the word?
Britta: They are. Yes, well, I made it one! It’s in my book, throughout.
Adriana: I love it!
Britta: Yeah, there’s so much about birth and new parenthood that is Artemisian. And when we are trying to put Apollonian values on top of birth and new parenthood, we struggle because they are so Artemisian by nature.
Adriana: Yeah, those babies are very not civilized.
Britta: Right? They’re not civilized. They’re not connected to clock time. They’re way more connected to the cycles of seasons and days and nights. They’re way more interested in the dark than the bright public lights, and all of those things. There’s… it’s just a very different, more animalistic type of living.
Adriana: And if they do not want to do something, they will not.
Britta: And then there’s that
Adriana: And who cares? Right? No matter, I don’t care where I am, or if I feel like I’m going to fart, I will fart right now.
Britta: Right? Well, and frankly, new parenthood is that way too. There is that element of… the “bounce back” mentality is very Apollonian. Rather than allowing the animal body to heal and take time, and do the animal stuff that it needs to do, like bleed and heal and poop and leak— all of those things don’t really fit in that Apollonian ideal. Those Apollonian ideals and values that we have been been soaking in, which is one of the reasons why early postpartum can be so disruptive and so surprising for so many of us, is because it’s so different.
It’s so Artemisian. And we’re so used to being in this Apollonian way.
Adriana: Yeah, no, I always say birth is so, so “glamorous” (in quotes, right), and I appreciate also the images that we’re getting on social media of like, brand new moms in diapers— not diapers, but in the mesh panties with big pads, as they are holding their baby, and, you know, like all things falling out all over the place and the boobs and this stuff, because that’s how it is. It’s a reflection of how truly messy and unorganized and wild that stage is.
Britta: Exactly. And that’s a helpful movement of that swing, that is frankly, in response. It’s the same kind of idea that— sorry— made me respond in this way with this book. It’s like, it’s culture saying, wait a minute, this is so extreme on this side, we need to show images of the panties and the mesh panties and the giant pads and the wrinkled bellies and the everything that shows that this “put together” idea is a fallacy.
And that it’s, well, it’s one sided, it’s lopsided. And so we need to bring balance. ‘Cause that’s what I’m talking about in my book as well, is that the Apollonian culture has so many wonderful things to offer us, even in birth, and we need to balance it. We need to find more balance.
Adriana: And in order to balance, it’s like if you’re— I’m left-handed, so if you’re left-handed, if I’m going to use my right hand, it’s going to be really uncomfortable and weird. I can still do it, but I will at one point go, “Oh no, I just want to use my left hand.” And it’s sort of understanding that contrast as well, that you are so good at doing Apollonian things, that you gotta spend more time doing Artemisian things, to hone that muscle.
Britta: Exactly. I mean, and that’s… I come from a yoga background. I used to be a yoga teacher and it’s sort of that same idea, that if you have a really flexible back, you don’t want to just keep doing backbends. You actually need to do balancing poses and forward folds and strengthening postures, so that you’re not just bending, bending, bending, bending, bending, because that puts you out-of-balance.
Adriana: Do you have a practice that you recommend for people to sort of hone into this reverence for wild over order, or to try to switch it up, right?
Britta: Yes. I mean, there’s, there’s a number of things that I share in the book, but one of them is actually even just getting out into nature as much as possible and being connected with that element of non-societal connection. So being in nature, being in your body, like, anything that helps us get into the body rather than the mind is helpful for connecting into that wild side. So dancing is one of my favorites— and dancing in a Mad Libs kind of way, I’m just going to carry our little story forward. So putting on music and just boogie-ing. Letting the body move, rather than doing dance steps. Or, you know, yoga that— I did a lot of Ashtanga yoga in my… in 20 years ago and even more recently than that— but Ashtanga is a very set sequence of poses. And while that does help me get into my body and moves me in the direction of that Artemisian side, it only takes me so far because it’s not just responding to what my body wants to do. And so it’s important to practice listening deeply to, “How does my body want to be moved right now?”
Adriana: Oh, And our bodies are so wise and telling us.
Britta: And so practicing that, dropping that down, yeah, into the body, and being out in nature is a great way to help connect with that.
Adriana: I love the dancing. I love being out in nature. Let’s do more of that! Stupid winter.
Britta: Yes! Although I happen to love winter and snow, so I tend to get really goofy and into my Artemisian side when I’m out in the snow.
