BREAKING NEWS!!!

“Partner’s Touch Reduces Pain For Laboring Woman”

receiving-hands-1920865_1920In a recent study published in Nature, it was discovered that a partner’s touch resulted in something the researchers termed, “physiological coupling.” The same study also found that empathetic touch from the partner contributed to an analgesic effect via the woman’s autonomic nervous system.

In other words, when a partner held the hand of the woman they cared for and a pain stimulus was activated, the couple would begin to synchronize their breathing and heart rate patterns, otherwise known as physiological coupling. In addition, the woman would report that her pain lessened while holding hands with her partner. If they were sitting next to one another, but not holding hands, her pain level would not be affected.

Obviously, this has implications for the families I teach, which is why I joke about this study being big news and something I didn’t already know about. But it’s important to share this news far and wide, because even though I’ve been preaching it for close to 20 years – “Everything you do for your partner while she’s in labor makes a difference! Even if all you do is hold her hand!” – partners still don’t seem to believe it!

Labor is not just something that a birthing woman experiences. Her partner experiences labor too, just in a very different way. For far too long, we’ve either diminished or ignored the partner’s experience of labor – to everyone’s detriment.

I’ve mentioned many times before that I have a soft spot in my heart for the partner’s experience. I realize that it makes sense to pay close attention to how a woman experiences and moves through her pregnancy, labor and birth. But if we’re not paying equal attention to her partner’s experience, we’re not setting this new family up for success. In fact, we might be doing the exact opposite.

I spend a lot of time discussing the second stage of labor (pushing and delivery of the baby) using my uterus and baby doll props to share what to expect and what it will look like from the partner’s perspective. At this point, the nurses and provider have their attention focused on the laboring woman and baby – with good reason. They need to be aware of any changes in the heart rate as the baby moves through the birth canal, and they need to remain alert as the baby’s shoulders make their way through the woman’s pelvis.

But not enough attention is being paid to what the partner experiences during this critical time. Partners need to know what a newborn baby really looks like and what the process entails so that the moment their baby enters the world it’s a moment full of joy for the whole family! When we forget about the partner’s experience, and they have no idea what to expect, that moment can result in a partner frozen with fear and in a state of shock at what they’re seeing and what’s happening – and this can negatively impact their transition as a new parent in a significant way.

Likewise, if partners don’t realize the importance their words, actions and touch can have on the laboring woman’s experience, many partners will freeze up and feel helpless as they witness the power and intensity of labor and birth. They may end up feeling as if their efforts and suggestions for comfort measures are without any effect. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth!

Sometimes I use a marathon analogy to discuss how important the efforts of the partner can be in helping a woman through labor and birth.

Imagine you’re running your first marathon. You’ve heard from friends and family how challenging it can be, but you’ve also heard about all of the “extras” along the race route that will help you make it across the finish line: the excitement and camaraderie of other runners, the music blaring at checkpoints, the mileage post signs marking your progress, the water stations providing hydration, snacking on energy-packed gummies, reading signs of encouragement from strangers, and awaiting you at the finish line, cheering crowds and some of the best peanut butter sandwiches and chocolate milk you’ve ever tasted! Now, these “extras” might not seem very important – until we take them all away.

What if I painted a very different picture of your marathon experience?

You’re told to stand at the starting line alone and when the gun goes off, run for 26.2 miles toward the finish line with nothing to help you along the way – no water stations, no music, no snacks, no encouraging crowds, no one waiting for you at the finish line… nothing.

The difference between the first scenario and the second is stark. Without all of those “extras” even the experienced marathon veteran would have a hard time completing the race. Let alone, crossing the finish line with even a hint of a smile.

So it is that every little thing a partner does to make the laboring woman more comfortable matters, and it matters immensely. Every sip of water offered, every new position suggested, every word of encouragement, every reminder to breathe, every single touch, provides comfort to the laboring woman. And partners need to know this and believe in the power that their undivided attention and connection can bring to the laboring woman.

I’m reminded of this when I think back to being in labor with my first, some seventeen+ years ago…

I had two doulas – one for me, and one for my husband! I came prepared with a full team of support for this birth. They all worked so hard to support me in what ended up being a long labor that began, as most labors do, in the wee hours of the morning. I wasn’t the only one exhausted some 20 hours into the experience – my husband had been awake and working hard just as long as I’d been. And he was getting tired.

I remember hearing my two doulas talking in a stage whisper with my husband: “Go ahead and lie down. Try to get a quick nap in now before the really intense labor begins. We’re both here – we can take care of her.”

