Sea Turtles Laying Their Eggs

Sea Turtles

It’s a “Labor of Love”

 

We get off the boat and walk single file through back alleys and across the soccer field in the tiny town of Tortuguero, Costa Rica. Fernando, our guide, leads us through the grass and mud, pointing out the larger puddles so our group ranging in age from 8 to 48 might make it back to our hotel later, close to midnight, as dry as possible.

We trek for what feels like hours and finally stop at a covered structure in the middle of the jungle. We aren’t allowed to have our phones, or any other light source other than the ones our guides provide. The Costa Rican jungle is a very dark place – especially in the middle of the rainy season with the moon only sporadically peeking out between the clouds.

We’re met by a man dressed completely in black: hat, shirt, pants, shoes. The only light seen is the small red dot flashing from his walkie-talkie. Fernando gathers our small group together to give us instructions and explains what to expect next: “We’ll wait here until the scouts on the beach find a sea turtle which has made her way out of the ocean and is moving up the beach to begin the process of laying her eggs. We only have two hours of time to get the chance to see this happening, and we have no idea if we’ll be lucky tonight or not. If we hear from one of the scouts, we’ll begin our walk through the jungle immediately. It might be a short hike, or it might be a very long walk – we won’t know until we get the call. Until then, we wait.”

I ask a lot of questions and our guide is happy to oblige me. Fernando, is a local Tortugueran who lives in this small town on Costa Rican’s Caribbean Coast. He’s been guiding tourists through the rainforest-covered sandbar of the Tortuguero National Park  for years as a part of the Sea Turtle Conservancy. Their mission is to help protect the world’s endangered sea turtles. I can tell how much he loves these magnificent creatures that have been around since the age of the dinosaurs. Fernando is 65 years old and has been doing this work for over half of his life. He’s a wealth of information, and I’m an eager student – especially given that we’re here to see something that’s right up my alley – birth.

While we’re waiting for the call, I get a tutorial about sea turtles and how they lay their eggs. Sea turtles return to the beach they were born on to lay their eggs, season after season. There are several stages that a sea turtle must go through as they nest:

  1. She must first emerge from the ocean and ascend the beach. Sea turtles are very heavy creatures and they have to crest a wave large enough to get them out of the surf and onto the beach. She’ll be looking for “just the right spot.” And if she doesn’t feel like she’s found it, she’ll turn around and head right back into the ocean. The perfect place will be one that’s dark, quiet and has the right temperature variation so her released eggs will develop into an equal number of male and female baby turtles. The depth of the track that a sea turtle makes in the sand speaks to how heavy these creatures are. (The largest sea turtle on record was close to 9 feet long and weighed over a ton!)
  2. Once the right spot has been chosen for the nest, the sea turtle begins the digging process. She creates a “body pit” by using all four of her flippers. First, she removes the dry surface sand which will be used to cover up the nest once she’s done laying her eggs. After she’s created the body pit, next she has to dig the egg chamber using only her rear flippers and alternating between the right and the left, to scoop out all of the damp sand.
  3. When the egg chamber is deep enough and her flippers can no longer reach down farther to scoop out any more sand, she pauses and begins to have contractions which make her rear flippers rise up off of the sand.
  4. She then enters into a trance-like state and begins to lay her eggs. With each contraction, she might release anywhere from 1-4 eggs at a time. She continues to fill the egg chamber almost up to the top. (On average, sea turtles will release 110 eggs with each “egg clutch” and the range for egg clutches is 2-8 per season.)
  5. When her egg clutch is complete, she’ll close up the nest using her rear flippers the same as she did to dig the egg chamber – only in reverse. She places damp sand on top of the egg chamber and fills up the hole completely. She then presses the damp sand down with her massive body and lastly begins to camouflage the egg chamber by throwing the dry surface sand behind her as she moves forward. This is done to protect her eggs from predators.
  6. Finally, she makes her return trip, dragging her heavy body along with her front flippers and then waits in the surf for a wave large enough to carry her back into the ocean. She does not tend this nest again. Her job is done.

