Postpartum challenges helped me be who I am today

I wrote this about 6 months ago and left it to marinate. I am ready to share, now.

— — —

I got pregnant within months of moving to the US. I had really hardly arrived. And then I had a baby. I had no experience whatsoever with little ones, no old friends to cheer me on and no new friends with babies to advise me (yet). Most of our two families are in Europe. I do have an uncle and aunt here and they are lovely but I do not see them all that often. So, there I was holding a baby, on my own. My partner is super supportive and hands-on but within a couple of weeks of me giving birth (the cesarean way) he had to go back to work. Now, I was home alone with a baby –  a baby who cried a lot. My daughter was ‘colicky’ (or actually I think she was processing emotional trauma – but that is another story). I was home alone with a crying baby, with no clue what to do and little to no day-time support. On top of that I had a very hard time adjusting to my new life. I am not a natural housewife, I have always been more focussed on my ‘intellectual’, creative and social life – at school or work. Suddenly time for any of that was gone – there was only baby.

It was hard. I’d go so far as to say it was one of the most challenging times in my life. I was battling Postpartum Anxiety and felt under siege to my own thoughts. I was lonely and bored while not having a single moment to myself (well, I am sure you all have experienced that last bit, at least).

Today, I was looking back on it all and wondering how different my experience of being a new mum with a tiny baby in arms would have been , had I had her in England or Portugal close to our family and dear friends. Would it have been all bliss and walking on air? Would it at least have been much easier for all of us, for me…? Would it have been ‘better’? And this is where I stopped myself.

I am who I am today in part because of the emotional hardship I faced during those first few months. Hey, I know I had it easy compared to many moms who go through much worse but this time was difficult for me, personally. I can’t tell you exactly what I learnt from going through those particular tests but I do think it has brought me humility and empathy for mothers going through all kinds of struggles. Even if their stories are vastly different, a part of me nods in recognition of how hard it can be. And all the challenges since then, from toddler negativism to pre-schooler limit-testing, anything that comes up to try me in parenting, I still compare it to those early months and most of the time I come up saying, nope this is still easy compared to that.

I often joke that if I had had the perfect homebirth (as I had planned), surrounded by angels and dolphins and unicorns shooting rainbows out of their butts, as they say… I would have been basically unbearable and smug and so gung ho and militant about how if I can do it everyone can do it, I imagine. This slowed me down. I am hoping my challenges made me more ‘real’ in a way, more relatable, more able to listen and really understand what others are going through, without judging or comparing.

So, I know everyone is different and I am not telling others to ’embrace their stories’ but I notice, looking back now, three and a half years later, that I would not change mine. I am not sure another way would have been better or would have taught me more. It might have been easier but not necessarily better or  it would not necessarily have made me a better person…

Advertisements

Parent peacefully BECAUSE it is hard for you

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor E. Frankl

So often I hear how hard it is to break away from the way we were parented to parent differently, more peacefully, more calmly. It takes every ounce of energy we can muster not to react how we were reacted to, not to continue a cycle of parenting violence that did not serve us but that we seem powerless to stop ourselves from repeating.

An icon illustrating a parent and child

An icon illustrating a parent and child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was brought up really quite peacefully. This is often thrown at me like a weakness in a ‘you have it so easy’ kind of a way. They are right. I do have it easier. Our brains are literally molded by the way we were parented. The fact that my parents did not beat or even ‘spank’ me, that they did not habitually yell at me and that their responses were not erratic and unpredictable has given me the ability to respond more thoughtfully and peacefully to those things that trigger me (and yes, I get triggered, too!)  And a life-time of spiritual practice has further helped re-wire my brain so that there is often a tiny bit longer pause between stimulus and response – so that I may choose how I want to respond rather than let my conditioning take-over or find myself reacting in ways I later regret.

