The labor of dissertation writing

It seems fitting to be writing my dissertation on birth. Yes, I’ve been working in the field of childbirth in one way or another since 1999, but that’s not to what I’m referring. No, this is far more metaphorical in nature. In fact, there is no single metaphor more fitting for the journey of dissertation writing than labor and hopefully, although I am far from that part of the experience, birth as well.

For the last several years I have been in sweet anticipation of this part of my graduate school process. You might say the three years of course work were a bit like the early years of marriage, some hard work, but a lot of growth and pleasure in the journey too. Those years were in preparation for this, the dissertation.

Like all good mothers, I took the prep course and learned all about the process, learned that it may not go exactly as I expected, that it might have difficult moments and how exciting it would be to have the end result, a new baby, I mean, new book-like-dissertation-thingy to ooh and ahh over and feel an overwhelming amount of pride…that and a whole new identity too. When a woman has a baby for the first time she gets the new moniker of Mother. With the birth of a dissertation the student becomes Doctor.

I guess all journeys that transform from one state of being to another; those intense enough to earn one a new title, are earned through trials. Like birth, dissertation writing seems to allow no short cuts. Yes, I have a woman from my cohort who seemed to have had the shortest labor on Earth and birthed a dissertation in only a few short months. She made it look easy, not unlike some of those birth stories heard when pregnant, the stories of a woman who birthed a ten pound baby in less than three hours with little to no pain. That, I think, is the dissertation labor I wanted!

And like birth, I didn’t get to decide what my dissertation process would be. I could pray, hope, pull tarot cards, wish, and dream and still, I would only get the journey that would be mine and only mine.

In labor (when it goes by the books that is), the early part is often the slowest. We’ve been taught that labor progress is measured in cervical dilation. Women go into labor and can feel contractions for hours, even days, before her cervix dilates at all. She can become fixated on the numbers. So too in dissertation writing have I become fixated on numbers, not dilation, but pages written. Like a laboring woman knows she needs to get to ten centimeters to be “complete” so too do I know that when I’m “complete” it will be in the 200 page range. Looking from here to there can cause a strong case of “labor math!”

My dissertation clock started last September. That means I’ve been “writing” for almost six of my 24-month prescribed period of labor. If it has taken me six months to only become 1 centimeter dilated, then how on earth will I ever make it to complete? This is the dilemma of labor math. One plus one does not equal two in labor nor in dissertation writing. I am hoping the early part of dissertation writing, the part from beginning of the clock starting to strong active writing where the flow comes and comes with little stalling and pages flow in creative zest, that that part, is a lot like early labor, the part of labor from the very beginning to active labor where things are moving along and difficult to stop or stall. For many women, it is a practice of patience to maneuver through early labor. It can feel incredibly difficult, challenging, painful, and imaging how it could possibly get more intense or last longer than it already has, is daunting. That’s where I am in my labor, this birth of a dissertation. Currently, I’m thinking some augmentation may be in order!

I am reminded of the “Four Pillars of Birth” as taught to me by one of my teachers. These are the four characteristics required for birth: Love, Doubt, Determination and Faith…together they hold up the structure of labor, each is a necessary part of the process. It is love that got me going along this path in the first place, love of the field of study (mythology and psychology), love of the topic unique to my dissertation, and love of the process of discovery both in the writing and in myself.

It is now doubt’s turn to show itself and it has come fully dressed to the party! If it were like labor, then it is time to rouse the sleeping forms of determination and faith. Which comes first is a mystery and unique to each labor. For some, determination is birthed simply by the arrival of doubt. Usually this would be me. My nickname as a baby was “Britta the Bulldozer” and one I earned, I hear, for my determination of spirit. But this time around determination is getting me to the desk and seated at the computer with few results.

It may be time to enlist faith. What does faith look like on this journey, today, now, on the labor road of dissertation writing? Maybe it’s faith in myself, faith in the process, faith in the rightness of the time it is taking thus far, faith in my doing this at all, and most significantly, faith that I can do this and ultimately will succeed.

I wrote on Facebook several weeks or even months ago that I felt better equipped to write a dissertation on how writing a dissertation is just like labor than I was to actually write the dissertation for which I have set out to write. This still feels true.

The work I have done thus far has been difficult to measure. I have few pages written to show my dilation and yet, I have been in labor for days already! Perhaps what I need to remember is that some of the work of labor is difficult to measure. Dilation (i.e. pages) is not the only quantifier. What about effacement? What about the baby engaging in the pelvis and dropping? What about the entirely amorphous psychological work that allows the whole process to ignite?

Yes, dissertation writing is a lot like giving birth. And, like those often-difficult moments of early labor there is not much to do, but keep on. You can augment labor with a bit of walking, nipple stimulation, herbs, sex or drugs, but until it is really necessary to do so, the best thing is to stay in the moment, “breathe, feel the earth and do nothing extra” (a favorite quote from my childbirth mentor, Pam England).

That’s where I’m am today, muddled with doubt, looking for faith and determination to show up and help get this labor started in earnest and most importantly, remembering all that I know about how labor works. I think I need a doula!

I’ve supported lots of women in labor and taught hundreds, if not thousands, more. If I remember to enact this metaphor, then this too is familiar territory. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. I’ve known it. I’ve lived it.

One breath, one moment, be here, right here, now.

That is enough.

About Dr. Britta Bushnell

is a writer, teacher, storyteller, and mentor who blends her eclectic training, years of experience, and areas of study into a unique offering for individuals, couples, professionals, and groups. Britta is currently deep at work writing her forthcoming book, Transformed by Birth: Illuminating cultural ideals to enhance the experience of childbirth.

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