Britta: But I also don’t live in it, so that makes a difference.
Adriana: I will try to practice that. So we’ve got the need for control and certainty. We have the reverence for order over wild. We briefly talked about the veneration of intellectual knowledge and technology. Did you want to say more about that one, or did you want to move on to—
Britta: I mean that one sort of speaks to itself to a degree, but it is the one that says that the answers exist out there— somewhere— for all of us, as opposed to being able to look inside and inquire within ourselves about what might be the right choice or the right decision for us in this particular moment.
And that’s one of the ones that’s really about reconnecting with that place of not knowing, of wonder, of being in the mystery. And the practice that I talk about with that one is inserting a pause. So, rather than instantaneously going to your phone and doing an internet search for an answer, is to pause between the question in the mind and the impulse to answer it, and expand that, so that we can begin to get more comfortable with sitting in not knowing, which also helps us tune in better to our inner voice that may guide us toward the kind of information or the kind of support that would really feed us, rather than just going to Dr. Google, which can then just put us into different kinds of spirals. I’m seeing a lot with new parents is the impulse to quickly look for an answer, as if singular answers exist for all of us, universally— which is just really not the truth. The truth is there are many different answers and even different answers for me today, then maybe tomorrow. And we need to kind of move away from that idea that singular answers exist.
Adriana: Yeah, and we are complex human beings that can be like, contradictory in our realities on a daily basis.
Britta: Absolutely. Absolutely, yes.
Adriana: Yeah, and I do appreciate, and I— I always, this one, I kind of approach on my own, when I speak about this, on my— in my own practices, the way I phrase this (goodness!) is, “leaning into things with curiosity,” because if you’re then, you’re with curiosity, then you’re not resisting, but you’re also opening for, “What is here?” rather than trying to find what you’re looking for with a preconceived notion, of more, “Let me explore what’s there.”
Britta: Yes, absolutely. I actually think one of the balancing energies to that veneration of intellectual knowledge and technology, is curiosity. I mean, that’s that balancing energy. So I love that.
Britta: And I talk about that, too. A lot. Yeah, we’ve bonded over this one. Yes.
Adriana: We do. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Which one do you want to go to next?
Britta: Well, so then, well, if we’re taking them semi-in order of how they’re addressed in the book, the fourth one is the vilification of pain. And so this one is that… the idea that if we have pain, it should be… we should do something about it. You know, we’ve… if it’s that, you know… what did they… they added it to the vital signs, right?
That if there is pain, it’s like we have to do something about it. This culture is often speaking about how, if something hurts, we should medicate it, or we should do something about it, remove it— rather than having a moment and saying, okay, “What is this pain teaching me? What’s happening?” And it dismisses the reality that there is suffering in being human. There is pain in being human.
It’s one of the noble truths that the Buddha identified: “Life is suffering.” You know, that there is going to be suffering. There’s going to be upset and pain— and I’m not just even talking physical, I’m talking that there’s going to be hardship, there’s going to be things that hurt or are uncomfortable.
And how can— we rather than try and remove all pain— how can we create some ways to be with ourselves, even when there is pain?
Adriana: and that like, applies, of course, not only to childbirth and postpartum, but even to life. And it kind of reminds me— this is something I’ve been talking with other parents here in my community about lately as well— is this whole, along with the vilification of pain, we’ve got this glorification of happiness.
Britta: Exactly! Those are connected. Completely connected! Yes, yes, yes.
Adriana: And that, like, our ideal is we need to be happy all the time, and that creates a lot of problems.
Britta: It creates suffering.
Britta: Yes. Absolutely. That’s what I’m talking about here, is that this vilification of pain is saying, “Be happy, be happy, be happy! Be, you know… blissful birth!” It’s like, well, hang on a second. It’s okay. Sometimes things that are worth doing require hard work, they require difficulty, facing difficulties. Sometimes, you know, some of the greatest moments of transformation come through heat— you know, in alchemy, there’s, you know, the way that you would change, or the alchemist said, you know, the way that you would change a base metal into gold was to apply heat and pressure. And that would be what would transfigure something from a base metal to gold.