All of a sudden, the flashing light on the walkie-talkie goes off and there are some whispered instructions from one of the scouts: some turtles have made their way up to the beach and Fernando is given the coordinates of where to find them.

We break up into smaller groups and head off through the jungle again in single file with only the light from Fernando’s headlamp to guide us. When we get to the beach even that light is extinguished and we’re told not to talk above a whisper and to not move any closer as nesting sea turtles can feel vibrations through their bellies on the sand and will avoid nesting if they feel a potential threat or think a predator is nearby.

We huddle together at the tree line and wait for the scout on the beach to give us the go ahead to move in closer. We’re told that it’s important to not move in until she’s in the process of releasing her egg clutch. Once that part begins, it can’t be stopped until all of the eggs have been delivered. Her trance-like state during delivery would allow us to have a closer look.

After what seemed like a really long time, we’re told to come out of our hiding place and move in closer – but not because the sea turtle is laying her eggs. She’d started the nesting process and had found what appeared to be a great spot, but changed her mind and was now heading back out to sea.

We keep a safe distance, but are able to watch and follow this magnificent creature as she makes her way down the beach. She’s massive! Her shell is at least 4 feet from top to tail, and while we have no scale to weigh her, the track she leaves in the sand is several inches deep!

I’m struck by how intense this process is. She’d already put in so much work! She dug her body pit and even began scooping out her egg chamber – but something was just not right. Maybe the temperature of the sand was off by a degree or two, maybe she felt the spot was not as well protected against predators as she’d like – but for whatever reason, she stopped the process mid-birth and turned around to go back into the water.

I find out from Fernando, that each sea turtle only has a few days to release an egg clutch. He couldn’t be sure, but she might have one or at most, 2 more evenings to try and make her way back to the beach and find a better spot to lay her eggs. Those eggs, once released, will sit in the nest she’s created for about 45-55 days, on average. The eggs themselves are usually oval in shape and have a “pouch” of air to allow the baby sea turtle to breathe as it makes its way up and out of the sand. When the sea turtles begin to hatch they do so en masse, all of them working together to break free from their shells, causing the dry sand to spill out and around the other eggs causing them to rise to the surface together.  Sometimes this process is called a “turtle boil” because the sand looks as though it is bubbling up like water boiling.

Baby sea turtles are “phototactic” and use the reflected light of the moon off the waves in the surf to guide them back into the ocean where they spend their early years hiding and growing, hopefully into adulthood. Where they will begin the process of fertilizing and laying their own egg clutches back on the beach where they were born, and so on. Sadly, it’s estimated that only 1 in 1,000 baby turtles will get this opportunity.

I feel so lucky to have had the chance to witness an endangered sea turtle’s process of nesting. I was so impressed by this Momma’s willingness to do everything she needed to do to give her babies the best start in life. Even if that meant getting half-way through the process, only to determine that the conditions were not ideal and carry herself back out to sea and try again the next night.

It makes me think about how motherhood is so strikingly similar across species!

We, as birthing women, also need to have ideal conditions in order to give birth. And whether we realize it or not, we’re using all of our senses – including our gut – to determine if things “feel right” before contractions can begin in earnest. Only then are we able to move into the trance-like state of active labor and bring our babies into the world. And once our little ones have been born, how hard we also try to protect them and bring them safely into adulthood!

If you ever get the chance to witness any part of the sea turtle nesting process, go for it! Sitting quietly on the beach of Tortuguero National Park, with the ocean waves crashing on the shore, and a raging storm miles away providing us with a spectacular light and sound show, we got to watch these strong, determined, and powerful Momma sea turtles do the hard work of labor and birth.

And this is something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

I dedicate this post to our amazing Costa Rican trip guides, Gabby & Fico, as well as our incredibly knowledgeable and passionate Sea Turtle Conservancy guide, Fernando. The work that Costa Rica is doing as a whole to help preserve and save endangered species is of huge benefit to us all. Thank you.

What About The Book, Barb???

WhatAboutTheBook

“How’s the book coming?”

Why does such an easy question inevitably lead to such a complicated answer?

