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A slow, uneventful early labor leaves me wondering whether he really is coming. I clean, burn sage, take a walk, make dinner, call my mom and tell her to come, help with bedtime (all between mild contractions). I roll into active labor at 7:25 pm with back to back contractions, dipping into the timeless realm of touch and go pain, blurred vision, doubling over, calling for help, shaking wondering and awe. I roll into the realm of surrendering control and I hear myself say how much I hate it. Modesty slowly goes out the window. The midwives have arrived and now I’m fully in the dance of dilation. Not “contracting” but rather expanding – and I try to meditate on the star-gazer lilies I’ve bought for this moment. “All you have to do is float…” says the midwife. “You don’t have to do anything…” But there is no floating, only the shaky handing over of myself to one moment and then the next. There is no floating, only the raw practice of trusting a process that is greater than myself.
I move to the tub for relief and finally feel the urge to push. Has it been one hour or five? I have no idea. I only know that I don’t want to be alone and I don’t care anymore about words. Chris tells me to “stay with it” and I hear myself say “I have no choice but to stay with it.” There is no getting out. No escaping. No distraction. “The only way out is in,” I hear my yoga teacher’s voice as a fuzzy line of background noise. The only way out is in.
It is one of those moments in life where the rawness of physical pain and discomfort serves as an edge upon which I serve myself up to a force greater than myself. I’m terrified of I know not what – except perhaps the searing truth that this passage of bringing new life is really happening and I’m responsible somehow for overcoming exhaustion and doubt and mustering the strength and wilfulness to push a baby down and out. Its true: “you don’t have to do anything…” All you have to do is trust that your body was made for this – AND: you can’t just ‘give up’ either. At the very least the moment requires presence. At the least, the moment requires a square confrontation with the reality of what is arising, particularly when the reality doesn’t match up with one’s preferences…
I’m so, so tired and its one wave of pressure after another. I have no idea where to go or how even to move with a head like a bowling ball two centimeters away from crowning. All I know is I have to get him out. I’m dripping sweat now and standing over my bed. I see stars and beg for rest, even though I know that the final moment of reckoning is upon me like a pressure cooker. This is when I have to dig deep and find a reservoir of strength that I’ve only tapped into twice before with my other births: A woman’s gritty wilfulness to make something happen that feels impossible. For me, this is no easy birth. It is raw, uncomfortable, painful. There is no bliss, no rest, no peaceful hypnobirthing place to relax into. For me, birth is a series of deep, wild screams of disbelief coupled with absolute, unfiltered awe in the face of great mystery. How the hell does all this work? How the hell do women do it? So normal, no big deal – and so literally transfiguring at the same time.
And then: he’s out – blue, sticky body on my chest, loud cries and the midwife comforts him by saying “You only have to do this part once…” And in that moment I feel again my own birth – squeezing into life through a narrow passage, “contracting” into form… And I simultaneously feel my death, which perhaps will take me into the opposite realm of expansion. And I feel back to the burst of my waters breaking earlier – a crackling preparation for baby’s entrance – and I wonder if somehow we come via darkness and water into this crazy world of light and go too from this world into a different light?
All this passes through me as we welcome my son – and really all that matters now is the skin touching skin, and the awe-filled reminder that being in this body is a blessing unlike any other. Sensation! Touch! Love! Pain and pleasure blur into one of the most glorious moments of Grace…
Birth Blessing: A Poem by Natalie Evans – shared at my sister-in-law’s Blessingway last weekend
Close your eyes and breathe deep
Breathe in peace, breathe out pain
Imagine your feet
Toes curling into dirt
Think of yourself as rooted
Think of your place in the earth
How did you come to be here?
Through generations of women named-
A maternal lineage that brought you to this place
Think of their birth stories
What you know, what you believe to be true
Realize that their births carry deep wisdom
Some may carry the memory of joy and transcendence
Each birth is a powerful experience
Each birth traces down to you.
Just as you pass this knowledge on to your baby,
Understand that your birth is your own.
It will be different from all others
Like the swirls in your thumb
Your birth will have a unique pattern
Unfolding with each contraction
Rising and falling like a newborn’s chest
This birth belongs to you
This birth is an opening
This birth is the end and a beginning…
I’ve been thinking a lot about my great, great grandmother, Katherine McCabe. Like me, she was mother to three boys. I discovered her last Spring while doing family history research (I’ve been an avid family genealogist since 2000) – even finding this photo online of the McCabe family, who came from Cavan, Ireland in the 1800s. Here she is, dressed in black, standing right above my great, great, great grandparents John and Eliza. The family settled in Campbell and Bath, New York and Kate eventually married my great, great grandfather John C. McNamara, who left her a widower in 1905.
