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.

Why is PAIN a Four-Letter Word?

Pain

I taught a class recently that was a little different. It only meets once and focuses on the brain-body connection, the practice of comfort measures, and how to stay in a coping mindset throughout birth. There’s no discussion about the stages of labor or when to go to the hospital. This class is like “extra” practice for the uninitiated, or in the case of one of the Mommas in this particular class, a “refresher.”

Karen* introduced herself as a “veteran.” She went on to say that she’d chosen to have an unmedicated birth with her first, but it had been “really painful!” She needed more tools to help her cope with labor this time around.

She added quickly, “Don’t worry, ladies. You’ll forget all about the pain.”

Although I appreciated her attempts to not frighten the group of newbies assembled, I’m not sure if I completely agree with her statement. Some women don’t forget the pain of their labors – at least not entirely. And I’m not sure that encouraging women that they’ll forget their pain is necessarily helpful as a preparation technique.

However, her statement did end up being the perfect segue to talking about the “P-word.”

In our culture, pain has become a nasty, four-letter word that we want to avoid at all costs. There’s a thriving multi-billion dollar industry counting on the fact that people want only to take a pill to make their pain, physical or emotional, go away.

When we talk about labor, women don’t want to even think about the pain, let alone focus on it. I’ve found that most women fall into one of three approaches when it comes to labor pain and how to cope with it:

1) “The At-Home, DIY Epidural Kit Approach,” which of course, doesn’t exist. These are women who believe that there is no way they’ll ever be able to get through labor without drugs.

2) “The Grin and Bear It Approach,” which translates to women saying no to drugs, even if it becomes truly unbearable.

3) “The Just Breathe the Right Way Approach” which some women believe will not only allow you to experience birth without the use of pain medications, but also without any pain at all!

None of these approaches sound right to me. All of them have unrealistic expectations built in. And you know, I’m not a fan of unrealistic expectations. So, I’ve come up with my own approach to labor pain and how to cope with it. I’m calling it, “The Why Don’t You Wait and See Approach.”

There is a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is a physical sensation that occurs in the body, most often associated with illness or injury. (In the case of labor, it’s important to note, there is no illness or injury – barring any complications, you are healthy, and labor and birth are normal, biological events.) Suffering represents the emotional reaction to that pain.

In, “The At-Home, DIY Epidural Kit Approach,” too many women decide long before birth ever begins, that they will never be able to handle their contractions without pain medication. Why? Because they’ve bought into Hollywood Birth. Think of the last birth you saw on TV or in a movie. What about that scene would ever make you feel like you could give birth without drugs? Actually, what about that scene would ever make you want to get pregnant?

When women only see this dramatic and intensified Hollywood version of birth, it’s hard to imagine they could ever find labor to be tolerable, let alone something to look forward to. In this mindset, women often start their labors in fear – which actually increases their sensations of pain with each and every contraction. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Making assumptions about your pain tolerance and ability to cope with contractions before labor ever begins is the surest way to undermine your real ability to remain in a coping mindset from start to finish.

But what about “The Grin and Bear It Approach?” Women adopting this approach have equated that they can only have an empowered birth experience if they don’t have any drugs – no matter what. No matter that their labor is extremely long and their baby is in a unfavorable position. No matter that there was a death in the family the same week they’re giving birth. No matter that this labor is kicking their behind and they stopped coping with contractions hours ago. They’re no longer just feeling pain with their contractions, they’ve crossed the line into suffering. These women believe that they’ll feel accomplishment after their births – and are completely shocked when instead they feel overwhelmed and like they were barely hanging on.

Many of the proponents of natural, unmedicated birth talk about enjoying contractions, finding bliss or even having orgasms while giving birth. In “The Just Breathe the Right Way Approach,” women might think they’re doing something wrong when they discover that their birth actually hurts. Maybe it hurts a lot. Talk about disappointment! They thought they’d be blissed out, having orgasms left and right, but that’s not what they’re experiencing at all

(Don’t get me wrong! I’ve actually met two women who did, in fact, have the most massive orgasm of their lives while giving birth! So, it can happen. But when I asked them how they did it, both of them essentially said, “I don’t know. It just sorta happened.” Have you ever gone in search of an orgasm while having sex? It goes into hiding – like witness protection program hiding! This might be one reason why orgasms during birth are not super common.)

