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!

How My Parents Helped Me to Have Great Births

Above, left to right: Me, Dad, Mom, and my twin brother, Jack

It’s my birthday in a few days. Father’s Day, too.

In 1971, the year my twin brother and I were born, Father’s Day fell on June 20. Mom’s labor with us began on Father’s Day, and we born early the next morning, at 2:09 and 2:18 a.m., on June 21.

So this time of year I think about my parents and my birth a lot. This year, I’m thinking about them in the midst of writing a book on birth and postpartum, and today I made a connection. In today’s post I acknowledge both my parents for their positive influence on my births.

Like everyone else who has access to any form of media, I was taught the story that birth is grueling, painful, and dangerous. While I believed it on one level, my parents gave me two particular experiences in childhood that helped me to overcome that programming and have great births.

Mom’s Gift.

Mom’s gift is two-fold: the facts of her birth with us, and her attitude about it.

First, the facts: Mom gave birth naturally to twins, one of them breech. She hadn’t meant to, necessarily, but the birth happened so fast. It was almost over before she knew it. My mom’s experience gave the lie to the widespread notion that twin births and breech births were dangerous. “If she can do it, so can I,” I reckoned.

Just as important as the facts of her easy birth was the way she spoke about it: with awe and exhilaration. She never mentioned pain. I even asked her, and she seemed to scan her memory banks and come up blank. She shook her head and shrugged: “You came out so fast the doctor almost dropped you!” she said.

Furthermore, she celebrates the details of her labor and birth every year with us.  The day before our birthday she’ll call and say, “Daddy was massaging my back right now,” however many years ago it was. Or, “I was just about to leave for the hospital right now.” If she can she’ll call us each on the minute of our births and sing us “Happy Birthday.”

Her positive feelings about labor and birth went into me much deeper than any fearful programming from TV or literature, and I’m certain contributed to the relative ease of my births. Thank you, Mom.

Dad’s Gift.

Dad’s gift was believing in me in a moment when I was frightened and in pain.

I was six years old. I had been playing Tarzan on a vine that hung from a palm tree. Swinging on the vine dislodged a spine-covered palm frond from the tree. It crashed onto my head and rolled on to my arm, leaving me woozy and full of pine needles. When my parents, who were normally untroubled by childhood injuries, saw my wounds, they blanched – even my dad! Now I was worried.

But they were brilliant. The lay me down on Dad’s napping sofa and hovered over me to administer first aid. I fixed my eyes on their faces as Dad carefully removed the needles and Mom swabbed the blood with hydrogen peroxide. I saw and heard them tell each other repeatedly how brave I was. Dad said, “I can’t believe her pain tolerance.”

When he said that, two things happened. First, I flushed with pride, and from then on I believed myself to be a person with a high pain tolerance.

The second thing that happened when he said that is my injuries stopped hurting. I looked down at my arm, where he was removing needles, and I felt pressure but no pain. There was only the thought, “I have a high pain tolerance.”

I learned that I was tough and that things that looked scary or were supposed to be painful didn’t have to be that bad. I’m certain this belief in myself and my pain tolerance contributed to the relative comfort of my births.  Thanks, Dad.

These lessons were instrumental in my births, but of course they’ve influenced me well beyond birth.  Having parents who celebrated me and saw my strengths has had an incalculable effect on my life.  Thank you doesn’t begin to cover it.

Winning the Long Game

[Above photo:  Keep reaching.]

My daughter’s volleyball season is ending. She’s in 7th grade, and most of the girls on her team are complete novices.

Their first game it really showed. It was as if they were made of wood. The ball would be served to them, and they’d watch it sail over the net and land on the gym floor between them. When they managed to bump, the ball would go wildly off, out of bounds. Their only hope for scoring a point was if the other team made an error, or if they got lucky and one of their serves went over the net.

The only thing they could do reliably was to cheer each other between plays, coming together to join hands and shout in unison, “Fight back!”

But, hey, that’s something, isn’t it?

My husband, who loves volleyball, was the parent who took her to games and cheered her. But their second-to-last game was two nights ago, and the whole family went.

What I saw astonished me. The girls were fluid. A team. They went for every ball. They bumped with control. They set up to spike. . . okay, they still don’t know how to spike, but they get the process. They communicated. No longer content to watch the ball fall to the floor, they dived between the ball and the floor to keep the it in play. They went for it.

And the bonus? They even won.

I say it’s a bonus, but to those girls, the defining feature of their season is that they lost every game until this recent win. They think they are a losing team.

As one outside their process, though, I see clearly that they are a not a losing team. They are a growing team. They may have lost more sets than they won this season, but they are winning the longer game.

It’s wonderful for them, and it’s a great metaphor for me. Maybe for you, too.

I am so hard on myself. I focus on the tasks I don’t manage to accomplish, the sales I don’t manage to make, the ideas I don’t follow through on. I think I’m much slower than I should be, and much less productive than I have a right to be.