For some reason she has stayed with me. Perhaps it is because I can see a bit of myself in her expression here. Or perhaps it is because she also had three sons. Perhaps it is because I’m about to birth my third child, and the continuation of my family tree is unfolding. In gestating a new member of my family, I can feel the cells from thousands of ancestors and places culminating in my story, my baby’s story. These moments before birth connect me to all the women before who have birthed my lineage into being. I can feel some of their journeys tangibly through my research: traveling across oceans during tumultuous times. Fleeing the potato famine. Living in crowded boarded houses in Brooklyn. So many mothers losing so many children. Accidents. Whole lifetimes of stories. Widowed. Old… The heartbreaking cycles of life coalesce here and now as I wait for baby to be born. Days aren’t just days – they are actually the culmination of millions of years of evolution, genealogy and history. Days aren’t just days – they are the ongoing writing of deep, rooted story lines, weaving pattern lines on my skin, my children’s skin, right here.
So what do the grandmothers say? They remind me that each lifetime is but a blink in the annals of time. Birth, Death, Childbirth, Marriage: these are the key signposts of a life that remain in the records of family history. They remind me to take the ‘long’ perspective: seeing beyond any given moment into the vast continuum of life. They remind me to marvel at what has survived. They remind me of the preciousness of each of our individual life stories. And, finally, they remind me to confront my own mortality. They have come and gone and so will I…
What will survive? What will be forgotten? What is important? These are the questions I ask as I prepare to welcome a new life. What do I want to leave for the future? Yes: Letters to my sons. Yes: Family stories. Yes: Meaningful work in support of Earth and Life. Yes: Good food. Yes: Nourishing traditions… Yes: Love…
For thousands of years henna has been used by women to bless other women in honor of transitions, celebrations and thresholds. In Morocco, Berber women have been using henna for over 8,000 years. In India, women have used henna to adorn their bodies for marriage for over 3,000 years. When I was living in Mali, West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, girls and women blessed each other with henna for weddings and celebrations and I was the grateful recipient of many artful designs on my hands and feet. And now, 36 weeks pregnant and 15 years later I’ve been blessed by some of my community of women near and far with the American version of women blessing women for pregnancy: adorning one another with art in a culture where we can proudly show our bellies…
There is something so nurturing about the slow, quiet process of blessing a belly with art as a baby grows inside. My henna artist invited me to come up with an intention for baby that she would weave into the henna as she ‘drew.’ It was a rare and much needed moment of tuning in with this sweet being. Free of multitasking, I reflected on how difficult is has been to create moments of quietly connecting with this baby as so much of my time and energy is devoted to my other two sons and to work and to maintaining a basic order in my home. This was a moment to dip into the subconscious and draw forth the symbols that have accompanied women across time as we prepare for birth: for me it was a Tree that I wanted painted on my belly, and a bird. I needed to be reminded of the Tree of Life, and how for a brief moment my body serves as a similar vessel – home to new life and playing an integral role in the circle of life’s continuation. There are the roots that remind me of where I’ve come from, both in this lifetime as well as the history of my family. There is the symbolism of the family tree. With the owl I’m reminded of vision, even in times of uncertainty and darkness. She helps me to remember a quiet gracefulness, both when she is perched in the tree as well as when she silently flies.
Every time I look at the owl in the tree, I’m reminded that this is my time of quietly waiting for what is to come – and I do well to remember my roots and the ground, even as I know I’m about to take flight into something vastly new and mysterious…
“In the distance of my years I cover myself with time
Like a blanket which enfolds me with the layers of my life.
What can I tell you except that I have gone
nowhere and everywhere?
What can I tell you except that I have not begun
my journey now that it is through?
All that I ever was and am yet to be
lies within me now this way.
There is the Young Boy in me traveling east
With the Eagle which taught me to see far and wide.
The Eagle took his distance and said,
There is a Time for Rising Above
So that you do not think
Your small world too important.
There is a time for turning your vision toward the sky.
There is the Young Girl in me traveling west
With the Bear which taught me to look inside.
The Bear stood by himself and said,
There is a Time for Being Alone
So that you do not take on
The appearance of your friends.
There is a time for being at home with yourself.
There is the Old Man in me traveling north
With the Buffalo which taught me wisdom.
The Buffalo disappeared and said,
There is a Time for Believing Nothing
So that you do not speak
What you have already heard.
There is a Time for Keeping Quiet.
There is the Old Woman in me traveling south
With the Mouse which taught me my limitations.
The Mouse lay close to the ground and said,
There is a Time for Taking Comfort in Small Things
So that you do not feel
Forgotten in the night.
There is a Time for enjoying the Worm.
That is the way it was.
That is the way it shall continue
With the Eagle and the Bear
With the Buffalo and the Mouse
In all directions joined with me
To form the circle of my life.
I am an Eagle.
The small world laughs at my deeds.
But the great sky keeps to itself
My thoughts of immortality.
I am a Bear.
In my solitude I resemble the wind.
I blow the clouds together
So they form images of my friends.
I am a Buffalo.
My voice echoes inside my mouth.
All that I have learned in life
I share with the smoke of my fire...