Well, I kind of believe that that’s true sometimes in life: is that sometimes it is through the fire and through the pressure, that things really sometimes change. Now, that’s not always the case. I’m not somebody who says you have to suffer in order to change. No, I don’t buy that either… but I don’t buy that we should be wrapping up life in a bow, clapping our hands and saying, “Be happy, be happy, be happy!” Like that? I think that that’s discrediting the truth of being in a human form.
Adriana: Right, and it doesn’t have to be immense suffering as you’re saying… but if you need a challenge to change. Like, if you have no challenges, then there’s no transformation.
Britta: There’s no reason for growth.
Adriana: There’s no growth. And the thing is, one thing we know is the only constant in our universe is change.
Adriana: So if you’re not, yeah, so if you’re not willing to change, then there’s not… you got a big problem.
Britta: Absolutely. Yep.
Adriana: Yeah. And I think also this… it’s really important, not only to approach birth and postpartum like this, but also as you’re informing your parenting of what ideals you’re passing down to your kids, if you’re not allowing them to spend some time in suffering and figuring things out for themselves so that they can grow…
And I am like, I am so guilty of this, because we do it as a society. Right? We have this value, this ideal, it’s like, “Oh, let me take it away. Let me take away your pain.” And are you happy? How are you when we focus at things around happiness so much, we’re actually creating a lot more anxiety and sadness, like you were saying, suffering for our kids and for ourselves.
Britta: Exactly. These ideals are out there. It’s not like we’re that there’s something wrong with me because I vilify pain. It’s part of, what? The water I’ve been ingesting! The air I’ve been breathing my entire life! And so of course, I kind of vilify pain. And so that’s why I need to bring it into my awareness, into my consciousness, and then go, “Okay, hang on a second. Maybe pain isn’t all bad. And maybe there… maybe it’s okay for my child to suffer a little bit. Maybe it’s okay for him to struggle, and I don’t need to step in instantaneously and remove whatever it is that’s challenging him. Maybe part of what needs to happen for him is to struggle or to move through it.” And that’s, yeah, it’s coming up all over the place in parenthood and in life. Yeah.
Adriana: Yeah. And in terms of the idea, what to do/practice to mitigate this vilification of pain, did you have some suggestions?
Britta: Yeah. Well, this is the one, this is the chapter where I go into a lot of “pain supporting practices,” and I’ve… I’m starting to shift my language from the term “coping” to “How do we flow?” Because “coping” implies a doing-ness, like a gripping. And I think often when we are facing struggle or pain, we need to— instead of like, gripping and getting in there and doing everything we can, and coping, coping, coping— and especially when we’re talking about labor, is we need to allow, we need to flow. It’s like, “How do we get out of the way of the pain? How do we get out of the resistance of the pain?” And allow there to be, like, a flow with it. And so sharing practices where you can practice flowing with that, but also identifying where in your life and how in your life you already do that.
One of the things that I think is really important in preparation for birth and new parenthood is not feeling like you have to go out there and learn a whole bunch of new things. It’s more about identifying the ways you are already doing that in your life now, and then building those skills. It’s not like you’re going to step into birth and all of the things that you’ve used your entire life to cope with pain are going out the door!
And it’s like, you’re bringing those with you, because that’s how you’ve developed skills through your whole life, because you have faced pain, you have dealt with difficulty. So noticing what works for you, what helps you? Those are things you want to identify, and then grow.
Adriana: I love that. I love that. Figuring out how you already… and one exercise that comes up a lot in childbirth education classes is “What’s your go-to mechanism for pain?” Like, what do you do when you stub your toe? Do you scream? Do you rub it? Do you want nobody to touch you? Do you, like that… can maybe looking at things a bit like that, can help inform of ways you already deal with things?
Britta: Absolutely. I mean, I think that it shows us some of our quick response, and then it’s— you know, our mind has a way of saying, “Ooh, I’m in pain!” and we’ve been programmed to find a way out of pain, that that’s first. We’re programmed to say, “Ooh, I’ve got a splinter in my foot. Let me get it out.” That’s an appropriate response to pain, because our body says something is wrong. “Pull it out!”
But when we pull the splinter out, there still is sometimes pain. So then it’s “How do you hold the pain?” How do you move through the discomfort of the splinter? After that first reaction to remove it either worked or is impossible to do. And then it’s “What do you do?” How do you keep moving with that?