We seem hell-bent on trying to avoid pain in labor and I’m not exactly sure why. 

To me, pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin. We can’t really understand pleasure, if we don’t have something to compare it to. And while I would never classify my contractions as pleasurable, I definitely would describe the breaks in between as pure bliss. I would work hard through each contraction, pushing myself to my own personal limits, and then blessedly, there would be sweet relief on the other side of every single one of them.

It’s true that each contraction grew longer, stronger and closer together. And the breaks in between definitely got shorter. But if I was able to maintain that coping mindset, I knew this meant I was getting closer to holding my baby in my arms.

“The Why Don’t You Wait and See Approach,” allows women to stop preemptively deciding what they’ll be feeling when they go into labor. No one knows what their pain tolerance is for labor, because the pain you feel with contractions is so very different than any other kind of pain you’ve experienced before.

If you’re able to stay in a coping mindset, it’s completely possible that you can get through your entire labor experience without any need for pain medications.

Most likely, you’ll experience at least some level of discomfort in the middle of a contraction. You might describe your contractions as really painful, but tolerable. You might feel like your contractions are too intense for you to continue to handle them on your own. Who knows? You might win the labor lottery and have a big ol’ orgasm!

The point is – you have no idea what to expect. So, stop trying to predict how your labor will unfold and how you’ll respond before you’re ever in labor. Be open. Remain flexible. Wait and see. Then, make your best decision about how to cope with your contractions as they are actually happening, so you can look back on this experience and feel strong, empowered and confident that you participated fully in your birth.

What was your personal approach to your birth experience? Was it spot on from before birth, or did you have to switch gears in the middle of your labor? How does “The Why Don’t You Wait and See Approach” resonate with you? Please leave me a comment. I love to hear from you!

*Not her real name.

Sex Life? What Sex Life? Part II

SexLifePartII

As mentioned in an earlier post, Sex Life? What Sex LIfe? Part I, there are many factors that can conspire to make postpartum sex a little bit tricky to initiate. But the good news is there’s only one thing necessary to have a lasting and healthy sexual relationship: direct, open and honest communication.

When you see your provider for that standard six-week postpartum visit, be prepared to talk with them about your sexuality. Nothing should be off-limits. This can feel awkward at first, but remember, your provider has studied for years about pregnancy, birth and postpartum. They’re considered experts in the care of women during this transition. Anything you feel might be of concern to you, bring it up. Don’t be shy. They’ve heard it all before, I promise.

Whatever your concerns, they’re most likely to be temporary and will resolve over time. But the anxiety of not knowing this can become a bigger deal than it needs to be. I’m a huge fan of paying to hear these experts say the three little words that can make you feel so much better: “That’s completely normal.”

If, at the end of this six-week appointment with your provider, you’ve stopped bleeding and your physical healing is complete, you’re probably going to get the green light for having sex. You’ve been examined and it’s been determined that you are physically ready for sex. But now you need to weigh that information with whether or not you’re feeling emotionally ready for sex.

Have you ever heard this joke? “Sex is like pizza. Even bad pizza is still pretty good pizza.”

I don’t think it’s very funny, either.

Sex, good sex, rarely just involves the physical. I mean, there is something to be said about just going at it! But if you think about it, the best sex of your life might have involved, but was not dependent upon: a gorgeous and romantic location, a crazy position, or the addition of some kinky sex toys.

Good sex usually occurs when there’s a trusting, loving relationship established between you and your partner. Better sex happens when you feel safe and accepted for who you are. Great sex happens when you’re able to see and be seen by your beloved.

Good sex involves a level of intimacy and vulnerability that allows the two of you to become one, physically and emotionally. It can’t happen if one of you isn’t feeling emotionally ready. It can’t happen when you’re feeling guilted into it. It can’t happen when you’re just trying to soothe someone else’s sexual frustration. It can’t happen when one of you feels resentment – sex being one more thing on your to-do list of how you serve others and not yourself.

Sex postpartum has the potential to be so much better than it ever was before your baby arrived! The reason is because you’re about to reveal to one another a level of tenderness and vulnerability that you don’t even know about yourself. It’s through that window of openness that you can begin to cultivate a new, more intimate and connected relationship with your partner inside – and outside – of the bedroom.

