How Pregnancy & Birth Transformed Me

 

Transformation

It’s not a new idea: Pregnancy and birth are powerful, transformative experiences. But I believe this power to transform happens every single time you’re preparing to become a parent, whether it’s your first time or your fifth!

Each of my pregnancies and births taught me and transformed me anew. The focus is usually on how much the first experience of pregnancy and birth transforms a woman into a mother. And this makes sense: the first time you do anything, makes the biggest impact. Everything’s new and it ends up feeling like all the really big stuff happens the first time.

But, actually, each time we say yes to becoming a parent – biological, adoptive, even if the pregnancy ends in loss – the decision to become a parent marks the start of the transformation process.

Growing up, I would have been considered a “tom-boy.” Even though I was quite comfortable in my body (I liked being a girl!) and I was solid in my heterosexuality (I really liked boys!) I’ve never considered myself to be super feminine.

My imaginary friend as a preschooler was a baseball-loving boy named Michael. If you were looking for me I’d probably be outside climbing trees or catching crawdads in the lake. I hated dolls and never played with them (the irony of this is not lost on me!) and I’d much rather play soccer or football with the boys than do anything else with the girls. And while all of these might be pretty stereotypical examples, they’re all true.

As a kid, I was hyper-aware of how boys were treated differently from girls. Even at a young age, I figured out that this difference had nothing to do with intelligence or character – it was because they were boys. I realized early on, that there was power in being male. Maybe this is one of the reasons why I hung out with boys more than girls when I was growing up. I wanted some of that power. 

(Or it could just be a part of my hormonal make-up. Once, in a conversation with my 13-year old son, I mentioned that I might have more testosterone than most women, to which he replied, “Mom you’ve got more testosterone than most men.” Ha!)

In any case, I’ve always been aware of the power imbalance that exists between the sexes based solely on gender, and I don’t think it’s cool. 

But when I became pregnant the first time, almost immediately, I realized something:

Women are the ones who are really powerful.

Our bodies, the very same bodies that might keep us from claiming the highest positions of power in business, politics, and lots of other areas, are co-creators of human life. Being newly pregnant and making this discovery, I remember thinking how sad it was that my husband was “just a man” and would never be able to experience what real power was all about.

For instance, I created a brand new organ to nourish my developing baby because, duh – I was that cool. And by virtue of being a woman, I created my baby’s bones, her brain, all of the internal organs, her skin, a couple of ears, some hair, her fingernails, eyelashes and a bunch of other stuff. I was making a brand new human being from scratch. And even though it was incredibly demanding, exhausting, and hard work, I did it 24/7! I created this new human being while working, teaching – even while I was sleeping!

All of a sudden, my relationship with being female was completely transformed! I didn’t become any less “tom-boyish.” My testosterone to estrogen/progesterone levels have stayed about the same. But everything about how I felt about being a woman had been transformed. I made my peace with being female in a male dominated world because I had discovered the real truth: Women are powerful beyond measure!

It was unexpected, this transformation. In fact, I’d wondered before I ever became pregnant if I was going to hate the physical limitations of my pregnant body. And while I can’t say that I loved every minute of it, overall I thought that the whole process was amazing. And that I was awesome!

I’m lucky to have a partner who was willing and excited to accept this transformation. He never felt threatened as I discovered this new personal power in my female form. Too often, when the person we love most in the world starts any transformation process, instead of supporting them, we get scared. We fear they’ll outgrow us, or no longer need us, so we try to tamp it down, make it not quite so big. Without even realizing it, we tell our partners through our lack of enthusiastic support, “You can be transformed, but just a tiny little bit.”

Transformation is a big word. Webster tells us that it is:

a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance; a metamorphosis during the life cycle of an animal.

But that’s exactly what pregnancy and birth offer all of us: powerful transformation – but only if we allow it. We don’t need to go in search of this transformation, we just need to notice it when it happens.

