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.

Being Present

Being Present

Or, “The True Gift of Labor Support”

I got called out of retirement and had the privilege and honor of being the doula at the birth of Baby M born just over two months ago.

I’ve been asked by many couples over the years if I would consider being their birth doula. It’s always a bittersweet moment for me, as I love being a witness to birth almost more than anything else in the world. But with four kiddos, two part-time jobs, a relationship with my hubs that I like to see flourish, and this writing gig of mine – I have ZERO time to attend births.

So, when M & A asked me if I would be their doula at the end of the first night of our 4-week series, I told them what I usually tell all of my students making this request: “Oh, that’s so sweet – but I’m not really doing births. My life is just a little bit too full to consider this a realistic option right now…”

They were a little bit disappointed – but said they understood and they’d see me next week. I promised I’d send them an email that included thoughts on hiring a doula, what to look for, what questions to ask, and a few referrals for local doulas that I thought were really great.

The next week, I asked if they’d decided on a doula yet.

“Ummmm, no. We only want you.” This flattered me, but I knew when their due date was and not only would I be teaching a ton of classes around that time, I was also scheduled to leave town to go to my niece’s wedding. There really was no way.

“I really wish I could be your doula – but it’s just not going to work out. I think you should contact some of the people that I’ve referred you to and we can chat more about this next week.”

I’m guessing you’ve figured out what happened next.

Every week they’d come back and say that they hadn’t talked with any of the referrals and finally they decided that if I couldn’t be their doula, they’d be just fine on their own.

Now, I think couples can do really well on their own, but it’s hard to deny what the evidence shows about having the continuous presence of a doula during labor and delivery – statistically better outcomes for both Mommas and babies!

On the last evening of class, M & A gave me a book and a thank you card which read, in part: “We would be remiss not to formally ask you to consider if you would attend our birth. We completely understand your busy teaching schedule and travel plans and if it relieves any hesitance or pressure, we wouldn’t plan to rely on your presence. In our minds, the structure would be that if it worked out such that you were free and available, we’d love it if you would join.”

I mean, really, how could I say no to that?

This was a couple that I believed would be just fine if I wasn’t able to be there on the big day – I didn’t for a second think they were trying to say the right thing to get me to agree. They were being completely sincere and were speaking my language… I’ve always felt that when labor begins, the people that are supposed to be there to witness the event somehow end up being there. If I was meant to be at their birth, I would be there.

So, we came up with a really interesting split-fee set-up: one amount for the pre-birth “Phone Doula” work that I would provide for them which included: a formal interview about their birth wishes, some assistance creating a template for what really mattered for them in their birth experience, some questions to spark discussion with their provider, and the availability to answer any questions and advise them as they came ever closer to the birth of their baby. And if I ended up being able to be at the birth, there would be an additional fee.

The real gift of labor support is being fully present to an expectant family.

And for me, that began when they hired me. It wasn’t as if I dropped everything I was doing, but we had some regular text check-ins and a few phone calls to see how M & A were doing as the due date drew ever closer. I slept with my phone on and next to my headboard at night (I usually have it turned off, far away from where I sleep and covered up as any “Ping!” noises or even the battery light is enough to keep me awake!)

I kept my phone with me at all times and was checking it much more often than is usual and I’d get back to M & A as quickly as possible after receiving any contact from them.

And on Saturday, April 8th, I began my formal “it could happen at any moment” doula-watch. M called to report that A was having contractions and that “It might happen tonight!” While I appreciated his excitement, after hearing that they were both scarfing down Mexican food at 11 o’clock at night, I encouraged them to get some sleep as I didn’t think that they were going to have a baby anytime soon.

I received word from M in the early morning hours that A had slept soundly through the night – confirming what I thought was happening… Great early labor, but nothing to be getting too worked up about.

Over the next several days, I was in pretty close phone contact with M & A as they navigated what seemed to be prodromal labor. They were handling it so well and really only needed quick check-ins for reassurance that they were on the right path and that everything they were experiencing was normal and good work for what was to come.