A statement that was completely true! One of my doulas was an L&D nurse (soon-to-be-midwife) and the other was my best friend who knew my husband and me almost as well as we knew ourselves! They were more than capable of helping me through contractions, which up to this point I’d been handling really well.

Upon their urging, my husband walked about three feet away and lay down on the daybed in the labor and delivery room. And then strangest thing happened – I completely lost my rhythm and my ability to breathe through contractions! It was as though I’d lost my way, somehow. The next handful of contractions felt incredibly painful to me. So much so, that I cried out in anguish which woke my husband up and he hurried to my side and held my hand once more. And then, just as quickly, I found my rhythm, my breathing returned, and I was able to continue and handle my contractions, until I gave birth several hours later.

I know from talking with my husband and other partners about their own experiences how challenging it is to watch the person you love go through labor and birth. It pulls strongly on the heartstrings and can leave partners feeling incredibly helpless to do anything that will be effective in increasing their partner’s comfort level.

But here’s why I think the findings from this latest study are so important: it’s the feeling of shared empathy between the laboring woman and her partner that causes the physiological coupling and analgesic effect that help a woman when she’s experiencing pain.

That’s why I’ve always told the partners in my classes that even if they hired an army of the world’s greatest labor doulas, if the partner provides the laboring woman with their unwavering, focused and empathetic attention during the labor, she will tell everyone that she could not have made it through without her partner – even if all they did was hold her hand!

I love it when someone else does the research and publishes findings that support what I’ve been teaching my families for the past twenty years!

Because, let’s face it… Some partners in my classes may think that I’m just trying to make them feel better or elevate their role in the birth experience. (Which is exactly what I’m trying to do, by the way!)

But I’ve also known forever that empathetic touch – combined with all of the other wonderful comfort measures partners learn in our time together – really can help a laboring woman when she needs it the most.

And now, I have the science to prove it.

Can you relate to this post as a laboring woman? Did your partner’s touch (among other things) actually make labor and birth easier for you? What about partners – have you felt helpless in labor? Does this information about how your words, actions and touch really helped her through labor and birth make you feel any better? Let me know your thoughts. I love hearing from you!

Appreciation is Key – Don’t Forget to Say Thank You!

Thank You

Let’s get real for a minute… Parenting is hard. Really hard.

And here’s where I need to give a sincere shout-out to all of you who are doing this work solo. You deserve a standing ovation. Seriously. Single parenting is double, triple and on some days I’d imagine, quadruple harder than when you have a partner to help share the load. One of the main reasons I think it’s so hard, is that there might not be someone there in the everydayness of parenting who appreciates all that you’re doing to raise the next generation.

And I’m not just talking about wiping their butts, cleaning their snot-encrusted faces, making them all their meals (no one ever tells you how much or how often they will need to eat!) or driving them from one end of the universe to the other!

I’m talking about sharing with them our most precious gift: our time.

The time it takes to sit down and feed your newborn, the time you allow for your three year old to “Do! It! MYSELF!!!”, the time you spend reading that book you have committed to memory because you read it approximately 2,000 times a day, the sleep you surrender every time you wake up in the middle of the night to soothe the hacking cough, or run in with a bowl just a moment too late when your kiddo’s sick, the time you listen – really listen – to descriptions of the Pokemon characters you’ll never be interested in (just being honest!), the concerns of starting Middle School somewhere new, the feelings of overwhelm at wanting to be really good at dance, soccer, acting, music, while still maintaining good grades and a successful social life.

If you’re doing this all by yourself, I hope you have a solid group of family and friends who are giving you the acknowledgment that you so deserve. And if they aren’t? Go find yourself some new, and better, family and friends! Because this parenting gig is challenging and we need all the encouragement and validation we can get.

But now I want to turn attention to those who do have of a partner to share in the parenting. Are you giving each other the appreciation that you deserve? Because even if you’re parenting with a partner, feeling under-appreciated makes parenting exponentially harder than it has to be.

Why? Because the little people we have committed our lives to don’t really get it. They don’t really know how to express appreciation for all that we do for them. That’s why it’s so important for your partner to acknowledge everything that you’re doing to keep the family going. Especially, if you’re the primary caregiver either working mostly or completely in the home.

In our society, we put so much emphasis on how much money a person makes, that any work done in which there’s no exchange of funds, is automatically considered less important. When, in fact, it certainly has greater importance and impact on the lives of the next generation than what vacations they get to take, or what kind of sneakers they can afford to wear.

