I CAN’T Do It All! (And I’m OK With That)

Nope

I’m having a conversation online about how feminism might have screwed us. But before everyone gets all worked up, let me plead my case.

We’re supposed to be able to “do it all” but too many of us (all of us?) are finding that it’s impossible to live up to that ideal in our mothering, working inside and outside of the home, being a wonderful mate for our partner, etc.

In some ways, I feel lucky that my job (which is, after all, a calling and one that I absolutely love) allows me to appear as though I’m able to “do it all.” Even when that’s only an optical illusion. Let me explain…

I’m the one who drops the kids off every day to school and picks them up every afternoon. I’m able to hit those field trips that appeal to me (I’m no dummy!) and claim work commitments for those that don’t (again, no dummy!) My work is very part-time, but it allows me to have my cake and eat it too – a little taste of it, anyway.

Because I’m a contracted employee and never work enough hours to even be considered part-time, I have no benefits. And while my hours have always meant not paying for childcare, it’s also meant that I’m gone a lot during evenings and weekends. So, I end up missing out on the fun: soccer games, swim lessons, dance and acting performances.

Ironically, it’s my paycheck that allows our kids to take part in all of these extracurriculars. All the extracurriculars that I usually don’t get to take part in. Hmmmm… It’s clear to see that even in my very Momma-friendly job, I can’t do it all either! Sometimes, it ends up feeling like we’ve all been had.

It’s challenging to live in a time and place where raising the next generation is not valued in the same way as professional work. Many parents aren’t able to make decisions about how they’d like to raise their children that truly reflect their personal choices. Instead, they might feel bound to only consider what they can afford.

I’ve talked about it before. The fact that the US is the only developed nation without mandatory paid maternity (and paternity!) leave is a joke. Just at the moment when our families are feeling most vulnerable, when they’re most in need of a chance to catch up to this huge life change that’s been thrust upon them, they’re required to skip that break and instead, add a part-time or full-time job onto their already full-time+ job of learning how to parent a newborn baby!

And we seriously wonder why our numbers of women and men who experience a PMAD – Postpartum Mood and Anxiety Disorder – are so high? Statistics tell us that one out of every seven women, and one out of every ten men will experience a postpartum mood disorder following the birth of their baby. Personally, I’m surprised these numbers aren’t even higher!

What can we begin to do about this?

Be real. If we’re being completely honest, none of us is “doing it all.”

Not one of us can say that we’re able to give 100% to our children, and 100% to our partners, and 100% to our jobs – let alone, 100% to ourselves. Math is not my strongest subject folks, but even I can read that last sentence and realize that you can’t give 400% when you’ve only got 100% to start with! It just doesn’t add up.

We need to give voice to this discussion by reading and sharing great posts like this one from Courtney Smith at Mother Nurture. But I’m wanting to add a different perspective to this conversation about making feminism work better for all of us…

Something happened a long time ago when little girls like me were being raised on the Enjoli perfume commercial. While I was being told that I could “bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan and never let you forget you’re a man!” (a completely unrealistic claim, by the way) my male counterparts were not being raised with any messages that might allow them to redefine all that they could aspire to as grown men.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that a lot of men feel displaced in today’s culture. Now, I think women can often be too quick to respond to this with, “Poor babies, they’ve been dethroned.” And I can understand this reaction, as we’re still very much living in a “man’s world” in terms of who’s making policy, feeling fully supported in the workplace, receiving equal pay for equal work – I could go on…

But the voices of enlightened men, those men who are wanting to contribute, need to be a part of this discussion for any real change to occur. They need to be welcomed into what is still considered to be mostly “women’s work”- the raising of our children.

I can feel it emanating from the the soon-to-be fathers in my classes. They’re eager and excited about becoming Dads, but feel scared, uncertain and all too often, completely left out of the discussion.

We’ve pressed upon them how important their role is in helping the woman get through her labor and birth, but have we really considered their needs and feelings about becoming a father? Do we address these concerns when we see them in our obstetrical or midwifery clinic settings? As Childbirth Educators, do we truly support them in their role or send subtle messages that their experience is secondary and doesn’t matter as much as the mother’s?