Now, in my classes, like a lot of childbirth educators, we hold ice. And I have couples hold ice, I have parents hold ice, and they get that moment of, “I want to put it down!” But then, what’s next? What do they do next that helps them? And to explore that. A little bit deeper and a little bit deeper and finding what helps make the minute go faster. What helps? What doesn’t help? Like, and what keeps you in your head? Because in labor, if we keep lots of conversation and jokes and questions, that keeps us up in our head— which isn’t always helpful in labor. So it’s, what are some things that can help you drop down into the body and into the flow of the moment, that don’t necessarily super engage your Apollonian brain?
Adriana: And go more into the flow and less resistance. Yeah. And I, like… habits are so hard. I was like, immediately said “coping mechanisms” because… coping!
Britta: Right. And I use “coping mechanisms,” I still— that word shows up a lot for me as well, but there’s just a slight shift that’s starting to happen for me, in thinking about it less in a “grippy” way and more in a “letting go” way. And it’s just a nuance that I still use the term “coping,” because that is part of what we’re doing, is we’re developing coping skills, but we’re also developing skills to flow, to release, to let go of.
Adriana: Got it. And I will link on the show notes to an episode with Rhea Dempsey on the purpose of birth pain, which is… she goes at it from the point of view of— which is really helpful— of athletics and how we give medals to marathon runners, how we, like, there’s a whole different modalities where we really help people cope or flow through pain. Right?
Britta: Cope and flow. ‘Cause there’s times for each. There are times for each, for sure. Yeah.
And there are, there are times in athletics when we actually just need to grit our teeth and cope through something. And then there are times when we need to get out of our body’s way and let it do what it needs to do. And both of those have purpose in labor too. I love that. I’m going to go back and listen to that episode.
Adriana: Yeah. And if people have ever gotten a tattoo or done a piercing like, that’s a moment of just sitting with the pain and exploring it and not resisting it and flowing. So that can also be, if you have one of those.
Britta: Yeah. Or getting your teeth cleaned.
Britta: That’s another one I practice, every time I go to get my teeth cleaned, I’m like in my own practice, like, “Okay, this is what’s happening.” Let me, let me work with this. Yeah.
Adriana: Yep. All right. So then that note…
Britta: That one leads us, that one leads perfectly into the “glorification of independence” and the “go it alone” mindset. So this one is really— I’ve already mentioned it a little bit— but I’ll just say, this is the one where it says we don’t have to do this by ourselves. You know, it’s like, how can we learn to receive help? And that can be, you know… I hear a lot of people who come to my classes (I work predominantly with couples), and so when couples come to my class, there’s often the birthing parent is saying, “Well, I really want my partner to know how to help me. Like, can you teach them how to help me?” That’s only one side of the equation.
The other side of the equation is helping the birthing parent learn how to receive help. It’s a dance. It’s a both, because there’s that “glorification of independence” and the “go it alone” mindset that says, “I should be able to do this by myself.” And then when we bring in somebody to help us, we’re like, “They should absolutely know exactly how to do it, perfectly, without issue, right off the bat.”
And really, it’s a dance. It’s like, “How do I receive their positive intention to support me? How do I accept help?” Which is a huge one that happens in postpartum as well for some parents, is that help may be offered— and it may not be offered in the easiest-to-accept way, like, “Call me if you need anything,” that implies that you actually have to pick up the phone and ask for help. And yet, the part that keeps us often from picking up the phone and doing that is this, “I should be able to do it by myself.”
Adriana: Right, and we shouldn’t.
Britta: Right. And we shouldn’t, and we shouldn’t have to pick up the phone and ask for the help. We shouldn’t, that’s also the case.
Adriana: And that’s where we get into points, yeah, that we all live, like we’re not communally living… And who was it that was saying? Oh my goodness, I forget what fun conversation I was having with somebody, of when you— oh, that was it, Leslie Everest! And she did some work in Madagascar and villages there. And it was, it’s communal living, and so the babies do sleep with the, you know, sleep with the parents to an extent. But when they’re around two years old or whatever, the mom’s like, “I’m done with having a baby in my bed,” she kicks them out, but they go and then sleep with the grandparents. So everybody has their needs satisfied.
Britta: That sounds amazing. Yes. And that’s what we’re talking about here, is that that “go it alone” mindset, that the village, as opposed to, you know, that community to support us, it’s absolutely part of what we need and that we’re bemoaning a lot in modern society is the loss of that. And yet we also have gotten so used to doing it by ourselves that we have our own programming to overcome as well.