I’m not trying to slam the parent that works outside of the home. This is a very important role that allows the other parent (when financially feasible) to even consider working part-time, or staying home entirely to raise the children. But when that decision is made, it’s important to not make assumptions about what goes on during that day at home. At least not negative assumptions.

Instead, let’s assume that the parent who is at home is working, too – doing a million different things all at once to make sure that the offspring are: clean, well-fed, not stuck in front of a screen for too long, intellectually stimulated, chauffeured to and from activities, and all the while, happy and well-adjusted.

So, maybe there are a few extra dishes in the sink at the end of the day. The floors could be a little cleaner. The laundry is starting to pile up a little bit. And if these things bother you, less-at-home-parent, then by all means do what you need to do to change this situation: 1) Pitch in and clean up the dishes, laundry, floors or whatever else is causing you stress or 2) Hire somebody else to do it.

But don’t under-appreciate all that your partner is doing to keep everything – everything that actually matters – going.

I’ve talked about my parents very happy union before – they are closing in on 60 years, and I spoke about my Dad’s musings on thoughtfulness here. But I can remember as a child, several occasions when we’d all settled down for dinner and he would stop the evening chatter to make this announcement: “Look at your beautiful mother. I want all of you to know that this family would fall apart if it weren’t for all of the work that she does to keep our family life running smoothly.”

What a wonderful model he provided for all of us! She worked as full-time parent and homemaker and didn’t get paid a dime for raising six (!) children. My Dad understood exactly what her worth was as his partner and the mother of his children, and he made sure that we all understood it too.

Take your most precious commodity of time to appreciate what one another is doing in the role of parent to your children. It’s all too easy to assume that you’re carrying an unequal load when it comes to parenting no matter who is working full-time, outside of the home. Once there, it’s even easier to begin to resent one another. This one-upping, and keeping score is ugly and negative – and it can poison your relationship.

Instead of looking for what your partner is not doing and criticizing their efforts (or lack thereof), shift your focus on finding the ways your partner is working for your family and recognize their contributions to the family you’ve created together. How and where can you pause to say thank you?

The work of parenting one or several children is not for the faint of heart. And I’m sorry to say, it doesn’t get any easier down the road. This is a lifelong commitment and you need some level of positive acknowledgement and validation from your partner that what you are doing as a parent matters.

Because, my friends, it matters so much more than you know! So appreciate one another for all that you’re doing – in and outside of the home – to make your family thrive.

Does this resonate with you? Have you been feeling under-appreciated lately in your role as a parent? We’re unlikely to get the encouragement and validation we need from the outside world, so we need to make sure we say “Thank You” early and often. Here’s a little inspiration from Sam and Dave to get you in the mood.

What About the Partners???

Partners

http://www.animalplanet.com/wild-animals/photos/amazing-animal-dads/


I just had a private session with a couple who are expecting their second baby in about four weeks. I’d worked with them privately the first go-around due to her unique work schedule – trying to get into a one-day express class was not even an option. And while I always encourage people to take a group class if they’re able to – mostly because there’s usually such great peer-to-peer learning that can happen – if that’s not possible, I’m more than happy to meet with a couple one-on-one.

I’ve even done some long-distance pre-birth coaching sessions with women who’ve already attended a traditional class, but are wanting/needing a little bit more support as they begin their final preparations for giving birth. I ask some questions ahead of time about what they’re most wanting to learn and tailor our time together to what will work best for them. It may sound strange that these sessions are done via Skype or phone and that we never meet in person, but I’m really good at listening and hearing what doesn’t get said. And because of this, I’ve had some really great success in helping women enter into their birth experience with much more clarity, confidence and an attitude of excitement rather than fear or anxiety – even from thousands of miles away.

When I met with M & her partner Z the other night, I did what I always do and sent them an email ahead of time to ask what their specific concerns were about welcoming Baby #2. M, the Momma, answered the email and gave me some specifics that included: “I had a super gentle, slow labor last time around. I imagine things might be faster and more intense this time. Any tips around that? I’d love to have a little time to talk about how the transition to being a family four will be different… going into labor and recovering with a toddler at home who has his own set of needs… all the hidden expectations we might be carrying based on our experience of having C… I’m having a hard time envisioning this pregnancy as being unique… it’s like mentally I think I’m just having C again.  I’m sure things will be different…”

All great questions, and ones that I was happy to try and answer for her. In preparation for our get-together, I did a little searching for some resources for this couple who were obviously aware of how different it can be to move from being a family of three to a family of four. I was looking for practical, useful tips from others beside myself to normalize this transition for them, but I also wanted to share some of the more funny-but-true send ups of what it’s like to be a first-time parent compared to a veteran in the trenches. (These are listed below for your enjoyment. There are a few that made me snort, I laughed so hard.) I wanted this couple to be okay with realizing that this second pregnancy and birth couldn’t possibly be like their first.

