Doesn’t the Work Let My Partner Off the Hook?

Above: Me before the Work.

A potential Inquirer in the Intimacy Intensive – Partners Class writes:

“It sounds like doing the Work lets my partner off the hook. Why should I be the one to change when he’s the one who is wrong? I’m tired of always being the better person.”

This is a common question of people who are in pain and intrigued by the promise of the Work – freedom – but skeptical that it really could deliver.

The short answer is, yes, doing the Work does let your partner off the hook.

The longer answer begins: It lets him off the hook, but aren’t you tired of holding him up there?

It is exhausting to feel resentful and ill-used all the time! Even when you manage to push your discontent aside, it still sits there – switching metaphors now – like a big rock in your living room. It doesn’t belong there, but still you arrange the furniture around it and contort yourself to accommodate it every time you make a move.

For me, the implacable object was my husband’s anger. Or so I thought. The truth was that I was afraid of anger, full stop. (It could have been anything. What’s the thing you keep finding in relationship after relationship?) Because I lived with him, his was the anger I encountered most often. I suppressed my own. But I thought he was the problem.

At the School for the Work, Katie told us to look up at a light fixture. We did. She said, “Keep looking. Just wait.” As I waited – I didn’t know for what – I started noticing how dusty the fixture was, how dated. She said, “The judgments come, don’t they? Look at anything long enough, and the judgments will come.”

I laughed, but this is what we do to the people we love, because we look at them the most. What else could explain why your hateful mother-in-law is the most beloved member of her gardening group? Or why your son, who must be reminded every single day, twice a day, to brush his teeth, is his teacher’s responsible, dependable right hand man?

Or why, in our 22 years together, I have been pulled aside so often by my husband’s coworkers and told how much they appreciate his sense of humor, good cheer, and positive leadership?

I scooted around what I believed to be my husband’s problem by lying to him. With the best of intentions, I lied. I hid things from him, told half-truths and slant truths. The truth always came out anyway, and then I would freeze in fear, cringing and cowering. He was baffled. Why did I feel so threatened? I also made it my job to keep him happy and took it personally whenever he was not. He became afraid to express himself – upsetting me was too exhausting.

Then one day, after a weekend of reading Loving What Is, I simply responded differently to an angry outburst of his. (I tell the story in “The Four Words That Cracked My Marriage Open”).

Rather than scooting around the implacable object and maintaining it there, I looked at it. Friend, it had my fingerprints all over it. I put my weight against it to see how it might budge and found some cracks. I investigated those cracks and found that, with just a little pressure, the whole thing fell apart. It wasn’t what I had thought at all! I was happy to sweep up the rubble. We could both move more freely now.

The process of looking, feeling, finding cracks, and investigating them is, of course, the Work. In the Work, you take your critical eye off your partner and look at your thinking instead.

Guy shouldn’t be angry. Really? Ever? Even when I lie to him?

Guy should always be happy. In what universe?

Guy should always appreciate everything I do for him. Do I always appreciate everything he does for me?

I have no idea what truths you are going to discover when you investigate your judgments of your beloved in the Intimacy Intensive – Partners Class. But I do know this: with the merest pressure – an open, curious mind – your judgments will fall apart and you will feel more clear, empowered, grounded, loving, and free, as well as less stuck, frightened, powerless, resentful, bruised, aggrieved, and victimized.

That’s a great place from which to deal with any problem, if any remains.

Love,

Allison

A Path Out of Pain and Into Love

I have a new coaching offering that I think will really help people who are hurt by someone they love.

It’s called the Intimacy Intensive. It’s a series of three interconnected, but independent, classes that use the Work of Byron Katie to heal and create more love in your most intimate relationships – namely, your relationships with your spouse or partner, your parents, and your children.

I’m offering it because I’ve noticed friends, family members, and clients suffering in these areas of life. I’ve also experienced revolutions in these areas of my own life as a result of doing the Work – as my teacher Martha Beck says, “If you spot it, you got it!” I see it because I suffered, too, and I know that the Work can help. Dramatically.

The format of the classes is influenced by my recent experience at the School for the Work.

The School was an immersion: nine days out of everyday life in which participants could go deep into their pain, shift it at the foundation, and create positive momentum to take back home. Katie would introduce an area of Inquiry, out of which came Work we did as a group, with partners, and alone. The Work brought me – brought all of us – so much relief, peace, and love. We lifted one another up and our joy grew collectively.

For the Intimacy Intensive, we will create as immersive an experience as possible while still allowing participants to remain at home. Each class – partners, parents, and children – is a broad area of Inquiry, which I’ll break down into sub-topics, with a new sub-topic each week. We’ll do the Work together on our weekly group calls, and then you’ll go deep into the week’s topic with your facilitation partner, alone, and also with me. Six weeks of daily Work and the depth of the topics are what make this class “intensive.” But deep work for a sustained period is what will create the shift you are looking for, the end of your suffering.