Like my daughter’s volleyball team, I don’t feel very successful. If I take a wider view, however, I can see the growth:

  • I created a course that am so proud of, and I’ve taught it three times through;
  • I’ve written almost twice the number of blogs posts in the past year than I wrote in the previous three years combined – one of which was re-published by elephant journal;
  • I’ve given three talks this year already, when my average had been two per year, and my last talk had more attendees than ever before.

When I hold in my mind the amazing women and men I’ve coached, all I feel is privilege.

None of this even touches the pride I feel in the relationships I enjoy with my family and friends. Maintaining those relationships takes time, thought, heart and work. Though the love in my life is a gift – I could never do enough to earn it – nurturing it is true accomplishment.

As I see her growth this volleyball season, my thoughtful daughter sees mine, too. This summer she attended one of my talks. The audience was very small – three guests, the organizer and my daughter! She had seen me work so hard to prepare the talk, and I was embarrassed that she should see how small a crowd I was able to attract.

Then again, three people had chosen to spend their evening with me.  That’s something, isn’t it?

I gave them my all.

In the car on the way home, my 12 year old daughter said, “Thank you, Mom. You’re showing me it can be done: that a woman can be an amazing mom and follow her dream, too.”

Talk about a win. She gave me the wider view I had totally lost sight of: that I was growing.  Simply by continuing to play and reach and stretch, I was winning the long game.

Are you hard on yourself, too? Do you feel like you’re having a losing season? I invite you to take a wider perspective and notice how different the view is.

Manifesto

I stand for the empowerment of women. I am a woman and have found birth and motherhood to be among the most affirmative, empowering experiences of my life. So I teach, write and coach on empowerment in and through birth and motherhood.

That means I find myself standing for structures that I am persuaded support women well in those contexts; namely:

  • Nature – our hormones – which orchestrate physiologic birth, bonding and breastfeeding;
  • The midwifery model of care – sometimes practiced by obstetricians, sometimes not practiced by midwives – which supports Nature and women;
  • Collectives of social support to women and families.

I also find myself standing against systems that do not support women in these contexts as well as they claim to; namely:

  • An American maternity care system that does not know how to support physiologic birth and overuses medicine;
  • A society that devalues motherhood;
  • A consumerist culture that comes between mothers and their children.

It’s systems and cultures that I critique, not individuals. I know there is not one “right” way to birth – you don’t have to have or even want a natural birth. There is not one “right” way to mother – you don’t have to breastfeed or wear your baby or share sleep if you don’t want to. Yes, they have been my path to empowerment, but they may not be yours. I respect alternative choices.

Yet I do question whether everything we call an “individual choice” is, in fact, an authentic choice – one arising from the woman’s own values – or rather is something compelled by an unsupportive system. For example:

  • About 80% of women in the U.S. have an epidural during labor. Epidurals certainly have their place, but are they really the authentic desire of 80% of American women? Or are they so popular because most hospitals don’t offer anything else – no doulas on staff, no water immersion, no hypnosis, even though these are scientifically proven therapies? Or because the environment and routine practices of Labor & Delivery wards make labor hurt more than it’s meant to? Or because we’ve frightened women into believing that it’s crazy to do anything else?
  • About 20% of mothers don’t breastfeed at all and about 50% who start breastfeeding stop within three months. Given the well-publicized benefits of breastfeeding and taking for granted that mothers are strongly invested in the wellbeing of their babies, do a full 20% of mothers truly want nothing to do with nursing? Or do they have no help at home, to look after them while mother and baby are learning to breastfeed? Do they have no one to turn to – no lactation consultant or La Leche League or friend to call – when their nipples are sore and baby is crying and so they stop before they really want to? Do they have no choice but to get back to work immediately?

I want women and their babies to have social and institutional support for the full range of choices, not just the ones that are easiest for the systems currently to provide. Women are empowered when the systems that support them accurately reflect their values.

Women’s empowerment matters not just for them and their families personally. It matters because the world urgently needs their voices, their perspectives. Feminism has so far allowed women in the game, but I think it’s time for us mothers to start changing the rules, to reflect our values. Here are a few changes in systems I would love to see:

  • Greater institutional support for physiologic birth (Nature). Let’s begin with training more midwives to be the primary caregivers to expectant mothers, training obstetricians in the midwifery model of care, and creating the infrastructure for safe and easy transfers of home births into hospital.  More independent birth centers, and, in hospitals, on-staff doulas, birthing tubs and softer environments would also help.
  • Postpartum support from the same caregivers mother grew to rely on prenatally. Currently, a mother is not seen until six weeks postpartum. This is a drastic falling off of interest in her when she is most vulnerable. Let’s have regular visits by a nurse (trained in lactation) at home for her first six weeks.
  • A work culture that does not simply tolerate family life, but supports it, through paid and extended family leave policies, expanded job sharing, the option of reduced hours and on-site childcare. Currently, mostly lip service is paid to the contributions of mothers; changes like these would put money where the mouth is.
  • Socially, an emphasis on birth as a rite of passage into motherhood and, with it, postpartum as a time for nurturing the new family with attention and acts of service. Currently, birth is seen as a medical transaction and its existential dimensions are largely ignored. Expectant mothers are showered with support in the form of purchased baby things prenatally, and then left much too alone postpartum, when they really need their community.