Let’s be clear, though, I am NOT perfect. I am very much a work in progress, too. My husband and I have argued far more than I’d like, for example (and we are working on that, too). But generally speaking I am a relatively calm person and I find I often have a surprising amount of patience for my little one and that, in particular, I tend not to take her emotional outbursts personally. I can usually see past the mad to the sad (to quote my friend Tabitha). I can usually look past the behaviour and even the angry words to the underlying feelings and needs that are driving those behaviours. I can, in most cases, with some effort, reach in and find some genuine empathy for what she is going through, even when she is shouting that she hates me or is going to hit me or whatever… And I do think the fact that I was not punished, shamed or hit, yelled at or called names when I was growing up plays a part in making sure those are not my first responses to my child, either.

The other day, while I was speaking to a friend who was, in her words, ‘brought up pretty physically’ and who, like so many others is finding it hard to transition smoothly to positive, gentle parenting, it struck me that this is exactly why it is so important that we parent our children peacefully. We want their first responses to be loving and compassionate. We want their default setting to be to build connection, whenever possible. We want them not to have to struggle to change their own patterns in the future when or if they decide they want to live with more awareness and more peace in their heart – perhaps for the sake of their children.

And I know it is possible. I am surrounded by living examples of people who were brought up with repeated physical punishment and humiliation who are now choosing to bring up their children in more respectful, compassionate ways. I have friends who suffered repeated abuse at the hand of their parents and other family members and are now parenting in such gentle, loving ways they are an inspiration and a joy to behold. Their children, too, most often give out what they have received: respect, co-operation and attentiveness. Change is possible. I know this from my own experience, too. I am forever learning and growing (as I trust everyone here is) and working to overcome my own challenges – some of those deep and complex. And change comes.

Still, the harder you are finding it to move to peaceful, conscious parenting the more obvious it should be to you how very important it is that you do so. If there is in you yearning to parent your child/ren in non-violent ways that build connection, closeness and trust but you feel locked in by the conditioning that comes from how you were parented… then you know how much this stuff sticks. How we respond to our kids – especially in their first three years but throughout their childhood – shapes who they are, how they relate to others and how they react under stress pretty much for the rest of their lives until or unless they, like you, decide to get more conscious and put time and effort into building new habits. Let’s make it easy on our kids to be kind, gentle and empathic to others, in the future – let’s be kind, gentle and empathic toward them, now.

Bragging or sharing joy..?

Child 1

Child 1 (Photo credit: Tony Trần)

I once did a yoga class in the dark. My teacher used to always say, ‘yoga is not a competition, you only need to chart your progress against yourself: did you go an inch further this week than last week’?

I see parenting and our children’s progress the same way. There is no need to compare one child to another. Each is on their own unique, individual journey – one which is perfect for them. Is there a temptation even pressure to judge and compare, just to check they are doing ‘alright’? Sure… but it is so liberating in those moments in which we can totally transcend that.

A friend tells me: “my kid started walking at seven months” or “my child’s vocab has been burgeoning in the last few weeks.” Personally, I really appreciate and enjoy when people share facts like this with me about their children. They are letting me in a little to their lives and I love that. I feel like one of the family. And now, with toddlers, I often share deep belly-laughs for the antics of other cute, smart kids in our circle. I try only to measure each child’s progress (if at all) against their achievements when I had last seen them. When you view it like that, you become totally detached from the toddler-rat-race and able to rejoice in each child’s accomplishments.

In fact, in a way (as I have said before), I view them all as my children. What I mean by that is that I try and look through my mama-eyes at all kids and find the empathy, enjoyment and pride for all of them.

And I do not consider it bragging to tell me what a child has achieved… unless there is a value judgement that goes with it, some implication that therefore they are better than other children. Indeed, I think there is a fundamental difference between bragging and reporting facts. Bragging of the ‘this child is better than that one’ kind is ugly and stinks a little, too. But observing with loving interest what your child has been doing is not bragging, in my opinion. It is joy, shared. It is a fine line, I grant you. But there is a trend, nowadays, to feel you cannot talk about your child’s successes to others, lest it be seen as a kind of vanity. I guess, I am just appealing for a middle ground, balance. Yes, keep your value judgements (of good/bad, better/worse) to yourself. If you need to share them because they are burning a hole in you, keep them in the immediate family, I reckon. But do not hold back from sharing with me your factual observations of what your child has done. Do share with me, also, your feelings about this, please (sadness, joy, shame, hope, anger, pride, etc. are all, effectively, another kind of fact – emotional truth). Let’s leave it at that, though: fact and truth. Then we can all rejoice in the achievements and progress of all life’s children.