The Work is, itself, intense. There’s no hiding in it. You actively question what you thought you knew. You look for your errors in judgment and at how your critics were right about you! It’s walking into the mouth of the beast!

But, oh! Picture it. What would it be like – to not run anymore, but turn and face what (painful thinking) hounds you, to drop your defenses and really look at what it’s trying to tell you? I’ll tell you. Wisdom. Freedom. Love.

When it comes to your intimates, isn’t that what you want? You can stop prosecuting old grievances, trying to control or change them and needing their approval. You can experience love without conditions.

That doesn’t mean you’ll never been in pain again. But in the Intimacy Intensive, you’ll get so much practice doing the Work alone, and you’ll make a dozen new best friends to reach out to for facilitation when you need it, that you’ll always have a way out of pain.

Enrollment for the first class, Partners, opens today. I had said that participants must have read Katie’s book Loving What Is and have done Work before, but never mind that. The only prerequisites are that you have some areas of chronic pain with him or her and you want to be happier.

You don’t even have to be with the partner in question anymore. The Work can set you free from your ex.

Maybe he leaves the toilet seat up and chews with his mouth open. Maybe she’s frigid and prioritizes the kids over you. Maybe he has a temper. Maybe she had an affair, and you can’t get past it. There is no problem too small or too large for the Work.

For those who want to enroll but have no experience with the Work, do please check out thework.com. Watch Katie do the Work in the videos and try it for yourself, using the instructions and resources provided there. The Work is an experience, not an intellectual exercise. I also share many of my experiences with Inquiry on my blog.

If the Intimacy Intensive sounds like what you need, you are very welcome. Enroll here today. If you have questions before committing, I’m incredibly approachable at allison@AllisonMechamEvans.com.

Love,

Allison

If you’ve done the Work and experienced its sweet relief, please share a story in the comments!

Rescuing Marriage from the Money Monster

Above: Thanksgiving amidst the construction

We are renovating our home. Our construction team has discovered problems with the house – poor wiring, water leaks, lack of insulation – that have added to our overall bill and pushed us beyond our already sizable budget.

I’ve been dreaming of creating a home of our own for years. I’ve read articles about how to plan a new build or a renovation, and they all say to leave plenty of room in the budget for the unexpected. But we didn’t. We scaled our plans down but still allotted every penny of our budget for the stuff we wanted. How will we pay for the boring stuff it turns out we need?

I don’t like to admit this – because I’ve done a lot of work on it, and as a coach I feel I ought to have it sorted by now – but I feel weak around money. It isn’t something I feel equal to. Rather, money is an entity to which I submit and which awards me (or doesn’t) capriciously and scarcely.

So, when money becomes a problem, as has happened with this renovation, I go immediately into a spiral of painful thinking: You fool. You baby. You always do this. You always want more than you can afford. You never plan realistically. What’s wrong with you that you don’t earn more money?

Oh, but wait. First, before I even register my painful thinking, I fight with my husband: Another box from Amazon, honey? Really?

Do you do this, too, Reader? Lash out at those around you when you’re in pain? Project all your stuff onto them, finding the speck in their eye while overlooking the plank in your own? When you have the Work, though, this is actually not a bad thing. It’s something you can use to discover the truth about yourself and them.

That’s why our loved ones are our greatest teachers, and why, in the Intimacy Intensive series, we’re going to judge the heck out of them in three interconnected-but-a la carte classes: partners first (Jan. 10 – Feb. 21), then parents (Feb. 28 – Apr. 11), then kids (Apr. 18 – May 30). It may sound counter-intuitive, but judging them is the first step in loving them – and yourself – better and ending your suffering.

Discovering the truth begins with noticing that you’re in pain, and then noticing that you’re trying to pin your pain on someone (i.e. judging your neighbor).

I was mid-way through a dizzying argument with my husband last Saturday – after I’d paid a massive bill from our construction company – before his words woke me up to what I was doing: “You’re not listening,” he said.

That statement was like a bell, recalling for me what I’d recently shared about learning to listen to him and how I suffered in our marriage until I did. So I stopped and listened until he had said his piece.

But, oh! I was raw! Often I am able to listen and, right then, go inside myself and ask where Guy is right. But, as I confessed above, money is a highly charged topic for me, and I was too emotional to process the truth or fiction of what he said to me in that moment. I took refuge in the Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet.

Through the JYN, I discovered that the root of my pain was an unconscious bargain I’d roped us into: I believed that, as long as Guy was the main provider for our family, it was my job to make him happy. You can imagine what a tangle this causes. If he’s unhappy, I’m unhappy; he hides his unhappiness to prevent mine; each of us in the other’s business, rather than looking after our own. (It’s an easy trap to fall into with our intimates).

Through the Work, tension loosed and thoughts untangled. The Money Monster shrunk. I grew, found my footing, and stepped out of his business and into mine.

When I met with Guy again, I felt like a grown up again and more than equal to the task of raising money for our project. My thinking cleared up, our plan came easily. We’re on the same team again.

