Falling Forward, Falling Back: What Nobody Wants to Talk About

“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.

What You Think You Want Versus What You are Given

My yoga teacher always said that you must “digest your experience!” By this she means that it is essential to take time to fully digest the events and feelings of our days. Process. Integrate. Digest. And then, let go and move forward. In a culture that sways towards a fast-forward pace, this is good advice. So much happens in a day (or over weeks or months) such that undigested experiences can accumulate and form repositories of stress, tension, angst, anger or sadness – left  untended in our bodies, hearts and minds. If we don’t return to sift through what lingers, the flow of our energies and emotions can be thwarted. For me, writing helps with this important digestion – and not only to sort through difficulties but also to clarify lessons learned as well as to revisit what has been beautiful, significant. As Anais Nin says, “we write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

In my own retrospective process, I have been through one hell of a month. There was the flood. There was selling our home and all the surrounding logistics. There was packing. There were home repairs. There was new house searching. There were long late night conversations with my husband about our life vision and what is next. There was the ever-present wall of financial limitation. There was finding a rental along with the thousands of displaced flood victims. There was moving into the first rental we could find. There was a trip to Nashville for work and giving a presentation at a conference. There were tantrums. There were fevers and illnesses. There were cavities to be filled. There was a contract signed on a new home. My husband turned 40. We found out we are having another son!

All of this adds up to a very condensed experience of life – with major life events and transitions all culminating in one short span of time. There were emotional breakdowns amidst holding so many moving parts together. And finally, we are settling again. And now: true digestion where insights can emerge.

Amidst all of the on the surface descriptors of life’s changes and happenings, there are also the undercurrents of life doing its work on me in deeper ways. While flying back from my work trip I randomly sat next to a former co-worker I hadn’t seen or spoken to in over five years. At the end of a three hour flight he told me he’d been reading Sri Aurobindo and asked something along the lines of how I rectify what is seemingly predetermined versus what we can control in our lives; how I make sense of the mysterious forces at work in the world versus what our will can effect. At first I laughed and said “I have no idea!” I was exhausted. I didn’t feel up for dissecting Sri Aurobindo. And then I slowly felt into my answer. Thanks to his question I was able to relate the seeming conundrum to my own life and clarify an insight I might otherwise have missed. I shared that actually he was pointing to what I was ultimately grappling with on deeper levels with my huge life transitions underway: the impending birth of my third son, and the impending move into my next home. I said I was used to feeling empowered by moving towards what I want in this lifetime with willfulness and clear intention, but that with the revelation that I am having a third son I was profoundly humbled in the face of what I ultimately can’t control. I had been desiring a daughter. I always thought I would have a daughter – and yet, here I am: life dishing up my third precious boy. I had been wanting a home with outdoor space to garden, have chickens, create magical playscapes for my children. And yet, again and again we were confronted with financial or distance conundrums that made fully realizing what I thought was my deepest vision elusive. Instead, life was handing me a different plate. A home full of sons. The opportunity to take the leap and buy a new home that looked very different from what I had been imagining and ‘wanting.’

Then I said, “I don’t look at it as an either/or situation. There is both will and mystery. I experience it as swimming in a sea of conversation with the Divine. I can move towards what I think I want, and when I don’t get it, I can relax into what is being given to me. There is nothing to be done. There is nothing to do. I can be humbled in the face of what is ultimately beyond my understanding or control. And then, the next layer after relaxing into what simply is: to really love it, despite reality looking different than what I was expecting or desiring…”

I realized that the major lesson of this time is to rectify moving towards my desires with intention while also being humbled again and again by those numerous moments when reality is utterly out of my control. There is nothing to be done about anything – just be in a conversation with what feels Divine in this Life. No moving towards anything graspingly, but rather relaxing into reality and embracing what is. Then loving what is. Right now life is serving up this lesson: the key is to let go of attachments to what I think “should” be any particular way – and instead embrace (again and again) what is arising in the form of presented opportunities. Relax! Settle into a new place and form! And then, find and feel the perfection in what is. Find fresh eyes that know how to live outside of previous attachments.

IMG_1523It reminds me of forward bends in my yoga practice. There is the willful gesture of reaching towards where you want to go, while also surrendering into exactly where you are. There is the gesture of letting yoga do you rather than you doing it. There is the interplay between being and doing. First be, then do. There is the energy of reaching while also simultaneously surrendering. And what needs to be the greater force at work? Surrender. (*Angst arises when our resistance to reality attempts to override the capacity to surrender…)

During transitions of any kind we can practice surrendering into accepting the blessings of what is being given to us. We can exercise the power of our capacity to choose our perspective: how we place our attention dictates what our experience becomes. We can count our blessings or we can pile up the complaints. We can make friends with the new places we find ourselves in (both literally and figuratively). Life is full of surprises and it serves us to befriend new, unexpected surroundings. In this, we can slowly find ourselves freer to relax fully into letting go of what we think we want, or how we think things ‘should’ be, versus unabashedly embracing what is being given to us.

Intimacy With Everything

“Enlightenment is intimacy with everything.”

-Dogen Zenji, 1200-1253

Even arsenic in rice?

The report was released in September. Arsenic is turning up in rice samples ranging from organic rice baby cereals to breakfast cereals to white rice and brown rice. Something about the indisputability of arsenic’s profound toxicity catches my heart and hits me with a thud. “There is no safe level of arsenic,” says the FDA. It isn’t that I’m surprised, or even aghast. Quite the contrary. I’m grimly accepting, albeit with great pain. For several days I look at my children through a different texture of gaze: seeing the food on Rowan’s plate in a renewed light. Even rice has become a potential poison and this time there is no disputing, no arguing, no escaping through the denial of endless industry funded studies. Arsenic is a poison and it is turning up in American rice.