But as I was gathering resources for them, I was getting more and more frustrated by the lack of resources for the partner’s experience of having a second child. Maybe, I just didn’t look far enough down the list results to find the good stuff, maybe the words I chose were not a part of the SEO for this topic, but I was getting nowhere! I did find a great birth story of Baby #2 from the perspective of the Dad off of the Becoming Dads website, which is always a resource I encourage expectant and new fathers to check out, but other than that?  Crickets.

And I realized again, how often partners (and especially male partners) are left out of the equation. I told M & Z that I was going to be writing a blogpost about this very subject because I was so irritated!

The partner’s experience is equally valid and as important as the Momma’s – and until we begin as a society to take that seriously, we are setting our couples up for a harder than necessary transition through birth and into the new family experience.

I recognize my own limitations here and my need to be more insistent about bringing the  partner’s into the dialogue. I’m really good about this in my classes – often I will receive feedback about how I well I “addressed the partner’s role” or “showed how important I am to the whole process.” And I’m proud of that – it matters to me. But in these one-on-one sessions, I could do better.

The reality is that most often it’s Momma who reaches out to me and sets up the session. My contact to the couple is through her – but I’m realizing that I need to begin reaching out to the partner from the get-go so that I know what their concerns and hopes are for this experience. Now, when I’m meeting with the couple face-to-face, that’s a non-issue because you know I’m going to go there!

But in my long-distance sessions, I’ve failed in the past to insist that the partner also get on the call or Skype session with me. I still talk up the role of the partner, but what is lost is their unique perspective and the chance to be acknowledged by me in front of the Momma on the importance of their role as they’re also making a huge transformation from individual to parent. It won’t happen again. From now on, they’ll both have some pre-work to do before we “meet” and I will, as I did with M & Z, create some post-work that they can do as a couple to better prepare for the birth of their baby.

I also think that I need to start writing more about the partner’s experience on my own. If I can’t find the resources online, I might as well start creating some, eh? 

And, in case any of you reading this are expecting Baby #2 (or beyond), I’m including the list of questions I encouraged M & Z to consider and discuss over the next few weeks before their new baby arrives. I told them to think a bit on these questions and set up a date night (even one that happens at home after their toddler goes to bed!) to discuss what this next experience might bring to them – both.

How do you think those of us who work in the field of prenatal/postnatal care could better include partners in this most important transition? If you felt like you had that sense of being included, why? What did your CBE, doula, or provider say or do that made you feel like your experience matters? Please share in the comments section. It’s an area where I think we could all do a better job.

Questions to consider if you are preparing for baby #2:

1)  How has parenting changed you as an individual?
2)  What changes have you noticed in each other?
3)  How has parenting changed you as a couple?
4)  What positive characteristic has your first-born inherited from each one of you?
5)  What positive characteristic are you hoping this new baby will inherit from each one of you?
6)  When you imagine the 4th Trimester (the first 3 months with your newborn), what are your biggest concerns? Biggest hopes?
7)  How do you want to build up your couple relationship? Specifically, what are some ideas for creating intimacy when the reality is that you will be parenting two small children alongside complicated work schedules?
8)  What was your most favorite part of the newborn period with your first? What are you most looking forward to doing again with your newborn for a second time?
9)  How do you anticipate the transition of going from a family of 3 to 4? What do you think will be different? What might be the same?
10)  When you imagine your children in the future, say ages 5 & 3, what do you think your life will be like?

Here are a few of the funny posts I found discussing the differences between first and second pregnancy, birth and parenting experiences:

http://www.scarymommy.com/the-first-child/
http://www.scarymommy.com/differences-between-the-first-pregnancy-and-second-pregnancy/
http://www.parents.com/parenting/better-parenting/style/raising-first-child-versus-second-child/
http://www.scarymommy.com/second-babies-are-the-lucky-ones/

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?

Boys (And Some Girls?) Don’t Cry

BoysDontCry

My six-year old son stood in front of me with tears streaming down his face and his lips in a full downward pout – so different from his usual dimpled, teeth-just-coming-in, goofy grin. He was crying because he’s feeling anxious about starting up swim lessons again. In January.