Adriana: Well, and it ties also to the first one, of need of control and certainty, because if you’re— if you’ve got different layers to address, if, say for example, you know, you offered to fold my laundry or do my laundry and I’m not going to receive the help because I like my laundry done just so… it’s like somebody’s doing your laundry, just wear it however, your clothes are not going to get ruined, and if not, you know, that’s tomorrow’s problem.
Britta: Exactly. Exactly. Frankly, all of these, that’s the reason control and certainty is first, is because they all are connected to that one.
Britta: They are. So should we do the next one?
Adriana: Yeah. Yeah.
Britta: Okay. So the next one is the adherence to innocence. And this is that, in some of, in some ways, it’s connected to the culture of youth, the idea of blamelessness and you know, this one is built in pretty strongly into U.S. culture, especially this idea that “We can do no wrong.”
And that, you know, we don’t look back on our history, culturally, and say, “Wow, you know, we did some wrong stuff.” Especially white culture, you know, it’s like, you look at some of these, some other cultures; my husband’s from South Africa and how they went through the Truth and Reconciliation process after Apartheid.
And it’s like, the U.S. has never done anything like that, because we wrap up and look at it like, “We’re innocent. We didn’t do any wrong. We didn’t know any better.” You know, it’s like… oh, there’s kind of this blamelessness and it’s seeped into how we are as parents, as people in the world, in this idea of it’s… I don’t need to know everything, I don’t need to educate myself or advocate for myself. I’m going to just trust. Some of that really gets us into some trouble.
Adriana: And so can you speak a little bit more into how that shows up in birth and, you know, how to counter it?
Britta: So that’s, I mean, one of the ways that that shows up is in the not willing to look at— back to the comment you made earlier about the happiness culture— it shows up in birth around the only positive birth stories, let’s only talk about what might happen that’s positive, I don’t want to read the chapter on Cesareans. I don’t want to talk about the things that could go wrong. I just want to focus only on exactly what I want to create and make happen. So that, that innocence, that idea that we’re going to just narrowly focus only on the positive, only on the what we want, the, you know, candles and white night gown flowing idea of birth. Like that’s the only option of birth that I want to think about.
Adriana: And would that also relate to the idea of like, no, I’m just gonna birth….I trust my doctor, my provider, my midwife completely and, you know, whatever they say, this is just… it’s just, that’s what it must be.
Britta: Absolutely. It’s… there’s a, you know, a homebirth version of it and there’s a hospital birth version of it, and everything in between that is that innocence of “I’m just going to…” I went to a gathering with some birth colleagues recently, and we were talking about how there is sometimes a desire to hire the doula, hire the particular midwife, have a particular kind of birth location, in order to purchase the kind of birth they want. And that that’s not…. that’s an innocent belief that isn’t saying, “I might need to do the work. I might need to grow into this parent role,” which requires a kind of maturity that is willing to look at the hard stuff, is willing to do some of the work themselves.
Adriana: And I can see how not adhering to that— like, wanting to stay in that innocence ideal, is really going to bite you in the butt when you’re during postpartum, when you’re like, you know, completely responsible not only for your life, but of the life of this child, and having to make all the decisions for them, unless you just, you know, outsource them.
Britta: We’ve got to learn how to do that. We’ve got to learn how to mature into the parent role, because you can’t be a child and a parent. It’s like, a parent is different. You’ve got to let your baby be the child.
Adriana: So then the next one… “denial of death.”
Britta: Yes. So the “denial of death” has both a real side and a symbolic side. So the real side is really looking at the truth that— especially for birthing parents of color— that there are some really horrific statistics out there. And for all of us, there is still some— you know, it used to be especially (less so now), but it used to be that the most dangerous thing that a woman could do was to give birth. No, that’s not so much the case anymore for most of us, but we do need to be willing to look at some of that side of mortality and, and be willing to face some of that. And that stress and anxiety that is brought up in pregnancy is often connected to that. And it’s also connected to the symbolic death, which is the one that I go into much more fully in the book, which is about the death of identity, the death of the “capital S” Self.
Because when we go through such a transformative experience as becoming a parent, a part of us dies, and this goes back to what you said earlier about the only constant is change. Yeah. This is change and even identity death. A part of us is gone. And how do we allow ourselves to be reborn from that identity death place? So it’s the death and rebirth part that shows up in big rites of passage, like childbirth.