We need more OBs to support vaginal breech deliveries

Dr. Howard Vogel, Third From Left, Is Assisted...

“Recent studies reaffirm earlier World Health Organization recommendations about optimal cesarean section rates. The best outcomes for mothers and babies appear to occur with cesarean section rates of 5% to 10%. Rates above 15% seem to do more harm than good (Althabe and Belizan 2006).

The national U.S. cesarean section rate was 4.5% and near this optimal range in 1965 when it was first measured (Taffel et al. 1987). In more recent years, large groups of healthy, low-risk American women who have received care that enhanced their bodies’ innate capacity for giving birth have achieved 4% cesarean section rates and good overall birth outcomes (Johnson and Daviss 2005, Rooks et al. 1989). However, the national cesarean section rate is much higher and has been increasing steadily for more than a decade. With the 2007 rate at 31.8%, about one mother in three now gives birth by cesarean section, a record level for the United States.”  ChildbirthConnection.org

— — —

One in three births are cesarean?

Okay, so I have shared that my soul is at peace with my cesarean. Spiritually, I can use this experience to learn and grow. I trust that life brings me what I need when I need it.

But I think some clarification may be needed: I am still a great believer in natural birth and continue to think the political and economic pressures (well, I am talking insurance, mostly) as well as well-meaning concern from doctors (who live at the edge of where ‘everything could go wrong’) can sometimes lead to unnecessary interventions – meaning mother and child would have done just fine without them but it made everyone feel better that ‘everything possible’ was done. Yes, there is a place for intervention – but I still believe they should be a very last, break-in-case-of-emergency resort. And stats tell us it is not so. 5 to 10% of women medically need cesareans. 30% of women birthing in the US have cesareans. Shocking, right?

In fact I may be one of the cases where no intervention was *needed* as such and where arguably having the surgery did more harm than good. There was no medical emergency. Baby was breech but otherwise all was well. Labour was progressing. Baby was not distressed. I had even had a cat-scan (after much agonising – as nobody takes an X-ray of their pregnant belly, lightly) that proved my hips were wide enough to birth a breech baby, naturally. Indeed, millions of women have delivered breech babies vaginally, perfectly safely (including my mom – I was a breech footling). There is a slight increase in the risk of complications, yes, but most women birth breech babies just fine. The ONLY reason they stopped my natural birth process (after over 20 hours of labour) and said it was time to go to the OR is because it was 8 o’clock on New Year’s Eve and the only doctor with a specialty that includes vaginal breech deliveries (out of 5, I think, on the whole West Coast – all 5 in this one, fab hospital, UCSF) she was the only one who was even in the area during the hols and she was now off to her own New Year’s Eve party. As I say, I feel at peace with this. I believe God gives us the experience we need, in order to grow. But in purely practical, human terms it is pretty sad that there is only one hospital in the Bay Area (and allegedly in the whole of Western USA – covering, nearly 100,000,000 people) that will even consider doing vaginal breech deliveries, now – which really should be the mother’s choice, wherever possible, in my view. It is crazy that if your labour starts on the ‘wrong’ day, you are automatically scheduled for a cesarean whether it is in your child and your best interest or not. Parties and leave days come first. Not that I begrudge doctors their time off. I think they deserve and NEED it. I just wish there were more qualified doctors assisting this kind of birth so that the schedule could be fully covered!!

Why not use a home midwife, you say? Why, I had one of those. If you remember, I was planning a homebirth but my midwife, lovely as she is, had never taken the lead on supporting a breech delivery and did not feel qualified/experienced to do so on her own, without calling in back-up, and it turns out that was not easy to find. So, here too: please midwives do not neglect this important skill. Make sure you can confidently identify a breech baby in the womb and that you have the experience you need to deliver a breech baby vaginally, please!