Yesterday morning, I told my visiting mother-in-law that I was going downstairs to try and write for “just a little bit.” Which prompted her to ask me about “the book” and “how it was going.” I felt compelled to try and answer even though I knew I had a very small window to write because of the way my day was unfolding. 

I only had so much time before trekking off to our local park to fill 100 water balloons for my kids field day celebration I was volunteering at later in the afternoon. As it turns out, field day was happening just a couple of hours before the ice cream fundraiser that I’d coordinated earlier in May. And both of these things were happening after a late night of mentoring a new educator, and before heading off to teach a class while two new (different!) educators would be observing me as part of their on-boarding orientation.

So, where does my writing fit in when I’ve got so much teaching and mothering going on?

Some days, it takes priority and I set aside hours to flesh out an idea for a blogpost, or review my BIG book about birth to see if it’s still in alignment with what I’m wanting to convey, or compile blogposts about “The 4th Trimester” into what I’m hoping will be a smaller, e-book about “What To Expect After You’ve Been Expecting.” (What do you think of this tentative title? I’d love to know…)

On those days, when I have the time to devote to these projects, I sit at my dining room table, put on my streaming Jazz station and get to work. My writing seems to mirror my extroverted personality: just put it out there, onto the page, all at once. I can get to a really, really rough draft of close to a 1,000 words pretty quickly.

And then the fun part happens – editing.

I’ve created a really odd writing habit. I write the first draft as a document and then cut and paste it into my blog site’s editing mode. I might edit the piece 25-30 times before I hit the “publish” button, but I always keep a copy of the original document on file. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s so I can look back and see how much improved my final post is before any of you get to see it.

But all of this takes a lot of time.

So on those “writing days” everything else falls by the wayside. And by “everything,” what I really mean is cleaning the house. It’s gotten to the point where I need to schedule some gatherings at my house just in order to actually clean it up every once in awhile. Thankfully, I have a hubby and kids who get what I’m trying to do. They support me completely, and rarely point out that I’m quickly losing any hope of winning the title, “World’s Best Housekeeper” (Which, let’s be honest, I’ve never been in the running for.)

But on days like yesterday, I strap myself in, write what I can, and move into “git-er-dun” mode.

“How’s the book coming?” Well, yesterday my answer went something like this…

I’m still concentrating on THE BOOK, but there are a lot of other things that I do and that need my attention in order for the book to be what I want it to be. I’m taking steps to update my blogsite into an actual website. I’m gathering the curriculum to begin offering my Becoming Us classes. I’m co-teaching some great trainings for L&D nurses so they can concentrate on ways to provide more support for their patients who are hoping for an unmedicated, low or no-intervention birth experience. I’m mentoring three new educators into this field that I have such a love and passion for. I’m creating a new DBA (“doing business as”) account under my name and printing business cards. I’m focusing my attention more on the smaller book about early postpartum and figuring out exactly what’s necessary to bring that project to completion. And so, THE BOOK is on the back burner at the moment.

And I’m doing all of these other things between the hours of 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, M-F (on a good day!) Evenings, weekends (and field days!) – I’m busy doing other stuff. I know I’m not the only Momma out there who’s right in the thick of it, trying to carve out time for herself and her creative pursuits while in the middle of life. But as I wrote just last week, I can’t do it all, and I’m (trying) to be okay with that.

My impatient self would like to be “done already” on so many of these projects. But my wiser, less-impulsive self is realizing that whatever is worthy of my attention, whatever is worthy of being shared with the world, takes time. Time is a priceless commodity and it is finite – there are only 24 hours in a day, after all.

And by the time I’d written that sentence, I’d just about used up all the time I’d allotted for the day, in terms of writing. So, off I went to eat a quick lunch before water-balloon-filling-duty began.

I encourage all of you to realize that whatever “thing” you’re trying to accomplish today, this week, month, year – has to somehow fit into the daily living of your life. Take stock of all that you do in a single day and realize what progress you’re actually making.

You’re moving toward the completion of your projects – they’re not going anywhere without you! Just remember to breathe and do what is able to get done today. Try not to let the past fill you with regrets of wasted time and effort – it was all necessary to be where you are right now. And don’t let the future be filled with panicked thoughts of “When will it ever get done?”