Adriana: And it’s a huge part that I think now we’re talking more about it, but it wasn’t the case. We continue to talk more about it, it’s increasing. But I do feel that even in postpartum— especially in postpartum— the what makes it so difficult is not having a baby part (having a baby part, you’ll figure out diapers and the change in schedule, and like, that’s all, you get enough opportunities to practice that you’ll figure it out, is my feeling), but what can really be the biggest obstacle is understanding that you’ve been transformed and you are no longer the person you were, and I can see how much it connects to that adherence of innocence, because it forces you (whether you want it or not) to then become the parent. And what is this new identity, if you are now “The Parent” or “Mom” or “Dad,” when that word used to be your dad or your mom or your parent? And now you’ve got to take it on, and put it on, and try to like, fit into it. Yeah, it’s big stuff.
Britta: And that’s why those two are back-to-back. The adherence to innocence and the denial of death are linked. They’re very closely linked.
Adriana: Yes. Yeah. And it’s… people need to understand, for sure. Like, I love how deep you go into it. And in that links, you know, in the show notes, back to the episode we did on how birth will transform you.
Britta: It’s all linked. It’s all connected. Yes, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. And then the last one that I address in the book is the “quest for perfection and exceptionalism.” And this one also kind of connects back or in some ways is very kind of “two sides of the same coin” of the control and certainty. You know, the idea that perfection exists, that there is an ideal way that something should look, be, behave, and that it’s the… only things that are perfect, have value.
And in reality, imperfection teaches us a whole lot and we, learning to embrace the imperfections in our lives, is key to growth and continuing and moving forward. And the exceptionalism piece is that piece that can actually tend to fuel what are sometimes dubbed “mommy wars,” which is that idea that “I know the best way.” You know, being exceptional and I need to export that to other countries, to other parents on the playground, to other birth professionals. It’s like, this is the way, you have to do it my way, you have to do it the way I see is best. And that’s the piece that— exceptionalism is sort of perfectionism exported, right?
It’s like moving it out there to other people, and these get us into trouble and they keep us from connecting.
Adriana: Yeah. And I can see how we get into real problems with that, because— and back to what we do to our children and what was done to us— in that sense that you know nobody wants, nobody thinks their child is average.
Adriana: Right? My child is so… this wonderful gift. And it’s okay to be, just (quote-unquote) “a person,” right?
Britta: Yes. We’ve, we’ve got where we’ve got such an issue right now with perfectionism. And I have, this is one— I mean, frankly, all of these are things that I work with myself personally. I may have written the book for myself. I hope other people enjoy reading it, because I wrote it because I need these things.
I feel like our… everybody does to some degree, and to unhook from that perfectionism and accept and and open to enough-ness, to mediocrity, to it’s okay to fall down. That’s… that is part of what is the medicine we need in our culture right now.
Adriana: Of course, and that you can… there’s no such thing necessarily as “failing.” Like you just didn’t get it right that time. And we can learn a lot from our babies that way, when they are learning to walk, or learning to crawl, if like how many times do they attempt it before they actually get it? And it’s not, it’s just, you know, it’s like, “Oh, I fell, I can’t try this again. Ever again. I’m done. I cannot do it.” Right?
Britta: Well, none of us would ever walk if that was the case! You know, failure is just an attempt that didn’t work out. We have to just keep attempting and… or try something different or, you know, or be like, “Hmm. Okay. Well that one didn’t work.” You know, we would never berate our children for not running before they haven’t even learned how to roll over, but we do it to ourselves all the time.
Britta: It’s like, there are stages of growth. And how do we allow ourselves as— especially as new parents— to be like, “Wow, I didn’t know how to do that yet. That’s okay. I don’t know how to do this yet. I’m still growing.” And to hold ourselves with some tenderness and love and kindness. Developing a kind inner voice is one of the practices that I offer in this chapter and how important that is for keeping us moving forward in the face of this ideal of perfection that we’re… that somehow we believe we’re supposed to obtain. It’s like, no, like how do we be okay with what is right here, right now?
Adriana: Oh, and it’s so incredibly important to realize these ideals that we hold and to what extent we hold them. ‘Cause we all do like I’m reading through this and I’m like, “Yup. Yup, yup, yup. Perfection. Mhm.” And how that does affect how we birth, affect how we parent, affect how we live. And how really, I mean, these are the things we deal with on a daily basis. The problem is, or the situation is, that birth brings you— that change, transformation from being an individual to becoming a parent— brings you face-to-face with all of these, so hard.