It’s no secret that I hold a soft spot for the men in my classes – I care about them and their experience of pregnancy, birth and parenting as much as I do the Mommas! But most of the time, their uncomfortable displacement can get in the way of them truly being transformed by this experience if we don’t work to welcome and include them.

Women are already able to do pretty much anything a man can do in our society. Plus, they can co-create a brand new life, pass it through their bodies, and feed it the perfect food. For the first time, maybe ever in their lives, men realize all that women are capable of – and this can challenge their core identities.

When I ask expectant fathers what their goals might be for the class, all too often I hear, “I just want to do everything I can to make things better for her.” Which is sweet and wonderful – but what do you want to get out of this class? A sense of confidence? Knowledge of what a real baby looks like, so you don’t think the worst when your baby is blue, covered in goo and not breathing at the moment of birth? An understanding of how your relationship might be affected by this little person, because you’re scared your partner might end up loving the baby more than she loves you?

Their job in this whole female experience is to remain very stereotypically male – stoic, unfeeling, strong – when inside, they’re entire sense of who they are is being broken wide open. For most men, if we welcome them to fully participate in these pregnancy, birth and early parenting experiences, they’ll emerge on the other side of it all completely transformed.

In this day of shifting definitions of what it means to be feminine and masculine, can we not also redefine what our roles of parenting might involve? Can we encourage men to throw off the mantle of strength and posturing so that they can be soft and present to this experience which allows them to embrace the role of father for their newborn baby?

Because, really, it’s only through vulnerable and connected co-parenting that any of us have a chance of pretending we can “do it all.” Even when you have a committed partner in parenting, being able to do it all, still requires 400% effort – when combined, you only have 200% to give.

So, be gentle with yourselves. Be honest. Don’t believe the hype. And stop striving for an ideal – as a woman or a man – that’s never been realistic. Make “I can’t do it all!” your personal motto. And encourage others to do the same.

Are you exhausted by the societal pressure placed upon you to “do it all?” If you’re an expectant or new father, what has your experience been in feeling welcomed into this “world of women?” How has becoming a parent expanded your definition of “doing it all” into “doing enough?” I’d love to hear what this post brings up for you.

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?

Hopelessly Devoted to You…

Devoted

de·vot·ed
/dəˈvōdəd/

adjective
adjective: devoted
1. very loving or loyal.
“he was a devoted husband”
synonyms: loyal, faithful, true, staunch, steadfast, constant, committed, dedicated, devout; fond, loving, affectionate, caring, admiring
“a devoted follower of the writer”
2. given over to the display, study, or discussion of.
“there is a museum devoted to her work”

I love this dictionary entry for “devoted.” I would consider myself a very devoted Momma, partner, friend, daughter, sister, employee and Childbirth Educator. When I’ve found someone or something that I believe in, then it’s deserving of my full devotion. I resonate with both of these definitions, because I don’t think it’s enough to say that you’re “very loving and loyal” to a person or an idea. I think you need to show that devotion through action, which is where, “given over to the display, study or discussion of” comes in.

But being devoted to someone or something might mean saying or taking action that’s not very popular. Sometimes, being devoted means standing up for your own truth – even when others, maybe especially when others, try to tell you your truth is wrong or has no merit. Being devoted doesn’t mean that you always agree. Being devoted to a person or an idea, means you have to be the mirror at times. In wanting this person or idea to reach full potential, you have to be willing to shine a light in the darkness. Being devoted is both thrilling and frightening at the same time. But it’s not usually easy to be on the giving or receiving end of real devotion.

I can remember a few times in my marriage, where my incredibly devoted husband told me what I needed to hear. Let’s be very clear: it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. And I’m sure he can tell you some stories about my job as his personal mirror: “This is what I see. This is not who I know your best self to be.” Not easy discussions to have, but they can be game-changers, in my opinion.

When it comes to my work with expectant families I am devoted to the overall well-being of new Mommas, partners and their babies on their transformative journey of becoming a family.

But sometimes, that devotion can look a little bit more like “tough-love.”

I’m very devoted to the idea that women have positive and empowering birth experiences because I feel like this moment in a woman’s life can truly be transformative. It can set the stage for how well she moves into her role of Momma. It can either positively or negatively affect the couple’s relationship right from the very start. She can end up parenting from a place of inner strength, wisdom and confidence – or spend her entire parenting journey second-guessing every move. Her birth experience might only be a day in her life, but it can affect the rest of her life.