But communication is the key.

If you’re not feeling ready (either one of you!), you need to express this to your partner while reassuring that it has nothing to do with your desire for them as a person. Too many partners take the new Momma’s lack of desire for sex as a lack of desire for them – as if the baby has somehow taken their place.

Now Mommas, initially you might respond, “That’s ridiculous!” Before you start telling your partner to “Grow up! The baby needs me!” think about how you might feel if you were in their shoes.

If your partner was the sole source of food and most often the source of comfort for your newborn, you might feel more than just a little bit left out. So it’s possible (and I would add normal) that your partner might be feeling a bit on the outside of this new little Momma-baby dyad. It can get lonely out there sometimes.

As the partner, it’s important to remember that Momma might be “all touched out” by the end of the day. She might want her body to be hers and hers alone. She’s likely to feel overwhelmed by trying to meet her newborn’s needs and get showered before four pm. The thought of adding some sexy time into the day may not even be on her radar.

It’s helpful to take stock of one another’s perspective to understand where the other is coming from when it comes to sex – or anything else, for that matter. Perspective taking is challenging, but it makes you a much more thoughtful person. And this alone is a very big turn-on! Thoughtfulness can go a long way toward creating a much more mutually satisfying relationship.

But here’s the real-deal. For most women postpartum, it takes awhile longer than it did before the baby was born for their body to feel desire. This can be a big mismatch from where partners are.

Your partner might catch a glimpse of you before you jump into the shower and think, “Let’s do this!” But your mind is already on the hamster wheel calculating all the things that need to get done today – and sex is the last thing you’d ever think about.

Partners hear this: if you’re willing to wait until the timing is right (and it might end up being early morning now instead of nighttime – Mommas are battling end-of-the-day exhaustion levels, remember?) and if you’re willing to engage the biggest sex organ in a woman’s body you just might get somewhere. This mismatch in your sex drive can be minimized.

(Here’s the part that applies to all couples, not just those who are new to parenting!)

The biggest sex organ for a woman, in my opinion, is her brain. It’s that whole brain-body connection that I can’t stop writing about! In order for a woman to be able to truly let go, she needs to feel safe, she needs to be able to trust and allow herself to be vulnerable. It’s best if she’s not feeling too anxious or stressed out.

And even if you’re the love of her life, that doesn’t happen just because you’re lying next to one another in bed. It’s a rare woman whose feelings of desire can be turned on like the switch on a lightbulb. She might require a little more prep-work. Instead, try thinking about lighting a fire and the care that’s needed to get that spark to a full flame.

Engage her in conversation. It doesn’t have to be about profound or romantic things. Discussing with each other how the day has gone and really listening to one another (no electronic devices nearby to distract you from each other!) goes a lot farther than you’d think in terms of creating connection.

If you notice that she’s had a particularly rough day, offer to take charge of the bedtime routine, or do the dishes so she can sit down with a glass of wine and relax a little bit. If she can ease out of Momma-mode, and let some of the day’s stressors go, she’ll be much more responsive to you.

Even after all of these positive steps toward setting the mood for some loving, she might not want to go there – but she just might. How do you know?

Ask her!

I think when it comes to sex, partners are too often silent: groping and hoping that if you touch her in just the right way under the sheets she might be ready to go. Instead of this blind attempt with the potential of rejection without explanation, ask her if she’s up for messing around. Most women can gauge whether or not they can be persuaded.

If it’s defintely, “No.” Then, it’s not going to happen. Mommas it will help your partner, and your relationship, if you can articulate why you’re not into it at this time: “I don’t think it’s happening tonight. I’m _________________ (too tired, too worked up about my day tomorrow, still upset about the conversation I had with my Mom, angry about the comment you made to me last night.) This isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do, but direct, open and honest communication has to happen for real connection to occur.

If she is in the mood, she’ll let you know – with or without words (hubba! hubba!) And she’ll appreciate that you asked!

But here’s the clincher that might lead to better (and more!) sex for you both: Mommas if you’re on the fence about whether or not you feel up for having some sexy time, let your partner know that too by saying, “I might be able to be persuaded.” And then partners, do your best to persuade her!

