On Vulnerability

The truth is: Belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect. ~ Brene Brown

Vulnerability feels like your soul is exposed, turned inside out, waiting for a response. To be vulnerable requires authentically showing up in your life. It is not vulnerable to merely show up for yourself in the silence of your home. It involves relating to others or exposing a part of yourself, your soul, to another. It is the act of feeling exposed, raw, real, and open as a way of connecting that can feel like the scariest thing anyone could ever do.

Vulnerability does not feel safe, simply put.

It doesn’t feel safe because, for the most part, it has not been safe to be authentic and exposed. In moments of vulnerability, we may have experienced an attack, bullying, mockery, belittling, laughter, emptiness, and more profound yet, public or family shunning. It is as if our cells recoil at the thought of being vulnerable, we move away from it. And again, we are told that we need to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability and offer more, not less, of ourselves. The world needs this, and we need this. Why do we need this?

Author Brene Brown, deemed the ‘expert’ on vulnerability, suggests that human vulnerability opens our hearts and thus, shines a light on our shame, so we no longer live small. We need to come out of our hiding places so that we can belong; genuinely belong. When we are vulnerable, we are real. And when we are real, hiding nothing and letting our imperfections be seen, we are tapping into vulnerability.

That said, vulnerability has not always been perceived as powerful. For example, I invite you to pay attention to any judgemental thoughts, felt sensations in your body, feeling reactions when you hear the phrase: She was so vulnerable.

What did you notice? Maybe you noticed an open reaction, curious to hear more. Or perhaps you felt constriction, fear, protection; akin to feeling ‘sorry’ for someone who was vulnerable. Maybe you felt anger. Or, perhaps you interpreted the phrase as an indication of weakness. As you can see, there are many possible reactions to the words: she was so vulnerable.

I recognize that within myself I have an array of responses depending on the context in which the statement is used. Are we referring to a woman who was writing a personal story? Or a child who was exposed to an environmental catastrophe? A teenager who was attacked while walking home from school? An executive director speaking publically about a cause? Or, a mother in labor?
Each scenario generates a different emotional response. And yet, we praise vulnerability.

From my vantage point, vulnerability is both powerfulness and powerlessness.It is a paradox: to be courageous and weak. The act of vulnerability is intensely feminine.

Exposing our soul in a courageously authentic way, with flaws on the outside, can produce both joy and sorrow. It is risky. Therefore, it is understandable why we are shy to show up with vulnerability in our day to day lives if we are still figuring out whether being vulnerable means demonstrating strength or exposing our weakness. And I would add it is extra challenging for anyone who is not of the dominant culture – i.e., the white man who aligns with patriarchal values.

Jumping forward, I want to turn your attention towards the notion that when a woman is in labor and giving birth, she is utterly vulnerable.

Notice what arose within you. What were your thoughts, emotions, felt sensations? Take a moment to listen to what is emerging within, what story is showing up?

Just the other day I was having a passionate conversation with some colleagues and women friends. I was speaking about how vulnerable and exposed I was feeling since sharing my first draft of my opening chapter of my book: Healing After Birth. In this section, I unpacked my birth story, my shame, and my unannounced birth trauma. It was the very first time I choose to be this public about my birth experience. Part of it was cathartic, but another part was my soul’s need to weave this story into my life’s work so that I can show up more authentic with each mother I serve.

I was spinning out my anxiety that presented because a part of me was interpreting my decision as dangerous, ridiculous, and selfish. Moreover, I felt as if I was standing on the front lines awaiting a verbal thunderstorm of opinions raining down about one of THE MOST vulnerable times of my life. What had I done! Vulnerability is bullshit, I thought to myself.

As the tension in the room was rising, we were all feeding off this angst. My colleague caught me off-guard and posed a statement: Jen, women in labor are vulnerable, period. You were incredibly vulnerable during your birth experience. And so how can you expect a woman in labor to stand up for herself, defend herself, push against unwanted procedures and protocols, or NOT hand her power over to her caregiver?

Whoa! This comment hit me on so many levels, and my system was highly activated and jumping all over the place. It was as if all of my years of experience was being sorted out in my brain and I needed to pull it all together to have a response that was short and legitimate.

I babbled my way through and felt like I was making no sense at all. Women being vulnerable in labor is such a massive topic of discussion, I said. On the one hand, women are profoundly powerful in labor and birth; and right, they are also incredibly vulnerable.

How was I interpreting this idea of vulnerability? Why was I so triggered? Part of my trigger was that I said I wish women did not hand their power over to their caregivers. But I saw my error in this statement, as we collectively unpacked the concept. Granted we only skimmed the surface. However, these questions entered my mind.

What is power?
Who has power?
Where is the power?
How is the power used?
What is vulnerability in this context?

It is fair to say that everyone in the birthing room has their power. The mother has personal power, along with the caregiver, support people, partner, family members, etc. Each person brings with them, into the room, intrinsic power. However, in this milieu, we bump up against the tension that lies between a mother’s need and desire to exert her power during labor and birth and the needs of the ‘expert’ in the room.

