11 Mar Some Things I Learned from my Son’s Birth
When you don’t know how to start writing, stop thinking and just fucking start. I learned that after 5 years of dissertation writing. The funny thing is that I used to always refer to my dissertation as my “parto” (the labor, the moment of childbirth). This is a common Spanish phrase to refer to something that is long and gruesome. Two days ago, my son Elías was born. After 48 hours of difficult and painful work from my wife together with a great team of medical specialists he is here in the world cute as fuck, healthy and ready to kick ass. I must say I will never call again something a parto, unless it really it is. A dissertation, challenging as it is, not a parto my friends. And my dissertation is not a baby.
Although everything went as well as it possibly could have, and we feel immensely grateful to have the support network we had. It was a very hard and traumatic experience. I will not go through the details of the thing because it does not add anything useful. I will also make the disclaimer, that I know and have seen way more difficult events in other people’s lives. I grew up in a country in a civil war, I know how privileged I am. But it is not about that, right? Quoting the wonderful swimmer, Missy Franklin, “It is not about whether someone has gone through more than you, or whether some has lost more or gained more, it is just about being human together”.
What I want to do with this post is to be human together with you guys, and offer you what I have learned so far from this wonderful moment of my life. My personal and professional experience has shown me that the adage, “Pain + Reflection = Growth” is true. I apply this to all my training and endeavors. Even though most people don’t consider reflection as a recovery strategy, it most certainly is. As a matter of fact, the biggest growth spurts I have seen in my athletes happen after careful observation and reflection–specifically personal and intentional reflection. Hang on to your staches, here we go:
▶ Principle-based learning > technique-based learning. It always amazes me how much pressure is on women about how they should behave, be, think, or act. When it came to our birthing it was very clear that the should was this: “have an unmedicated birth, do not abide by the current medical system.” Emma is a great researcher and a solid freethinker, I am a punk rocker and my adolescent angst will never leave me. You bet your ass we don’t follow conventions blindly. Regardless, when making plans for Elías’ birth we followed a principle-based approach, instead of a technique-based one. This saved our asses. In a technical-based approach, all you care is about the technique. In the birthing case, it would have been something like: we just want an un-medicated vaginal birth, period. The plan will revolve around the techniques used for the event. Instead, our approach was: we want the least amount of medical intervention possible, modulated by the health of the mother and the son. In this approach, the health of the son and the mother were central, and the techniques were just tools to be decided from among in the moment. This principle-based approach does require that you have heuristics (kind of like strategies) that help you choose the right techniques when the decision moment comes. For this amazing project our heuristics were: is the baby safer in or out? Is Emma safer with baby in or baby out? As I said before our experience was hard and difficult, but decisions were easy and solid. We have zero regrets because we always had a solid strategy of how to respond to all the unforeseen things that showed up in our faces.
This principle-based approach is fundamental when it comes to learning, especially when learning movement. For example, when learning gymnastics, it is most important to focus on the fundamentals of how the human body moves than on a particular skill. People who learn gymnastics are often discouraged by the breadth of skills needed to develop, by how slow progress is, and by how incompetent they feel. This is all technique-based thinking. If you cannot see the similarities between a pull-up and a push-up, you will have to learn two different things. If, on the other hand, you understand the principles behind human movement, and can see how similar a pull-up and push-up are, you will be able to transfer that principle to all your other gymnastic movements. Your learning will not be segmented or overwhelming.Your techniques will become manifestations of your principles, which will make the whole process faster, more interesting and more approachable. (Hint: in gymnastics ist’ all about global extension/flexion and physical levers.)
As you can see from my birth example, in order to apply principle-based learning you need a solid goal or set of goals, and a good set of heuristics that will get you to those goals. It has a lot more dimensions than the technique-based approach. It is the expression of what I called in mindset an intentional stance.
▶ Reframing is the single most wonderful cognitive and psychological tool you’ll ever need. In the depth of labor, Emma was suffering hard. Shit was not going our way in most of the foundational ways. After 30 hours of being awake and doing some intense work, I felt tired and sad. I felt immense fear. My mind (La Loca de la casa) started going all over the place, but most persistently to the idea that Emma was going to die, and all she was going to remember was all the times I was a jerk to her. You see, the mind is tragic. Always, no matter how masculine you pretend to be, our fears are always death or solitude, or a mix of both. Getting kicked out of the clan and dying alone in the jungle. That’s it, we are simple like that. I cried for a while in a bathroom, when I finally could snap out of the thing. Apply what you preach. This was my process:
1️⃣There is no way to deny facts, and the risks were real. So I started there.
