Hierarchy gets a bad rap. Power, one of hierarchy’s main qualities, does too. Freedom, and the balance of our human right to sovereignty rides on who has power, who doesn’t, and what those with power do with it. I’m curious about how hierarchy and power apply to extremes health states, ones when a person is sufficiently compromised to the point where they can’t or can’t be expected to fully fight for their own sovereignty.
What do you do if a woman you know has just given birth, and after dwelling in that liminal space, the one between the veils of this world and the next, where she is visited for a time by forces uncommon to her, yet ever-present in mountains, storms at sea, and wind-shaken trees, asks you to tend to her newborn? What if her partner, who too has witnessed the phenomena, asks for your support around the house, and in caring for the woman he loves who has just surrendered to the forces that be? In what state would you arrive? What would your role be?
This odd contract arises constantly. It might not be because of a birth. You might be called upon after a miscarriage, before or after a death, during psychosis, surgery, or after an accident. Whenever one person is in an emergency, an altered state, or in an uncommonly taxing situation, hierarchy changes.
My mentor, Andrew Feldmar, calls this Emergency Hierarchy. It’s time-bound, won’t go on forever, must be negotiated, ideally before the event, but could be during, if necessary, and everyone involved has to trust that the one being taken care of won’t extend it longer than necessary. Those coming to serve have to trust they won’t be exploited.
Here’s how it goes:
With the anticipation or onset of an extreme life event, the couple confers, deciding what the one going through the extreme state wants. In the case of birth, the woman is clear what she wants, what she doesn’t want, who she wants there, under what circumstances they can stay or will be asked to leave, what food, smells, sounds are welcome or not, and reserves the right to change her mind, with the trust her partner will be her messenger, and if necessary, her sword, so she doesn’t have to deal with any relationships except her body and baby. Her partner or support person can figure out what they need too, and should not feel demanding to seek it out.
Everyone understands that the woman is not being dominating, bossy, or difficult. This is a temporary shift in power to suit the unusual circumstance, where the woman will be in an altered state, and therefore unavailable for equal dialogue and negotiation. Everyone understands that her partner asks for what’s needed as a matter of health, safety, and congruency to Nature.
If at any time a support person is triggered, and feels controlled, or bids to regress because they want to be taken care of (which happens more than you might imagine) the partner thanks them for everything they’ve done so far, and asks them to leave.
Once the woman feels she has sufficiently completed her altered state- this could be a week, a month, or even several months later (no one can know when she’s done but her, and she must be trusted to be her own authority on that) the emergency hierarchy dissolves, and she no longer dictates to others. From there on, everything is negotiated between equals.
If you’re the one called upon and feel wobbly about it, trust it. You might not be good at taking care of people. You might have too much on your plate. Maybe for reasons completely unknown, the roll is meant to fall to another, and you’re the one sensing it.. You won’t be shamed for saying no. Better to do it now than later.
Emergency hierarchy for extreme health states can be fun, a privilege, challenging, and community building. You never know when you might need to be on the receiving end of such service. Perhaps it’s not a bad service to practice offering up so we all can eventually enjoy the unquestionable love that this kind of presence gives.