When women are empowered, families thrive.

Who’s with me?

Hurrying My Practice

(Above:  I guess everyone tries to hurry life along sometimes).

Are you as compassionate with yourself as you are with your children?  I just became aware of an area of my life where I was being very hard on myself.  Maybe you can relate.

I have a confession to make.  There’s a big area of my life where I haven’t been taking my own advice.

My last two posts (here and here) were about how children teach us to loosen our grip on time.  I observed that our culture prizes efficiency, which gives rise to beliefs that create stress:  that time can be wasted; that the faster the better; the expectation of continual, linear improvement. 

Babies and children, before we socialize them, don’t believe any of that, so they can show us another way to be.  From them we learn that every moment is full of interest if you pay attention; that growth is more like a spiral than a line and happens perfectly in its own time – is, in fact, stymied by our efforts to control or hurry it; that every stage of their development is better savored than rushed through.

I’ve learned these lessons well as they pertain to my children.

But as they pertain to me?  Not so much.

My pain is this:  I have not earned an income on which I could live, let alone support a family, since 2002, when I became a mother. 

In that time I have mothered my children well and been a rock for my family throughout the frequent moves and deployments of Navy life.  I have been a childbirth educator to over 200 families, supported ten mothers through the births of their babies, and coached dozens of beautiful souls through their life transitions. 

But I cannot give myself a break for earning so little money – for the openings in my coaching roster, the vacancies in my brand new prenatal program, the small reach of my newsletter, blog and Facebook posts.  When will I have a thriving practice?

I finally got wise to myself when I paid attention to two, grown up teachers.  One was someone I found myself judging.  The other was someone I found myself admiring.  Strong reactions to people, both positive and negative, are for me a clear bell announcing that they have something to teach me. 

The person I judged talked so much about money.  Expensive this.  Can’t afford that.  I thought, “He shouldn’t be so obsessed with money!  He should focus on what he has, not on what he doesn’t have.”  His negativity seemed to cut off his enjoyment of life.  “He should let loose!” I thought.

When people upset me, I do the Work on my judgments of them.  It is my experience that on the other side of my judgments is wisdom, freedom and love.  It was certainly true with my negative friend. 

He shouldn’t be so obsessed with money.  Is that true?  Can I be absolutely certain that I’m right and he’s wrong?  I notice that when I believe that thought I feel very constricted, controlling and stop being present with this person or with myself.  Without the thought, I can be a compassionate listener to my friend, who is clearly worried.  When I turn the thought around, I discover that I’m the one obsessed with money – I see all the ways that I have been not valuing the work I do because I have reduced it all to “the bottom line.”  Ugh!  How often I have self-righteously judged that reductionist tendency in our culture, when all along I’ve believed in it myself! 

He shouldn’t be so negative.  Really?  I’m the one who is being negative, reducing myself to my net worth.  Allowing my Social Security statement to be a humiliating judgment of my worth. When I do that, I am not seeing what I believe in my heart is the true juice of life:  love, joy and gratitude.

He should let loose.  As Katie would say, “If it’s so great, why don’t you do it?”  Immediately I see all the ways I have held myself back – out of the shame of not earning well, embarrassment for not having a larger practice, uncertainty that I had any right to put myself forward.  How often have I put my family off because of a so-deep-down-I-couldn’t-even-see-it belief that I had not earned fun because I have not earned enough money? 

In contrast, the person I admired is a new business owner who is almost overwhelmed with clients.  He went from occasional shoots to fully booked in two weeks.  I know his story because I worked with him and found him fun and professional.  He said yes to everything, nothing was a bother.  He also charged me very little.  He just wants to cover his expenses and do more work because he loves it.  He plays.

I don’t mean to suggest that people who love their work and are playful cannot also be well paid.  I have no doubt that my friend will eventually increase his prices, if only to control demand.  But being led by play, instead of being led by a need to be paid in order to validate the worth of what he does, makes all the difference.  It reminds me of what my friend and master coach Nona Jordan says – I’m paraphrasing here – “It’s not money’s responsibility to give you self-worth.  You have to give it to yourself.” 

Between questioning my judgments and noticing my friend’s very different approach to his business, I have relaxed profoundly about where my practice is now. 

Doing the Work helped me to realize that I was trying to hurry my practice and – possibly – vexing its growth in the process.  I was failing to notice and enjoy where I was, both professionally and personally, because I was focused on where I was not:  the next milestone.  Now I could see how far I’d come and  appreciate where I am, right now – just as I am able to appreciate my children and my clients. 

Like my children, my business friend has shown me an example of what it looks like to live according to different values – values more aligned with what I preach than what I practice, at least as an entrepreneur! 

Imperfectly and intermittently, I will allow my practice to grow organically, as children do, in perfect timing.

What is one area of your life where you could be gentler with yourself?  If you are not sure, notice what you judge in others and what you admire.  Your thoughts about others will give you insight into yourself.

Who Do You Think You Are?