On Thursday April 13th, the call finally came: A’s water had broken! I think they were both excited for this very positive sign of labor finally happening, although the contractions hadn’t progressed enough to call it “active labor” yet.

I was excited for them as well – I’ve had prodromal labor myself and I know just how frustrating it can be if it continues past a couple of days – and we were closing in on six days at this point! I was also thrilled they’d gone into labor before I left to go out of town – but, I was scheduled to teach a class that evening and I hadn’t arranged for a sub yet.

It took some finagling on my part (and a small bribe of chocolate and beer) to enlist my friend and colleague Jen to take my class for the evening – but the details weren’t figured out until about 4 pm that afternoon. During the day, M & A made their way into the hospital and I continued playing Phone Doula for them, encouraging them at one point to try some exaggerated marching through the hallways to see if they could get the labor to pick up speed. Apparently, this was a hit with all of the nurses – they loved it!

I finally arrived at the hospital around 6 pm and after saying hello, A had what was, by the reaction, her first real-deal contraction, saying “Whoa! That one was really different!” I laughed and said, “Well, now that your whole birth team is here we can get serious and have ourselves a baby!” And, in fact, about eight hours later that’s exactly what happened!

I won’t give a play-by-play of the entire labor, other than to say that, I fell in love with this couple as I watched them work together to bring their baby into this world!

The act of giving birth, watching partners support the one they love giving birth, and witnessing the birth of a family is sacred work to me. And in this sacred space, time stands still as we are all present to one another, living only in this moment together.

And while it’s nice to know a few things about breathing, and positions and other comfort measures – the real gift of labor support is in being present.

Some people might doubt how having continuous labor support can make such a difference in positive labor outcomes for Mommas and babies – but in our ever-increasingly-barely-ever-present culture, I think it makes more sense now than ever!

As a birthing woman settles into her rhythms and rituals, making claim to the strength she might not have been aware of until this moment, she’s able to ask for whatever she needs – RIGHT NOW – to realize this act of co-creation. She opens herself, both figuratively and literally, to bring forth this new life from within.

And in this moment-by-moment experience, everyone focused and working for one purpose, a miracle occurs: it’s not just a baby that is born, but also a mother, a father and a family. These people are now connected to one another, and they will be, for their whole lives! To witness this in whatever role – doula, nurse, provider, friend or family member – is also a gift that connects all of us in this one moment in time.

I was really exhausted after this beautiful birth! And I couldn’t figure out why at first – I mean, I was only there and working hard from 6 pm until about 2:30 in the morning. In the world of birth, that’s not a lot of time! And then I realized why… It had been awhile since I’d been so focused and present in a continuous way for such a long period of time. And it’s intense to be truly present to the sacred for any period of time.

But oh, what a gift!

I dedicate this post today to M & A and Baby M. I’m so honored to have played a small part in witnessing the birth of the three of you as a new little family! Thank you for your persistence in hiring me, and for giving me the idea of being your “Phone Doula.” I’m so happy to be connected to you in this way.

PS – We’re also connected in one other very important way… Baby M and my son, Alejandro, share the same birthday (only 15 years apart)! I’m pretty sure that this is another sign that I was meant to be fully present at this birth.

Mind The Gap!

MIND THE GAP

“Mind The Gap” This is a phrase that was introduced in 1969 as part of the London Underground to alert passengers of the space that exists between the subway platform and the train.

But what about the gap that exists between expectations and reality? I call it: “The Disappointment Gap.” The larger the space between expectation and reality, the more potential there is for disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong… Expectations are important tools that help us move through our day-to-day lives.

We need to go to bed in the evening, with the expectation that our alarm clock will go off on time the next morning and get us out of bed to start our day. It’s helpful to have the expectation that our water heater will be working so we get to have a nice, hot shower. We have a set expectation about how long it takes us to drive to work, and that allows us to know when we need to leave in the morning to make it in on time. And so on, and so on.

But have you ever had days where these very basic expectations were not met?

The alarm never went off – or if it did, you groggily hit the snooze button and slept right through it! Your teen switches things up and takes a morning shower, and your husband runs the dishwasher at the same time, and now your shower is anything but nice and hot. You hop in your car and start your morning commute, only to get caught in terrible traffic because there’s an accident miles up ahead.