Extra time spent catching her body and brain up to one another can make all the difference in terms of having good sex, more often. She might really want, she might really need, to have an orgasm. But unless her desire is able to fully manifest, the sex you do have might end up being one-sided, not mutually beneficial and therefore, won’t happen nearly as often as you’d like.

If you take these considerations into account however, you might find that your sex life post baby can be even stronger and more satisfying than it ever was before the baby arrived.

Last comment to all new or experienced Mommas out there: Make orgasms your new best friend! Every time you have one, it’s like going to the spa for a mini-massage. It’s one of the best ways to release tension throughout your entire body plus your brain gets flooded with that love and bonding hormone, oxytocin. Ultimately, with a healthy and satisfying sex life, you’ll experience less stress and more connection with your partner.

Your sex life postpartum may not be the most important aspect of your relationship, but it does deserve a lot of attention! You need to take care of it, and nurture it – with at least as much attention as you shower on your baby. When that happens, both your baby and your relationship will thrive.

How have you nurtured and cared for your relationship postpartum? Are there areas which deserve more of your attention? Do you need to focus more on using direct and honest communication with one another?

Sex Life? What Sex Life? PART I

SexLIfeI

I looked through all of my old posts thinking I must have written about postpartum sex on my blog, and even though the search term “sex” yielded 10 posts (!), none of them was specifically about postpartum sex. How can this be? It’s one of my all-time favorite topics to cover in my classes because 1) my soon-to-be-parents don’t realize they’ve already set expectations about it and 2) even though all of them are curious, they won’t ask about it in front of a group.

So without further ado, here’s my take on sex after the baby arrives. (But even if you’re not pregnant or newly parenting, read both Parts I & II – later this week. I swear there will at least one tip in here you can take away to improve your sex life no matter if you’re babies are all grown up, or even if you’ve never had a baby!)

It seems that all of the books written so far about pregnancy, birth and babies (mine will be the exception!) say new Mommas should wait until six weeks postpartum before having sex again. So, why six weeks?

This usually coincides with a new Momma’s clinic appointment with her provider where they’ll check to make sure postpartum bleeding has stopped and that any stitches in the perineum have healed nicely. When the provider gives the green light for sex to resume at this six week checkup, they’re only addressing physical readiness – not emotional readiness.

But this gets overlooked so often that it’s been translated to mean: All new Mommas should be ready to have sex again at six weeks postpartum. It’s become a set expectation for many couples. How do I know? Because, I ask them.

“How long do you have to wait to have sex again after your baby is born?”

What follows is a chorus of male and female voices echoing throughout the classroom: “Six weeks! Six weeks! Six weeks!” In all my years of teaching, I’ve never heard anything else. I feel compelled to address this issue and help them set realistic expectations about what their reality might be when it comes to postpartum sex.

To be sure, there are some women for whom the six week waiting period is actually a trial – they’ve been feeling pretty randy, riding the waves of those Oxytocin hormones and ready to get back at it even before that first postpartum visit with their provider. But not everyone feels that way.

During pregnancy, a lot of women read about the six week waiting period and think, “A month and a half? I’m sure I’ll be ready for sex by then.” But there are lots of factors that she can neither predict nor control that might delay her readiness for postpartum sex. That six week mark might come and go and she might be surprised by how not ready she is for sex.

But if the only information these new parents have heard is “Six weeks! Six weeks!” this can become the expectation about when they’re supposed to get back at it – ready or not. 

Sexual desire postpartum varies from woman to woman, but I find that new Mommas have lots of outlets to talk about this topic with other new Mommas. Partners? Not so much. And if we’re talking specifically about new Dads, maybe not at all.

For a lot of men, when they find someone they’re wanting to spend the rest of their life with, what they do in the bedroom stops being a topic of conversation with their buddies. And so, if their sex life has not resumed by six weeks postpartum (the only information they have on this subject), they might start to think there’s something wrong with their relationship. They might feel like the baby has gotten between them as a couple, that the baby has changed everything.

The vast majority of the time this is simply not true. In fact, watching her partner be tender and vulnerable in this new role of parenting their baby can actually be a real turn-on for a lot of new Mommas! But that doesn’t mean they’re ready to have sex just yet.