I knelt down to make eye contact and said, “It’s okay you’re feeling anxious – but buddy, January is far away and there’s so much life to live between now and then. When it’s January 9th, we can revisit how you’re feeling, okay?” He asked, “Have you ever felt this way?” I answered immediately, “Of course! Lots of times!” And that’s when he said, “Yeah, but I’ll bet you’ve never cried about it before. You never cry about anything.

Ugh. He’s right. I don’t hardly ever cry about anything. For real. I’ve been this way my whole life. It’s not that I don’t have feelings – I feel very deeply – it’s just that my feelings rarely ever bubble up to the surface and spill out of my eyes. That’s all.

But – I cried at each and every one of my births. Big, loud, wracking sobs with tears easily flowing down my cheeks. No checking in with myself about how I was feeling or what I was feeling or if these feelings actually merited tears or not, just wet saltiness streaming down my face as I locked eyes with my baby in that inexplicable moment between before and after.

Before you were a dream, an imagined little person floating around inside of me as our hearts beat as one, connected in the way only a mother and her unborn baby can be. After you are here, now, and we are meeting face to face for the first time. You are the living definition of miracle.

I wish that my children could remember me crying at our first meeting because it would mean all that much more to them knowing me as I am in their everyday life: strong, resilient, able to handle anything that’s thrown my way, and as my 13 year old son likes to tease, having “more testosterone than most men.”

I find that curious, really. The fact that I don’t cry is seen as such a masculine trait. How sad for all the boys and men out there who happen to cry easily! They’re seen as too sensitive and encouraged from far too young to “Stop that crying!” All too often on the receiving end of that stupid phrase that gets thrown at them when their tears start to flow, “Man up!” Men are taught from such a young age that to be a real man, they need to act a certain way.

I’m uncertain if that’s where my own challenges with crying comes from. I’m a girl and I’ve always identified as being female. But I was a huge “tom-boy” as a child. You could count on finding me in the middle of the field, captain of the pick-up football team, long before I’d be caught dead playing with dolls on the sidelines. Maybe I, too, picked up on the social cues that were handed down by the dominant culture to my friends – most of whom were either boys or other “tom-boys” like myself. Maybe I adopted that same code and misidentified being strong with being able to hold back tears.

But, the gorgeous thing about being fully present during birth is that there’s no way to stay completely hidden or protected from feelings of vulnerability and surrender. If you are fully present the wonder, the crazy intensity, the recognition of the part you are playing in the birth of this miracle just plows into you – and you are transformed.

I’ve seen it happen to many couples over the years. She might find a strength that she didn’t even know she had. And he might find a softness that had always been there but had been locked away for far too long.

I’ve witnessed this (only in reverse) four times for me and my wonderfully already sensitive and easier-to-cry-than-me husband. He’s stepped up and provided me with exactly the strength and confidence I’ve needed so I can let go and rediscover my softness and vulnerability that stays hidden most of the time. Allowing yourself to let go of any pretense, any plan of how things should look, sound or feel and instead just be in the moment is where the real power of birth happens.

A few years back, I was invited to meet a baby not even a day old by the new parents who’d been students in my class. As the new Momma was getting some key points on lactation from her nurse, I turned to her proud partner and asked him to tell me about the birth from his perspective.

This very masculine, business-minded, Ironman tri-athlete looked at me and said something I’ve never forgotten, “Watching her give birth and seeing the baby come into this world just broke me wide open.” I could feel the shivers of recognition run down my spine. “Yes!” I felt the exact same way in all of my births. Broken. Wide. Open.

These words might intimidate the uninitiated. It might even scare the hell out of you. But I encourage you to embrace those feelings so you might experience that same level of transformation. It’s nothing short of breathtaking.

You might even find yourself crying from the miracle of it all.

If you do cry easily, were you amazed to find that despite any tears that were shed, how strong you felt after giving birth? If you are not an easy crier, were you surprised by how easily your tears fell at the moment you first saw your baby? I’d love to hear your responses below in the comments.

And for your listening and viewing pleasure, you knew this was coming, right?

Help! I Need Somebody! Help! Not Just Anybody!

Help!

I’m in a group of Mommas who realized something many years ago – we all had ADs: “Alpha Daughters!”

