How You Got Here Is How You Walk Here


My friend Dan believes that our whole lives are metaphorically prefigured in the story of our respective births. I’ve been asking everyone, to see if I agree, and I have to admit Dan has a point.

My own birth was pretty normal except that I was huge—10 pounds, 14 ounces. Eight years later, when I went to get allergy shots, the pediatrician’s nurse looked at my chart and then cried out in what sounded like horror, “Oh, my gosh, you were that enormous baby!” And, indeed, there are still plenty of people who’ll tell you I have far too big a footprint on the earth.

I’ve written about two of my children’s births in different memoirs: Adam came into the world triumphantly peeing in the face of an obstetrician who would rather have performed his abortion; he has lived as a walking testament to the value of being different. Lizzy’s birth was early and easy, just like her departure from home (she’s 19 and already living in Japan). My first child, Katie (sorry, I mean Kat) almost stalled out because I was trying too hard to give birth perfectly. I was in labor for 40 hours before I finally had an epidural, fell asleep, and relaxed. Then she popped right out. And since then, she’s always held back until she’s sure before going ahead with anything.

What was your birth story? If you know it, think about how it might inform your life right now. Call your mom and get the details—I promise, giving birth is something most of us can talk about until were blue in the face (and many of us were, right around the time our babies emerged.

Dan suggests that you close your eyes and rest for the circumstances of your own birth; for your mother, your father, siblings, other relatives, friends. Soften the pain and magnify the joy of the event. Retroactively fill it with as much love as it will hold (hint: a lot). It’s worth the time. After all, I think it’s pretty safe to say it was one of the most important days of your life. Then, as Kabir suggested, “hold each moment as I did my son when he was born.”

10 replies
  1. Gail Blesch
    Gail Blesch says:

    As I read this post I ran it through my memory of the birth of my four children and there may be something to it. There is that moment, the first glimpse of your newborn where all the waiting, wondering, worry and hope collide with the reality of their physical being. That moment where imagination and intuition merge with actual form and create a powerful first impression. My fourth child was 11 lbs 3 oz and when she was born the thing that burned itself on my memory was the size of her hand! Of all the things that moment could have been, what I was struck by was this Disney-like Mickey Mouse mitt of a hand whipping past me. Picture Mickey’s white gloved hand making a circular wave that simultaneously said, “Hello world!” and “Here I am!”

    It’s been the same ever since.

    That first impression has been reaffirmed over and over again for the past 12 years in the animation of a spirit that is larger than the body contained by it. Although our daughter was the biggest, by far, of the babies in the hospital nursery that day, she has consistently been one of the smallest in her class photos but the impression she makes on people has remained the same as that first impression she made on me.

    From the first days when like you, nurses and other medical staff, knew her as “that huge baby!” through to her primary school years when I’d pick her up and kids would yell out to get her attention. I’d ask who they were and she’d shrug. She didn’t know them but it was clear, they knew her.

    She’s long lost the big hand (she never really did have a hand out of proportion to her body, that was just how it struck me) but she hasn’t lost that thing that makes you think of Disney-style magic.

    If your friend Dan’s theory is correct, that she wants to be an actress on the screen may not be so far-fetched after all.

  2. Phyllis Stein
    Phyllis Stein says:

    Hello Martha. I have thought about this a lot. There is a lot of evidence that the process of birth sets our autonomic responses to stress. Some of us almost die trying to get born and when we feel trapped in a situation our bodes go to a kind of hypervagal state where energy is conserved for survival. We tend to expect the worst and collapse. Some of us fought our way out and probably turn into Type A personalities, convinced that we can fight our way thru anything. For some, getting born worked out just fine and I suspect these people are optimistic that they can handle anything. I was the baby of a smoker, a least a pound smaller than I should have been, already convinced that I could not count on getting what I needed (oxygen) when I needed it. My birth was going just fine until my mother panicked and tried to hold me back and suddenly I was totally betrayed and desperate. It felt like survival was an act of will and that I could not count on anyone. Feeling temporarily stuck became a natural state. I have connected with and healed a lot of this. I find it heartbreaking that so many babies now are induced (so that they are born out of rhythm) and born via C-section (so that the big thing they expect never happens and they spend their lives waiting for it) or via epidural-forceps so that the natural birth partnership between mother and baby, the spiritual process of birth, of each trusting the other, of the mother trusting her own power as a mother, never happens and the baby never has the experience of getting out on its own. This cannot be very empowering.

  3. Beth
    Beth says:

    Fascinating. My mother was unconscious when I was born. (This was evidently a common practice in the sixties. How barbaric it sounds now!) How do I begin to unwind that?

  4. Mia
    Mia says:

    Interesting and something I have pondered myself. In the “old days” when there was an Rh Factor problem with a baby, the 1st child is the one that lives and any others die. I was the 2nd child. The first had died within hours of birth. I was born blue –and in a journey to re-visit the scene, I felt there was not a person in the room who thought I would live, although they went through the motions — a complete ‘blood wash’ served with palpable anxiety, fear, heart-breaking sadness. That the planet (or demi-planet?) Pluto, symbolic of death and rebirth, was rising at my birth time is no surprise. It may be the only magic that could have pulled me through. I don’t know that I have a complete understanding of it all… but I can say that in the “real world” I have often struggled with anxiety/depression and the feeling I don’t quite ‘fit in’. I have been trained as a Shaman and am drawn to working with the dead and dying as well as helping people re-connect with lost soul parts. (I’m also a Martha Beck life coach – hi Martha -thanks for this thought-provoking article!)