Why?

A whole bunch of reasons, like:

  • She might not feel all that sexy as a new Momma. No matter how much weight she put on during pregnancy, when she leaves the hospital, a new Momma is likely to look about six months pregnant. Only now, her belly isn’t tight and firm, it’s super jiggly. And her breasts? While impressively larger than they were before, are now being used for a completely different purpose. They might be off-limits in terms of her sexuality – at least for a little while.
  • She is exhausted. She is soooooooooo exhausted. And when weighed on a scale, “Sex vs Sleep” sleep will always win. Always.
  • She might be terrified that having sex will hurt like hell. And for a lot of women, it might. For those that don’t feel pain with sex, it still might take awhile for it to feel good again. Breastfeeding can cause vaginal dryness, so some sort of lubrication will be necessary for most women. Remember –  she just pushed a pretty large something out of her vagina. Putting anything back inside her vagina can be a really scary thought for new Mommas. And fear is a pretty big turn-off.
  • She might be worried about getting pregnant again. Note: breastfeeding is not a form of birth control and you’re always fertile before you know you’re fertile. So don’t mess around with this one – make sure that you have an idea about how you plan on preventing a pregnancy if you’re not ready to have your babies super close together!
  • She might be having a hard time reconciling her sex-kitten self, with her new Momma self. Can those two roles even coincide with one another? Do parents still have sex? Do my parents still have sex? Why did you make me think about that???? You can see the dilemma that some women have with reconciling these two ideas.
  • She’s having a harder time concentrating and might find it difficult to let go. The stress of being fully responsible for another human being’s life weighs heavy on a new Momma. While she might be able to rely on you as her partner and co-parent, it’s her body that’s in full recovery mode and trying to make the food that’s necessary for her baby to live. It’s kind of a big deal. And she worries about this stuff a lot more than you think she does.
  • Maybe her sense of self-esteem and self-worth has taken a hit now that she’s “just” a full-time Momma. She’s grappling with this new identity that conflicts with what the world says a successful woman looks like. Does the work she’s doing now as the primary caregiver have as much value as the work she did in her office just weeks before?
  • She might have no libido – zero, zilch, nada. And while this has to do with shifting hormones, and usually resolves itself after some time, this can be a tremendous blow to the woman who used to have a healthy sex appetite before her baby was born.

Stick with me for Part II of this post, because it ends on a much more positive note, I swear it! It also includes some thoughts about how to make your sex life better in the short and long-term.

Are there any other issues I’ve missed that might make a woman hesitant to have sex soon after having her baby? How long before you had sex post-baby, and how long before you enjoyed sex post-baby? I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments.

The Eyes Have It

Eyes

There’s an article that I just read from the BBC about a project called “One Day Young” from London photographer, Jenny Lewis, who for the past seven years has been capturing a stolen moment in time in the lives of new mother/baby pairs within 24 hours of birth. I encourage you to look at all of the photos she’s taken for this project. Then come back and read the article and see if you agree with what I’m about to say.

All of her photos are mesmerizing to me and I recognize my own self as new Momma in the disheveled hair, the still pregnant looking bellies, the exhaustion visible in every pore. I love that the photos are not retouched and appreciate that the photographer has really attempted to show a more realistic image of new motherhood.

But to be sure, I see myself more in the faces of the women who have a slight smile on their lips, maybe a bit of a gleam in their eyes – those women who seem to be thinking, “I can’t believe I just did that! I’ve got a secret… I totally kick ass, and this baby is my proof!” At least that’s how I felt after the birth of my first baby and I’m pretty sure a picture taken at that time would have reflected my inner rock star.

Eyes2

(Photo by Jenny Lewis)

But the images that linger in my memory, are ones like this:

EyesHaveIt

(Photo by Jenny Lewis)

“I am not entirely sure who is to blame for the rose-tinted vision of motherhood. It doesn’t matter how many times someone tells you how tough it is to have a baby. Before you have one, you never quite get it. I often think about vulnerable mothers in tough circumstances and how they manage.”

Gitta Gschwendtner, mother of Til

There are photos in this collection where there are no Mona Lisa smiles. These are the ones that show a different set of emotions: “I have no idea what I’m supposed to think of you, let alone how to take care of you.” Or, “My birth was traumatic and I feel ripped off!”