Money is hard! Relationships are hard! Thankfully the Work is not! It is a step-by-step process that helps you go into the mouth of the beast that haunts you – no matter how large or small it is, or how long it’s been nipping at your heels, or why – and come out the other side stronger and wiser.

My tenacious beast is money. What’s yours? In the Intimacy Intensive Course, Partners Class, we’ll be finding the path to freedom from six bugaboos that come between you and your beloved: money, sex, chores, parenting, communication, and friendship. I’d love for you to join us. Find out more about it here. Registration opens Friday, December 2.

How to Tranquilize Stampeding Thoughts: Rx for the Election Blues

Above: So, this happened. What now?

Are you upset by the outcome of the presidential election?

Before the election, my plan for this blog was blithely to continue my series of stories of how the Work has given my husband and me a more open, honest, and loving relationship. But then Donald Trump was elected, and cataclysms make plans made in innocence seem trivial. The cataclysm must be dealt with.

The night of the election, as states began to report their outcomes, I was puzzled to see so much red. Puzzlement turned to dread, and like the child who falls asleep when she realizes she’s lost, I went to bed. The grown ups would wake me when they found me, when the news was good. Instead, a nightmare woke me. In the nightmare I was driving in Hawaii – paradise. My road took me through an industrial area, and I soon noticed that it wasn’t ending. I stopped the car to get my bearings and discovered that I was on a trash barge. It stretched to the horizon in every direction.

When I woke, Guy was also awake.

“Well?” I said.

“Trump won,” he said. “Hillary just conceded.”

I tried to go back to sleep, but I could not. Like a herd of wild horses, my thoughts had been spooked and were stampeding. As they raced on, I stood in the middle of them with my hands up, shouting, “Is it true? Is it true?”– the first question of the Work. But the herd was in chaos. On they ran, and my heart pounded along with them.

Has that ever happened to you? Your thoughts run riot, your body follows, and you can’t get a handle on anything?

In my panic, I discovered a lasso – a lasso and a way of grounding myself so those ponies wouldn’t trample me.

First, the grounding. I’m half afraid you’re going to roll your eyes at me because it’s so basic and I already talk about it so much, but here it is: deep breathing. Ever since I experienced the power of deep breathing to get me through childbirth comfortably, I’ve trusted deep breathing to get me through pretty much anything arduous.

The outcome of the election put me in fight-or-flight mode. Trying to do thought work while in fight-or-flight – shouting, “Is it true?” as the herd stampedes – is ineffective, because stress hormones make clear, rational thinking impossible. Breathing deeply is the opposite of the rapid, shallow breathing of fight-or-flight, and it sends a message to the brain that everything is okay. This shuts off the production of stress hormones and initiates the release of the body’s own (horse) tranquilizers, beta endorphins.

Now that the herd is beginning to calm, you can use the lasso to capture the individual thoughts: ask, “And that means. . ?” and write down all the answers. As in, “Donald Trump was elected, and that means. . . half our country is racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic. It means that our way of life is over. It means that evil triumphs over good. . . .” I wrote until I was empty.

The act of writing down painful thoughts slows them down even further. The next step, doing the Work on each one, puts the belief in a clear glass box, so that you can examine it from every angle and get to the truth of it. If more painful beliefs come up when you do the Work, just add them to your original list to do the Work on later. Keep yourself focused on one thought at a time – don’t let it out of the box.

What have I found through this process?

  • I’ve found my own bigotry and complacency. Thank you. I’ll work on that before expecting it of others.
  • I’ve found hysteria. Katie says, “If you want to be terrified, get a future.” In other words, I really don’t know what the future holds; it serves no purpose – none – to imagine the worst, no matter how much the past seems to point to it. Thank you.
  • I’ve found my blind spots. Because I believed Trump and his supporters were awful, I never listened to any of them. How does that ever help? Blinders removed, understanding and compassion rush in, which is the only effective place from which to engage anyone.
  • I’ve found courage – to help, protect, connect – because I found love. Love is much more powerful than hate, fear, or hysteria, period.

Reader, if this process works so well on people you hate, imagine how well it’ll work with people you love. Details on the Intimacy Intensive, my Work-based course for dissolving resentment and creating more love in your closest relationships, are coming soon.

How did you take the election outcome? If you voted for Trump, what do you want Hillary supporters to know? If you voted for Hillary, what helped you come to terms? Please comment below.

How I Got My Husband to Like Me (Without Manipulation)

Above: Us after the School for the Work. He likes me.

“Ugh. It’s like he doesn’t even like me.”

Guy had just walked out the door for work. We’d been arguing, about what exactly I don’t know, though I can guess. What I remember clearly is the hollowness in my gut as he said something mean and walked away from me. It was a familiar feeling.

Sixteen years previously, Guy and I had fallen in love almost at first sight and married soon after. What’s funny is that I had felt that I’d recognized, more than met, him. But of course once we were actually married and living together, I discovered how little I knew him!