I imagine that you can already sense the complexity involved in this statement. And how appropriate it would be to do a power analysis to ascertain who holds more power in the birthing environment. That said, I am not going to unpack a power analysis in this article. But let’s just say that those who work within and for the medical establishment hold an incredible amount of power to influence, control, inform, and manage the experience of labor and birth.

And fundamentally, a woman’s laboring body houses a shit load of knowledge and power. Thus, one type is external power or power over, and the other is, internal power or power within.

Now, let’s take into consideration that women are still victims of oppression, and marginalized women that include but not limited to women of color, first nations women, Islamic women, and refugee women experience a much higher degree of social abuse and mistreatment of care.

The patriarchal worldview foundationally informs the medical establishment. Thus, when you combine oppressed women within a patriarchal institution you encounter power over tactics that are intended to control, manage, suppress, disempower, and submit. We cannot ignore the fact that for centuries women have been raised within the dominant cultural worldview. One imprint in particular haunts women in labor – The caregiver knows best. Within this mindset, there is an invisible power exchange that occurs, and thus the caregiver inevitably has power over the laboring mother.

Does this not elicit vulnerability? The kind of vulnerability that denotes weakness and at risk of harm.

The notion above refers to the quality of vulnerability that I have been defending against for the past 17 years. To say that a woman in labor is vulnerable is akin to saying she is in harm’s way. Moreover, I am ignited to do something about this concern, and I react with a desire to protect. My backlash attempt was to empower women through education, inspiring mothers to take back their births, body, and babies. All of which was motivated by the concept – do not allow yourself to be vulnerable in labor and delivery.

Most of the research I explored on the topic of childbirth trauma noted that women felt disempowered and traumatized in labor when they lacked choice and control, felt violated, abandoned, neglected, or feared that there was an emergency that could have resulted in the death of their baby. To mitigate this from happening it seems evident that we need women to feel prepared, confident, knowledgeable, trusting, and determined to be ‘self-directed’ in childbirth. In other words, to mitigate vulnerability (because that meant you were in harm’s way) you need inner strength and determination. I am unsure if this is in fact true?

Thus, to be genuinely vulnerable in labor and birth was/is risky. And truth is, childbirth is entirely a journey of vulnerability and letting go. So we stand at this crossroads again. If it is not safe to be vulnerable because when we are vulnerable, we get hurt, how is a mother going to allow her labor to open while vulnerable? What a dilemma.

This dilemma is what challenged me that night as I was impassioned with angst and confusion. How do I address this complicated topic? Both are true: Women in labor are incredibly vulnerable, and women in labor are full of power.

And then it hit me the next morning. Of course, I couldn’t sleep that night. I felt like my ideology was butting up against my colleague’s words. What was it that challenged me so much?

I realized it was the fact that I was vulnerable during childbirth. I was profoundly helpless in the postpartum with my daughter when I was utterly sick. And I was disgusted with myself for being so ill because I perceived myself as being weak. Thus, I considered myself as being in harm’s way. Deeper yet, I had failed. During that experience, I believed that vulnerability equated failure and a lack of power.

And harm is what occurred during that 24-hour hospital stay. My vulnerability led to a violation of my body – aggressive procedures against my will. And being immobilized for two weeks, oozing mucous out of my ass, was not only humiliating it was vulnerable.

I was terrified of being that vulnerable.

The concept of vulnerability is complex to unpack, especially as it pertains to the childbirth milieu. The deeper I go into my understanding of vulnerability, I recognize that there is a difference between being vulnerable as a way to bring my authentic self to the world, and being in a vulnerable (unsafe) situation that could result in harm. The childbirth continuum includes the possibility of both forms of vulnerability. Thus, discernment is critical.

Although my body may react similarly to each case, both being perceived physiologically as a potential threat for harm, I choose to engage with my mindful mind to remind myself that vulnerability does not always involve damage. Albeit, it is still a risk.

The risk to be real, knowing that rejection from the tribe, family, friends, is a possibility can trigger paralysis and symptoms similar to perceiving death. This degree of terror is a result of our biological primary need to attach securely with others, in love and kindness. If we consider the above notion, to connect with love and compassion as a primary motivation, we are inclined to lean into vulnerability as a means to meaningful connection and belonging.

My drive towards vulnerability, authenticity, and raw exposure of my hearts story is not something I enjoy doing; it is a necessity. Without it, my experience of life would feel empty and meaningless. Thus, it is worth the risk. And that also means that rather than shaming myself for having been vulnerable during my birth and postpartum, that I connect with this past part and hold her in love. The antidote is a compassionate connection and non-judgemental understanding for both the self and others.

I sat with this post and contemplated the paradox of vulnerability – holding both powerfulness and powerlessness. I allowed myself to venture inside to connect to my postpartum self; grief showed up as I held my dear collapsed part in the depths of her pain of vulnerability. Knowing in that moment that I could carry both powerfulness and powerlessness within myself, and that is enough.  I believe in the concept that the deeper one goes within, the greater capacity they have to hold that for someone else.  Holding the paradox of vulnerability, in acceptance and understanding, is my work right now.