If we went to bed the night before knowing our morning routine was going to be so disrupted, we probably wouldn’t sleep very well. We might even have a sense of dread about getting up the next day. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine calling in “sick” before hitting the hay, just to avoid all the unmet expectations that are sure to ruin our day.

Expectations are important, even necessary, to function daily!

But there are a few life experiences where having set expectations can cause long-term disappointment. The life experiences where the gap between expectation and reality has the most potential for causing long-term disappointment are: pregnancy, birth and parenting. Take a look at these three examples to see what I mean…

PREGNANCY

EXPECTATION REALITY
I’ll have a tiny, cute, little baby bump. EVERYTHING is huge – my belly, my arms, my face, my butt, my feet, etc.
Maybe I’ll have a little morning sickness, but not too much. Unless I’m sleeping, I’m puking my entire insides out – All.Day.Long.
Exhausted? A little bit…  I mean, it’s hard work making a baby! I shouldn’t be allowed to drive or operate large machinery. I’m a danger to myself and others!
We’re fully prepared to welcome this little person into our lives. We’re becoming a family! (Happy sigh.) How did this happen? I’m not ready for this – are you ready for this? We either have to remodel or move. And we’ll need a bigger car.

BIRTH

EXPECTATION REALITY
I will have an unmedicated, zero intervention birth. I ended up with a very complicated labor and and a Cesarean Birth.
I will breathe my baby out – I’m going to have an orgasmic birth experience! WTF?! This hurts! This hurts A LOT!!! Breathing? It’s not working, people!
I’ve had an easy pregnancy, and I’m in great shape. I’ll probably have an easy, fast labor. I’m really looking forward to it! My labor was really, really long. I was so exhausted and had no idea it would be so hard. I pretty much hated it every minute of it.
I’ve done my research and written my Birth Plan, so I know how my birth will play out. My birth looked nothing like what I’d written in my Birth Plan!

PARENTING

EXPECTATION REALITY
Our baby will sleep through the night at 8 weeks postpartum. At 12 months, we’re still getting up at least twice a night to settle our baby down.
Breastfeeding will be easy – it’s the most natural thing in the world! OMG – this is so hard! Fingertip feeding, SMS kits, nipple shields… Who knew?
Parenting is instinctual and I’ll know what to do… Most of the time. How do people do this? I’m supposed to know what to do? Well, I don’t.
Having a baby will bring us so much closer together – becoming a family will be wonderful! I feel like having a baby blew up our relationship! It’s driving us apart.

These are extremes and I’m not writing this to scare anyone about pregnancy, birth or new parenting – far from it! What I’m interested in sharing is how your expectation and reality of these life-changing transitions can be two very different things.

And, more importantly, the farther apart your expectation is from your reality the more likely you are to feel disappointment, disillusionment and – maybe even a sense of betrayal.

Why didn’t anyone ever tell me it would be like this? Why was I so unprepared?”

I think many who work with expecting families are concerned that if they speak openly and honestly of the challenges that might be a part of the pregnancy, birth and new parenting experience they will frighten families.

But my experience has been completely the opposite.

I think when families have a realistic idea about what to expect, overwhelmingly they are grateful for the information that best prepares them for what might happen.

The realities expressed above are just examples of the extreme. In real life, the gap between expectation and reality might be far less. But, the actual distance between expectation and reality is not the heart of the issue.

The real issue is whether or not you’ve allowed your brain to even consider other outcomes for any of these experiences.

Allowing your brain to consider different possible outcomes – unexpected or even undesirable – will not make them happen. But even just considering them provides a buffer if your expectations are not fully met. The gap between expectation and reality has been bridged – even slightly – and your level of disappointment will be lessened, for sure.

I’m one of the most positive and optimistic people you’ll ever meet… I believe in working toward everything you’re hoping for with your pregnancy, birth and parenting experiences! 

But I also strongly believe in knowing what lies ahead. Feeling prepared for the different ways your pregnancy, birth and parenting experiences might play out and not feeling tied to a set of expectations can go a very long way in closing The Disappointment Gap.