And when we do notice it happening, try not run away from it. Don’t be afraid of it. Feel it out a little bit. Embrace it. Talk about it with your partner. Assure them that this transformation you’re experiencing is about both of you growing into your new roles as parents. And then notice and appreciate the transformation as it happens for them as well.

For every woman and her partner, the transformation that can occur is unique. It’s a culmination of all of your experiences to date. And every single transformative experience we go through, birth or otherwise, has something to teach us – if we’re willing to learn.

My first pregnancy and birth taught me what real power was and that I’d possessed it all along. My second taught me what really matters in a birth story and it wasn’t at all as I’d thought. Number three taught me that there were still lots of surprises in life and to not to get too attached to things going my way. And my fourth taught me that the mental/emotional experiences of pregnancy and birth are at least as important and in some ways, even more important, than the physical experience.

Every time I was transformed. Maybe that transformation was most obvious with my first, but even if the subsequent transformations were more subtle, they remained equally life-changing. Each one of these powerful transformative experiences taught me important things about myself, my partner – and life. They’ve been instrumental in shaping who I am and how I move through the world today. 

How about you? Did you notice any transformation while you were pregnant or after you gave birth? If you’ve had more than one child, would you agree that the first time was the most obvious transformation for you? What have pregnancy and birth taught you?

Happy World Doula Week!

WDW

I can’t let this week go by without a shout-out to all of the wonderful women I know personally, and professionally, who’ve taken up the call to become a doula. A doula is a woman trained to assist other women in childbirth and/or to support a new family following the birth of their baby. And this is the week we are celebrating women all over the globe who do this incredible work!

Over 20 years ago, I was working as a temporary office monkey between jobs and wondering what it was that I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Across my desk one day came the company’s monthly newsletter and on the front page was an article about “doulas.” I’d never heard of this word before, and the concept intrigued me.

A few days later as I drove home during my lunch hour, there was a story about doulas on NPR’s show, “Talk of The Nation.” I had a “driveway moment” and couldn’t get out of the car until the story was over. My curiosity was growing. 

But it wasn’t until my best friend announced her pregnancy and asked me to be at the birth that I got serious about this idea: “Maybe I should become a doula!” I’m not an overly woo-woo person, but all of these things seemed to be pointing me in the direction of birth.

After some searching, I found out that The Seattle Midwifery School (300 miles North of my home in Portland) was offering a doula training that would conclude before my friend’s due date. Everything seemed to be lining up – so I signed up. I was hooked on birth immediately, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I never went so far as to complete the work of being certified as a doula. Finding scheduled evening and weekend hours as a Childbirth Educator kept me in the world of birth and allowed me to focus on having my own family. But every now and again, I’ve had the honor of being a doula at the births of friends, neighbors, or women who had no support or financial ability to pay for a doula.

It is such a gift to be with a woman when she’s giving birth. Helping her find her inner strength and witnessing the parents and the baby lock eyes on one another for the first time – it’s one of the most awesome experiences ever (that word is so overused in our culture, but this is one area where it’s completely appropriate)!

So,thank you to all of the women who’ve answered the call to become doulas. You are very special women, indeed. You have an immense capacity for nurturance, calm, strength and advocacy. You’ve got incredible stores of flexibility, skills and knowledge and you’re somehow able to continue to do the hard work of labor support on little sleep and not a lot of food. You are the best example of how continuous physical and emotional support can make all the difference as this couple transforms into a family.

I have nothing but the utmost respect and praise for the work that doulas do in the world of birth. But don’t just take my word for it. Google “benefits of doulas” and you’ll get 359K hits in about a half of a second. There aren’t any studies that I know of that show anything other than positive results of having a doula with you in birth. If you’d like to read more about the benefits of doulas, read this article written by Rebecca Dekker on Evidence Based Birth.