They were just Kindergarteners at the time, but most of them had older siblings and had been coming to the playground for years. They thought they ruled the school! We all realized their wonderful potential, but we also knew they might try to dominate everyone around them if we didn’t provide them with some positive guidance. The idea of “Girl Power” gatherings was born. With the enlisted help of the Mommas (and Dads, too!) we brought our girls together on a semi-regular basis for activities that encouraged friendship and connection.

Over the years, these gatherings have fostered positive self-esteem and a sense of community. I’d like to think that our trips to the Oregon Food Bank, creating gift packs for the homeless, and writing notes of hope and encouragement to children spending Christmas in the hospital helped these girls recognize their value and power in creating positive change in the world around them. These gatherings fostered compassion and empathy – values that are too short in supply.

This year, the ADs are turning ten. With so many of them involved with extracurriculars, finding time to gather became a challenge. So, we created an 8 week curriculum based on our original idea of the “Girl Power” gatherings and each week, one of the Mommas would come up with an hour long session to connect these girls to something larger than themselves.

Recently, it was my turn to lead an activity. I’d had some time to prepare, but was still wrestling with which activity to choose: Helping them to find their voices and be assertive (rather than passive or aggressive) or discussing why it’s so hard to ask for help. I asked my daughter and her BFF which one they’d prefer. Immediately, they both answered, “How to ask for help!” Their response was not completely surprising to me. After all, I know their Mommas! Both of us happen to be strong alpha females in our own right and I’m pretty sure our daughters come by this trait naturally!

I wanted to discuss this with the girls at an early age, because I don’t know many women, let alone mothers, who find it easy to ask for help. “DIY Office” might work a fair amount of the time, but “DIY Motherhood” is a recipe for disaster! Especially when we’re brand new to mothering, when so many of us desperately need extra help but never ask for it!

I asked the girls what they felt like when they had to ask someone for help. Here are some of their responses:

Weak.  Stupid.  Scared.  Angry.  Incapable.  Dumb.

Then I asked them what it felt like when someone asked them for help. The difference in responses is amazing:

Smart.  Strong.  Good.  Happy.  Helping.  Admired.  Loved.

As we talked, we realized something – the idea of asking for help has been skewed from a very young age. We don’t consider anyone who asks us for help to be weak or stupid or incapable – so why do we hold ourselves to such a higher (and unreachable!) standard?

Asking for help is not a one-way, solo act. There is both giving and receiving involved. We’d already discovered how good it felt when we were asked to help someone else. Now we just needed to uncover all of positive character traits involved asking for help ourselves.

Asking for help requires us to be:

Open.  Aware.  Smart.  Strong.  Compassionate.  Knowing.  Worthy.  Willing.  Capable. Trusting. Understanding.

These were the words that I brought to the discussion. Then the girls started adding their own words to the white board:

Brave.  Risk-Taker.  Open-Minded.  Balanced.  Knowledgeable.  Reflective. Caring.  Loving.

Finally, I added the word “Vulnerable” to the list. It might not seem at first blush that this is a positive character trait, but I believe it to be one of the very best character traits anyone could possess when asking for help.

Feeling vulnerable is a prerequisite emotion when you ask for help – these two things walk hand in hand. But it’s not a bad thing! If your feeling vulnerable, you’ll need to be open and trusting. This is a great litmus test to decide who to ask for help about anything! New motherhood, for example.

Recognizing that parenting a baby is way bigger than anything else you’ve even considered doing in your life before now is the first step to realizing how much help you’ll need. Especially in the very beginning! When everything is so new and you’re so sleep-deprived, and you have bodily fluids leaking from every possible orifice, and you’re trying to get back to the woman you were before the baby came, instead of embracing the mother you have become. Why does it have to be so hard to ask for help, when every other mother before you remembers how hard it was for her, too? You’re not alone in these feelings of raw tenderness, of everything teetering on the edge, threatening to fall if even one thing shifts.

Use your feelings of vulnerability to guide you to the right sources of help. If thinking about asking someone for help makes you feel on guard and braced for attack, pay attention! Asking for help must come from someone who will make you feel better for the asking, not worse. Recognize that asking for help means you’re a strong and capable woman who understands her own limitations. You’re open to feeling worthy, cared for and loved. You’re asking for help from a person you’ve identified as a reliable, trusting source willing to be there for you in a way that is compassionate. Someone who will help you feel good about yourself and your ability to mother your child.