How to be intimate with this news? It is ultimately the icing on the cake of a month of activism around the endocrine disrupting chemical Bisphenol-A and the floodgates of knowledge being open regarding the harmful effects of seemingly unavoidable chemicals inundating our daily lives through air, water, food packaging, couches, clothes, baby mattresses, blankets and the like. We’ve turned too much of our world into poison. There is nothing like the precious vulnerability of a baby to help me see the vast cruelty of our society’s experiments and there is also nothing like the unavoidable revelation that there is no escape. I often say being an environmentalist is a hard place to be. It requires open eyes and heart amidst the constant barrage of bad news as well as acceptance of the adage ‘what we do to earth we also do to self.’ We as a species still haven’t managed to get the memo: this too is interconnected. Arsenic in pesticides even 100 years ago comes back to haunt us today, creeping into grains of rice and kids’ juice boxes and infant formula.

My mind turns to the Hindu deity Krishna. When traveling in India I was told Krishna’s skin was blue because he ingested the poisons afflicting humanity and was able to transmute them. (Not only did he transform humanity’s poisons, he also drove venomous snakes away by vehemently dancing on their heads). His power to transform poison points to a lesson in integration: radical integration of what is, even what is profoundly toxic, as a path to transformation and healing. How much poison can we sustain? Perhaps that isn’t the question to attend to, but rather how much can we integrate in our hearts, minds and souls in order to be fully sane? If Enlightenment is intimacy with everything, how intimate can we be with our poisons?

Perhaps Krishna also points to the lesson of radical integration as a path to no resistance. Rather than resist, run from, fight and try to avoid what is ultimately unavoidable, perhaps we can practice a sane, relaxed response. As my husband tells me in the midst of my worrying spells: “Relax into the mess.” This doesn’t mean inaction or avoidance or denial. It doesn’t mean apathy or an “oh well” disposition. This means radical integration of the mess and radical intimacy with the mess. From a place of intimacy, with eyes wide open, we can make meaningful decisions from the heart. We can feel the pain and let it bruise us, and we can try to love the bruise. Instead of a “fight for life” from a place of fear, we can surrender into the flow of life, even life’s messes which cause both physical and emotional cancers.

As a mother I want to protect my children. The heartbreaking truth is that in many instances I cannot. Ultimately I cannot create an island that is safe from the poisons of our mistakes, especially the mistakes beyond my sphere of influence. I can however create an enclave of sanity, a launching pad of the relative health grounded in the understanding of interconnectedness and the accompanying intimacy of this perspective. And, I can choose to not cultivate fear and dread, instead moving beyond fear into the realm of integration, which is ultimately Truth. This situation is just True. This hell bending situation just IS. Pesticides dousing soil with neurotoxins and carcinogens, arsenic laden soil giving life and food but also a dose of wake up America reality.

Still, we are called to action and activism, even in light of living into a practiced acceptance. Intimacy calls us to love! And love calls us to protection and preservation. Beyond fear and avoidance is the realm of Love. So surrender. Let this break your heart. Look at your child and wonder what the future holds. Marvel that lessons of our interconnectedness are served up poignantly on your plate. No surprises. Fully integrated awareness, bestowing a calm authority, we move on, vowing to enact our own gestures of transformation.

Full Circle

Life’s course carries us unabashedly forward into aging.  As Rumi reminds me we’ve been through a million cycles of birth and rebirth, a million circles of beginning and return – even in one lifetime.  I feel my place in life’s great circle this weekend as I witness my son next to my grandmother:  Rowan, who is just shy of two, next to LaRue, just five years from being alive for a full century.  Lao Tzu comes to mind as he says “Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.”

My mother and I dance in the middle, she caring for my grandmother and I for my son.  We live a similar existence as full-time caregivers – helping with toilet, bath, food and sleep.  Both of us up several times a night, we are firekeepers in the middle – bearing witness to the great signposts of life:  Beginning and End – and the realization that we often go on from this world much the same way we came in.

My mother tells me it’s easier to stay grounded in the present moment now that she is caregiving so intensely.  I sigh in agreement.  We muse about the calling to be intensely focused, on point, on guard – preventing a fall and ensuring comfort… “Yes, its easier to be present so long as you are in the flow of tasks and not resisting what’s arising,” we say.  Stay in the flow, stay present.  Loose the flow and crash.

Lao Tzu comes to mind again.  Stay in the flow of life, breathing deeply, not resisting, moving in the world like a graceful dancer carrying water with the task of not spilling;  Ever present, diving into the day’s tasks with contentment rather than begrudgingly – receiving what arises like a gift of Nature.  “Embracing Tao, you become embraced,” he says.  Embrace what is given and you are embraced by life.  Resist what is given and your life becomes like the dream I had the other night:  riding uphill on a bicycle in snow and ice on a busy highway full of cars (yes, this was really my dream).  Instead:

Supple, breathing gently, you become reborn.
Clearing your vision, you become clear.
Nurturing your beloved, you become impartial.
Opening your heart, you become accepted.
Accepting the World, you embrace Tao.
Bearing and nurturing,
Creating but not owning,
Giving without demanding,
Controlling without authority,
This is love.

-Lao Tzu