Having a doula at your birth can be linked to:

  •  Reducing the incidence of c-sections      
  •  Shortening the length of labor      
  •  Reducing epidural and analgesic requests      
  •  Increasing breastfeeding initiation and continuation     
  •  Increasing mother’s satisfaction of birth experience      
  •  Reducing the incidence of postpartum mood disorders     
  •  Increasing new parents’ confidence in the care of their newborn

There’s really no downside to having a doula with you in birth or postpartum! A doula is worth her weight in gold. If you’re interested in finding a doula for your birth or for postpartum, one place you can look is the DONA International website. Other places to look would be your friends and co-workers. A lot has changed in 20 years! Many more women are using doulas in their birth and postpartum and personal recommendations can give you so much more than a website directory! Many CBEs also have referrals they can provide, if you ask.

My tips for hiring a doula: Don’t get stuck on how many births they’ve attended, or what “extras” they might provide (photography, massage, etc.) These might be wonderful additions, but I think it’s more important you feel you can hang out with this person for 24+ hours. A professional doula won’t have an agenda for what your birth “should” look like. She’ll be willing to support you, and your choices in birth. Make sure your doula and your partner can work together. If you’ve chosen well, your doula will help your partner feel like they had just the right support so they could be involved in the birth at the level they were most comfortable with.

Doulas can be an amazing support when a birth goes really well, but even more so they when a birth goes rogue. Your doula can help you remember what matters most to you in this birth experience and help you get as close to that as possible. On the other side of giving birth, you’ll share a bond with this woman forever and she’ll be an important part of the birth story you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

Doulas are amazing women and I’m happy to publicly honor them in this way! A special shout-out to Liesl & Kathie (doulas) and Beth & Marilyn (midwives) for all of the doula-ing they provided me and my husband during the birth of our four children. I mean this honestly when I say it – we couldn’t have done it without them!

If you know a doula, please take time to honor them in some special way this week!

What Do I Do Right?

Do Right

I’m taking part in Elly Taylor’s, Becoming Us Facilitator Training, and it’s fantastic! This training is based on her book, Becoming Us: 8 Steps to Grow a Family That Thrives. I love this book as it aims to prepare couples by presenting them with normal, realistic expectations for the transition to parenthood. Through this training, I’m learning how to “plant seeds” for my expectant couples so their transition to new parenthood goes as smoothly as possible.

This work is not necessarily new to me and the way I teach, but going through this training has allowed me to look in-depth at the incredible transition that women and their partners go through as they become parents to a newborn. This is a life-changing event, after all, and we need to do better in preparing our families for all of the changes that will be happening to them as individuals and as a couple. This is why I’m taking part in this advanced training. I’m weaving Elly’s work into my current curriculum to better prepare my families with realistic expectations that go far beyond the birth itself.

The module that I’ve most enjoyed so far is learning more about the challenges new parents have in grappling with their lowered sense of identity and self-esteem as they move into their new roles. We’ve definitely moved away from the idea of parents receiving a boost to their self-esteem by other members of the larger culture when they start a family. The idea of ushering in the next generation as a role of honor, just isn’t a part of our cultural identity any longer.

In a society that elevates the material world and success is measured in how much money you make, the work parents do to raise their children doesn’t even rate in our collective consciousness. It’s barely recognized, let alone given any extrinsic value. When we look at parenting through this cultural lens, it starts to become obvious why the identities and self-esteem levels of new parents, both men and women, take a hit.

To address this issue, I’ll sometimes talk about parenting in a way that resonates with my student’s experience up to this point: Parenting is a job. But it’s not just any job, it’s the job – the one you’ve been focused on getting for the past year at least, maybe even longer and finally, you land that job.

And it ends up being the hardest freaking job you’ve ever had.

The hours suck. There’s no pay, no vacation time. Your mentors aren’t that helpful because they were trained about 25-30 years ago, and things have changed – a lot. There are so many different manuals with conflicting information about every aspect of this job, that you just stop reading them.

If you’re lucky, you have partner to help you in this new job – but guess what? They were hired the exact same day you were and they don’t seem to know any more than you do about the right way to get this job done. Plus, they’re as sleep-deprived and resentful of the “No-Pay Policy” as you are, so morale in the office is really, really, low.