And then you’re freed up to be curious, present, and in the moment as these life transitions become reality for you. When you’re able to be here – now – and not mourning the experience that should have been or worrying about the experience that is yet to come, you’re more open to the transformation that can happen as you move through these experiences.

And – BONUS! – you just might learn a thing or two about resilience.

Resilience is the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

The changes that are coming your way as you embark on starting a family are monumental. These changes happen at the speed of light and all at the same time. Being a resilient parent will help with you cope with all of these changes you’ll face in your new role. It will help you adapt as an individual, as well as a couple, to the sometimes minute-by-minute, changes that occur as you’re learning how to parent your newborn, toddler, child, tween, teenager and adult.

I’ve said it before – parenting is not for the faint of heart, and it never ends! It’s hard work and oftentimes, it’s the not-knowing of what exactly lies ahead that makes it so challenging.

If you can allow yourself to loosen the reigns on this experience, and begin doing so as early as possible in your pregnancy, the gap between expectation and reality will not be so far apart. And instead of feeling the pain of disappointment, you can bask in the joy of satisfaction: satisfaction in all that is messy, imperfect and normal about real life.

Overcoming the normal challenges of real life builds resiliency. And the satisfaction of “bouncing back” or being able to “weather the storm” builds confidence in your ability as an individual and as a couple to navigate what it is to become a family.

And that helps to make The Disappointment Gap simply disappear.

If you’re expecting a baby or are newly parenting and you feel like working with someone who will set you up with realistic expectations about pregnancy, birth and parenting check out my Parent Coaching page and get in touch! I’d love to have you in one of my classes, work with you one on one, or schedule some long-distance sessions with you and your partner. I’m committed to closing The Disappointment Gap and building confident and resilient families that thrive!

In My Humble Opinion…

bees

So, the world of birth is abuzz this month as ACOG (The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) has released their newest Committee Opinion: “Approaches to Limit Interventions During Labor and Birth.”

This opinion might have left some scratching their head and saying, “Duh!” But I want to jump up and down squealing with joy! I think this is a fantastic step in the right direction from the OB/GYN leaders of America. They’re asking their members to consider: “If a pregnant Momma is low-risk, how can we keep her low-risk?”

The answer is: “Don’t intervene unless it’s medically necessary!”

I’m going to break down the recommendations and conclusions section of this Committee Opinion for you here, because there are lots of big, fancy words – and you might appreciate my attempt at a simpler translation. Also, we know that when information comes from people who wear white coats and carry stethoscopes around their necks, it sometimes carries more weight – even if we’ve already heard this same information from different sources. Just saying… In our culture, there’s a hierarchy when it comes to medical advice and opinion – evidence or bias, be damned!

So, this is not a perfect translation (and my editorial comments are included in italics) but in a nutshell here’s what the ACOG has stated in it’s Committee Opinion, Number 687 for February 2017: Approaches to Limit Interventions in Labor and Birth.

