Hero's Journey

I am a really, really big NPR geek. It started when I was a stay-at-home Momma after the birth of my first baby. My girl never slept during the day through that whole 4th Trimester – unless I was holding her. (This was sixteen a LONG time ago! Long before the ubiquitous smartphones and Netflix that today’s parents have access to.) So, I strapped my kiddo to my chest and went about my day with NPR and talk radio as my constant companion. I’ve never been as educated or well-informed about world events than I was during that time in my life! It felt good to still a part of the world during those cold winter months that followed my baby’s October birthday.

I think it was then that the power of story really began to take hold of me. I’ve always been an avid reader and a well-written story has the power to completely transport me to another world. I can visualize the events as if they’re a movie being played inside my head. It’s super cool! But I think there’s even more power in the spoken word and last night I got to experience that power in person. 

For those of you non-NPR geeks, The Moth is all about true stories, told without any notes. A dream of mine, which may not surprise any of you, would be tell a story on The Moth Main Stage at some point in my life. I don’t really have an actual “bucket list” but if I did, this would be right at the top. I bought tickets for this event months ago and last night I sat in my seat and waited for the storytelling to begin with the same excitement reserved for seeing an all-time favorite rock band.

The stories that make it to the Main Stage are ones that have been finessed and the storytellers have been well-coached so that their 10-12 minutes long story has, as all good stories do, a beginning, middle and end. The narrative should be easy for people to follow and it must be compelling in some way. Humor is welcome, but not necessary. Feeling as though the reader has taken you on a journey, absolutely is.

At the end of last night’s two hour show, I felt full. That’s the only way I can describe it. My heart was satiated and I was content. Five amazingly brave readers, in front of the largest Moth crowd ever assembled, told us their stories. Some were laugh-out-loud funny, some were so intense that I found myself holding my breath, waiting to hear what happened next. All of them were moving in the way only story can move us.

And this got me thinking about the power of telling our own stories. About how vital it is for all who’ve experienced the transforming power of birth to be able to tell their stories to someone who is willing to listen with that same rapt attention. Someone who resonates with shared experience, who gasps at the exciting parts, laughs at the funny parts, and cries at the parts that are still painful and raw.

When I teach my classes we discuss how often pregnant people feel “assaulted” by others, oftentimes complete strangers, who are compelled to tell them their birth story. It’s rare that those stories are ones full of joy and excitement, wonder and awe. No, too often these stories are filled with pain, regret and disappointment.

And it’s my theory that this sharing of “The Negative Birth Story” is an unconscious deep-seated desire to process this life-changing event with someone, anyone, who’s willing to listen. I believe these people have been told, over and over again, that they should, “Move on!” or “Healthy parent, healthy baby – that’s all that matters, right?” They are told, in effect, to shut up and stop telling their story. Often by those who are closest to them and the birth they just experienced: their providers, their friends and family, even their partners.

But these stories need to be told, they must be told. For how else are these people supposed to integrate this event into their lives, if not by telling their story? Birth is the most profound story that can ever be told. It always has a beginning, a middle and an end. There are most certainly obstacles that need to be overcome and it is for sure a hero’s journey in the greatest sense of that phrase.

I think “The Birth Story” fits perfectly with Joseph Campbell’s, “The Hero’s Journey.” When someone says “yes” to pregnancy, they’re answering the call to adventure, even if they’re reluctant at first. They might need some form of supernatural aid to assist them in this process and they’’ll most likely check in with guides and mentors, those who’ve made this journey before them to make sure they’re on the right path as they move from the Known to the Unknown.

The start of the pregnancy marks the beginning of their transformation process, but they’ll still stumble through many different challenges along the way. Maybe they’re sick in the beginning, maybe they hates how their body is changing. Anxiety might be ever-present on this journey. Maybe they and their partner experience relationship issues. Maybe there’s an unexpected health issue for them or the baby, or both. They’re faced with serious questions: What’s the “best” way to bring this baby into the world? Who will they be once this journey has ended? 

But the biggest challenge for them will come during the birth itself.

When I found this particular image of The Hero’s Journey above, I knew I wanted to use it because it calls the big challenge: the abyss – where death and rebirth will occur, where revelation can be found. So appropriate for what happens during the throes of labor. They will be challenged physically, emotionally and spiritually as never before! 

This can be an incredibly transformative experience for if they feels like they had supporting, loving guides who accompanied them on this most intense part of their journey. If they feels like they were never alone, and were given the tools to make sense of this metaphorical death and rebirth, then they can emerge on the other side of their “abyss experience” truly transformed – feeling like the hero that they are.

There needs to be some time for atonement – but not in the sense of reconciliation. No, atonement in the ancient sense of the word: unity. A time to re-unite oneself, body and spirit, in the immediate hours and days following the birth. This is the time where they can assimilate who they are now – who they have become since their journey began nine months prior.

They need to relive their journey vicariously, give it words and tell the story, their story, so they can accept the gifts of the goddess. The baby, their partner, their new family, their new self – are the rewards for the Hero’s Journey they’ve just completed. When we downplay that essential piece of atonement, of telling the story, we rob them from ever being able to find closure – personal unity. They are compelled to continue to try and find meaning and resolution from their journey, seeking out those who will help them process this life event.

The power of story is palpable. The words, both spoken and left silenced in our hearts, need to be heard before final transformation and closure can occur.

For all those reading this who are feeling the deep need to tell their birth stories (even if your birth happened years ago!) there’s a way to do this. The Birth Story Project is an online forum where you can write your story, even anonymously, and be heard. Where you can string your words together to help your new Hero-self make meaning of the intense journey you’ve been on.

You don’t need to be a writer. You just need to be yourself, letting the power of what you’ve experienced be transformed into your story. You won’t be on the receiving end of any comments from readers, that’s not how The Birth Story Project works. So be prepared to leave it all on the page for your readers so they can be carried along, transformed with you, by your words. And see if this helps you reach atonement – unity – in your new identity as a parent.

You are a hero. Your story is important. It needs to be shared.

Have you ever told your birth story, fully and completely, to someone who not only listened, but heard what your heart had to share? How has the telling, or the not-telling, of your birth story affected you?

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