But maybe the worst part of this job? You don’t get to have regular job reviews with a supervisor that can sit you down, talk with you about what a great job you’re doing, provide helpful feedback with some of the challenges you’re facing, and ultimately encourage you to keep going. No one is there to remind you that this job is important, it matters, it has meaning, and even if the payoff is hard to see right now, it’s completely worth it.

When we come from a world where we get regular pats on the back for a job well done, being thrown into the job of being responsible for your newborn’s life without any of that regular feedback can be really hard. And in some ways, it’s harder on men who become fathers than it is for women who become mothers. Men today, who really want to be much more involved, might not have a strong role model in their own father. They might end up feeling like they’re playing catch-up to their partner who may have been encouraged in her role as mother since she was a young girl through (stereotypical) ideas of nurturance, play, and babysitting.

But studies show that identity and self-esteem of both men and women are lower after they become parents. They’re often floored by how much they don’t know about parenting, how much “on-the-job-training” comes with having a baby, and often feel like they have to defend their parenting choices, or be ready to criticize other parenting choices as a way to lessen their own feelings of vulnerability in this new role.

I think waiting for our culture to provide parents with a pat on the back for a job well done will be an exercise in futility. I’m not sure it’s worth waiting for. Depending on the relationship, we may or may not get any positive feedback even from our own parents. Which is harsh to say, but true. Still, this issue needs to be addressed as it has long-term implications for new parents as individuals, as well as their couple relationship. 

I think the obvious person we need to look to in this situation, is our partner.

Our partner is the only person that understands the level of sacrifice, the long hours, the hard work, and the immense love that we have for our children. They’re the only ones that can provide us with feedback as to how we’re doing in this new job. And studies show that what our partner says about our parenting has the greatest impact on our feelings of identity and self-esteem.

Take the time to let your partner know that you think they’re doing a great job as a parent in this shared “work project.” Try to focus on the positive – remember that this job will become exponentially harder on both of you, if you end up doing it by yourself from two different job sites. Instead of telling your partner what they could do better, focus on what it is they’re already doing really well.

We need to know that the person who is intimately connected with the work that we’re doing day in and day out, respects us and the tireless work we do to parent our newborn, toddler, tween, teenager and young adult. Because it never ends, this parenting gig. And to have a committed partner in parenting makes this job so much more enjoyable and rewarding.

Tell your partner one thing that you love about how they parent – today. It will give their parenting identity and self-esteem a very much needed boost!

This whole blog post was prompted today by this song  by Jimmie’s Chicken Shack I heard on the way to school drop-off this morning. And because everything somehow connects to the worlds of pregnancy, birth and parenting, I give you this as a reminder of how it can start to feel if we forget to tell each other what we do right as parents.

Were you surprised by a lowered sense of identity and self-esteem after you became a parent? How do you and your partner acknowledge one another in your role as parents? Isn’t every day as a parent Mother’s Day and Father’s Day?

My Belly Pooch

Belly Pooch

(Not my actual belly pooch… I’m brave people, but not that brave.)

At my age, my body and I have come to a sort of reckoning. I go to Boot Camp 3x a week and push my competitive self to beat the twenty-somethings in class alongside me and this allows me to drink red wine, eat dark chocolate, and cook with butter. Because, duh! Everything’s better with butter. I’m grateful every day to have a body that’s strong. And generally speaking, I feel good about myself.

But, after four babies my belly… Well, let’s just say that my belly looks like it’s given birth to four babies. You know what I mean? If you’re still pregnant with your first, then you might not know what I mean. But, you will. That’s not me being snotty, people. This is just me being the REP = Realistic Expectations Police.

When we’re first pregnant, we have expectations that even though we’re putting on weight, that after the baby is born – poof! – it’s gone. We might also have expectations that if we nurse the hell out of our babies, that extra weight just rolls right off.

And in some ways, both of these statements have some truth.