I recently bought some colorful new tops – gauzy sweaters and tank tops in different colors to layer underneath them. They’re really cute. Friends have noticed them and complimented me on them.

A few years ago I would not have dared to dress this way. That is, I would not have worn clothing that might attract attention. I wanted to look like I cared, but not too much. Bright colors? Outfits that showed some originality? Not a chance.

I admired people who did dress well, but I believed that dressing well was Not For Me.

Unconsciously and over time, I curated a robust list of things I was attracted to but which were Not For Me:

  • living in a big city, which might expose me as a country mouse;
  • singing, which might bring attention to my voice;
  • dancing or team sports, which might bring attention to my body and how I moved;
  • long hair, hair not in my natural color or noticeable makeup, which might bring attention to my looks;
  • putting myself forward, which would put attention on me alone. I could, however, represent my school or employer if asked.

I did allow myself to be smart, capable and friendly, but otherwise I kept myself in a pretty small box. It was safe in that box. If I stayed in it then no one would ever say – no, no one would ever think – “Who do you think you are?”

“You Are Not Authorized.”

Have you ever been terrorized by this question? The truth is, it still terrifies me. But only several times every single day. Implicit in “Who do you think you are” is “You are not authorized.”

We are social animals, so looking to others for approval before we proceed is normal. The urge to fit in is 100% human, and it’s served us in our evolution. But every light has a shadow. The urge to fit in becomes pathological when what others think is more important than what you, yourself, think.

I tried to get out in front of “Who do you think you are” by putting an affirmative frame around the box it kept me in. I was only being “sensible, realistic.” “I’m a short hair girl.” “I prefer simple, ‘classic’ clothes.” “I’m just a sedentary person! I like books!” “I do the work because I love it; the money doesn’t matter.”

Those statements may have been true, but they were never the whole story. The rest of the story was that if I never tried, I could never fail – at being attractive, at being heard, at moving my body gracefully, at business.

Let Nature Be Your Guide.

My first hint that I didn’t actually need anyone’s authorization was birth. (You knew I would work it in somehow!)  It was such a raw power, and it was just coming through me. It didn’t ask permission. It didn’t wait on authority. In fact, I couldn’t help but notice that Authority – the doctors and the hospital – waited on it. For the first time I glimpsed that social and institutional powers recognize an authority greater than their own: our essential, animal nature.

In my life I ignored my animal nature – the curious, playful, attracted, risk-taking and magnetic part of me. I listened only to my social self – the part of me that avoids risk and stays in control by playing skillfully a game that others designed. Last week I wrote about formal schooling being only half an education. Well, living through my social self was only half a life.

It has been a slow awakening, but an irreversible one. I began to see that every Not-For-Me belief was a brick in a wall that I built between me and creativity and joy. Between me and the life that desire was inviting – and authorizing – me to live.

Desire Authorizes You.

So I am tearing down the walls, one belief at a time.  If you’re a regular reader, you won’t be surprised to learn that doing the things that scare me has been much less scary than thinking about doing them.

Living in London cured me of my fear of big cities. Rather than feeling out-classed, I found it welcomed all comers – better, in fact, than the small town I grew up in.  I fit right in.  While in London I worked with a personal shopper to help me learn how to dress so I’m not just covering my body but liking how I look.

Since moving to Hawaii I am taking singing lessons and learning to be heard, even if I hit wrong notes. I’m surfing, and I notice that when I do I don’t give a thought to how I must look! I’ve bleached my hair and am growing it out, just because it scares me – and, weirdly (?) thrills me, too. I’m playing with makeup, including being comfortable not wearing any.

As for putting myself forward professionally, master coach Sherold Barr turned “Who do you think you are” inside out for me. I told her how much I wanted to change the conversations we have about birth and motherhood, but was afraid. She replied, “Who are you not to?” What a liberating reversal! Who am I to ignore my calling? Who am I to hide away my gifts because I’m afraid that not everyone will appreciate them? What if someone does?

Desire is holy. Desire authorizes. It’s the meaning of one of my favorite quotes, from Fredrick Buechner: “God calls you to the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Who am I to ignore that?

Who are you? Who do you think you are?

 

I have put the best of everything I know into my prenatal program, Becoming A Mother. I invite you to check it out here. One of my favorite lessons in the program is “You Are an Authority.” A theme that runs through each lesson is how your body is a trustworthy guide. Recognize these ideas? If you love them as much as I do, please share the heck out of that link! If you happen to be pregnant right now, enroll in the tele course!

 

The Reef: Life Thrives in Diversity

By Allison Mecham Evans

I felt drawn to a walk outside yesterday. If you’ve never been here, you should know that all the clichés about Hawaii are true. It is as lush and inviting as the postcards suggest. But yesterday was especially beautiful because of a cool ocean breeze after a week of rain and mugginess.

I chose the bike path at Hickam Air Base. It is prettily situated between lovely, large homes with sweeping back lawns and the Pearl Harbor channel. The path is curvy and paved and lined with palm, acacia and fig trees, as well as the large-leafed and multi-colored tropical bushes and flowers whose names I don’t know yet. There is so much for all the senses to take in, delights for the eyes, ears, nose, skin. It’s easy there to pay attention to life, rather than to stay tuned in to my own loop of thoughts.