Wow – that’s big stuff.

And now for the tough-love talk. (Please remember that this is coming from a very loving and loyal place.)

Women need to start taking more personal responsibility for their births.

There are some providers, nurses and hospital policies that can get in the way of a woman’s positive and empowering birth experience. And there are plenty of other birth advocates decrying this very issue. But that’s not the whole issue. Women need to recognize their role in all of this. They need to take more personal responsibility for their birth experiences because if they don’t, birthing women, their partners and the families they’re trying to create together end up paying the price.

Women giving birth today, are doing so in a climate where information is everywhere and available all the time. Even though “Dr. Google” is not a great resource, it’s who they most often turn to for information – much of it biased, out-dated, and not evidence based.

Our maternity care system has become “us against them” when it comes to birth. I’m not sure it’s even possible to have a positive and empowering birth experience if you believe that having a hospital birth is going to suck. But if you really do feel this way, than take some personal responsibility for yourself and make different choices about where and with whom you’ll be giving birth. Your reaction might be, “It’s not that easy.” I know it’s not easy. I’m not saying that it is. What I’m saying is that it’s vital to own your role in the birth experience – even when it’s not easy.

When I was pregnant with my second baby, I had to make some big decisions. My beloved provider had moved out of town and our insurance had changed. So, I was going to have a choose a new provider and place to give birth.

Instead of doing my own research, I listened to a colleague and chose a midwife at a hospital that didn’t have the best reputation in town: too big and impersonal. Red flag #1 The clinic was pretty far away from where we lived, which meant my toddler and I had to deal with 40 minutes of driving for an appointment that lasted only 10 minutes. I hated it. Red flag #2 The hospital tour guide focused more on the big-screen TV than answering my questions about birth balls and squatting bars. Red flag #3 My midwife was part of a group practice, so it was not guaranteed that I would have her for my birth. Red flag #4 Now, none of these might pop up on your list as red flags – but they were on mine and I chose to ignore all of them. I knew, at several points along my pregnancy journey, that this was not the right choice for me, but I refused to take personal responsibility for this. And although my birth was quick and easy, my overall birth experience was very negative.

I hadn’t done my due diligence to make the best decisions for myself when and where I could. And it was this piece that I struggled with most in my early postpartum days with my newborn. I look back and realize my negative feelings around that birth experience had nothing to do with the birth outcome. It had everything to do with how I had dishonored myself and failed to make the best (although not easy) decisions I could to set myself up for the best experience possible.

Writing a Birth Plan is not enough. Having good intentions is not enough. Hiring a doula is not enough. You need to understand just how much work is involved in making this birth experience positive and empowering for yourself. No one will be making that happen for you. You need to make it happen. And that means getting real with yourself before you ever put pen to paper to capture your birth preferences.

Are you making choices that resonate with you? Don’t concern yourself with what your sister, BFF or members of your book club would choose. What do you want? Make some decisions for yourself. But don’t stop there! Get some quality, unbiased, evidence-based information that supports these decisions as being right for you. And then own those decisions – at least until you go into labor.

Once labor begins, you have to be prepared to make some decisions in real-time, as birth unfolds. Birth is too big to be planned out on an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper! And that scale you used to weigh benefits and risks in the classroom doesn’t get to come into labor and delivery with you. You get a brand new scale that you’ll have to use to weigh the benefits and risks all over again to make the most informed decision you can – while you’re in labor.

You must be a full participant in this birth from the very beginning all the way through to the end in order to feel that transformative strength and empowerment. My own personal experience, coupled with 20 years of working with thousands of couples, allows me to make this statement from a place of confidence: Feeling empowered and positive about your birth experience is less connected to how your baby is born, and more directly linked to how you feel as your baby is being born.

When you give birth from a place of confidence that you did everything you could in the moment to honor yourself and your process, it’s hard to feel anything but empowered. There are moments throughout your pregnancy and birth where you’re called to stand up and make a decision that might not be easy, that might not be popular, that might not even be what you wanted. But in honoring yourself in this way, you can claim full participation and own your birth experience.

When you do this, you show devotion to yourself, your partner, your baby, your family – and this is where it all begins.