I remember stepping on the scale soon after my first baby was born and being amazed by my rapid weight loss program – I’d lost about 20 of the 45 pounds that I’d gained almost overnight! But could you tell by looking at me? No way.

And even though I’ve never felt hungrier than when I was a nursing mother, and thoroughly enjoyed being able to snarf down everything in sight as (slowly, very slowly) the number on the scale started to creep back down, I was still wearing maternity pants for awhile after my baby was born.

But even as I started to exercise more and lost all of the “baby weight” I’d put on, my belly never looked the same. And I think this is an issue for a lot of Mommas out there. Even if you’re really fit, and wearing the same size as you did before the baby(ies) came, your body is now a different body altogether.

And why shouldn’t it be? What an amazing thing you and your body have done together!

You’ve been a co-creator of a brand new human life. You’ve expanded (emotionally, physically, spiritually) to allow this new little person to take hold, develop and thrive inside of you. You’ve sacrificed yourself in so many ways so that this next generation can be realized. You’ve given birth to your baby, either by pushing your baby down and through your vagina, or by enduring abdominal surgery.

Pregnancy and birth change women. Some of those changes remain hidden, they’re deep and internal shifts in how we now move as women through this world. But there are external changes, too. And sometimes, we’re not able to hide these very well.

Instead of trying to hide them, how can we begin to not only accept these changes, but celebrate them?

Part of this work can happen even during pregnancy. The next time you step out of the shower, towel off and find a full-length mirror and give that incredible body of yours the props that it so well deserves. Be amazed at what your body is doing to make space for your growing baby inside of you. Allow your partner’s words of appreciation for how sexy they find your changing body to sink into your psyche.

We’re so weird in this culture. We can’t wait to tell people, “I just ran my first marathon!” And are delighted to hear, “Wow! That’s incredible!” But we never even talk about the much more amazing feat of pregnancy and birth that we’ve gone through! Why aren’t we shouting from the rooftops, “Look at me! Do you have any idea how spectacular I am?!” Instead, we fret about how we look and beat ourselves up at a time when we need to celebrate all that our body is capable of.

But for the record, even I’m not immune to this stuff. No matter what my weight, I have a belly pooch now that wasn’t there before I became a Momma! And no matter how many crunches or core exercises I do, it’s never going to go away – not completely. But now I’m wanting to establish a different relationship with this belly pooch of mine. And it’s all because of a conversation my son and I had the other day:

He pulled up my shirt, hugged me, kissed my belly pooch and exclaimed – “I love your belly!”

Then, he pulled up his own shirt and said, “Look at my belly. It’s so tight and hard.”

(“Like that’s a bad thing?” I thought to myself.)

“Why do you love my belly so much?”

“Because it’s so soft, and squishy. Because it feels like a pillow when I’m hugging you. Because it’s where I slept when I was inside of you.”

I know, right? On a bad day, he’s a really sweet and cute kid, but damn. This was a response that even I had no comeback for.

And then I realized something. For the past seven years, I’ve been wishing for my body to change. I want my belly pooch to just go away already! But maybe I should try to practice what I preach.

Maybe I should try looking at my belly and instead of bemoaning all that it used to be, celebrate all that it has become.

My four babies made me the woman I am today. And I like this woman. So instead of picking her apart, reducing her to a pant size or a flat abdomen, maybe I should congratulate her and her body on a job very well done, indeed.

Embracing the ways that motherhood changes us seems a very empowering place to practice much of what we’re wanting to pass along to our babies as they grow up: self-love, kindness to ourselves and to others, acceptance of differences, appreciation of beauty in all of its forms, and recognition of hard work and effort, to name a few.

You know this parenting thing is a funny business. Sometimes you think you’re here to teach your little ones how to be in the world, and then all of a sudden the coin gets flipped and you wonder, “Which of us is the teacher here? How lucky am I to be learning from you?” And in that moment, you might realize that having a soft, squishy belly is the best thing in the whole wide world.

At least it is to one particular seven year old who has just taught you how to love purely, completely and without judgement.

Now, that’s a lesson worth learning.