This walk was meant to be not only a respite for my soul but a bit of exercise, too. So when I reached the turnaround in the path, I was surprised to find myself not carrying on with my fast-paced walking but rather slowing down and making my way to the sea wall that lined the channel there. I sat down, dangling my legs over the edge, and looked down. The water line was about four feet below my shoes.

Just under the surface was a coral bed about twenty feet wide, and beyond it, the turquoise waters of the channel. The gentle tide continually flowed over the coral, bringing in small- and medium-sized fishes and occasionally shoals of small fish and even schooling fish. Tucked into the coral were spiny sea urchins and spotted brown sea slugs. The rippling water over the coral and its inhabitants was mesmerizing. Where the coral dropped off into the channel, my eye caught a yellow splodge that flitted from spot to spot. Was it a trick of light playing on the coral? I followed the fleeting yellow and finally discerned fins, a tail and an eye. It was a tropical fish the size of a dinner plate!

Such beauty and diversity in this unassuming spot! I had been drawn to the path because of its prettiness: green lawns on one side, blue channel on the other, enough flora and fauna to be interesting. But as I gazed on the coral bed, I realized that prettiness is a poor, man-made substitute for beauty, which is God-made (I do say God, but I’m not fussy about what you call it – Nature, Source, Spirit, the Universe. I do believe it’s all One and we’re all right).

“God-made.” Hey. That includes me! Before this walk, I had been feeling scared about launching the new project I’ve been working on. It’s my very own birth and new motherhood preparation course, Becoming A Mother. What if someone says that it’s been done before (and by people with intimidating resumes and dazzling eloquence)? What if no one likes it? Who do I think I am?

Looking at the biodiversity of the reef, I was reminded of a comment my best friend made recently: nature thrives in diversity. Not just nature, I realized, but all of life thrives when there is diversity. So there already exist (popular, well-known) birth preparation programs. What if Nature had said, “But I already made a fish. One is enough.” That’s laughable! There are fish – not just one, tens of thousands – that evolved for the coral reef, and they help it to thrive. So my program will be the perfect fit for my unique ecosystem. What if no one likes it? What if someone does?

Frederick Buechner wrote, “God calls you to the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” My deep gladness is birth – childbirth, yes, of course, but not only: the birth of a mother; the birth of a new family; the birth of new life when change is thrust upon us, or when change bubbles up from within. My deep gladness is holding up a mirror to a woman and showing her the strength, power and beauty that are uniquely hers. In light of this calling, the question changes from, “Who do I think I am?” to “Who am I to say no?”

I’m going for it. If you’ve liked what you’ve seen here, please watch for more information about the launch of Becoming A Mother. If you’ve already had your children, tell the other fish in your shoal that soon there’ll be a new place to feed and play!

God-made includes you, too. What is your deep gladness? Where does it meet the world’s hunger? Where are you holding yourself back because you’re afraid the world doesn’t need another [fill-in-the-blank]. I’d love to know and so would the world!

Love,

Allison

 

The Raw Story of How I Learned to Align Action With Desire

Wow. I had a good year.”

Said by a client who reviewed her Facebook profile for the year she had postpartum depression.

 

The cultivated profile. That’s what we’re surrounded with on social media. There’s nothing raw: no unfiltered photos of drool on the pillow, yelling at children, crying off your mascara, or of the empty package of chips you mindlessly binged on in a moment of self-doubt. So intellectually you know it’s not the whole story. But the sheer volume of beautiful selfies, adorable children, gorgeous meals, ironic detachment and self-aware, philosophical humor overpowers our critical thinking. We believe all of it anyway, sometimes even fooling ourselves like the client I quoted above.

Last week I shared five simple steps for aligning your action with your desire. I may have given you the highly-cultivated, 800 word final product, but I want you to know that every step in that process was hard-won. I can write knowledgeably on the subject of aligning action with desire because for years I failed to do just that.

I was in such pain about failing to accomplish my dream of a thriving life coaching practice that I tried to give up on it. I thought I had really good, rational reasons for quitting and moving on. But what happened next changed my perspective completely. Instead of feeling relief at quitting, I hurt more. That fresh pain was my signal that I was on the wrong path. Investigating it got me on the right one. I will share with you my raw story of discovering the steps I shared with you last week: how confusion, shame, quitting and pain led to true clarity.

In September 2010 I began Martha Beck’s Life Coach Training. I loved it. Coaching felt the perfect expression of my passions, interests and gifts. My dream was to integrate childbirth education and coaching to create a practice that empowered mothers and mothers-to-be. I would help change how we think about birth, postpartum and motherhood: we would transform from “just moms” to the heroines of our own journeys!

I coached anyone who wanted coaching. I told all my HypnoBirthing clients about my group course, designed just for them. I hosted a postpartum mothers’ group in person and online. I offered a free book club for new moms. I spoke in my community. I blogged (inconsistently, as I confessed last week). Despite positive feedback on my coaching, after two years I was down to one client and out of ideas for growing my practice. I was very discouraged.