The obvious person to turn to first, is your partner. Parenting is a full-time, 24/7 job and trying to power through solo so you can maintain the veneer of “DIY Strength” is a huge detriment to you both! Your partner can lessen the load of new motherhood for you but they need to be able to claim their role as equal parent. Give up the sense of control you think you need to have over how they do things and let them parent their baby intuitively, without explicit input and direction from you. The whole family will thrive if you ask your partner for help.

But as new parents, you’ll likely need to outsource some of this help to support you both. If you’re family lives nearby they might be your next choice – but not always. Bringing a baby into the world causes changes throughout an entire family, like a pebble being tossed into a pond. Sometimes our own parents are exceptional choices for additional help, but sometimes they won’t be. If after making the ask, you don’t feel like the help was freely and willingly provided, and you’re not feeling strong and competent in your new parenting, than they should not be considered a trusted source of help for you as a new parent.

Which of your friends already have a baby? Do you respect them as parents? Will you be able to be authentic with them in the parenting arena? Can you freely share each other’s parenting successes, but also your parenting failures? Because my dear Mommas, there might be many successes, but there will definitely be many failures, too. Surround yourself with sources of help who will laugh and cry with you as you make your way as a new Momma – so that you know you’re not alone and that it will all be okay.

If you’re the very first in your circle to have a baby, then your task is a bit more daunting: you need to go to a new parenting support group and find your tribe. They are out there, I promise. But they won’t be walking up to your door and ringing the bell. They want to help you, they just don’t know you need any help yet.

The beauty of attending a new parenting support group (either private or hospital based) is that there is a range in ages of babies represented. So that means you might come in feeling like a rookie, looking to all the veteran parents out there who’ve made it through the trenches and have lived to tell the tale, soaking up all the wisdom they’re willing to share like a sponge. But guess what? It won’t be long before a new batch of rookies comes in to take your place and you realize that you are now a veteran in this role of parenting. It’s now your turn to answer the call for help.

And being able to help a new parent on their journey, even as you are plugging along on your own, holds the possibility of making you both feel smarter, stronger, and happier for the opportunity.

What words hold you back from asking for help? How are we, as women and new mothers in particular, made to feel that asking for help is a sign of weakness or imperfection? How could your life be easier today, if you stretched yourself a little and asked someone for help?

Rethinking Early Labor Series: PART III

Re-Think IIIn my last two posts, I discussed how laboring women and their partners are being encouraged to stay at home and away from the hospital for most, if not all, of their early labor. But the definition of early labor has changed. It is now believed that a woman is still in early labor until she reaches about 6 cm dilation. This means most women will be at home working for longer periods of time through the early phase of labor. It’s not enough to encourage women to stay home. We also need to provide some ideas about how to stay home and continue to cope with contractions of early labor without anxiety settling in. This is the final post in my three-part series, “Top 10 Things to Consider in Early Labor.” Here are the last 5 ideas from that list.

6) Clear your day. If either of you had been planning on being at work the morning that labor begins, call in and let one trusted person know that you might be in early labor. Ask them please to not tell the entire office your news as it might prove to be super early labor, or maybe just a good bout of practice labor  – and you don’t want to have to field a ton of phone calls, emails or texts from your excited co-workers.

7) Plan a date. This is the one thing that I get the most heat for encouraging people to consider, but I swear it helps you get your mind in the right place for the start of your labor experience. Most first-time Mommas have loads of time between when labor begins and when they reach active labor. And if you have something to look forward to as labor begins, you’re more likely to enter into early labor with a more positive attitude. This can definitely impact how well you’re able to handle your early labor. This labor day date doesn’t have to be anything special, but there should be some actual direction to it, a potential theme. I’m not sure it’s enough to say, “We’re going to watch a bunch of movies” or “We’re going to play board games.” Which movies do you want to watch? (Make sure they’re pretty emotionally charged – those that are can help boost your oxytocin levels by up to 47%!) Get out the board games and lay down a challenge. Card games that can go on forever are really great because they can be left hanging if your labor should pick up speed. If the weather is nice, plan a picnic lunch. If it’s not, picnic on your living room floor. Go for a walk – just make sure that you pass by your car every 1/4 mile or so in case labor changes dramatically. You don’t want to have to walk 5 miles back to your car with really challenging contractions if labor moves from early into the active phase while you’re out and about. This date should be focused on distraction and enjoyment. This is the last time you’ll be able to go out as a twosome without the baby or without paying for a babysitter. Don’t waste this opportunity. 

