Latest Entries »

“The Women’s Health Initiative found that more than 34% of women in the U.S. with a uterus had significant cystocele (bladder prolapse). The figure of 50% of all women who have given birth (experiencing some form of prolapse) is published widely in gynecologic literature. These statistics show that prolapse occurs far more often than any other women’s health disorder.” – Christine Kent

Let’s put it right out there: I have a postpartum bladder prolapse. Three vaginal births and a 14 inch head coming down the birth canal last month did the trick. A month-long chronic cough also helped pave the way back in January. Don’t get me wrong: Life is good, nonetheless. I’m one of the lucky women with no symptoms and a positive prognosis for healing. And, there have been challenges. The chronic, debilitating cough. The whole family sick again right after birth (including my four-day old newborn). Then there was the stomach bug (mine) in postpartum week three. Then there was another cold this past week (week four). Oh, and of course there was the high blood pressure news delivered up by my midwife alongside the newly acquired retroverted (tipped) uterus revelation. (Perhaps that is why those afterbirth pains were so excruciating?) Oh, and yes, the bladder prolapse. Did I mention the bladder prolapse?

Wow. Did you say prolapse? Yes: “a slipping forward or down of one of the parts or organs of the body.” (Although it actually isn’t a falling forward but rather a falling backwards). WHAT? There was dismay. Confusion. Distress. Even despair. I cried. Was my body failing me? There was worry. My husband tried to reassure me (based on the midwives’ assessment) that prolapse after a third birth is ‘normal.’ (But really, death and disease are ‘normal’ too and that doesn’t make it any easier, right?). Luckily, my midwife handed up sound advice: “Worrying is the worst thing you can do. You are sending negative energy to the very part of the body you are trying to heal.”

But wait: Why hadn’t I heard of this? Why was nobody talking about this? I vaguely recall hearing of prolapse occurring in older women. But 50% of all postpartum women? Me? According to the NAFC, one in five women will go through prolapse surgery in her lifetime. One in five?! NAFC also estimates that the number of women undergoing surgery to treat pelvic organ prolapse will increase by 48 percent between 2010 and 2050. Furthermore, 27 percent will have repeat surgery. And so it appears I’ve stumbled upon a quintessential women’s issue. A motherhood issue.

The emotions accompanying the reality of this experience swing all over the map. Two things I know as a constant truth: This is hard. And, this merits practice. This is about my body, our bodies. This is about shedding light on what wants to remain in the dark: personally and culturally. This is the very literal expression of depth, right here in the organs at the base of the body. First, there is the uncomfortable process of acceptance. Then, there is the confusion about what to do. There is the conflicting information. The surprising revelations. “Kegels are the only thing that will make it better,” my midwife says. But wait! The kegel actually might not work? In fact, it can make prolapse worse? But wait! What do you mean the field of gynaecology is based on a faulty 500-year-old understanding of female anatomy? Wait! Squatting regularly like our ancestors did helps? Oh, and carrying heavy loads on our heads like indigenous women serves the feminine lumbar spinal curve which keeps organs in their proper place? Oh, sitting on couches can make our pelvic muscles weak?

After several weeks of mulling, inner work, research and a trip to a physical therapist, I come away with several insights that I hope will serve the women and mothers reading:

1. Knowing our own bodies is essential. This shift in my body has elucidated how little I really know, and how much I take for granted. Each woman’s body is different. We need to find out for ourselves what is true of our own experiences. Believing everything we are told about our bodies doesn’t always serve us. Cultural patterns of disconnection and dissociation from the base of our bodies fuels bodily complications.

2. It is important to tend to the deeper emotions embedded in bodily experience. Our bodies are home to long-held psycho-emotional patterns and habits, either our own or inherited genetically. Birth too comes with its own imprints and associated bodily ‘traumas,’ even for peaceful, non-complicated births. Prolapse has pointed me to the ways in which my own body has been adversely affected as a result of my three births: pelvic bones out of alignment, tailbone tipped to the side, tissues rubbery from stress…

3. Self-reliance and trying to “hold it all together” is a bust. Tucking the tailbone, sucking in the stomach muscles, overly contracting the pelvic floor and trying to “hold it all together” doesn’t work. One vein of research addressing prolapse points me to the practice of softening the belly, deepening the breath, loosening the tailbone, and reconnecting with the natural feminine curve of the lumbar spine. Apparently the force of our deep breath coupled with good posture serves to maintain the proper position of our organs. As Christine Kent says, “Part of the graceful curvature that makes us women is the pronounced curvature of our lumbar or lower back spine. It is this curvature that allows our organs to stay to the front.” Instead of trying to “pull in,” stay “strong,” or “hold it together,” we can instead let the belly relax (postpartum pooch and all), be okay with ‘softness,’ and let go of trying to overly control situations in our lives. We can practice a relaxed trust in the female body’s natural alignment, even when that alignment is out of balance and things are asunder.