  5. Karen
    Karen says:

    Absolutely. And, this begs the question why are we doing so many medically unnecessary c-sections in the United States? The C-section rate is over 30 percent (the World Health Organization says a 15% rate is more acceptable for industrialized countries). Why is there a disconnect that how we give birth matter to us and our children’s lives for decades? I’m not saying there should be no c-sections, but we need to address this human rights violation of women and children. Thank goodness the National Institutes of Health just published a statement on how the medical evidence does not support repeat cesareans. Let’s be educated, mothers, and do our part to help our children get a great start.

    Imagine a world where over 80% of mothers had peaceful births?

  6. JB
    JB says:

    Well. I was 6 lbs 7 oz. Because I was adopted, it wasn’t until my birth family found me a few years ago that the puzzle pieces were found.

    My birth mother was divorced, but the ex is the alleged father. He managed to knock up my mother AND his current wife at the same time, thus I have a half-sister one week older than me. I have several older full siblings and one half-sibling who is younger (via a stepfather).

    My birth mother was arrested for child neglect (falsely) and was incarcerated at the time of my birth. Though she desperately wanted to keep me, the State forced her to choose between me and the existing siblings who had been placed in foster care.

    I was subsequently adopted at 10 days old and raised by a wonderful older couple. My adoptive mother had a biological child 20 years older than me. Though I got along well with and deeply loved my adoptive family, I always wondered what I was missing out on, what my heritage was, and if I’d been wanted or not.

    When I met my birth family and got the rest of the story, I discovered that had I stayed with them, I would have been raised in an environment of abuse of all kinds (stepfather) and extreme hardship–a huge contrast to the upper-middle-class, well-educated suburban environment I enjoyed courtesy of my adoptive professor father and artist mother.

    How do you interpret all of that? I’d love some insights.

  7. Virginia
    Virginia says:

    Ha! I love this idea!

    I was born in the middle of a monster Virginia thunderstorm. Power flickering, driving rain, lots of booming and crashing. Also, my mother went into labor with me while in the middle of a huge blackberry patch (she was picking for jam). Might explain why I am so prickly. 😉

    My daughter’s birthing story is pretty good. I gave birth with “swagger.” Easiest childbirthing ever. Four hours in labor, pretty easy, cracked jokes, gave birth, spent about 20 minutes lying on the bed afterwards, hopped up and walked down to recovery. The doctors were asking “hey, you wanna do this again sometime?” and I said “hell, if I’d known how easy it would be, I woulda done this 15 times already.”

    Not surprisingly, my little girl (now 4) has a lot of swagger. She owns this joint (i.e. the world), knows it, and has absolutely no questions about her place, what she’s going to do, and how she’s going to do it. Walks down the street in our (rather rough) hood in the Bronx like she’s the biggest baddest thing on two legs. She’s awesome.

    And she enjoys mangling Michael Jackson lyrics with utter conviction at the top of her lungs. “Billie Jean is not my llama / she’s just a girl / who llama, I AM THE ONE!”

  8. Roshinee
    Roshinee says:

    I have been thinking about this for some time. All I know for sure is that my mother wanted a boy and until my father demanded that she give birth to a girl or not at all, she had never prayed for the entire time of her pregnancy.
    And then she was praying everyday till I was born.My mother was facing some heartbreak with my father during her pregnancy but she was happy though a little numb to the miracle that was about to happen to her.She never talked about her pregnancy much with me.But she did mention how she was happy when the labour started because I was coming.And considering how lonely my mother was then,how young,lost and afraid she was, I think its a miracle she pulled herself together to welcome me.Happily.
    She was crazy about me.I was a premature child and my mums jealous sister in law said -ve things when I was born all blue and small.But in one month my grandmother had coaxed me into a cute chubby baby and I was soon the favourite of the town, more so than the aunts
    And my life story is a repetition of that over and over again- big plans with no scope, a lot of prayers by the women who are most devoted to me, a lot of jealousy when i first arrive on the scene because I look so out of place and then slowly I am just perfect for the position I hold and everyone loves me. And the enemies are all quiet and out of the way. Thanks mummy for giving birth to me.I love you.Thanks Martha for this, I love mum a lot more now.

  9. JacquelineLC
    JacquelineLC says:

    Hey, i was eventually born 16 days late with my Mum having gone through 36 hours of labour – and receiving a stich for everyone of them. the umbilical cord was round my neck but, obviously, I survived. Since then, I have almost died a few times and, again, survived! Other really crappy things have happened to me too that you would only expect from some kind of soap opera or drama. Does all this make me a survivor? Not sure about that! some friends say I am the strongest person they know. Huh!

    What I do know is that I’ve spent the majority of my life being treated for depression with my weight and confidence bouncing up and down like yoyos. I’d really like it to stop please. How, is the real question though. I can work with others & feel their positive influences – but the minute I’m left to my own devices, I falter.

    I’m not even really sure why I’m posting this: it’s not as if it’s going to help me – is it?

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