Britta: Well said.
Adriana: That if you’re not ready for it… oh my goodness. That’s where we damage ourselves. So I so appreciate—
Britta: And that’s what makes me so excited, because I mean that… I get super excited about this opportunity that birth and new parenthood offers us, to face these things in our lives. It is such a huge opportunity for growth, and that makes me excited.
Adriana: No. You and me both! Like the wonders of transformation that are available in birth, it’s actually a gift, right? When we realize it, that it’s not, it is about having a baby, but it’s so much more than having a baby in terms of our life journeys. And pretty much like the biggest— oof, definitely one of the biggest— experiences we’ll ever have, because it brings us so close to all these things, like even death, right?
Britta: Absolutely. Exactly. Exactly. And that’s what I hope people get from my book, is an opportunity to look at birth and new parenthood as a growth opportunity.
Adriana: And not only does it do that, but it takes them one step further. Here’s where I’m plugging your book because I’ve read it twice. It gives them some tools on how to explore that, and how to be kind to themselves and kind of guide them a little bit through that journey. Not just… because otherwise you’re just thrown into the wolves.
Britta: Yeah, no, I’m, I hope that people take the tools and keep using them throughout their lives. Not just for labor, not just for birth, not just for postpartum. But they are… I give tools that can be used well beyond the childbearing period.
Adriana: Absolutely. No, I think it’s a book for anybody, even if you’ve already… Like, if you’re looking to birth soon? Yes. Definitely, help with those tools. But if you gave birth to 15 years ago, 20 years ago, it’s still great to look back and sort of clarify and name and identify and suss out that transformation that happened, because it happened, no matter what.
Britta: That’s what my mom says, but she’s also my mom. She’s like, “I’m going to have my book club read it.” I’m like, “Okay, mom, you’re all grandmas,” but she’s like, “Yeah, but there’s life lessons in there.” So I hope that that’s the case for people, that people find it valuable. That was my purpose in writing it.
Adriana: Yay, I’m so glad you did write it.
Britta: Thank you so much. I really so appreciate your words and your support and the gift that you’re giving out to birthing families and parents. It’s really powerful what you do. And I so appreciate being a part of it this time. Thank you.
Adriana: That was fabulous mythologist, celebrated childbirth educator, and author of Transformed by Birth, Dr. Britta Bushnell. You can find Britta on Instagram @BrittaBushnellPhD.
And you can connect with us @birthfulpodcast.
In fact, if you are not driving, we would love it if you took a screenshot of this episode right now and post it to Instagram sharing your biggest takeaway from our conversation. Make sure to tag @BirthfulPodcast and @BrittaBushnellPhD so we can see it and amplify it.
Keep an eye out for the next episode on our Models and Places of Birth series where so much of what we talked about today gets put into practice when Sarah Winward shares her birth story.
You can find the in-depth show notes and transcript of this episode at birthful.com, where you can also learn more about my small birth preparation classes, and download your free postpartum preparation plan.
Birthful is created and produced by me, Adriana Lozada, with production assistance from Aysia Platte.
Thank you for listening to and sharing Birthful. Be sure to follow us on Apple Podcasts Spotify, Amazon Music, and everywhere you listen.
Come back for more ways to inform your intuition.
Lozada, Adriana, host. “Birthful: What Cultural Ideals Will Shape Your Birth Experience?” Birthful, Birthful., March 23, 2022. Birthful.com.
About Dr. Britta BushnellDr. Britta Bushnell (she/her) is a wife and mother, author of Transformed by Birth, veteran childbirth educator, celebrated speaker, mythologist, and specialist in childbirth, relationship dynamics, and parenthood. For over 20 years, Dr. Bushnell has worked with individuals and couples as they prepare for the life-changing experience of giving birth. In 2020, Britta launched her apprenticeship program for perinatal professionals and has since mentored over 40 individuals sharing her unique style, skills, and philosophical background around how to support new parents on their individual transformational journey. When not working with parents or other birth professionals, Britta loves spending time with Brent (her partner of over 28 years), and their now grown children (when they’re available) either adventuring in the mountains, playing games, or traveling to exotic destinations.
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