Just today – take stock of all that you accomplished in every area of your life. And allow yourself to feel good, and strong, and proud. This is the only way I know how you’ll be able to get up tomorrow morning and keep on trucking.

Most of the time, I write these posts for you, but I realize now that this is one I wrote for myself. I hope that doesn’t come across as too indulgent! I think I needed to both write and read this post more than anyone else. I needed to take stock of where I’ve been, where I am now and where I’m hoping to end up – eventually.

Thanks for your support. It really is appreciated. And thanks to my wonderful mother-in-law! She gave me this blog post topic to write about – and a new perspective to think about.

How Pregnancy & Birth Transformed Me

 

Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women are the ones who are really powerful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empty Nest

It takes a torrential rain or windstorm to blow the last remaining leaves off the trees revealing what was so well-hidden in the uppermost branches throughout Spring and Summer: one, two, sometimes up to three bird’s nests. They vary in size and shape, and I have no idea if these nests were constructed just last year for a whole community of birds to share some space together, or if they’ve been there for years and yet are so sturdy as to withstand several winters. But one morning, after dropping my kids off at school I looked up from my parked car and this is what I saw:EmptyNest

Instantly, I thought of all the families who’ve been preparing in excited anticipation for their babies arrival only to end up with an empty nest. Whether it be through miscarriage, infertility or infant death, these families don’t get to celebrate all they’d hoped for when they began their parenting journey.

Truthfully, I’ve been sitting on this post since early Fall, wondering if I’m the “right” person to talk about this. After all, my husband and I have been extremely lucky in our personal parenting journey. But, despite writing dozens of other posts, this image of the empty nest and what it represents won’t quit me. And since I first made that connection I know several people who have experienced miscarriage and infant death personally. While I may not have experienced these things directly, I do know something about the pain of it – at least, vicariously.

Working in this field, miscarriage, infertility and infant death are realities. And after 17+ years and thousands of couples, I know families I work with who have experienced all of these things. Sometimes I’m privy to this information – a family will choose to share the details of their parenting journey with me. But oftentimes, I’m not.

As their Childbirth Educator, they might not feel comfortable sharing with me (or anyone else in class) their history of miscarriage as we’re just getting to know one another. So they remain silent about any struggles they might be having with their current pregnancy. Despite feeling especially vulnerable about the health and welfare of their baby, they might not be willing or able to reach out for support.

And even if I might have played an important role in their preparation to become parents, if a family has experienced infant death, this might be just too painful to share with anyone outside their immediate circle of support.

I respect a family’s desire to maintain their boundaries and privacy around such intensely personal events. Families should never feel pressured to share their parenting journey with anyone other than whom they choose.

I’m dedicating this poem/post to all of the families I’ve known, personally and professionally over the years who have suffered through miscarriage, infertility, or infant death as a part of their parenting journey. I’m not sure how often these realities are acknowledged. But I think they should be.

Empty Arms

“We’re pregnant!”
We want to scream it from the rooftops
But, we’ve done that before
And remember what happened last time
Parents and siblings trying on their new identities:
Grammie and Pops, Auntie Jen and Uncle Matt
Friends joking, “You’ll never sleep again!”

So,

Instead we check the test results over and over again
Like a nervous tic
“Is that a plus sign?”
“Do you see one line or two?”
And we keep the news to ourselves
Locked away
Silent, mute, anxiety-excitement
Heavy in our hearts
We won’t tell anyone

Until…

Morning sickness becomes all-day sickness
The baby starts moving –
A lot
We’re past that day, that week, that month

Because…

We need to feel the weight of the baby in our arms
The emptiness has been almost too much to bear
We can’t go through it again
Everyone else’s excitement crashing down
Heavy, crippling us under their collective grief

So,

We wait
With the breath of hope caught in our throats
We wait
For the right moment to whisper
Only to a select few
“shhhhh – we’re pregnant.”
Please keep our secret – don’t tell anyone
Don’t get excited – don’t believe it
We don’t – we can’t

Not yet

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Every time I see a baby
My heart somersaults in my chest
And I wonder

“Why can’t that be me?”

