I burnt my hands today.
It was totally stupid–I had nuked up a cup of tea a bit overmuch, and as I was carrying it into the living room, I banged my shin on the woodbin. Somebody had left it sticking out into the doorway a little bit, and the handle really got me. But what was worse was the way it made me stumble, and that blazing hot tea splashed out of my cup and all over the back of both hands.
At first, it didn’t feel too bad, and I carried on with getting ready to accomplish some reading. (The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, if you’d like to know, so that I can be a better support to you dear mothers.) But, as I opened my book and got a pen to underline key points, the warmth on the back of my hands started to sting, and then burn, and pretty soon I was in a lot of pain. (I promise this is going somewhere birthy, hang in there with me.)
I tried to distract myself by focusing on the chapter about coping skills that are helpful when a nursing mother starts preparing to go back to work-for-pay, but sitting there still like that just let the burning on my hands bother me more and more. I ran them under cool water, and that helped, but not really enough. And honestly, it’s boring. I didn’t want to just stand at the sink looking at our dirty dishes for ever and ever. An hour after the original burn, I put some salve on–just patting it on was excruciating–and then the burning seemed to intensify.
Stupid tea. Stupid microwave. Stupid woodbin.
I knew the pain was going to stop eventually, I just needed to get through a couple more hours before it was all going to be fine. Sitting still wasn’t helpful, and I needed to distract myself in a pretty big way, so I went to sit at my harp and started doing some pretty complex–and unfamiliar-finger exercises before launching into practicing my repertoire binder.
As long as I played my harp, my hands didn’t hurt. Or, probably more to the point, my mind was so occupied in reading the notes and getting the right finger to the right string at the right time that there wasn’t mental room to acknowledge any pain. As soon as I stopped a song and paused to turn the page, my hands hurt terrifically again.
I’ve gone through a lot of harp music this morning.
But, here’s the thing where this is actually worth reading on a birthy blog: as long as I kept myself really super well busy, I didn’t feel any pain. This is exactly what Penny Simkin talks about in her “Gate Theory of Pain Management,” and something that I try to talk with my clients about in our prenatals.
The jist of the theory is that the brain only has so many pathways going in; only so much information can be received and processed at any given time. We DO have the ability to kind of “tell” our brains what to pay attention to, and things that are pleasant carry more weight than things that are negative. This means that, in labor, if a mother really focuses on something that keeps her busy on multiple levels–mentally and physically–she can drastically minimize how uncomfortable contractions feel.
When I am meeting prenatally with a family, I have a set of questions that I like to go through to see what activities might fit this bill, and what might spontaneously happen. I’ve had mothers do cooking or sewing during early labor, and were really helped by that, and I had one sacred hour where a mother sang during each contraction. It was the most beautiful time, and later on she told me that, as long as she sang, she couldn’t even feel the contractions. Sometimes it’s movement on the ball, or dancing to music, or just rocking in a rocking chair, that does it. Sometimes it’s something that can be planned, sometimes it just occurs on the spur of the moment, and it works, so we keep doing it until it doesn’t work anymore.
But the point here, and please just hear this: we can make almost any pain greatly eased by something as simple as distracting ourselves. If you are expecting a baby, start thinking of really engrossing activities, and incorporate those into your birth planning as much as possible. It’s one of the easiest, simplest, most natural and lowest-risk ways to help yourself work well with your body while you do huge and amazing things.
And now that I’ve said that, I think I’m going to go play a couple more pieces on my harp. Typing this out to you has been good, but not quite enough to keep that pain fully away. I need a bit more relief.