Hardest to me were the moments when I upset him, and he seemed to believe that my intentions were malign, not simply a mistake. I thought when you love someone you believe the best of them, not assume the worst.

Because we were in love, and because the good times far outnumbered the bad, we made it work. We learned one another’s likes, dislikes, and triggers, and worked out how to make up after disagreements. Even so, I found confrontation so painful that I – unconsciously but nevertheless assiduously – developed a strategy of avoidance.

That means I: hid things from him; didn’t tell the whole truth or spun it beyond recognition; said yes when I meant no; forgot a lot.

I suspect one of those actions caused our argument that day.

But, Reader, like last week’s story, this happened during Life Coach Training, so now I had the Work. Painful situations like these, I had learned, are made for the Judge Your Neighbor worksheet. The JYN captures all your judgments on paper, so you can do the Work (Inquiry) on them and know the truth.

The JYN is comprehensive. You write out who offended you and how; what you need and want from them; what you think they should do; who you think they are (don’t hold back); and, what you never want to experience with them again. It gives you a 360-degree view of one moment in time, but it’s not overkill; you almost always find the universal in the particular – a pattern, a habit of mind that, once identified, can be reshaped.

Well, that’s the life coach story of the Work. Byron Katie simply calls the result of doing the Work the end of suffering.

With the urgency of one who knew she at last possessed the key to a maddening mystery – how two people who loved each other so much could hurt one another so often – I wrote a JYN on Guy, and did the Work on each statement. The one I remember is, “He doesn’t like me.”

Is it true? Really look. You want to know the truth.

If the answer to question one is yes, ask, Can you be absolutely certain it’s true? This question always softens me. I begin to open to new possibilities.

How do you react, what happens, when you believe it’s true? Now I can see how this thought creates my emotions, which drive my actions, which contribute to the result I don’t like. I can see my role in this painful dynamic.

Who would you be without the thought? Who would I be if I did not have the thought, “Guy doesn’t like me”? This takes a minute – I’ve been thinking it for so long! Well, I would be curious. Why is this man who loves me yelling? He seems upset. He’s in pain. I know what that’s like. I’d feel compassion. I’d listen instead of putting my energy into self-defense. I could learn something. He could feel heard. We could be connected instead of estranged. At last, I see a new way.

Turn the thought around now and find specific, genuine examples of how each turnaround could be just as true, or truer, than the original thought.

To the opposite: Guy does like me. Joy! A dozen images rush in as evidence of this thought. The mind is always looking for evidence that what it believes is true. Put that to work for you, not against you.

To the other: I don’t like Guy. Yes, it must feel that way to him when I lie to him. In fact, when I lie to protect myself and just expect him to roll with it, I’m favoring myself over him.

To the self: I don’t like myself. It’s true! I want to be brave! I want to say no when I mean it and be upfront and frank with him and everyone. When he yells at me, I take it so hard because I believe he’s right to do so, but it’s too hard to admit, so I make him the bad guy.

The Work complete, I notice I feel relaxed, open, full of love for him and for myself, too. I was mistaken. Now I know the truth.

The phone rings. It’s Guy, who had no idea that I’d just done the Work on my judgments about him. It’s the first time we’ve spoken since our argument. He’s inviting me to lunch, not something he typically does.

“Oh, that’s so sweet!” I say. “Thank you!”

He replies, “You know I like you, right?

I can’t explain it, Reader, except to say that when you change, your life and everyone in it changes, too. This kind of magic – of psychic connection and spontaneous remission of pain – is, in my experience, not a fluke. It happens when you do the Work. If you’d like to experience this kind of change in your marriage, I’ll show you how this January in a six-week tele-course called “The Intimacy Intensive.” Stay tuned for details.

Try it for yourself. The next time you argue with your spouse, instead of fuming or repeating his crimes to sympathetic friends, write down your judgments instead. Then simply ask of each judgment, “Is it true? Can I be absolutely certain it’s true?” What do you notice? Please post a story in the comments!

The Four Words That Cracked My Marriage Open

 

Above: This marriage is more than just luck.

It was the Fall of 2010. We were packing up after a very relaxing family weekend at a cabin in the woods. Guy, my husband, had done a lot of bike riding, putt-putt golfing, and game playing with our two young kids to give me time to read. I was in Life Coach Training and Byron Katie’s book Loving What Is had been assigned. And thank god. I was inhaling it.

As we loaded up the car, Guy was happily sharing his plans for a smooth Sunday evening transition back into the workweek. My gut clenched. Now was the time to tell him what I had neglected this whole, lovely weekend to tell him: I had made dinner plans with a couple he didn’t like.

I didn’t like them, either, really. But they liked us, and they were kind of the cool couple in town, and, well, I just couldn’t think of a “good” reason to say no to them again.

Guy is easy-going. Even so, I had such a dread of confrontation that I’d made a habit of keeping unpleasant things from him until the last possible minute.

“I told Janice and Ian we’d have dinner with them,” I blurted out and braced myself for defense.