Things came to a head as we planned our move from Japan to Hawaii. I had begun home schooling my kids (I wrote about that decision here, here and here). Would I carry on with it in Hawaii, which has notorious public schools, or pay for them to go to a private school?

Enter the voice of shame: If you were actually making money, you could pay for them to go. But your earnings don’t come close! You may have helped people, but face facts. You don’t have a business. You have a hobby. Your family needs you now. If you can’t contribute financially, the least you can do is educate the kids. Sorry, Chickie, but this is life. You failed. Move on.

That voice preyed on every fear I had about myself: that I was not enough; that being a stay-home mom was not enough; that I needed to prove myself and financial earnings were proof of value; that if I could not earn money, that I had to be an uber-mom; that I was a dilettante and despite my dreams I would never make anything of myself; that what I optimistically called slow progress was actually failure.

Right. No more Pollyanna shit. I failed. Move on. I resolved to take a hiatus from my work to home school my children in Hawaii. I tried to be open-minded but my heart was heavy.

When I saw my parents at Christmas, though, they were not convinced that I was doing the right thing. I found myself completely inarticulate as I attempted to persuade them. And angry. I took myself on a long walk to calm down and sort out my thoughts.

Why was I so angry? Clearly they’d struck a nerve. They didn’t believe me – did I believe me? My anger dissipated, but now I was just lost. What did I want?

I went back inside and saw my mom puttering around the house. She has always been there, in the house, at the ready for when her family needs her. And I know she has some regrets about not pursuing a career after my brother and I were grown. I wanted her perspective on my dilemma.

“Mom, what would you do?” I asked her straight-out. My voice was demanding but plaintive, almost a whine – the sound of someone who believes she’s trapped and powerless.

She looked up at me, startled. I do not usually ask her advice. She has a gorgeous habit of telling me, “You’re so clever. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” But today I didn’t want encouragement, I wanted an answer.

She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and said, “I think you should find a great school for the children so you can keep working.”

I immediately replied, “Well that would be ideal, but. . .”

That would be ideal? I heard myself. Really heard myself. I was not lost. I knew exactly what I wanted! I was stuck because of my belief that I did not deserve it.

The experience of feeling the pain of trying to give it up showed me that deserving had nothing to do with it. My dream was bigger than my fears. Not only did I have a dream, it had me. I was the one it tapped. Who was I not to see it through?

I felt such relief! I thanked my mom, kissed her, and started that moment looking online for a school for the kids as well as for some kind of business training or coach mentoring for myself. I was going to try again!

Once I was clear about Question Two, “Do you believe you deserve it?” things really lined up to support me. The highlights:

  • The school we selected, Ho’ala, has been brilliant for the kids. It has been a more healing experience for my son, in particular, than home schooling ever was. They are both thriving. We consider the school a great value.
  • I decided to deal with my shame around money and found Nona Jordan’s “Get Right With Money” course. It was life changing. Not only are we able to pay the kids’ tuition, we are saving 40% of our income on top of that for long-term priorities. By doing that course, I have effectively “earned” thousands of dollars.
  • In a moment of inspiration, I received the idea for the flagship course I am now developing. Becoming A Mother integrates childbirth education and coaching in the way I have always dreamed, and which, I believe, is unique in the world. I am turtle-stepping each day to bring that course to life and on track to launch it in the New Year.

When I’m no longer afraid that I’m not enough, I have nothing to prove and unchain myself from my desk, the kitchen, the home schooling table. When I’m no longer afraid that I don’t deserve what I want, my dreams and desires become a priority, instead of something I subconsciously push to the sidelines. I go to the gym. I learn to surf. I ride bikes with the kids and help them with homework. I read. I clean the house. I practice French. I go the Farmer’s Market. I have friends over. And I show up for my work and find that I am more productive than I’ve ever been.

But I’m not fooling myself. Though I have cultivated a new peace, I have no doubt things will get raw and messy again! After all, growth isn’t linear, moving in a straight line of continual progress. It’s more of a slowly rising spiral: you learn something, get a bit better, forget it and learn it anew, going a bit further each time. It may seem like you’re not getting anywhere, but take the long view and a different picture emerges.

If you are in the midst of a crisis of faith or feel a raw mess looming on the horizon, I hope this story encourages you. Please remind me of it when I need encouragement, too!

 

 

 

Storms: the Unconditional Acceptance Challenge

I found myself reading up on ADHD.  I was in the library, reading up on home schooling, trying to decide whether to continue or to send my son back to school in the fall.  But the chapters on ADHD were what grabbed my attention.

Oh, no.  That sounds like him, I thought with a sinking feeling as I read the clinical indications of the disorder.

On the heels of that thought came images of my son playing Legos, for hours, mind focused, body soft and relaxed.  And more:  setting up elaborate train tracks and choo-chooing them round and round; building a blanket fort and reading inside of it; seconding that same fort as a redoubt in a Nerf war; climbing a tree and watching the world go by underneath.