You can sense the fear, anxiety or anger behind those eyes that are averted or avoiding direct eye contact with their baby. And while there are only a few pictures from the entire collection that have connected narratives in the original article from the BBC, they seem to complete one another perfectly. The image and words just fit for that baby’s first day of life, that woman’s first day of mothering.

But this leads me to ask a question… Oftentimes, new Mommas suffer from PMADs (Postpartum Mood and Anxiety Disorders) in complete silence, their outside demeanor belying what hell they’re going through on the inside. How does this happen? If during those first 24 hours a photographer can capture these images, what are we missing? Because I’m sure you’ve seen the photos of women who’ve been struggling with a PMAD months after their baby’s birth and in all the pictures from that time, you’d have a hard time knowing it: they look joyful, happy, as though everything is wonderful – while inside they’re falling apart.

But in these One Day Young photos, the difference between the women who are suffering and unsure, versus those who look eager and excited to take on their new roles is obvious.

It’s purely speculation on my part, because I haven’t interviewed any of these women and have no idea about their medical history or how their births turned out, but I would be willing to guess that unmet expectations definitely played a part and contributed to their looks of disillusionment and overwhelm.

This is not their fault. Like Gitta says above, there’s a rose-tinted vision of motherhood that is pervasive in our culture and this doesn’t do anybody any favors.

Parenting is hard. It’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever done in my life on every possible level. And we need to be sharing this message with more people and more often.

There might be naysayers who cry out, “You don’t want to scare them!” But realistic expectations are not scare tactics. Different aspects of parenting will be more or less challenging for each individual (as an example, for me,  it was the entire year each of my children turned three…) Knowing that it’s not all rainbows and unicorns allows women to understand what they’re getting themselves and their partners into.

Even though I’m just supposed to be talking about getting a baby born in my classes, I throw in some info now and again about the realities of life with a newborn, so that they’ve at least heard it from one person before the baby arrives.

This is going to be hard. There will be days that you hate it. There will also be days that you can’t believe how much you love it. You’ll be stretched to your absolute limit – multiple times. You’ll have a mirror held up before your face every.single.damn.day and even though you try your hardest to be the best version of yourself, oftentimes you’ll fail and be a version of yourself that you really don’t like that much. You’ll compare yourself to others, but why? You, your partner and your baby are unique and the only “right” way to parent your baby is the way that’s working for your family – today. Because, it’s not going to work a month from now. You will never “arrive” as a parent. Because it never ends. There will always be a new challenge to learn from.

The photos of these women in their first 24 hours with their babies are raw, they’re real, and these women have just gone through the most intense transformative experience of their lives and they’re not able to mask their true emotions and vulnerabilities.

And I think we need more of that. All of us. We need to put down our armor and share openly, first with ourselves, and then with those people we love, about what’s really going on inside. But then, that circle needs to expand.

We need to be willing to share with other new parents our highs and our lows of parenting. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Find your tribe now. Find that tribe of people who will celebrate your parenting successes, and listen to your parenting fails – followed up by sharing a few of their own.

Knowing just how challenging this parenting job can be and having realistic expectations about what’s to come, is empowering to new families. When they feel prepared and armed with realistic expectations about their roles, unfettered by rose-tinted visions, they’ll end up feeling less isolated, alone and incapable and more able to partner and parent with confidence: all the things we should want for our new families.

How can you bring more realistic expectations into the work you do with new families? If you are a parent already, how could you help expectant parents have more realistic expectations about this time in their life? If you are a new parent, how could you reach out to other parents to find your tribe?

ZUMBA!

Zumba

I arrived at my class this evening ready to teach. It had been awhile since I was last at this location, and with the recent “ice storm” I left early not knowing what traffic would be like at rush hour. It wasn’t that bad and I was happy to clock in right on time to start prepping my classroom.

This particular class meets in a conference room in a clinic. It isn’t the best set-up for a Childbirth Education class, to be honest. The space is a little on the small side, it can get really warm, and the lighting is either ALL ON or ALL OFF.