If her baby is crying and she is frustrated, or angry, or too slow to respond
I wonder
How much better I would be at this:

Mothering

Because –
Why, exactly?
Because – I want it more
Because – I deserve it more

These are not rational thoughts
I’m not proud of these thoughts
But it is completely irrational that I’m not a mother
That we’re not parents

We’ve made the decision to stop trying
But we never decided that we didn’t want to have a baby
That was decided by someone – or something – else

And no matter what bargain we tried to strike
No matter what promises or prayers
We whispered long into the dark nights
Our arms remain

Empty

We still long to be parents
That desire doesn’t just go away –
That desire to be a family
Never goes away

Not ever

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When I came into this place I was a mother
Because my baby was still alive
Not of this world, yet
But alive in the world created inside me

I could feel my baby’s every movement
Stretching my belly skin taut like a drum
Pushing my ribs out of place
Tap dancing on my bladder
Beautiful pain and exquisite discomfort
Now only a ghost memory

How can we leave this place now?
Arms empty
Breasts full

We have a car seat, a stroller, a bouncy seat
And there is a room in our home
A room with a dresser, a crib, a changing table, a diaper pail
All of the trappings of what was supposed to be
Our new little family

Intolerable cruelty
How will we ever get through this?

The pain is hot and sharp
It pierces and stabs
The pain is cold and dull
It throbs and aches

A constant reminder of how much
We were willing to love

How will we
How can we
Ever allow our hearts to love this way again?

Know that I grieve deeply with you if you’ve ever experienced miscarriage, infertility or infant death. And while these are such painful realities of many parenting journeys, they deserve to be shared and talked about – if and when you are ready to do so. These experiences are important chapters of your parenting story.

One national resource that might help you process is Share: Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support.

I’d also encourage families to consider individual and couples counseling. There are many therapists who specialize in working with families who have experienced pregnancy and infant loss.

Lastly, I’d like to remind all those who work with families to be aware that the parenting journey may include these painful issues and our families deserve our full support and compassion wherever they are in telling their stories.

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?

The Power of Story

Hero's Journey

I am a really, really big NPR geek. It started when I was a stay-at-home Momma after the birth of my first baby. My girl never slept during the day through that whole 4th Trimester – unless I was holding her. (This was sixteen years ago! Long before the ubiquitous smartphones and Netflix that today’s parents have access to.) So, I strapped my kiddo to my chest and went about my day with NPR and talk radio as my constant companion. I’ve never been as educated about world events than I was during that time in my life, and it felt good to still a part of the world during those cold winter months that followed my baby’s October birthday.

I think it was then that the power of story really began to take hold of me. I’ve always been an avid reader and a well-written story has the power to completely transport me to another world. I can visualize the events as if they’re a movie being played inside my head. It’s super cool! But I think there’s even more power in the spoken word and last night I got to experience that power in person. 

For those of you non-NPR geeks, The Moth is all about true stories, told without any notes. A dream of mine, which may not surprise any of you, would be tell a story on The Moth Mainstage at some point in my life. I don’t really have an actual “bucket list” but if I did, this would be right at the top. I bought tickets for this event seven months ago and last night I sat in my seat and waited for the storytelling to begin with the same excitement reserved for seeing an all-time favorite rock band.

The stories that make it to the Main Stage are ones that have been finessed and the storytellers have been well-coached so that their 10-12 minutes long story has, as all good stories do, a beginning, middle and end. The narrative should be easy for people to follow and it must be compelling in some way. Humor is welcome, but not necessary. Feeling as though the reader has taken you on a journey, is.

At the end of last night’s two hour show, I felt full. That’s the only way I can describe it. My heart was satiated and I was content. Five amazingly brave readers, in front of the largest Moth crowd ever assembled, told us their stories. Some were laugh-out-loud funny, some were so intense that I found myself holding my breath, waiting to hear what happened next. All were moving in the way only story can move us.

And this got me thinking about the power of telling our own stories. About how vital it is for all women to be able to tell their birth stories to someone who is willing to listen with that same rapt attention. Someone who resonates with shared experience, who gasps at the exciting parts, laughs at the funny parts, and cries at the parts that are still painful and raw.