Guy froze. “Why do you do that?”

I remained silent, eyes downcast.

“You always say yes when you mean no,” he went on. “What’s worse is you knew that saying yes to them meant saying no to me.”

I drew in my breath to defend myself, but an idea from Loving What Is came to me that changed everything: when someone criticizes you, particularly someone who knows you well, Katie says, “Listen, then go inside yourself to see what’s true.”

Parroting Katie and hardly recognizing the words coming out of my mouth, I said to Guy, “You may be right.

Guy, who had drawn himself up to his full height and was clearly preparing to unleash a torrent of words, waited a beat, then simply exhaled and returned to his normal size with a puzzled look on his face.

“Wow,” he said. “Thank you.”

It was the first time in our 16 years together that I had just listened, rather than prepared my defense or attack as he spoke.

We stood together in stunned silence. What now?

What now, indeed? We did cancel those plans that night (and made no more with that couple). But more importantly, those four little words, “You may be right,” changed our relationship.

It was the first domino to fall: He knew I would listen, so he started listening to me, too. Because I knew he would listen, I became less afraid of confrontation. As I spoke up with more confidence, he became less reactive.

That moment at the cabin also taught me to trust Byron Katie. Agreeing with her philosophically is one thing. But if the application of one little cast off phrase had such a profound impact on our marriage, what would her process of Inquiry do?

Reader, would you like to find out for yourself?

In the New Year I’ll be offering three group tele-courses using the Work of Byron Katie to heal your most intimate relationships: spouse, child, and family of origin. We’ll start in January with your relationship with your current or former partner.

The beauty of the Work is that it changes you. And when you change, your relationships evolve. Your partner does not need to take the course, too.

I’m offering this because I see you suffer, and I know you don’t have to. I know you don’t have to because I used to suffer, too, until I found the Work.

I’ll be sharing more details in the following weeks – more stories of seemingly magical change that flowed from doing the Work, as well as course specifics. But for now I invite you to adopt the four little words that cracked my marriage open in a way I didn’t even know it needed: “You may be right.”

Say them with sincerity, and they are an offering to your partner that tells him, “I’m listening.” Say them as a placeholder for yourself, while you go inside to find out where he’s right – and where he isn’t. Plant them in the ground between you and be astonished at the intimacy that grows there, in the space where self-defense used to be.

I shared, now you go: what results did you get from this phrase? Please share in the comments!

A Case for a New Family Leave Policy

Above, from “Stretched”: That’s a 3-week baby she’s driving to day care.

Have you seen the new NPR series, “Stretched”?

The United States is the only country in the developed world that does not have a national maternity/paternity leave policy. “Stretched” explores the effects these policies have on nations and families, and, specifically, the consequences to American families who lack new family leave.

A new entitlement program can be a hard sell in the U.S., which strongly values freedom for individuals and businesses and often distrusts government regulation. We’ve seen that in recent decades in the struggle to create an entitlement to health care. It’s also true that American families are finding ways to manage without it.

Even so, the world is changing, our knowledge is evolving, and all signs point to Americans wanting to change with the times. It’s time for America to create a new family leave policy.

“It’s Too Expensive” Is a Value Judgment, Not a Fact.

When pressed, some policy makers base their objection to paid new family leave on a belief that it would be too expensive.

Putting aside the fact that state policies in California, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island  – not to mention the rest of the developed world  – are proving that it can be done with a net benefit to the economy, I want to ask a more fundamental question: What is the economy for?

Do people exist for benefit of the economy? Or does the economy exist for the benefit of people?

The expense argument puts the economy ahead of families. I think when we recognize that, we immediately see that that is not in alignment with our true values. If families fail to thrive, America withers. When they flourish, America grows. As a society, we have a vested interest in the health and wellbeing of every family. What we value, we support. Even if it’s “expensive,” we find a way.

The Science of Flourishing

In recent decades, science (physiological and social) has developed its understanding of how mothers and infants thrive. Our policies should reflect these understandings:

The newborn is vulnerable. All newborn care is not created equal. Infants thrive on continual contact with the parents, who are known to him from before the moment of birth. Newborns also thrive with frequent breastfeeding, which has short- and long-term health benefits for the child and therefore the parents and therefore society.

New mothers are vulnerable. Pregnancy and birth push the mother’s body to its limits. Before she’s even had time to recover, the needs of the newborn push an already stressed mother even further. The good news, as I’ve written in “The Physiology of Postpartum Thriving,” is that continual contact with the infant and frequent breastfeeding also help the mother to thrive. They are associated with better rest, greater satisfaction with caregiving, and lower rates of postpartum depression.

The new family is vulnerable. New parenthood can be a stressful time for couples. (See my article, “The Right Way to Fight With Your Spouse,” for proven tips on re-building intimacy with your partner). Shared childcare responsibility, made possible by new family leave policies that benefit fathers as well as mothers, increases empathy between parents and for the child. Shared financial responsibility, facilitated by paid family leave, increases respect and equality between parents.