  • If a woman is between 39-41 weeks, and is in labor that’s started on its own, and has a baby that’s head down, the use of intermittent fetal monitoring and unmedicated comfort and coping techniques is a good idea. (Full-term according to ACOG. Intermittent – the fancy word that means there are breaks in between periods of monitoring.)
  • If a woman is still in early labor, she doesn’t have to come to the hospital right away as long as she and the baby are doing okay. It’d be great if she was offered frequent contact and support, as well as unmedicated comfort and coping techniques. (See what I wrote here, here and here (It’s a 3-part series!) about how to stay comfortable and pass the time of early labor at home before coming into the hospital.)
  • When women come into the hospital in early labor due to pain or exhaustion, they should be offered education and support, water to drink, encouraged to try various positions that might provide more comfort, and other unmedicated comfort and coping techniques like massage and how using the shower or sitting in warm water can be very helpful. (Hydrotherapy – the fancy word for drinking water, showering and/or sitting in the tub – are great ideas for comfort and can also help labor progress!)
  • OBs and other providers should inform those women whose water has broken at the onset of labor about any risks associated with waiting for labor to start on its own. If there are no other reasons to be concerned for the baby’s health, an informed woman can choose, and should be supported in her choice, to wait for labor to start on it’s own. The exception would be if a woman has tested positive for Group B Strep – antibiotics shouldn’t be delayed, and there may be a preference from both the provider and laboring woman to induce labor immediately, rather than wait for it to start on its own. (Many providers already use “expectant management of labor” – the fancy word for “watching and waiting,” but more providers might now be encouraged to wait before inducing immediately if water breaks at the start of labor.)
  • Evidence suggests that in addition to regular nursing care, continuous one-to-one emotional support is associated with improved outcomes for women in labor. (YAY DOULAS! And partners, and Grandmas, and BFFs and… DOULAS! You can read my post here about how a doula can be a great addition to your birth team.)
  • For women with a labor that’s progressing and a baby that’s doing well, routine breaking of the bag of waters is not necessary unless needed for internal monitoring. (Amniotomy – the fancy word for breaking the bag of waters before it has broken on its own – is often suggested as a way to “speed things up” but can be associated with more interventions and increased risk for Cesarean Birth if it doesn’t work.)
  • In order to promote intermittent monitoring, hospitals should adopt protocols and train staff on how to use hand-held Doppler monitors for low-risk women who would prefer this type of monitoring. (This one even surprised me! I thought they would suggest using the external monitoring belts less frequently, but hand-held Dopplers would be a fantastic improvement over current practice. So much easier and comfortable for laboring Mommas!)
  • Using a coping scale and the use of medicated and unmedicated coping techniques will help providers tailor interventions to meet the needs of each woman. (Some hospitals have already adopted the use of a coping scale instead of a pain scale, but this little tool can be very helpful in changing the mindset of a laboring woman from focusing on the level of pain she’s feeling to whether or not she’s coping well.)
figure-1-the-pain-intensity-scale-0-to-10-adapted-from-wong-baker-faces-pain-rating

Figure 1. The Pain Intensity Scale: 0 to 10. Adapted from “Wong-Baker Faces Pain Rating Scale”

coping

Figure 2. The Pain Coping Scale: 10 to 0, developed to assess coping during labor and birth. Adapted from “Wong-Baker Faces Pain Rating Scale”

  • As long as there are no complications and fetal monitoring is still possible, a woman should be encouraged and supported to change positions often during labor – it will make her feel more comfortable and will help move the baby into the best position for birth. (Being upright and changing positions as often as possible, for as long as possible, allows babies to make all the twists and turns necessary to be born.)
  • Women should be encouraged to use whatever kind of pushing technique she likes and is most effective. (Gone are the days of telling women to assume certain positions and hold their breath for ten seconds! Yeehah!)
  • Unless it’s medically necessary to deliver quickly, women (especially those with an epidural) can be offered a period of rest before pushing – unless she feels a strong urge to push sooner. (“Laboring down” is a really nice way to allow your body to catch up with your labor. Your contractions might have already opened your cervix all the way, but until your baby moves down into a better position for birth, pushing just because “You’re 10 cm dilated – let’s go!” might not be as effective and could lengthen the overall time of pushing, causing undue exhaustion.)

Can you see why I’m so excited about this Committee Opinion?! It aligns so beautifully with what I know to be true for women in labor. Interventions are not “bad” and can be life-saving in certain circumstances.

But if we limit the routine use of these interventions and only use them when medically necessary, we are protecting the normal physiology of birth. And this will result in better outcomes for Mommas and babies.

I am so heartened by this statement from the ACOG and excited to see the impact this will have for laboring women and birth in this country. My sincere hope is that members of ACOG will review their own personal practice based on this Committee Opinion and see where they might step back from intervening too soon or too often. I also hope that pregnant women will read this and know that they should talk with their provider about limiting the use of intervention in their own pregnancy and birth.

Knowledge is power. Be informed.

(You can access the entire ACOG Committee Opinion here in all of its medical terminology, further explanation and extensively cited form. It’s a great read, in my humble opinion…)

Becoming Mother – The Interview

stg-interview

I can’t remember how I found Sharon Tjaden-Glass and her book, Becoming Mother, but I’m very glad I did!