2️⃣There is no need to change the feeling, emotions precede thought, so I continued there. I came to peace with my fear.
3️⃣I gave myself evidence of the contrary to my fear, we were in an amazing hospital and the chances that something went really south was small. That all allowed me to even my head out (my sister helped out here). Till this point, this is a technique called ABCD we used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and I use it with my athletes when they feel anxiety in their regular lives.
4️⃣Then I reframed the shit out the event. And I am happy to report I did it like a fucking boss. The fear was real, but so was the opportunity I had. This could be the perfect opportunity to be the best partner Emma had ever had and to show her that even though I can be a fucking asshole, I will show up when it matters. EVERY SINGLE FUCKING TIME.
Don’t confuse this with arrogance. This did not come from a place of immature confidence, it came from a place of “let’s do this, my man”. How does one respond to this position in which you feel so weak and helpless? Show up, the time is now. That is how reframing works. The events were the same, but the response made all the difference. Every time I needed to cry, even when the anesthesiologist said we had hit all the theoretical limits of Epidural, I repeated to myself “this is an opportunity to be the partner you want to be”. And I held on.
Reframing is powerful for athletes, and you can check my post on the topic here. It is rooted in compassion and it is the main tool you need to use to develop a growth mindset.
▶ We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training. This is a quote attributed to Archilochus. The previous two points did not happen by chance. They also did not happen by will. I described them as conscious decisions, but they were not. I was not very smart–although my ego is dying for me to say I was. What happens is this: I reframe over and over with my athletes. I also do principle-based coaching day in and day out. I do it with others, and so I do it with myself–mostly because I hate being a hypocrite (there’s that teenage angst in me again). Both behaviors are habits now. When shit inevitably hits the fan, we have our tools nicely in place working for us. I often tell my athletes that in training, we should live in practice mode. Performance is left only to when it is needed. The vast majority of the time, especially when most variables are under your control, you should live in practice mode. Practice is intentional and low risk. Performance is automatic and high risk. Archilochus’ quote is fundamental because it grounds your training and your mindset. It is hard not to live in performance mode in a society ruled by numbers and external metrics of success. However, approaching Life as practice will allow you to respond to it in the way most honest to your values when the moment comes. And this is what truly matters.
▶ Life happens in horticultural time. I learned this concept from practicing meditation techniques for birthing (here). It is so simple and so powerful. Think about the following. If you want to grow a plant, you create the most beneficial context you can for that to happen. But the plant grows whenever the fuck she wants and in whichever way she wants. You can control a high amount of variables, but in the end, the timing is all up to the plant. This is a horticultural time. Biological systems work in horticultural time. We live our lives in the illusion of industrial time. We think because we show up every day at work at 7:00 AM, time is under our control. We think that once contractions are happening every 4-5 minutes and are lasting around 1 minute, all is good and the baby will come in the following hour. We think if we follow a neatly designed progressive training program we will reach our goals at a given time. Not the case bro. Fitness, nutrition, and mindset all happen in horticultural time. Remember this every time you feel stuck. Remember this any time somebody is selling you results in precise timelines. In the context of fitness, nutrition, and learning, that is a big red flag.
What you just read through is my processing, it is my recovery strategy. Writing and sharing my experience is my way to do this. It does not mean it should be yours. However, reflecting–in whatever form it takes, the act of deconstructing an event and your actions and putting it all back together–is one of the main ways to change Post Traumatic Stress into Post Traumatic Growth. The research on both of these topics is immense, the techniques used to change from one to the other vary immensely, but the principle of the thing is the same. One defining characteristic of biological organisms which is different from let’s say computers is the ability to gain from stressors–yeah, machine learning does not know what to do after a punch in the eyes. Changing for the better from trauma and stressors is a way to be human. Learn how to do it better and your life will be better.
And now let me try to snuggle with my baby for some hours while I enjoy the shit out of some skin-to-skin contact while I pray for his growing to take a long, long time.