New Family Leave Would Benefit 61% of American Families.

After World War II, when Europe was rebuilding and needed women in the work force, it began crafting maternity leave policies. American women, by contrast, left the war mobilization factories and returned home, and there was no need for new family leave policies.

Nowadays, most – 61%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – American families rely on incomes from both parents. Parents save up vacation and sick days, they save up money, but when new family leave is unpaid, they take less of it than is optimal for the wellbeing of both the child and the parents. Employers can end up paying for this short-changing in loss of employee productivity, poor morale, and, often loss of female participation in the work force, according to Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute.

We can do better.

Because I am progressive, not conservative, I believe in doing better, in growing and changing with the times. Life in the United States is much different from what it was the 1940’s, when the United States was choosing not to create a new family leave policy as Europe was. We also know more about the physiology of infants and new mothers than we did then, and we expect to thrive, not just to survive. It is time for the U.S. to make this crucial investment in its new families and create a maternity/paternity leave policy.

 

P.S. Since I posted this blog, two more excellent segments were published. Please check out the latest on what the military is offering service members, and what a pediatrician thinks of paid parental leave.

Nature’s Design for Postpartum Ease

Inspired by my friend’s recent birth journey, I’ve been writing about how we can make birth easier by planning and preparing to support the mother’s natural birthing hormones. Could postpartum be easier, too, if we let Nature lead?

As a birth educator, I’d always been impressed by Nature’s perfect economy of sexual reproduction: that the same hormones, oxytocin and endorphins, that helped get you pregnant would also help you birth your baby, bond with her, and feed her.

But in my research for Becoming a Mother (the book – coming in 2017) I learned about prolactin. I had known it as the hormone of lacto-genesis, or milk production, but it is so much more.

Embedded in these three hormones is a design for postpartum ease that – like birth ease – deserves to be more widely known.

Oxytocin is the hormone of love and bonding. It is released with sexual arousal, peaks with orgasm and facilitates bonding. Oxytocin also initiates and drives labor, its release peaking with the baby’s birth, and continuing as you hold baby skin-to-skin. It is also released with the nipple stimulation of baby’s rooting and suckling and causes the milk to let down. If you’ve ever held a loved one close, experienced sexual arousal and release, or nursed a baby, you know how oxytocin feels: delicious, tingly, pleasurably spaced out.

Endorphins, the feel-good hormones, are part of all these reproductive experiences, too. They are well known for being released during physical exertion and to soothe pain. But they are always released with oxytocin, which means they help makes sex feel good and help labor feel better and nursing and cuddling so pleasurable. To know how endorphins feel, it may help to know that the name is a mash-up of the words “endogenous,” meaning “originating from within the body,” and “morphine,” the opiate. Thus endorphins are your body’s own morphine, producing both analgesia and euphoria.

Prolactin was the revelation to me. In her wonderful book Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering, Dr. Sarah J. Buckley says there are “more than three hundred known bodily effects of prolactin,” collectively called the “maternal subroutine.” Among other effects, prolactin stimulates the mother’s appetite and grooming of theinfant, dampens the stress response, stimulates the release of oxytocin and endorphins and increases REM sleep. It is a hormone of surrender, helping new mothers to put baby’s needs first for a while (pp. 108-9).

Surrender. Baby grooming. Sleepiness. A suppressed stress response. The bliss of oxytocin and endorphins. Can you visualize this mother? Buckley tells us that, during lactation, “prolactin levels are directly related to suckling intensity, duration and frequency” (108). In other words, the more baby nurses, the more prolactin is released, in a virtuous cycle of what she calls “positive addiction.”

I am struck by this fact: to the powerful – and powerfully pleasurable – hormones of reproduction, oxytocin and endorphins, Nature adds a third, prolactin, after the baby is born.

Oxytocin + Endorphins + Prolactin = Thriving

Why would Nature up the hormonal support after birth?

Why does Nature do anything? So that your genes will succeed. Put another way: Nature wants your baby to thrive. For baby to thrive, mother needs to thrive, too. Nature will support your thriving if you follow her cues.

This understanding nudged me to re-evaluate my own postpartum experiences: my first child did not breastfeed, my second did.

While I loved my first baby fiercely, nothing was easy. I felt clueless and anxious so much of the time. She wasn’t like the babies in the parenting books, nor was I the “natural” mother I’d imagined I’d be. I held us both to a very high standard, as if I should be able to carry on my life as before, only with her as some kind of accessory, like a TV baby. I feared there was something wrong with both of us.

Without prolactin to guide me, I had to rely on cultural values of what a good baby and mom were.

It made me a little crazy.

My second child, in contrast, nursed readily. Eager to encourage him, I followed advice and allowed him to be at the breast as much and as often as he wanted, which was most of the time. For example, when he was four days old he nursed five hours straight through the night. By six weeks old he was nursing about eight hours a day – a full time job.