When I teach my classes we discuss how often pregnant women feel “assaulted” by others, oftentimes complete strangers, who are compelled to tell them their birth story. It’s rare that those stories are ones full of joy and excitement, wonder and awe. No, too often these stories are filled with pain, regret and disappointment.

And it’s my theory that this sharing of “The Negative Birth Story” is an unconscious deep-seated desire to process this life-changing event with someone, anyone, who’s willing to listen. I believe these women have been told, over and over again, that they should, “Move on!” or “Healthy Momma, healthy baby – that’s all that matters, right?” They are told, in effect, to shut up and stop telling their story. Often by those who are closest to them and the birth they just experienced: their providers, their friends and family, even their partners.

But these stories need to be told, they must be told. For how else are these women supposed to assimilate this event, if not by telling their story? Birth is the most profound story that can ever be told. It always has a beginning, a middle and an end. There are most certainly obstacles that need to be overcome and it is for sure a hero’s journey in the greatest sense of that phrase.

I think “The Birth Story” fits perfectly with Joseph Campbell’s, “The Hero’s Journey.” When a woman says “yes” to pregnancy, she’s answering the call to adventure, even if she’s reluctant at first. She might need some form of supernatural aid to assist her in this process and she’ll most likely check in with guides and mentors, those who’ve made this journey before her to make sure she’s on the right path as she moves from the Known to the Unknown.

The start of her pregnancy marks the beginning of her transformation process, but she’ll still stumble through many different challenges along the way. Maybe she’s sick in the beginning, maybe she hates how her body is changing. Anxiety might be ever-present on this journey. Maybe she and her partner experience relationship issues. Maybe there’s an unexpected health issue for her or the baby, or both. She’s faced with serious questions: What’s the “best” way to bring her baby into this world? Who will she be once this journey has ended? 

But the biggest challenge for her will come during the birth itself.

When I found this particular image of The Hero’s Journey above, I knew I wanted to use it because it calls the big challenge: the abyss – where death and rebirth will occur, where revelation can be found. So appropriate for what happens to a woman when she is in the throes of labor. She will be challenged physically, emotionally and spiritually as never before. 

This can be an incredibly transformative experience for a woman if she feels like she had supporting, loving guides who accompanied her on this most intense part of her journey. If she feels like she was never alone, and was given the tools to make sense of this metaphorical death and rebirth, then she can emerge on the other side of her abyss experience, truly transformed – feeling like the hero that she is.

There needs to be some time for atonement – but not in the sense of reconciliation. No, atonement in the ancient sense of the word: unity. A time to re-unite oneself, body and spirit, in the immediate hours and days following the birth. This is the time where a woman can assimilate who she is now – who she has become since her journey began nine months prior.

She needs to relive her journey vicariously, give it words and tell the story, her story, so she can accept the gifts of the goddess. The baby, her partner, their new family, her new self – are the rewards for the Hero’s Journey she’s just completed. When we downplay that essential piece of atonement, of telling the story, we rob the woman from ever being able to find closure – personal unity. She is compelled to continue to try and find meaning and resolution from her journey, seeking out those who will help her process this life event.

The power of story is palpable. The words, both spoken and left silenced in our hearts, need to be heard before final transformation and closure can occur.

For all women reading this who are feeling the deep need to tell their birth stories (even if your birth happened years ago!) there’s a way to do this. The Birth Story Project is an online forum where you can write your story, even anonymously, and be heard. Where you can string your words together to help your new Hero-self make meaning of the intense journey you’ve been on.

You don’t need to be a writer. You just need to be yourself, letting the power of what you’ve experienced be transformed into your story. You won’t be on the receiving end of any comments from readers, that’s not how The Birth Story Project works. So be prepared to leave it all on the page for your readers so they can be carried along, transformed with you, by your words. And see if this helps you reach atonement – unity – in your new identity as mother.

You are a hero. Your story is important. It needs to be shared.

Have you ever told your birth story, fully and completely, to someone who not only listened, but heard what your heart had to share? How has the telling, or the not-telling, of your birth story affected you?

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?