Momma Empathy

Momma Empathy

Being in the baby-business, that is, working as a Childbirth Educator for the past 18+ years, this quote is a very familiar one. It’s often seen in literature and classes that are geared toward first-time expectant Mommas. And this makes sense, as they’re just beginning their mothering journey. At that time, I would imagine the phrase that stands out most to these women might be the first part: Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is. It is momentous. But the farther along I am in my own mothering journey, it’s the second half of this quote that holds all of the emphasis for me: It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. And, in particular, the word that most stands out for me now is forever.

My first-born is 16! How did that happen? I remember her birth and 4th Trimester as if it happened yesterday. Blink, and she’s on the cusp of becoming a woman. But not yet. No, not yet. She is still a child in so many ways, and she will forever be my baby.

And my baby has been hurting these past few weeks as she’s had to witness the lives of three of her friends come undone. All of them just children. All of them babies, with Mommas who loved them and cherished all that their lives have meant in the years that have gone by in a blink of an eye.

They don’t tell you that when you become a Momma for the first time, that you become a Momma in the more universal sense of the word. When a child in your world is hurting, you might only be feeling a fraction of the pain that their real Momma is feeling, but you feel it. Yes, you do.

You are outraged, heartbroken, numb, at a complete loss. Searching for the words, any words, that might show this Momma that you’re hurting, too. While you can’t begin to imagine what they’re going through, and have no idea how they’re getting up in the morning, eating, showering, taking care of themselves – basically, still living  you’re desperate for them to know that you are holding them in their pain and suffering.

Because they are suffering in every sense of the word.

When you’re just embarking on your mothering journey, it is momentous. It’s earth-shattering. It’s significant. It’s important. It’s critical. It’s life and death.

But it is also forever.

My baby girl needs me more now than ever, even as she’s getting ready to leave. I still have a couple of years before that happens, but if the last 16 years are any indication, I better not sneeze or I’ll miss her moving out and heading off to college. And then? My mothering journey still continues. On and on. And on and on. It never ends.

My heart left and started walking around outside my body 16 years and six months ago almost to the day, and there’s no indication that it’s ever going back inside where I can keep it safe and sound.

I have to live with the knowledge that at any time, something might happen to one of my babies – and the thought of this can be paralyzing. It’s one of those things that I can’t obsess about, or I’d never be able to allow my children to do anything out of my eyesight, away from the protection of my loving arms.

But even then, even when I’m watching like a hawk, they still somehow manage to fall off the slide, trip over their own two feet, get tackled in the middle of a soccer game, have their heart broken by someone who can’t see what I see, suffer when their friends are broken or gone from their lives for good.

This was not meant to be such a heavy post. But this past week, in particular, all of my Momma reserves were tapped out as I tried to support and console and process all of the vicarious pain and suffering I felt as a few of my fellow Mommas endured the unthinkable on their mothering journeys.

And it is from this well of deep empathy, that I ask all of you new Mommas to pleasetake care of one another. Instead of finding fault with the decisions that other Mommas are making all around you, extend some well-deserved and much-needed Momma to Momma empathy.

This journey you’re just beginning is a very long one, it never ends, it is forever.  And you’ll need support to help you get through the day-to-day, let alone the tragedies that might happen along the way.

First, practice loving kindness toward yourself on this momentous, life-changing, earth-shattering journey of motherhood – but then, make sure to extend that loving kindness to all Mommas.

We’re all in this together, trying our best. Sometimes we’re winning at this whole motherhood thing, and sometimes – we’re just not.

But there might come a time when you’ll be hurting, maybe even suffering in your role as Momma. And I want there to be a community of women out there who will support you, love you, and provide you with enough empathy to help keep you going.

This doesn’t happen, it won’t happen until we truly start supporting one another as we make our way in this world as Mommas – brand new or otherwise.

I’m dedicating this post to three very special Mommas (and their families) who I have particular empathy for at this time. I am hopeful that they are feeling loved, supported and held by their greater community.