The effect of his being at the breast so much of the time was that I sat around a lot. I watched him, watched my daughter play on the floor, read. At some point I noticed how I happy I was – and how little I cared about anything other than keeping my sweet little ones and myself fed and clean. I didn’t mind about the shower I couldn’t manage to take, the errands I couldn’t manage to run, the dishes I couldn’t manage to wash. I was just deeply happy.

With prolactin to guide me, I didn’t care at all about our cultural values of what a good baby and mom were. It made me crazy in the best way: surrendered, relaxed, feeding, grooming, eating, baby-addicted and blissed-out.

It made postpartum easy.

Let It Be Easy

Nature prompts the behavior it wants to encourage: in postpartum that means continual contact and unrestricted breastfeeding. When you follow its lead Nature rewards with ease and pleasure. What a different picture of postpartum than the culturally-dominant one of struggle and pain.

The good news is we can change our culture. Let’s let birth and postpartum be easier than our culture expects by following Nature’s prompts and enjoying the rewards.

 What if Nature were always guiding us toward thriving through subtle prompts of the body and rewards of ease and pleasure? How would that change your mothering? Your relationship with your children? Your marriage? Please share in the comments!

Childbirth Is a Mythic Journey and You Are the Heroine

Julia Roberts playing Erin Brockovich,the dauntless heroine with the baby on her hip.

“Giving birth is definitely a heroic deed, in that it is the giving over of oneself to the life of another.”

– Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth.

 

There’s no denying it: childbirth is intense.

Although nature has honed, over millennia, a strong design for reproduction, it has probably always been hard and its success never guaranteed. Mothers can become ill, and babies can fail to thrive. Sometimes birth is long; sometimes complications develop that overtax the mother or baby.

So we turn, as we do, to science and technology – to medicine – to eliminate the trial and uncertainty of birth. We know intellectually that certainty is rarely truly possible, but everything about medicine suggests it comes close: hospitals are temples of sophisticated technology, staffed by a fleet of highly trained personnel, and directed by doctors, who are products of one of the most demanding educational pipelines that exist.

Medicine has had great success at mitigating the trials of birth, but they are not without cost. It is widely understood that interventions to manage pain introduce risk and can create dysfunction and even harm mother and baby. Less acknowledged is that the medical perspective reduces the full range of sensations of birth to a problem of pain and reduces the mother to helpless sufferer. When she is numbed, the birthing mother may not get to experience how strong and powerful she is and may lose the possibility for ecstasy during birth.

Medicine has mitigated risk in birth, but we’ve paid for that, too. We have adopted medicine’s focus on risk, illness and injury and believe ourselves to be fragile. We have believed in their authority so much that we think we have none, and feeling powerless increases fear. In order to protect the hearts of those who practice it, medicine has drained birth of meaning, reduced it from a birth – redolent of new life! – to a delivery – redolent of . . . logistical efficiency.

It isn’t medicine’s fault. Because it deals only with the physical aspects of birth, it can only take us so far. It certainly cannot eliminate uncertainty. Nothing can. It’s part of every great endeavor. What we need is a model of birth that goes beyond the physical realm to embrace the mental – a model that accepts trial and uncertainty – and one in which medicine is a tool, not the master.

That model is the heroic journey.

Birth and New Motherhood as a Heroine’s Journey

Seeing birth as a heroine’s journey elevates it to a mythic event, rather than reducing it to a physical transaction. With that change of perspective, you, the mother, go from helpless to heroic in an instant. The trials you undergo and the risks you take on your journey to get your prize – your baby – are honored. Your Odyssean return – postpartum – is not overlooked but celebrated. The greatness of your transition from maiden to mother is acknowledged. Myth also provides help to the heroine, in the form of allies and tools, without displacing her.

Here are a few quotes from the great mythologist Joseph Campbell to illustrate my points. The heroic journey:

Embraces trial. “The trials [of a quest] are designed to see to it that the intending hero should really be a hero. Is he really a match for this task? Can he overcome the dangers? Does he have the courage, the knowledge, the capacity, to enable him to serve?”

Motherhood will push you to your limits, so birth pushes you. It shows you what you’re made of.

Acknowledges risk. “To evolve out of this position of psychological immaturity to the courage of self-responsibility and assurance requires a kind of death and resurrection. That’s the basic motif of the universal hero’s journey – leaving one condition and finding the source of life to bring you forth into a richer or mature condition.”

A great, under-acknowledged truth of birth is that you don’t just have a baby at the end of it. You become a mother – a new creation.

Goes beyond the material to acknowledge the spiritual, emotional, mental dimensions of this transition. “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”

You needn’t become a mother to experience this transformation of consciousness, but it is a fast-track to it!

There are two more important points that make myth a rich way of thinking about the transition into motherhood.

Myth encompasses postpartum. After every initiation – the part of the quest in which the heroine faces trials in order to achieve the prize – there is a return, wherein the lessons of the trials and the prize itself are integrated into the heroine’s community. Birth, of course, is the initiation; postpartum is the return. Both halves of the motherhood journey are honored.