4. “Letting go” is key. My physical therapist tells me to ditch the kegels. “You don’t need more strength here. If you contract the pelvic floor muscles too much you will shorten them and eventually weaken them.” And – you guessed it: this can tip our organs out of place. “What you need is release.” We need to remember lengthening, letting go, releasing and relaxing, just as much as we are told to practice the contracting strengthening exercises. (Of course!) Kara sums it up well: “It’s easy to see how we heard Dr. Kegel telling us to squeeze, but we ignored that bit about releasing…who among us has an easy time “letting go?” That, right there, is what childbirth is all about: letting our body open up and let go. Open up and let go? Huh, what? No, letting go just doesn’t come naturally to us in our society. We can clench and squeeze and get nice and tightly wound, but ask us to let go?…The exercise of letting go is always a good one to practice in any aspect of life.” 

The experience has ultimately led me to ask essential questions about my body and my broader existence. What is true of my own body and experience? What habits need tending so that I can be healthy into my later years? What do I need? Where do I need more support? Where do I need more strength? What is out of alignment? Where do I need to let go?

Once again, motherhood and birth deliver life-altering challenges that ultimately move me to new perspectives and make it impossible to ignore or dismiss the deeper layers of my human condition.

“And yet, I can not help but look around some days and wonder; as a daughter of the feminist movement, was this the endgame? Am I living the dream that they held in their hearts? Or, are my sisters working with their babies in daycare living the dream?”  -Devon Corbett

Devon’s blog post on the rhythm of housework and the ever-present tasks of homemaking got me thinking about my own experience of what it means to be a daughter of the feminist movement. The long days at home, parenting and home-keeping, are hard. The sense of responsibility is ever-present. A toddler seems to have some 3-4 needs a minute, newborns need to be held and fed. There is a poop filled diaper to be changed every hour, or so it seems. The messes pile up. Toys are tripped on. Sleep at night is irregular and intermittent at best. Some days going to work part-time does feel easier. I can self-regulate with ease at work. I can get a drink of water right when I need one. I can choose to be my introverted self for a spell. Parenting young children and trying to maintain a sane order at home alternately tosses me into a cocktail of extroverted, non-stop output, where multitasking is a survival skill. There is always work to be done.

More keenly, Devon’s reflections on housework and feminism get me thinking about how I orient to being a mother and home-maker full time, since I am on a respite from work (maternity leave). I get to thinking about what ‘liberation’ means  – in a day-to-day context (and in light ‘women’s liberation’). Since giving birth several weeks ago I’ve been HOME. Really HOME. In three weeks I rode in a car only once. Since my newborn caught a cold, we received few visitors and avoided all public places. On warm enough days, I took neighborhood walks. But other than these short bursts of air, I have been HOME.

During the long stretches of solitary parenting and tending of hearth I’ve found myself swinging on a trapeze amongst varied emotions. There is the ‘trapped’ feeling; the wanting to ‘get out’ – both literally and figuratively. Then there is the calm bliss of sitting quietly with my new babe. There is the complete overwhelm of looking around and seeing nothing but work that needs to be done. There is the clock-watching which involves anticipating something coming next (and incidentally wishing for something other than what is presently arising). There is then the surrender into the present moment, which comes with a peaceful appreciation of my children. The trapeze swings…Then frustration (“why do my oldest children have to be fighting again?”). Irritation. Acceptance. Love. Gratitude. It all happens, sometimes in a span of 10 minutes or less.

But here is what I want to hone in on: the way in which motherhood and tending hearth can prod us to contemplate escape routes or lose ourselves to the ceaseless task lists, OR settle in to an experience of utter freedom and fulfillment. I don’t know what the endgame of the feminist movement is, but I do know that as a woman I am given a profound opportunity to maintain a peaceful, sane order of my home. I know that there is an ever-present risk of losing myself to mere execution of tasks. I also know that sweeping doesn’t have to be just sweeping; it can be akin to cleaning the temple. The quality of attention we bring to what we do is essential.