Becoming Mother is the book that Sharon wished had been written when she became pregnant for the first time: “I wanted the book that I eventually wrote. I wanted someone to be authentic with me. To talk about more than the physical. To go to the dark places. To show me what was hard and what was wonderful.” And Becoming Mother does all of this and more.

I recently sat down with Sharon via Skype and interviewed her about her book, pregnancy, birth and parenting experiences. The following are excerpts from that interview.

Barb: I found it interesting that you included your weight gain (and eventual loss) at the start of each mini-chapter of the book. It wasn’t focused on, or even called out – but why did you feel the need to include this as part of Becoming Mother?

Sharon: As women, I think we struggle a lot with body image and self-acceptance in American culture, and so this drives many of us to have that question in the forefront of our minds when we become pregnant: “What’s going to happen to my body? Will I gain a bunch of weight and never be able to lose it?”

The reason that I included the weight gain and loss in numbers was because I thought it would give pregnant readers realistic expectations for what that physical change is like. Of course, after having gone through the whole experience of having a baby, I understand at this point that the physical changes of pregnancy are not as monumental as the other changes. However, I wanted to meet pregnant women where they are when they first start reading this book.

B: That’s one of the things that I enjoyed most about your book – the focus on realistic expectations, the authenticity of it all. When you were newly pregnant, how realistic do you think your expectations were for after the baby arrived?

S: I wasn’t married to the idea that we had to take minimal time off, but I did know that it was important to me to keep the identity of my pre-mom self alive, even after the baby was born. Once she was born, we were more forgiving of ourselves in terms of going easy on not keeping up with the previous expectations. But we both held true to our commitment to “not totally lose” our previous selves.

B: In follow-up to this question, can you speak to that shift that occurs as a woman becomes a mother and her self-identity can become secondary to her new role as mother?

S: I sensed that it would be possible that I could “fall down this hole of parenthood” and lose my identity, not totally understanding that I’m a dynamic self and that I would always be changing, regardless of what happens in my life. Taking on this role as a mother has reorganized so many facets of my identity. It has also filtered how I see and experience the world. It’s impossible for me to tease apart “mother” from my other identities because it has affected all parts of my life. At the same time, I’m aware that I don’t want this role to “wipe out” my other roles, the other aspects of myself that make me who I am. Because I know that one day the all-encompassing role of “mother” will narrow and narrow as my child grows up. And soon they won’t need me in the same way that they need me now. So I want to make an investment in myself by cultivating those parts of me that will endure past this season of my life. Like with teaching and writing and maintaining friendships.

B: Early on in the book, you talk about  about “surrendering” as the first step in this journey. This is what I’m talking about! I’m not a fan of plans so much, but love the idea of surrendering to the process. Vulnerability during pregnancy is so intense – what do you think about this?

S: I think pregnancy is a constant reminder that you are not in control. And it serves a purpose. The further along you get in your pregnancy, the more control you lose: how much weight you gain, how sore and achy your body gets, your ability to stay asleep all night. Labor intensifies that message that you’re not in control. You’re in so much pain and there’s nothing you can really do about it. You can’t go backward. The only way is forward.

And then after the birth, it starts to click about how these physical limitations that reduce your control help your mental state. You’re much more pliable to giving in to what your baby needs. Whenever it needs you. Whatever you need to do, you’re open to it. It’s not so jarring after pregnancy and labor. Because you’ve been prepped for the past 10 months.

B: “On the hard days, I think – We have made a big mistake.” I so relate to this sentiment! In fact there’s been at least one day during all four of my pregnancies where I have not only thought this, I’ve said it out loud! It’s so important to normalize feelings of ambivalence toward pregnancy – even when it’s a wanted pregnancy. Did you ever talk about this with other pregnant Mommas? Or did you feel like you needed to stay quiet, not tell anyone how you were feeling?