Allows for tools and helpers, but you remain the hero. Think of Harry Potter: his friends, the sword of Gryffindor, Dumbledore, etc. Heroes are never alone on their journeys, but their helpers don’t attempt to take the quest off their hands either.

Gather your birth team – partner, doula, midwife – and your home / postpartum team – partner, family member, friends and neighbors – to you. But never forget that you’re the heroine. Be like another popular hero, Luke Skywalker, who, Campbell says, “found within himself the resources of character to meet his destiny.”

Fear accompanies every journey that involves trial and risk. We cannot vanquish fear, but the empowering perspective of myth helps us to put it in its place. We cannot eliminate risk but a mythic perspective elevates it. We cannot forgo the trial if we want to know how powerful we are.   You deserve a team on this journey, and all the tools you need, medical or otherwise. But this is your quest. You are the heroine.

Does this argument resonate with you? Does this shift in perspective make you sit up a little taller? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!

The Hospital That Does Birth Right

The midwife — from the German “with woman” — watches just out of the mother’s line of sight, available but unobtrusive.

In this space I have been critical of the way hospitals do birth. While I am grateful for medical interventions when they are needed, typical hospital management of labor sometimes causes the very dysfunctions mothers go to the hospital to be safe from.

How? The hormones of sexual reproduction, which drive birth, are very sensitive and easily disrupted by standard hospital features: large, impersonal, clinical spaces; noise and bright lights; strangers who watch you, touch you, look for illness, and are poised to medicate you. In this psychic atmosphere her birth (sex) hormones retreat, and the result can be a slow and painful labor in need of medical salvation. Birth is blamed, and the hospital that nudged the mom’s body into dysfunction gets a pass.

This happens, yes. And sometimes hospitals do birth right. Sometimes the space and the staff manage to be what expectant parents want: safe and supportive of her physiology. I was recently privileged to be a labor companion to a childhood friend who gave birth in just such a hospital. Today I want to use this space to acknowledge their achievement, and also to point out specifically what made them so successful.

The Space

The room was comfortable and furnished thoughtfully. It was dim. The clinical apparatus were hidden away cupboards. There were abundant pillows, sheets, and blankets in the cupboards. The mother’s bed was infinitely adjustable, but there were options to assist an active birth, such as a birth ball and birth stool, so she didn’t have to stay in bed. There was a mini-fridge for the parents to store their food. There was comfortable seating, including a fold out bed, for birth companions.

The Staff

The staff treated my friend like a person, not merely a patient. They greeted her as soon as she arrived. They knocked and entered the room. If she was having a contraction, they waited until it passed to continue speaking – an acknowledgment of her work. They went up to her head, extended a hand, and said, “I’m Dr. Goodmanners. You can call me Firstname.” They went on to say they knew she was in good hands with the midwives and nurses, but they – obstetrician, anesthesiologist – were on the team, too, if she should need them. It reassured her to know so many people were supporting her before she needed them. They also welcomed the mother’s support people – her husband, mother, and me – as if we belonged, rather than treating us as interlopers.

This sounds so basic, right? But hospitals are very hierarchical (which facilitates efficiency and swift action) and the “patient” status has a way of stripping mothers of their humanity, so manners are not always observed. They were here.

The nurses knew how to support physiologic labor. Oh, the nurses! When medicine was needed, they knew exactly what to do. But until it was, they used the high-touch, low-tech “medicine” that works so well in birth:

  • They spoke to her in quiet, calm voices;
  • They believed in her fiercely and admired her work frequently;
  • They used reflexology to diminish her nausea and counter-pressure to relieve back pain;
  • They helped her to be active, rather than simply saying, “Feel free to move”;
  • They stayed with her, available but unobtrusive, gently encouraging presences, rather than limiting their interactions to medical monitoring.

In short, they loved her. The word “love” may seem at odds with the clinical detachment we expect of hospital staff, but it needn’t be. In the event of an emergency, detachment helps the staff do their jobs. In the absence of an emergency, though, detachment works against birth. For her birth to have the best chance of working well and being comfortable, the mother needs to feel safe. When she feels loved – actively supported, respected as a mother, seen – by all who are present at her birth, she will feel safe.

I’ll Have What She’s Having.

My friend didn’t luck into a place like this. She did the legwork – researching and interviewing to find the best fit for her – during her pregnancy so that she could surrender to labor in their care on her birthing day.

I’ve written about how to find the right provider and place in “How to Make Your Own Luck in Birth, Part 1: Planning,” “Can the Birth Plan. Pick the Right Provider,” and “Achieving Shared Decision Making in Maternity Care.” To recap here, pay attention to two things during your prenatal appointments:

  • How the place and the provider make you feel during your prenatal appointments. They should increase your confidence and joy, not your fear.
  • How your providers talk about birth. They should like and trust it, not treat it condescendingly or as an adversary.

Do you have a great hospital experience to share – in birth or otherwise? Shout out to your helpers here!