So to get around these drawbacks the class size is limited to eight couples only and more recently, a table lamp has been purchased. In my opinion, it’s all worth it if it makes life easier for these families to have this option as a closer location, or one that works better for getting their classes in before their due dates. And in any case, the people who work at the clinic are really nice and I love my job, so it doesn’t matter that much.

But I still appreciate having a little extra time to set up when I’m at this location. I usually have to haul tables around to maximize the room space and the computer is a little slow in accessing my PowerPoint slides. It’s nice to be there with plenty of time to feel settled before my families start showing up at 6:15 for their 6:30 class.

As I came around the corner around 5:35 this evening, I heard some really loud music blaring from my classroom and the door was closed. I turned to someone who works at the clinic and asked, “Do you know what’s going on in there?”

“Oh, it’s a Zumba class!”

Wait, what?

“Ummmm… I’m supposed to be teaching a Childbirth Preparation class in there for 16 people in an hour.”

“I think they’ll be done by 6 pm.”

Okay… Not what I wanted to hear. But I wasn’t going to interrupt the class, they were in full swing and I could here them getting down to some serious Zumba-esque tunes.

(If you’ve never done a Zumba exercise class before, you really should try it at least once in your life. It’s a complete blast! The music is always ridiculously loud, like rock-concert-level-loud and has a lot of Latin or Indian (think Bollywood) influence, plus it’s one of the best cardio work-outs of all time! You will sweat like you’ve never sweat before. I’ve taken it as an exercise class before and really enjoyed it. And a couple of years ago, a girlfriend of mine had a big birthday party where we were encouraged to show up up in 80s work-out gear (think Olivia Newton John in her “Let’s Get Physical” days). We drank lots of Margaritas and ate mountains of chips with guacamole and then we did a 90-minute Zumba class. Seriously, it was one of the best birthday parties I’ve ever been to! But, I digress…)

Despite my fondness for Zumba, what I’d just heard put me in a bind as I needed/wanted more than 30 minutes to set-up for my class. I texted my supervisor to let her know what was happening and asked that she try to get to the bottom of this so it didn’t end up being a regular gig, and started setting up as best I could in the hallway outside the classroom.

At 6 pm, I poked my head in the room and found that I had to holler above the outrageously loud thumping club music, “I HAVE TO TEACH A CHILDBIRTH CLASS TO 16 PEOPLE IN THIS ROOM IN 30 MINUTES!” A young woman turned toward me and said/shouted, “OH! I’M SO SORRY! I DIDNT KNOW THERE WAS ANYTHING SCHEDULED FOR THIS ROOM! WE’LL BE OUT OF HERE BY 6:15!” And then the door closed.

Well, shoot. (For the record, that’s not the word I was repeating over and over in my head at the moment.) That just cut my set-up time in half – again. I went from having an hour to get the room all set-up to having only 15 minutes.

At this point, my students started showing up and I was forced to have them wait in the call center for a little bit, encouraging them to “get to know one another a little bit better.” To their credit, the Zumba class attendees sprung into action at 6:15, trying as best they could to help me set up the classroom. There wasn’t a whole lot they could do for me, but as I walked into the room I could feel the heat and – definitely smell the sweat – of about a dozen Zumba enthusiasts hit me full-force. I looked at the group of them assembled and begged, “Can you please find me a fan?” Which, thankfully, they did.

The students started filing in, and even though I was still taping things up and my classroom was not set up to my personal standards, class went off without a hitch. In fact, I actually covered more information tonight than I was supposed to, and so next week I have the luxury of being able to do some review and maybe even cover a little extra information at a more leisurely pace.

The reason I’m sharing this with you, is that I find it so interesting when I’m forced to “practice what I preach.”

I talk so much in my classes about how birth is too big to be planned and how you can’t really control it no matter how much you might want to – and that’s actually true of life.

You can set all the plans you want about how your day is going to play out, but in reality none of us has absolute control over any of it. We might leave early, in order to get somewhere with extra time to set-up and there’s an accident on the highway and you’re delayed by 30 minutes, or there’s ice on the roads and class needs to be cancelled, or there’s a group of sweaty people working out their Zumba-booties in your classroom when you arrive – and guess what?

You figure it out. You take a breath, realize that no one was trying to make the situation difficult for you, attempt to be as pleasant as possible (it makes it so much easier for everyone involved), suck it up and do what needs to be done.

