originally published in the Squat Birth Journal in 2012(-ish)
Imagination is more important than knowledge. – Albert Einstein
I recently had an epiphany while explaining to a client why I don’t do Cervical Exams, and why I don’t teach women, or their husbands, to do them either. I started explaining the notion that cervical checks are an unnecessary intervention that don’t actually give us any useful information about labor progress, and that when a woman asks to be checked I prefer to ask her to check in with her inner knowing of how close or far along she is, and go with that over a physical check.
I found myself grappling with what this meant. Am I believing that a woman really knows here cervical dilation in reality, her labor progress, or do I just trust her to know what is important to know? It was then that it occurred to me that it really doesn’t matter.
If she is right in reality then she’s right in reality, and if not, whatever she imagines… well, that’s where the epiphany came in:
Of course she imagines that she is further along than she actually is. Her imagination is leading her into the cosmic trance we know is available to birthing women, a trance that transcends all concerns of labor progress. It is full of elemental power and ancestral symbolism.
Birth professionals, in general, think it normal and necessary to be real, to know and measure the reality of labor progress. This includes measuring a particular woman’s labor by some general rule, like you won’t be able to talk to me on the phone when you are really in labor and feeling confident in telling her that she is not really in labor.
If my epiphany is true, cervical exams are not only useless for measuring reality, they seriously interfere with, and interrupt, a woman’s imagination and inner birthing guide, and represent an unethical and irresponsible intervention, even when performed on oneself.
“I lost my mucus plug on January 23rd and slept through a night of increasingly intense contractions. When I called them in the morning, they said, If you are still walking around and talking, you aren’t really in labor. So, guess what happened? Labor stopped, and I started waiting to be in hard enough labor so that I couldn’t walk or talk. Naturally, this made me really upset emotionally and eager to really be in labor…. What if I had carried on with my inner knowledge that my baby was on her way on January 23rd, and not called anyone and just let it happen? What if the mere suggestion that I wasn’t really in labor was what shut it down?”
Most midwives are aware that, statistically, cervical dilation is not a good measure of labor progress, and that the stages of labor are far more nuanced than the 3 stages can do justice. I am not going to spend time on this here, but if you question this, please do some research and assess the evidence for yourself.
Midwives often agree to do cervical checks when requested by the mother, and unassisted birthers often learn to do them for themselves (I did). This is giving birth back to mothers right?
I remember asking for a cervical check when I was in labor, but what I really wanted was, HELP me get back in to the present moment where i am connected to the cosmos and my baby and know the answers to my own questions. I also asked, How much longer and got these answers, We don’t know and It’s up to you.
We need to understand what is at root when a woman asks for a cervical check and offer nourishment for the deeper need. In my experience, and in my opinion, women do know one of two things, where they are or where they’re going. Our best contribution to the moment is to help her connect with her own inner knowing and guide. Or if we are birthing unassisted, to have a path back to ourselves prepared and ready.
“Imaginal psychology is a recent branch of psychology which considers soul to be psychology’s primary concern. Central to this new discipline is the idea that the ‘soul’ expresses itself in images . . . This approach to psychology draws on a variety of spiritual traditions, the religious beliefs of Indigenous peoples (to whom the world remains in debt), mythology, literature and poetry, Deep Ecology, and social critique.” Wikipedia
It’s easy to talk about the spirituality of birth in the abstract, but more difficult when we want to talk about it concretely. According to Imaginal Psychology, the soul, and its expressions, are of primary concern. We also know that birth complications can stem from external interventions, but also from internal, psychological, obstacles. If in fact the soul speaks in images, we might be better off exploring this language of the soul and lay off all the medical trappings of modern midwifery.
“[T]he appearance of an Image having the quality of a symbol is a primary phenomena. . . the appearance of something that cannot manifest itself otherwise to the world where we are.”
The soul speaks to us of our future, it describes things that cannot manifest in the here and now, but that beacon us on and into what might be. The soul speaks the language of myth and symbol, of archetypes, images and visions. When a woman calls her midwife to tell her she is in labor, she is carrying out an archetypal act and she expects to be celebrated and honored. Whether she tells you or not, she does not want to be doubted and she definitely doesn’t want to be told she’s not in labor.
I have heard midwives chuckle about this, and read articles about how to know when you, or she, is really in labor. I am arguing here that if you ask her to tell you the story of what is happening, to describe the image of her sensations, to check in with her baby and her own heart, she will tell you exactly what she needs to hear in order to slip deeper and deeper into the birth trance. She will hear the voice of her own soul speaking its imaginal verses, and they will be her guide. Question her, and you are intervening in a profound and magical process.
Quantum Theory simply says: “[B]y the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality.” We know from Grantly Dick-Reid and others that labor tends to stall when a woman is observed in labor. Why would we not consider this fact in the context of cervical checks?
“Once an observer begins to watch the particles… the picture changes dramatically: if a particle can be seen going through one opening, then it’s clear it didn’t go through another. In other words, when under observation, electrons are being “forced” to behave like particles and not like waves. Thus the mere act of observation affects the experimental findings.” – Science Daily
I can’t resist the image of a woman in labor, and her cervix, likened to the nature of light. She acts like a wave that can penetrate barriers, until she is observed, at which point she begins to act like a mass of particles and gets hung up in obstacles. Perhaps a woman’s cervix is not so different from light while a woman is allowed to labor without intervention in, or observation of, what she imagines.
The power of imagining is not a foreign concept. We have all heard stories of athletes or performance artists who rehearse in their mind before the actual event. It would be hard to deny the value of this kind of imagining.
However, this is not a create your reality thing. It’s not about wishing something to be true. It’s about the language of our deep inner knowing. It’s not about wishing to see faeries, and hoping to see them. It’s about knowing deeply that there are faeries whether we see them or not.
So how do we address fear when it emerges, as it may in any real rite of passage, if we truly give up the Cervical Exam?
Even suggesting a position change or rebozo sifting, unless it is a true reading from the sacred birth field, is also an intervention that takes a mother away from responding with her body to her baby and their journey together. And even then, ask her to consider it, and then do what’s right for her . . . and it might not be you with the grand idea. It can be anyone.
There is only learning how to truly listen to the birth field and offering, with deepest humility and curiosity, what you find there . . . this and working prenatally with mothers and families so that they have access to their instinctual and soulful selves.