I scanned ahead.   It turns out that clinicians are now diagnosing “situational ADHD”; that is, there are children who can pay attention everywhere but in school.  Curious.

I shut the book, feeling slightly ashamed for trying to diagnose my son’s behavior as pathological.  I sat back as another image, a memory, slid into focus.  Oh. I’ve been here before.

It was five years ago.  I was in despair over my daughter, who was still having tantrums every day.  They had begun at the confluence of two milestones, turning two and her younger brother’s birth.  But three years later they still hadn’t stopped.  It wasn’t just the tantrums.  She was devious.  She bullied a playmate.  She snarled at me more often than she smiled.  I seemed to have no influence over her except to make her angry.  One mournful night I found myself Googling “oppositional,” “defiant,” “antisocial.”  The next day I paid a babysitter so I could pour, uninterrupted, over child psychology books in the library.  It was good news/bad news:  she was way too young to diagnose a mental illness; that meant the problem must be with my mothering.  If there was pathology, it was mine.

Alone again, naturally.  Wasn’t I?  I didn’t see anyone else struggling as I was.  I must be the only one.  I was ashamed, and so I confided in no one.  This cut me off from help and advice (I shouldn’t need it) and from sympathy (I don’t want pity).  Being cut off also encased me in the painful belief that everyone else knew what they were doing.  Motherhood looks so easy.  I was an intelligent, educated woman.  Why did I find it so hard?  Why did I seem to be failing at this apparently simple job?  Simple, yes.  Easy?  Hardly.

Help, advice and sympathy did come, in the form of my friend Alicia.  Alicia was a full time mom of three who also happened to be a psychologist.  She seemed confident and organized – exactly the kind of person I typically avoided exposing myself to.  But I was in crisis, and her professional credentials gave me hope that she could help and would not think (too much) less of me.  She agreed to meet me for coffee.

Under cover of clanking cutlery and boisterous conversations at the communal tables of a Pain Quotidien, I poured my heart out to her.  I held nothing back.  I allowed myself to reveal my darkest feelings.  Even in the din, I found myself dropping into a whisper as I admitted my resentment at my daughter for being as she was.  I surprised even myself.  My God, I wasn’t just worried for her.  I was angry!  You could say I was having a tantrum right there:  a respectable, educated, thirty-something, stay-home mommy, having the respectable, educated, thirty-something version of a tantrum for not getting her way with her five year old.

My dear friend listened to it all without judgment.  She didn’t flinch.  She didn’t change the subject.  She was not embarrassed.  She affirmed that it was hard, motherhood.  She admitted that she felt anger, too (Even she?)  She told me that sometimes her children made her cry, too (Those perfect children?).

What a relief!  To be heard and validated allowed me to relax.  I felt normal again, and feeling normal gave me hope that our problems could be solved.

In a nutshell, my friend had modeled the solution she proposed for us: unconditional acceptance.  She said that my daughter needed help and was expressing it the only way she could, with her behavior.  She needed me to see past her behavior to the feelings underneath, accept her feelings, and then help her with her problem.  Years later I would come across this idea in Bonnie Harris’s Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids:  “Your child,” she says, “is having a problem, not being a problem.”

Sitting in the hushed library in the present day, I wondered if that’s where I’d gotten off track with my son.  What unmet need was his behavior signaling?  When he acted out, was I paying attention to him or to his misbehavior?  Did I pause from my busy-ness long enough to really listen to him, or was I too focused on being annoyed?  Did my response help him, as Alicia’s helped me, to feel normal – not alone! – and hopeful.

Unconditional acceptance certainly helped my daughter.  She noticed the change in me immediately.  When I responded with curiosity, instead of censure, to her tantrum that afternoon, it actually stopped the tantrum before it started.  Confusion flickered across her little face.  She smiled.  She started laughing.  Then she hugged me.  I know it sounds like an after-school special, but it really did happen that way.  Within a week – one week – she was a happy girl again, and she remains a happy girl still.  Would my son’s response be as dramatic?

 

*     *     *

 

I have struggled over this blog post for the past few weeks because the answer is no.  I had wanted a “happy ending” – or at least a neat one – for this post, but I don’t have one.  I’ve seen some response from him to my attempts at unconditional acceptance, but it hasn’t been as dramatic.

I think I understand why.  I can’t give what I don’t have.   That is, I struggle to accept myself unconditionally.  I beat myself up for my mistakes.  I can’t believe I haven’t figured it all out yet!  I think, If I’m good enough, we will all be happy all the time!  Perfectionism, with its happy, neat endings and discomfort with messiness of any kind, is kind of the opposite of unconditional acceptance.  If that’s what I practice, why would he believe my preaching otherwise?

On my morning walk, I notice the weather and evidence of the changing season.  Today it is more humid than yesterday, but noticeably cooler than one week ago.  I’ve just heard there may be a tropical storm this weekend.  The high winds and rain will be very dramatic.  Certainly many leaves, their grips on the trees grown fragile as summer winds down, will be blown from the trees.  Some trees may even be uprooted.  None of this is good or bad.  It is simply Nature.