There it is.

Birth, work, parenting, life – not as much control as any of us would like. And it’s nice sometimes to be reminded of this and realize that we have a choice to view any situation we’re in as either an opportunity or a challenge.

It’s not what’s actually happening that matters, but how you respond to what’s happening that matters.

Wow – very philosophical post today and written in one go right after my class ended, but a nice perspective to share: so happy that I’m still learning after all these years of teaching.

(And, of course, how could I reference ONJ without sharing a little bit of this goodness with all of you? I think it would make a really great song for a Zumba class, don’t you?)

Letting Go

Driver's Ed

I just got back from taking my “baby” to get her driver’s permit. She passed! And now I have to decide what emotion I’m feeling after paying the $32.50 that was required for her to smile for a photo that allows her to legally get behind the wheel of an automobile. Is it pride? Fear? Sadness?

Wistfulness might be the closest to what I’m feeling, but not in a melancholy or regretful way – wistful, as in reflective.

I have raised my “baby” to grow up to be an independent, young woman. And to be honest, I was shocked that she’d waited this long to take the test – an accurate picture of how different it is growing up in Portland, Oregon rather than Indianapolis, Indiana. Portland, as you may have heard in any number of magazines, is one of the easiest places in the world to get around without ever needing to know how to drive. We have several ways of getting from point A to point B. Our Tri-met system includes busses with routes all over the city and beyond, The Streetcar, The Max, and more bike lanes than almost anywhere else in the country. Indianapolis, on the other hand, was a place where to take a bus from where I lived, I’d have to drive to find a bus stop several miles away, first. Things might be different today, but the day I turned 16, I made my parents take me directly to the DMV so I could pick up my license and drive us all home – and I never looked back.

It just seems that now that it’s my girl’s turn to be in the driver’s seat, that the time has passed too quickly. Now, I promise all the newish parents reading this that I have not forgotten how rough it was at first. When I was doing it myself, I felt like the 4th Trimester was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life! For the record, I still feel this way! But despite these feelings, I did it again three more times! What is wrong with me?!

Well, it gets better from there (I promise!) And while I’ll admit that there are moments in that newborn period that are so full of wonder and awe it’s almost magical, I think those same babies become so much more interesting as they get older.

Half of my children are teenagers right now, and I’m going to share something with those of you still stuck in diaper and breastfeeding mode: Do not buy into the myth that teenagers are terrible people that you will hate having in your life almost as much as they will hate having you for their parents.

I think this narrow expectation is at the root of a lot of the issues that can crop of between parents and their teens, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Broaden your expectations about this time, and try to remember what it was like to have your hormones in control of your body, your mind and your soul  – and you’ll do okay. I’m not saying it’s a cakewalk, I’m just not sure that reality always fits the myth. So true for most of the stories you hear about parenting – at any age.

One thing that I’ve been told (by my own mother, nonetheless) that has proven to be absolutely true about parenting is this: “The days go by slowly, but the years go by too fast.”

I am reminded of this today, as my girl takes that next necessary, anticipated and completely supported step toward her full independence from me. I remember our first Christmas together as a new little family and marvel at all that has transpired since. This act of parenting never ends, and in ways even though it’s so much easier now, in others it’s even harder.

Not the parenting, per se, but the act of letting go.

It’s been happening since the moment she left my body, even before the umbilical cord was cut, she was already leaving me – this one being suddenly made two – and I am preparing myself for her full leave-taking which will be happening soon. The next two and half years will be chock full of days that go by at a snail’s pace, but I will blink and the years will have flown away.

So, in this season of gifts, recognize the gifts of your family as they are, in real-time, in all its messiness. Try your hardest to not wish it to move forward too soon. Time is already taking care of that for you.

Look at your baby in your arms once again. Memorize the contours of her sleeping face, feel the weight of her warm and trusting body nestled against you. Give thanks to the ones that made you a parent. And begin the wistful process of letting them go.

The secret beauty of it all is that they never really leave you – they are forever imprinted upon your heart.

Are you still in that phase of, “When will this challenge ever end?” Is it possible to pause to be in these moments with your little one(s) – even if this moment is not pretty and moving in slow motion – and savor them?