As the founding editor in chief of Greater Good magazine, for years I published articles touting the many benefits of mindfulness, and of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program in particular.
But I had a secret: I had no first-hand experience with the program. I didn’t even have a regular mindfulness meditation practice.
Finally, five years ago, my wife pregnant with our first child, I decided to put my mind where my mouth was: We enrolled in Nancy Bardacke’s nine-week Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting (MBCP) program, which adapts the MBSR model to a birthing class for expectant parents.
For me, the class was an invaluable two-for-one—a source of wisdom and support during the anxious prenatal months as well as an edifying introduction to mindfulness practice.
Much the same can be said of Bardacke’s new book, Mindful Birthing.
First and foremost, Mindful Birthing is a tour of the theory and practice behind Bardacke’s pioneering MBCP program, which she launched in 1998. Along the way, she introduces readers to basic mindfulness practices that are integral to both MBCP and MBSR—the raisin meditation, the body scan, walking meditation, loving-kindness meditation—sometimes even providing detailed instructions or scripts that they can follow or read aloud to their partner.
In the book, as in her course, Bardacke explains how these practices can be of particular benefit to pregnant women and their partners—before, during and long after the birth of their child. “Sometimes the present moment isn’t an easy place to be—like when you’re laboring to birth a baby,” she writes. “And so we practice meditation to learn how to be present with things as they are, however they are, even when they are challenging.”
One chapter explores how mindfulness can help laboring women deal with the inevitable “dynamic duo” of pain and fear. Bardacke offers a particular way of thinking about labor pain, which she calls “intense transformational pain”—a pain signaling not illness or injury but rapid, normal changes happening in the body. She explains how, by practicing mindfulness, “it is possible to uncouple the sensory component of pain from the emotional and cognitive components,” in other words, while mindfulness won’t make the pain go away, it can reduce the suffering caused by that pain. A valuable insight, for sure, though its real support comes in the following chapter, which outlines specific mindfulness practices Bardacke tailors to helping women respond mindfully to the pain of labor.
Many chapters center on a specific practice or a particular challenge pregnant women and their partners are likely to face; in addition to the pain of childbirth, these include the strains on a couple’s relationships and problems mothers often experience in breastfeeding. Bardacke keeps the book grounded and engaging not just through practical exercises but through the real-life stories of couples who have gone through her program.
The book’s last chapter offers explicit guidelines for starting a mindfulness meditation practice, along with a condensed outline of the nine-week MBCP program, listing the formal and informal practices Bardacke assigns to her students each week.
New and expectant parents are fortunate that Bardacke has embedded within a parenting book one of the clearest introductions to what mindfulness is and how it can be cultivated. She stresses that reading about mindfulness is really no substitute for practicing it, which I’ve certainly found to be true. That said, reading Mindful Birthing offers something that few childbirth and parenting books ever offer: concrete lessons in compassion, resilience and happiness—lessons that will enhance your life, not just your pregnancy.