When I was pregnant with my third child, my youngest son, Henry, my husband and I knew we wanted to have a home birth. Our two older children, who were five and six years old at that time, were both born in a birth center and entirely outside of a hospital setting, and while childbirth is never easy, their births were successful and safe in the presence of a set of midwives. So, this time, with baby #3, we felt safe enough to hire a midwife and nurse to attend and aid in the birth of our son in our own bedroom.
I’m not going to tell you the whole birth story, although it’s tempting. Each of my children’s births matched their individual natures and personalities, but that’s a story for another time. In Henry’s birth at home, though, there was a moment when I decided not to give birth.
Everything was going very well, there were no complications at all. I had spent some of the labor in the bathtub soaking in warm water, and signs of transition, the point in the labor when the contractions start to produce an urge to begin pushing the baby fully into the birth canal, were starting. At that point I got out of the tub, allowed my husband and the nurse to dry me a bit, a waddled my way over to the bed, where the midwife was ready for me.
Then I sat down on the edge of the bed, crossed my legs, and said, “I’m not going to push.”
The midwife, and probably the other people in the room as well, looked at me blankly. She said, “what do you mean by that?”
I said, “I don’t want to push. It hurts so much and it’s the worst part and I don’t want to.”
(For those who may have never experienced childbirth firsthand, let me explain that this statement was 100% ridiculous. I had a baby lodged in my pelvis, everything was fine, and my body was indicating to me and to everyone else in the room that it was time to get my son out.)
The midwife, patiently said, “Is something wrong?” And I replied, “No, it’s fine but I don’t want to push.”
Confused and incredulous glances were exchanged between everyone but me.
The midwife leaned over, made eye contact with me, and said sternly, “You have to.”
And just like that the moment was over. I went back into my instinctual mode, got on the bed, and about ten minutes later, I delivered my son directly into my husband’s arms.
Looking back on my momentary refusal to give birth to my son in a moment when it was time, I could give you a number of different explanations of what was happening in my mind that made me decide to literally stop giving birth while already in the process of doing so. But the reasons don’t matter now any more than they did then, when I sat there on the bed saying no. Because I was not in control. No one in the room was in control. The only ones in control in that moment were God, and my almost-born son, who really was just waiting patiently because his head was stuck in my pelvic bones.
I said I wasn’t going to push because I wanted control, and I had none.
The delegation of control is an aspect of everything we deal with every day. Just as I had no control over the necessity of finishing the birth of my son, we can all list many things that are out of our control but nevertheless our responsibility. I would love to have my entire house neat, tidy, everything in its place, but I live with four other people and five animals with fur, so, as crazy-making as it is to never have all the floors clean or all the dishes done, I live with it because I love them. Sure, I can vacuum and run the dishwasher as much as possible, but these are chores that, even if I do them multiple times each day, will never be fully completed.
Of course, there are also the bigger, more devastating things that none of us can control. The loss of a job or an inability to pay your bills because they just keep getting higher and you can only work so much. An unexpected change in someone’s health, when suddenly a loved one who was completely independent isn’t anymore. Economic hardship, rising violence in our town, our country, our home. When you are facing impossible situations that you have little or no control over, situations that effect your life, your health, your identity, and your most basic needs for survival, and you have no answers, what do you even call that? Desperation? Fear? Grief? Despair?
Yet it happens. There are lots of events and situations that affect us on a daily basis that we can’t control any more than I could have decided not to give birth to my son when he was already on his way out.
Once upon a time I saw this prayer written somewhere and thought it was ridiculous. Then I grew up, and found that fighting to change something that is out of my control is always futile, and waiting around for someone or something else to change something when I can act on it myself is wasteful. But the key to the serenity part is in the last line – knowing the difference.
It sounds overly-simplistic, but determining what I can and can’t control isn’t always as simple as it was when I didn’t want to give birth. I have control over whether or not there are dirty dishes piled in the sink, but only a little. I can wash the dishes, but the sink won’t stay dish-free for very long when there are ten mouths to feed. I could decide to leave the dirty dishes in the sink and focus instead on vacuum all the pet hair off the floors, but by the time I’ve finished vacuuming the entire house, the first room I vacuumed will be hairy again. And the dishes need to be done. So I can’t have all the dishes and all the floors clean at the same time. Trust me, I have come up with a million different schemes to make that happen, including getting other humans in the house to help, but if the goal is 100% clean dishes and floors, that isn’t the way to get there. It’s out of my control.
I can already see the answers I would get here from those people who like to add comments to online articles saying how they could do better. So, for the sake of argument, yes, there are outside-the-box options here that would likely get me to my goal of every single dish and every single floor sparkling clean. I could rehome all my pets so the floors would be clean, but my husband and kids leave stuff and crumbs and all that on the floors anyway, so really they would only be cleaner than they were, and I love my pets; they are very much worth their messes. I could make my husband and kids each clean their own dishes as soon as they’ve used them, but the reality is that there’s always someone running late for something who doesn’t have time for that, or the dishwasher is still full of clean dishes because I was too busy vacuuming to empty it. I think you see the point.
In this example I do have some control over the situation, but I don’t have a way to truly meet the goal of perfectly clean dishes and floors. There is nothing within my power that will make that happen. So I accept the thing (dirty dishes and floors) that I cannot change, and use my courage to change the things I can (washing the dishes twice a day instead of just once, vacuuming one room each day but not all of them). In that way I can move closer to my original goal (100% clean dishes and floors 24/7), but I can’t reach it. That’s where the acceptance part comes in.
In some ways we all accept the things we can’t change and we all do the things we can. We accept that we can’t flap our arms like a bird and expect to fly; we accept that there were always be dirty dishes and floors somewhere in the house. We make the choice to wash the dishes and vacuum the floors even though we know they won’t stay clean for long and we can’t get them all done at once.
But it’s also true that most, if not all of us also sometimes refuse to accept situations that we can’t change, and are too afraid or too frustrated to change situations that we can change. That’s where the wisdom part comes in.
Wisdom: Noun. the ability to discern the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment. (adapted from the Oxford dictionary)
My decision to not give birth to my son when he was coming whether I liked it or not is amusing because it was so foolish. If I tried to keep every dish in my house and every square foot of my floor clean, it would be almost as foolish, given my living scenario. So the wise thing for me to do, then, is to modify my goal to something more reasonable. So I wash the dishes twice a day, and vacuum once a week, and accept that I will not have all the dishes and all the floors clean at the same time. It might be something I have to accept for a few months or years, or even forever, and I accept that too. But if instead I decide to only wash the dishes once a week for a family of five, that wouldn’t work. We’d run out of clean dishes, get bugs in the house, ew. It’s a decision, a potential solution, but I know from experience that it’s possible to run out of clean dishes, and knowledge tells me that piles of dirty dishes with pieces of rotting food stuck on them will draw bugs into the house.
The example is simple. The application, when your security, your dreams, your family, or your life is on the line, isn’t. Here’s my wisdom for you: There will be situations where the wise thing to do is to accept something that you can’t change. Usually there are some things you can do to make the unwanted situation easier to accept and experience, but you can’t stop it from happening, or take away what already happened. I know that you know that, but do the actions you’re taking, or avoiding taking, reflect an attitude of acceptance or avoidance? Avoiding something that is unwanted but necessary doesn’t make it any less necessary. Sometimes it makes it more necessary.
What do you need to accept, and then act on, today that you’ve been refusing to accept as a part of your life?