Some context: I’ve been searching for a new childcare provider for over seven weeks. During my last interview I told the woman (who I’ve since hired thankfully!) that the whole experience has been so uncannily difficult that I can’t help but believe in a greater force at work trying to teach me something. Again and again the women I’d lined up to interview didn’t show up nor did they call (I have had at least 4-5 ‘no shows’). Another called in sick 15 minutes before her interview. I offered the job to another who then promptly changed her mind the night before she was slated to start. Another woman didn’t speak English and asked me to chart out her bus route to my home for her interview. And yet another woman applied from Turkey (!?) and said she wanted the job so she could learn English. It had become a comedy of errors. Meanwhile, I desperately needed to find innovative solutions so I could get my job done. I maintained staff meetings while pushing a stroller. I worked while Braeden slept. I cracked open the laptop at 9pm. It has been *ridiculous.*
The overarching theme in my experience since the turn of the seasons: exhaustion and the feeling of an absence of adequate support to relax into. It isn’t that help isn’t offered (because it is – thank you, friends!) It is simply that I am seven months pregnant and my body is tired and my nervous system is frayed. No help seems enough. Again and again I greet my wall of challenge that has become a familiar friend since becoming a Mother. This time the situation is amplified by my trying to patch together child care amidst failed attempt followed by failed attempt. Some of it bad luck. Some of it perhaps divine intervention.
This particular period has given me the gifts of illness, injury and this strange karma with not being able to find adequate childcare help on top of the baseline of daily responsibilities. Parenthood has gifted me with feeling my own profound confrontation with the limits of what I can often bear. It isn’t enough for me to just “survive” – and that is what many of my days have felt like as I’ve settled into balancing work, motherhood, laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning and generally maintaining Home and Family (amidst near constant bantering and rough-housing amongst brothers in the foreground). The responsibilities of being a householder and parent seem to augment as the months go by. There are food allergies to tend to. Emotional outbursts to sit with. Complex feelings and questions to tend to. Meanwhile, the laundry pile becomes the size of Kilamanjaro and dinner needs to be cooked… Then I ushered in a shaky, queasy stomach virus and a showering of vomit. It was a perfect expression of how I’ve been feeling. Nothing to relax into. No rest to be found. Behind in everything. And yet, I write knowing too that none of this is a problem. None of this is “bad.” I’ve little to complain about AND something about vomiting for the 20th time allows me the privilege of being pushed into a realm of choice: Despair (and the accompanying loneliness of that experience) OR Intimacy with Reality, Intimacy with What Is.
Which brings me to the essential question: What is there to relax into when support and safety nets feel frayed along with your own inner and outer resources? The answer: Reality.
Let me explain. The experience of loneliness/aloneness/lack of support/depletion while parenting presents two options.
1. Despair, depression and an exhaustion that annihilates, even pulverizes the capacity for joy and appreciation. Along with this experience comes the specter of moving functionally through life without joy and vitality.
2. A pressing of oneself lovingly into deeper, more heartfelt relationship with Reality (or God/the Divine).
And this revelation is exactly what my recent life circumstance has pushed me to realize. What is there to relax into when all systems are bust? For me it is what I am pressed into – forced into – when other mechanisms of support are thinned (including my own inner resources). It’s the reminder of the moment of imminent death – where the journey into that new form is mine alone. It’s a reconnection with my capacity to be in love with anything that is arising, and a reminder to stop looking for something “other” – particularly in the form of “help.”
Yes, there is the practical domain of needing help in order to work (not to mention cook, clean, take out the recycling and get some self-care in!). But regardless of “practical” or “external” factors at work, there is the underlying basic relationship with and in Reality/Being Alive: and that is what can truly sustain us. Those exuding the greatest sense of peace are ones rooted in an experience of communion with that which is beyond Self and Ego – an experience of divine submission to a Mystery called by many names. So it is here that I am driven by an essential force in my times of fraying sanity and when I feel alone in my role as a Mother – where body and soul are, yes, depleted, and still: the aches of parenting and all the associated work and emotions aren’t the absolute Truth. They are real and I feel the ache, yet each time I greet these hard places I dip in and out of the choice to become greater bound to Reality and Life as it is, with Love – or not, and suffer as a result.
The key is to move through the pendulum of these spheres with an awareness that the backdrop, foreground, interior and exterior are inextricably woven into the fabric of Reality (or God/the Divine). Despair, depression and annihilating exhaustion can be true – as is the specter of moving functionally through life without joy. If not awake to our experience, we can all of a sudden fall prey to a tendency of habit which marries us to misery and drudgery. Our own storylines can be interpreted as a truth which prevents seeing beyond our limited egoic experience. But, with careful attention we can peel away the layers of loneliness, despair or exhaustion that prevent joyful seeing and press ourselves lovingly into a deeper, more heartfelt relationship with Reality. This is the ultimate gesture of relaxation and surrender. And the beauty of it is that there is nowhere to go, nothing to attain – only Reality itself to greet as if settling into the presence of an old, supportive friend.