Know

While pregnant with my first, I had gotten used to getting kicked awake. But one morning, I woke up and – no movement. I made my way to the bathroom thinking the baby would start kicking any second… but no. I’d been up and out of bed for maybe five minutes, when I started to completely freak out! Frantically, I called my doula.

“The baby’s not moving! What do I do?!”

“Drink a glass of juice, sit someplace quiet and count any movements from the baby until you get to 20 and then call me back,” she calmly explained.

“Oh, count fetal movements, yeah. Just like I teach people to do in my own classes all the time,” I replied lamely.

In that moment it didn’t matter how many books I’d read, how many conferences I’d attended, or even how many couples I’d taught in my own classes! Suddenly, it all became so clear! I was just another pregnant person – feeling anxious and vulnerable and unable to remember all the information I’d been teaching others for close to two years!

There was just so much I didn’t know that I didn’t know.  

This also happens to a lot of people in my classes. They, too, are surprised and startled when they realize: They don’t know how much they don’t know. These are well-read people. They’re really intelligent. Many have amassed a small library on the subject of birth, but still in the end they’re blown away by how little they really know.

The reason is two-fold. When a couple finds themselves pregnant for the first time, the pregnant person’s life changes dramatically. They see the plus sign on the pee stick and their whole world changes overnight. But the partner’s? Not so much. The pregnant person might start noticing breast tenderness or nausea, but physically most partners are feeling pretty normal. The physical changes of pregnancy usually prompts the pregnant person to want to learn more about it. So they Google, they buy a ton of books, they might talk to their mom, sisters, or other friends who’ve been pregnant before. They basically turn into a fact-finding machine wanting to know all they can about what they’re about to go through.

Some partners try to match them in this quest and start looking for their own sources of information. But all too often they’re disappointed in the offerings! Many of the most popular books on the shelves have one, maybe two chapters dedicated to the expectant partner’s experience of pregnancy and birth. And a lot of the books that are designed specifically for male partners are condescending to the male experience. By the time a Childbirth Preparation class becomes their reality, a lot of partners admit to not being very well-informed at all.

Pregnant people, on the other hand, feel like they know just about everything! Except that many of them stopped reading the books and Googling the articles when they got to the parts that involve the actual act of giving birth. Many of them are not ready to go there yet.

A long time I ago I had an “Aha!” moment as a Childbirth Educator: The baby will come out. One way or another, the baby will come out. And so I teach my couples about all the ways that a baby might make their entrance into this world. But really, I’m teaching them much more than that. I’m not just teaching them how to breathe, and what positions are best for bringing the baby down and out. I’m not just clarifying the differences between analgesic medication and an epidural. I’m not just teaching them how to become well-informed health care consumers, either.

How I set up my classroom experience and even how my couples introduce themselves to one another sets the tone for the entire series. They should feel like they’re in a a safe place to ask questions, explore vulnerability, and meet a community of people who are going through the same experience. It’s important that my parents stop feeling isolated during this huge transformation. I spend a lot of time nudging the individuals who’ve been walking their separate paths of pregnancy to step into one another’s shoes for a bit so that they can move together as a couple onto a merged path of shared experience – all in an effort to better prepare them to welcome their baby into their relationship.

When I was a rookie teacher, I really believed that my role was all about teaching folks how to have the “best” birth experience possible – a vaginal birth with no need for medications or interventions! My focus was so narrow on how “best” to get the baby out, that I left out all the most important stuff! Now a veteran, I spend a lot of this time teaching – yes, how to get the baby out – but so much more.

I know I’ve done my job well when I read these sorts of comments on their evaluations, “Didn’t realize how important my role as the partner was to her whole experience.” Or, “Liked the emphasis placed on the postpartum period and how we can work to make our relationship stronger.” These are the intangibles they can’t get from a computer screen, or even a book. I always encourage expecting families to seek out classes facilitated by a live educator for these very reasons. I want them to have that experience at the end of a class, “Wow! I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.”

And it’s helpful to be in that place before giving birth – that place of knowing all that you don’t know. Because that’s what parenting really is, having to learn on the job, day-to-day. And this can be quite the shock to someone who hasn’t eased into it during their pregnancy.

Knowing something because you’ve researched it or read a ton about it, is nothing like knowing it from lived experience. There’s a very big difference between a couple prepping for birth the first time versus a couple prepping for their second or third. It might be assumed that a couple doesn’t have to prepare for birth the second time because they already know everything there is to know.

The truth is, they’re better prepared because they’re humbled by the fact that there’s so much that they do not know.

And they know it.

What topics in your childbirth class do you wish had been covered? When did you realize that you didn’t know what you didn’t know?

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