S: I did, (talk to other Mommas) but always in a joking way. I think humor about these feelings helps bridge into those conversations about how tough motherhood can be. You hear it in conversations all the time—when mothers want to “complain” about something, they use two popular methods. 1) Use humor or 2) Use qualifiers: I love my son, but sometimes…

I’m really not the kind of woman to pretend that everything’s okay, especially to people that know me. People that know me and ask how I’m doing, they know I’m going to be honest about how I’m doing. So I didn’t feel like I had to keep up a positive face for everyone to reassure them that I was happy about being pregnant or becoming a mom. If I was having a hard time, I owned that hard time and shared it. The problem with this is that some people feel that your statement that you’re having a hard time is actually an inquiry, or a signal that you’re seeking advice. I’m not. I’m hardly ever seeking advice. And if I want advice, I preface my comments with, “I really want your advice.”

B: If only people understood this! “When I want your advice, I will ask for it. Thank you very much!” I always say that unsolicited advice is usually not very good advice, anyway…

You do a great job writing your birth story.  And while I’ll encourage people to read Becoming Mother for all sorts of reasons, in particular, reading your well-written account of one woman’s journey – emotional and physical – through giving birth is intense, profound and not without challenges. I know you’re pregnant again and want to know how you might be handling things differently this time? What has changed for you?

S: It (self-advocacy) was extremely challenging (the first time). Robbie Davis-Floyd talks about this very thing—the authority of knowledge in childbirth. That doctors possess more scientific knowledge about childbirth and so we often defer to their judgement. But on the other side of this, women often don’t give any weight to their own bodily knowledge, their own intuition about what’s going on. It cannot be trusted. And I definitely felt like this. That if I pushed my own bodily intuition too far that the doctor would lash out at me. I felt like there was a drive for the doctors to have “birth be this one way.”

We have changed providers and place of birth because of this tension with the doctors. I wanted to have a provider who would allow my birth to be what it will be, rather than forcing it to be something that it’s not.

B: Which would you say was harder for you: birth or breastfeeding?

S: Breastfeeding by far—because my body was not responding in the way that it should have. Some women have labors in which their bodies cannot get the baby to descend or dilate enough or fit through the hips. That’s how it was with me and breastfeeding. Always like trying to thread the frayed end of a thread through a tiny needle.

B: I love that image. It conveys so well the level of frustration you feel about something that ends up being so challenging when you think you “should” be able to do it no problem…

How about your relationship with your husband, Doug? How was the first year post baby on your couple relationship? Is there anything that you wish you’d known before that you found out the hard way?

S: I wrote about this in detail on my blog in my post, “When I Became Real to My Husband.” I think this demonstrated to me that loving someone did not depend on what you have to offer the other person. (This is a great read for an authentic, real look at the postpartum couple relationship – Barb)

I wish I would have known that it would take close to a whole year for sex to be really enjoyable again.

B: Right? All the books say “Six weeks! Six weeks!” Well, not my book…

Last question: What do you think about the great American myth of being Superwoman on the other side of becoming a mother?

S: Do you know Brené Brown? (Do I ever! She’s my future BFF – she just doesn’t know it yet…Barb) She talks about shame triggers, body image and motherhood. I feel like the myth of Superwoman in motherhood is just one more way to control and shame women. “Women are judged by their willingness to follow the rules and men are judged by their ability to break them.”

Well, Sharon Tjaden-Glass broke a few rules herself in that she wrote her book, Becoming Mother, even as she was going through her own pregnancy, birth and early parenting journey.

For Sharon, “Being creative isn’t something that I have to work at. It’s something that I am. I just have to make time for it. If I don’t make time for it, I feel blocked and unfulfilled.” And we are all the better for her commitment to staying creative and sharing her account of what it was like for her as she was Becoming Mother.

I want to thank Sharon for taking the time to talk with me about her experience and encourage readers who are pregnant now or know of someone who is, to consider this book as part of their overall preparation. It’s a well-written, honest account which provides realistic expectations (of which I am always a fan!) of what it’s like to move through pregnancy, birth and new parenting. You can purchase a copy of Becoming Mother here. And you can follow Sharon Tjaden-Glass on her blog here.

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?

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?