What are you devoted to? Does this resonate with you? Are you still able to feel my deep devotion to you (despite my tough love)? I really do only want the best possible experience for you. And I can’t use this title for the post without giving you this link to the ever wonderful ONJ singing her heart out – enjoy, you’ll be singing it all weekend.

This was part of an exercise from The Writing Den, where we were asked to define what we are devoted to. Bringing more personal responsibility into the birthing experience is one of those things I’m devoted to. If you’d like to find out what your true devotion is, come join this group of committed individuals answering the call. It’s an inspiring place to be!

The Eyes Have It

Eyes

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

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

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

Eyes2

(Photo by Jenny Lewis)

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

EyesHaveIt

(Photo by Jenny Lewis)

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

Gitta Gschwendtner, mother of Til

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

“I’m getting so fat!”

I'm Getting So Fat!

I had two class series that began this past week. Night one, we discussed anatomy and terms using a set of slides that show the changes that occur in a woman’s body from before she was pregnant to just about to pop – 37-39 weeks along. My goal is to have these Mommas walk out of the classroom that evening with a deeper appreciation and respect for their bodies and all the changes that have happened. I want them to be impressed with themselves. And, I’ll admit that I want their partners to be a little bit in awe of them.

The uterus starts out as a pelvic organ, but it’s clear to see by the end of pregnancy that while it might still originate in the pelvis, it has greatly expanded and is now shoving out of the way and applying pressure on all the other organs housed within the abdomen. Depending on how much space a woman has in her torso, the space that exists between the bottom of her ribcage and the top of her hips, greatly determines how she’ll carry her baby: tucked up and inside, or way out in front. Both situations have their drawbacks, believe it or not, as I talked about in an earlier post that you can read here.

I know that I’m fighting a bit of an uphill battle in trying to get women to feel more positive about the physical changes that are happening during pregnancy – but I’m determined to try. I’m someone who had issues with my own body image as a young woman, and sadly I’m not alone. But it was pregnancy and birth that transformed the relationship I now have with my body. 

I was a “tom-boy” as a child and I grew up thinking that at least some of the power men seemed to possess was, in due part, because of their masculinity. Until I got pregnant, that is. Then I remember thinking almost every day during pregnancy – “I’m so freaking powerful! I’m creating a brand new human being – inside of my body! And after my body opens up to birth this baby, my body will make all the food my baby needs. I am incredible. My body is amazing!”

In my youth, I wasted so much time wondering if I was carrying too much weight, or how my body looked as I tried to wear whatever fashions were the most popular, even if they weren’t the most flattering for my particular body type. I still work out and take care of my body today but my focus has completely changed. It’s not so I can be a certain size or see the “right” numbers reflected back to me from my bathroom scale. I work out so that I’ll be healthy and strong enough to keep up with my four children now, and hopefully, I’ll still be around to enjoy my grandchildren someday. This marks a huge transformation for me.

I want that same transformation to happen for the Mommas in my classes. But the issue is that too many women view their bodies negatively during pregnancy. They catch themselves in the bathroom mirror or their reflection from a store window and think to themselves, “I’m getting so fat!” Now is the time to stop berating your body and instead give it some well-deserved love and respect. Now is the time to go out in a bikini and strut your stuff – without concern of your tummy sticking out. There’s no way you could suck it in if you tried, so why not show it off instead? What I’m trying to do is switch out the negative tape that’s been playing in their heads with a positive one instead because I think all of this follows us into our births.

It’s hard to feel strong in our birthing bodies if we feel shame in our pregnant bodies.

I know this message resonates with my students because I can see partners nudging the pregnant Mommas and whispering things like, “See? What did I tell you?” Sometimes I’ll even notice a Momma whose eyes are full of tears – it just happened again this past week – and I know that I’ve obviously struck a nerve.

I’m not trying to make anyone cry, but I am trying to get them to switch out those tapes. I can’t think of anything else that we get to experience that has the possibility of such incredible transformation. Pregnancy and birth allow for both personal and relationship transformations that can forever change how you view yourself as a woman, as a mother or father, and as a couple.

And this transformation begins in how we view our bodies while still pregnant. You are not getting fat – your body is changing to create space within you for that transformation to start even before your baby is born.

How has pregnancy changed the way you feel about your body? Has this been a positive or negative change for you?