When I am lost, as I feel now, my daily walks remind me of the larger perspective.  As Nature is in a constant state of change, so is all of life.  That includes my son, and it includes me, too.  In Nature, death not only makes room for birth, it feeds the new life!  You can’t have sunshine all the time.  You – he – Ican’t be happy all the time.  Or always know what to do.  The transitions happen, and sometimes they are violent and uproot things.  But I’m lost only if I forget that after the storm, the sun will come out again and the weather will be easy.  Until next time.

by Allison Evans, August 30, 2013.

What storm are you going through right now?  Do you tend to fight them, too?  What do you think would happen if you didn’t this time?

Optimal Cord Clamping the Culture of Medicine

Which cord seems right to clamp? The full one or the empty one?

Which cord seems right to clamp? The full one or the empty one?

Expectant parents are increasingly aware of the benefits of delaying the clamping and cutting of their newborn’s umbilical cord, and they are insisting on it for their births.  This is great news because there are no benefits  to early cord clamping without a specific medical indication.  Whereas, there are abundant benefits to delaying; in fact, the best term for it is “optimal cord clamping.”  The question becomes, how long do you wait? More importantly, how long do you wait if baby seems to be having difficulty taking his first breaths?  It turns out that, contrary to common practice, it is important to keep the cord open and baby attached to the placenta until baby is breathing well on her own.  The fact that this is not common practice tells us something important about the culture of medicine.

 

First, here is a very simple explanation of the physiology of newborn transition.  (For a detailed discussion of this transition, visit the brilliant Midwife Thinking.)  In the womb, one-third of the baby’s blood volume is outside of him, in the placenta and umbilical cord, so that baby can exchange nutrients and waste products with the mother, through the placenta.  When he his born, the placenta transfuses the entirety of the newborn’s blood volume, and stem cells from the umbilical cord, into him.  This blood is needed for the full, independent function of the baby’s organs – notably the lungs, which must now accomplish the gas exchange that the placenta was completing in utero.  After birth, you can see this transfusion in the pulsing of the umbilical cord.  It takes 2 – 10 minutes for complete transfusion.  As long as the cord pulses and baby is not held aloft, he is receiving this transfusion and continues to be oxygenated by it.  This means that he does not have to rely solely on breathing air to get the oxygen he requires.  If baby is not breathing well on his own, assistance can be given by the mother or by staff while baby remains in mother’s arms or beside her, attached to the placenta.

 

Now that you know something about the science of newborn transition at the time of birth, you can confidently insist on optimal cord clamping when your baby is born.  But I’d like to take this post a step further and let the issue of early cord clamping – a harmful intervention regularly practiced on babies – teach us something important about maternity care in general.   It teaches us something about the culture of medicine and the importance of your physician’s practice style and philosophy.  In The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Better Birth, Henci Goer says that “whether you have a c-section or any other procedure or medication during your labor has little to do with your or your baby’s condition.  What happens to you depends almost entirely on your caregiver’s practice style and philosophy.”

 

Doctors are human, like the rest of us.  Humans tend to like to feel in control.  This leads us to value predictability and routine over change, even if the change is an improvement.  In our busy lives, we don’t always make time to keep up with the latest wisdom – until we’re in trouble and searching for help.  (When was the last time you read a parenting book?  Compare that with how many you read when you were pregnant or a brand new parent.)  With those observations in mind, it’s easy to see how physicians would favor doing what they always do, even if their knowledge is outdated.  And if things go well for them – if these practices cause them no obvious trouble – they don’t go looking to change the formula that seems to work!

 

Furthermore, as medical anthropologist Robbie Davis-Floyd reminds us, “Doctors are socialized to find pathology.”  What we look for, we tend to find, and when we find it, our pre-existing belief is reinforced.  Because of their socialization in disease and intervention, physicians don’t necessarily believe that birth, just because it is “natural,” is necessarily “healthy.” Cancer is natural, too, they point out.  Many physicians have never not manipulated a birth, so it is outside their comfort zone.  (I’m reminded of the pre-Columbian map of a flat earth: beyond the horizon, “There be dragons.”)

 

Finally, medicine is a high-prestige profession.  Studies show that even the most well-informed patients can find themselves tongue-tied and uncomfortable when they try to question their doctor.  But question you must.  Despite a mountain of evidence, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) still refuses to admit that early cord clamping is a bad practice.  To do so would be to admit that they have been wrong and cast doubt on their authority.  This is a counter-cultural act!

 

If change will not come from within, it must come from without: from you parents.  Ask questions of your provider.  You are looking not only for answers that align with your own philosophy but for her comfort with having a conversation with you about your care!  If you sense arrogance, it really is best to find another provider.  But if she is open, cultivate the relationship.  She may be willing to step outside her comfort zone to accommodate your preferences.  By doing so she may discover a new way to practice and even adjust her philosophy to allow the idea that Nature’s design for birth and newborn transition is actually a good one.  Thus you pave the way for the mothers and babies who come after you.