8) Consider hiring a doula. (This actually could have been #1 on my list of things to consider if I were rating them, but I wrote this list more chronologically in terms of what to consider as labor progresses.) Having a doula who is yours and yours alone ready to take your phone calls or texts in early labor or even stop by your house to check in with you can really make a difference in your continued ability to progress in early labor at home and away from the hospital. A doula’s expertise about what labor looks, sounds and feels like for most women will mean that she can normalize what you’re experiencing. She can also suggest comfort measures that can help you continue to cope and remain comfortable in your home for longer. When I’ve asked new parents from my classes what advice they would offer to expectant couples, they usually say, “Tell them to stay at home for as long as possible!” Having a doula to check in with might allow you to do just that. And doulas only get better as labor progresses! If a doula is not possible for any reason, who else can you check in with during this long and sometimes frustrating early phase of labor? What does your provider have to say about contacting them in early labor? If you contact the hospital looking for guidance they will often either refer you back to your individual provider – or tell you to come in to be checked. This defeats the entire purpose of trying to stay home in early labor. An unnecessary trip into the hospital is a real bummer and can start you down a path you might be trying to avoid. Do you have a friend or family member that’s given birth before that you might be able to touch base with for reassurance that you’re moving in the right direction even if it feels long and slow-going? Enlist their help to be that touchstone for either you or your partner during this early part of labor. Remember, reassurance is key during this early phase.

9) Use those comfort and coping techniques that you learned about in an evidence-based childbirth preparation class.  Initially, you might find that focused and intentional breathing are all that you need to get through the peaks of contractions. But don’t forget to think about using different positions, sitting on the birth ball, getting into the shower, vocalizing, looking at a focal point, enjoying lots of massages, using rhythmic movements and getting plenty of encouragement from your birth team members as ways to help you continue to move through your early phase of labor and into the more active phase. Understand that you will need to do some of the hard work of labor before any medication will be a realistic option for you. Pay attention to this section during your classes, even if you are “planning on the epidural.” You’ll need to use some of these techniques at the end of early labor while you’re still at home, for sure while you’re making your way into the hospital and definitely when you first arrive as you move into active labor.

10) Wait until your contraction pattern gets to at least 5-1-1, maybe even 4-1-1, before you head into the hospital. What does this mean? You want to wait until you have a labor pattern where contractions are 5 or 4 minutes apart when measured from the beginning of one contraction to the beginning of the next contraction, each individual contraction is 1 minute long, and this has been happening for at least 1 hour. In addition to this, your contractions should be strong enough that during the peak of each one, you are unable to walk, talk or smile. You are all business and your full concentration is on getting through each contraction. When this is the case, you’ll be working hard and that means that you’re moving through early labor and into active labor. This is the perfect time to come to the hospital or birthing center as any distractions there will have less power to negatively impact your labor progress.

How long will all of this take – this early labor? For most women, it will be the bulk of their labor overall. If you had a 24 hour labor, you could expect  maybe16 hours of it to be in early labor! For the majority of women, they should expect to be laboring at home for about 2/3 of their overall labor. (This is, of course, based on averages of labor and your situation would be contingent on so many different things that makes this just an example. You could be at home shorter or longer than this and all would be in the realm of “normal.”)

I feel very strongly that it’s not enough to encourage women to “stay at home as long as possible” without providing some real tools about how to do just that. We have been fed a cultural construct about birth that makes it seem impossible that we could be in early labor walking around the neighborhood, going out for a bite to eat – passing the time of these short and do-able contractions without it being a huge, dramatic experience. Women need to have more confidence in their bodies and their ability to judge for themselves whether or not they are in labor. Too often they feel they need to have someone else tell them they’re in early labor for it to be “official.”

Coming to the hospital and being told to go home can be devastating for a woman, not just because it’s an unnecessary and uncomfortable car ride, but because it makes her second guess her ability to make the call and determine what “real labor” looks like. Providing women with the “Top 10 Things To Consider In Early Labor” is my contribution to helping women feel like they can cope with early labor and feel prepared to stay home as long as possible to progress in their labor and reduce their risk for unnecessary interventions, medications and Cesarean Birth.

I’ve never had a woman come through my class saying, “I can’t wait for all those interventions – bring ‘em on!” Most are wanting to avoid all of them if possible. Waiting through the early phase of labor before coming to the hospital or birthing center is an great way to start their individual birth story.

How can we, as Childbirth Educators and new parents get the word out about rethinking early labor? What other practical ideas do you think should be added to my “Top 10 Things to Consider in Early Labor?” I’d love to offer as many tips as possible for my expectant families, please feel free to share your own ideas in the comments.