Surfing the Labor Waves

Pregnant woman sitting in ocean waves

Surfing Lessons For Labor“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”

This quote (attributed most commonly to Jon Kabat-Zinn but occasionally to others as well) has been commonly used to apply to labor. It is a good one, and one that definitely applies.

Last week my husband and I went to California to celebrate our anniversary. We spent a good hour watching the surfers in the wave.

The beach where we were sitting is in an area considered “advanced” and is dangerous for beginning surfers, so the surfers we watched were the more skilled and experienced surfers. As I watched, I noticed several things about their surfing, and this quote above came to mind. Here are seven of the things I observed (and yes, some of these metaphors are a bit mixed, but let’s just roll with it):

1. None of the surfers rode every wave. They didn’t even ride MOST of the waves. Often, they relaxed and let the waves roll on by without trying to take them on. In labor, particularly the first part of labor, much of labor is about letting the waves come and do their thing without inhibiting them or interrupting them. You don’t *have* to be active. You don’t have to get to standing and riding each and every time. You can relax and bob in the water and let the waves roll on by. Not all waves are alike. Some are small swells that crash too close to shore. Some are large, but collapse too early. Some have a perfect shape. The tides move in and out, but the waves are not always changing in a linear way. You can have 5 small ones in a row, followed by a large one, followed by 3 medium ones and then a much larger one. It’s all good, but you will deal with them differently.

2. While they are waiting for the next wave, they don’t usually spend energy swimming. They rest. Those times between contractions when you can rest are invaluable! And when the surfers rest, they rely on their surfboard to carry them. Laboring takes good support, too. Your partner, your doula, your family, or your midwife can all be the support you need. Most surfers don’t ever want to be apart from their board. They tether it to an ankle to keep it close. Keep your labor support close and connected, too.

3. The waves closer to shore feel safer, but the waves out in the deeper water are often easier to ride and give a better, longer ride. Don’t be afraid to “go deep” in your labor. Deeper into relaxation, so deep you pull your focus inward. Deeper into your own power and strength. I’ve seen many women pull power and strength from deep within that they didn’t even know they had.

4. When they did try to catch a wave for a ride, they often didn’t ever get up. Sometimes they spectacularly wiped out, sometimes they just missed it. And they never let it get to them. They let it go, regrouped, and waited for another try. Sometimes in labor you’ll feel like you can’t manage well. Don’t let it get to you. Let it go, regroup, and try another technique.

5. When they did catch a wave and get a good ride, they rode it for as long as they could. When in labor, when you find a good rhythm and a technique that is working for you, ride it out as long as it is working. I sometimes hear women advised to change every 20-30 minutes. I don’t think an arbitrary time limit serves moms well. If you are riding a wave and surfing well, keep it up until you need to change.

6. The rides never last forever. And when it is over, they head back out to start finding a wave all over again. If you find when you’re laboring that the swaying and moaning you’ve been doing are not working as well as they used to, find another wave to ride. It probably won’t be the very next one, though, so keep trying until you catch a good one.

7. Learning to surf can be a long process. Or a short one. It’s OK if you don’t master it early in the process. As a teenager, I tried and tried and tried to learn to surf. I mastered many parts of it. I could swim out past the breakers with my board. I could identify good waves to ride. I could straddle my board and wait, or lay on my board to rest. I could bring my knees up under me and orient myself to the waves. What I never, ever managed to do was hop up and get my feet under me to stand. Oh, I could do it on the shore, I did it probably a million times. But in the water? Wipeout every single time. But I kept trying. I went out two or three dozen times a summer, for hours at a time. I worked with lots of different people trying to learn. (Every single one of my boyfriends thought HE could be the one to inspire me to make a breakthrough!) But I never did master it and surf the way surfers are “supposed to” do it.
Labor WavesInstead I learned to enjoy and appreciate the parts I could do. Some of my best memories from high school are from those days. I loved being able to push through the breakers and feel strong for moving forward despite their power. I loved lying on my board resting and feeling the warm sun on my back. I loved laughing with friends as we all sat straddling our boards resting out past the waves. I really loved it when a seal would come and play in the waves nearby and I could sit on my board and watch. If I’d given up on surfing after my first try, I would have missed out on many of those good times.
And my many wipeouts taught me how to roll in the surf and not get hurt.

I firmly believe that nearly all labors and births can have those moments of joy. Those happy memories. And there are things to be learned if things don’t go as planned, too. Don’t let complications or changes in the plan take those moments from you. Look for them. Do what you can to make them happen.

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