If we see the tasks associated with being a householder and parent as “separate” from our deeper passions and yearnings, then we lose an opportunity to have everything we do be a full expression of our (full) selves. Herein lies a first insight about ‘freedom’ or ‘liberation.’ If we are always seeking something else, we are not free. If we assume one expression of ourselves is “better” or more desirable than another (professional work over laundry, a yoga practice over a dish washing practice, or a solo hike over neighborhood stroll to the playground), we miss out on a seamless experience of non-discriminating contentment. If we alternately give ourselves over fully to what is asked of us in the realm of parenting and homemaking (even though cultural forces and even personal preference might deem it less alluring), we can enter the free and clear realm of non-grasping and non-seeking mind.

I am reminded of the etymology of the Sanskrit word moksha: freedom, letting go, releasing, liberating. In both Hinduism and Buddhism, moksha points to freedom from the cycle of life and death, while also connoting self-realization. For me, moksha reminds me to ‘let go’ into the present moment, whatever it demands or offers. I am reminded to simultaneously release expectations of how I think something should be, especially if it looks different that what is. I am reminded that while there will always be social conditions requiring liberation movements, there is also always the possibility of an internal orientation of liberation, in the spiritual sense. Regardless of externals, we can bring a free attention to everything we do. We can choose to rest in the center of acceptance, which is ultimately a great expression of day-to-day freedom. We can embody a wild Love that fuels an experience of expansiveness, even in the seemingly ‘small’ orbit of nuclear family and home…

The moments after birth: I call it ‘being on the other side.’ Giving birth is one of those moments in life when there is a clear before and after – the continuum of life as it is known is profoundly interrupted. There is a giant pause in the experience of time’s passage just after. Time slows down. Priorities shift. A new normal slowly emerges that can’t fully be imagined before. There is the anticipation, the waiting and wondering, the anxious uncertainly (for me) about labor’s when and how… And then, all of a sudden, you are on the other side. Birth happens. Baby is here. A mystery in the form of a new child has come into the light. And, despite my wish for time to stop just for a moment, life moves on.

There is a lesson herein for me about savoring and acknowledging life’s great transitional moments. Something dramatic has happened. A new life has come into the world and I am changed by it. For these days and weeks immediately following baby’s arrival, I am steeped in a slow wonderment. Life is centered around this tiny being and my immediate present moment home, yet at the same time there is the largeness of a full lifetime perspective. Memories of my own childhood flash. Family stories come to the fore. My mother tells me of my own birth. I feel the presence of old friends. I look at my children and wonder about their future.

The lesson of this particular time has to do with a practiced awareness that there is only this one lifetime in this body and that there is no repeating any moment. Birth has happened and there is no repeating it. Baby and children grow. My son will only be a newborn for this short, precious time. We age. We change. The trouble is that life can sweep us up in a flow so fast that we can forget the sacred markers of being alive. Like signposts on a journey, they are there to be greeted and tended to, but too often the pace of life prevents us from fully slowing down to steep ourselves in awe and gratitude at the passage of time and the blessings bestowed. So how to mark this time? Savor. Acknowledge life’s great transitions.

The experience of pregnancy and birth offers the opportunity to mark a threshold for both baby and mother (and family). Crossing from one side to another in any life transition offers the opportunity to pause, reflect and wonder. We can pay homage to what has been while also gracefully entering into the newness of what is becoming. Most importantly, we can pay homage to life itself…

IMG_1722download-4download-3download-6download-3download-10download-2download-5

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…

A Poem for Birth

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…

 

 

d552dd4f-ba83-4ab3-891d-3ac90c162874I’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…

Heartbeat:

sacred drum thumping
ancient rhythms
living eternally
throughout earth
the sound births
a percussion
of subconsciousness

-unknown

IMG_1696 IMG_1699IMG_1698

Belly Blessings

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…

IMG_1654Henna art by SarahKate Butterworth

The Bison Ranch

IMG_1580IMG_1606IMG_1598IMG_1597IMG_1595IMG_1604IMG_1607IMG_1590IMG_1575IMG_1594IMG_1616-Terry Bison Ranch, Cheyenne, Wyoming

“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...

- Nancy Wood, Many Winters: Prose and Poetry of the Pueblos

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 81 other followers