Cesareans, as we know, decrease chances of successful breastfeeding – which in linked to all sorts of things from improved immunity, higher IQ and even decreased behavioural problems. Cesareans are major surgeries with risks for the mother – and even if it goes well it takes time and care to heal properly and completely. And cesareans deprive children from the final ‘inoculation’ of good bacteria that other children acquire passing through the birth canal, such that cesarean born children are two to eight times more likely to have allergies, later in life. Natural birth also gives babies a ‘massage’ that stimulates their whole skin and pumps out the lungs – cesarean babies miss out on this and can be born with water in the lungs. Cesareans should never be a given, don’t you agree?

So, yes, modern medicine can be a life-saver, literally. But in this case, it more saved a doctor’s chance of seeing the New Year in, in style. My plea: please train more midwives and OBs in normal, natural, vaginal deliveries of breech babies. Our babies deserve a chance at natural birth and all the health benefits that come with that!

Breathless

English: Chrystalleni Trikomiti, a rhythmic gy...

I am desperately unfit. I am not exaggerating when I say that a few minutes of dancing around the living room with my little one and I am breathless. It is shameful, really. I used to be a rhythmic gymnast. I practiced 20 hours a week and competed at national level (albeit it in a very small nation, Portugal) for eight years. After that I stayed active, as well as teaching Rhythmic Gymnastics for a couple of years, I have done rowing, dance, kung fu, chi kung, yoga and zumba – some of it quite seriously, particularly kung fu… and now this. I can barely go up a flight of stairs without wheezing.

I eat really quite healthily and yet, what kind of role model am I being to my child? What kind of mother am I gifting to her, even, when I am so unfit?

This I share with you now, by way of a kick up my own a*se. I need to get out and do more exercise. I mean I walk quite a lot… but it is becoming less and less and has a lower impact now that I find I no longer carry Pipoca in the Ergo (as I did for her first two years of life). Something needs to change.

English: Heart diagram with labels in English....— — —

How about you – are there areas in your life you are realising you need to step up to for your own health and wellbeing as well as to become a role model to your child, so they too may be inspired to live as healthily as they can?

— — —

PS no, that is not me in the photo!… but yes, I was once super flexible, I was fit (ish) and could jog 30 minutes or so without it being a big deal. Now my ambitions are lower but I do want to get heart-fit. Even a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, right? I need to start my journey. Won’t you join me and tell me about yours?

Be the umbrella (or how not to rain emotional stress on your little ones)

English: Maayan holds her umbrella (Israel, 2002)

An old boss of mine once said her job was to be an umbrella, that no matter how much sh*t rained from upper management, her role (in her eyes) was to make sure none of it affected us, her team, so we could stay happy, engaged and productive.

I think the same is true of parenting, somehow. No matter how much emotional stress I am under, I feel it is my job to keep it from passing on to my little one. I need to be her umbrella.

It is not about being fake, it is about being conscious, it is about being aware of the energy I am bringing to this relationship, at this time and about choosing to channel, release and express my anger or frustration in ways that do not negatively impact upon her… as much as I can. This also doesn’t mean she shouldn’t see me being angry. Anger is okay, it is natural – but I want to learn to model healthy ways of expressing it, rather than being blindly lead by it or repressing it all together.

This is the intention. Aim for the moon, if you want to hit the top of the trees (… with your umbrella??)

For anyone left wondering, here are some suggestions of healthy ways to express and/or release your anger:

  1. Talk to a trusted, non-judgemental, grown-up friend
  2. Exercise, dancing, jumping, running… basically getting physical and releasing that pent up energy
  3. Shout with your child(ren), somewhere deep in nature, near the train line as a train passes, inside a car on the freeway, with the windows up, or in space – anywhere where no-one can hear you.
  4. Sing, at the top of your lungs – maybe an angry song, maybe not, maybe just something that gets you going
  5. Punch a pillow or the mattress
  6. Let all the sound out of your body. Okay this sounds weird but it is amazing. I used to do it in the shower or in ‘meditation’. You just open your mouth and breathe out sound – loudly. Let it all out, whatever sound comes out. Often it is quite primal, guttural (much like birthing groans, actually)
  7. Laugh – sometimes humour is the best way to get some perspective and get past the little stuff
  8. Ritualise… hmm… it is hard to put this in words, as it may get misconstrued (or I might just explain it really badly) but, sometimes when you feel an urge to hit somebody you can tickle them instead or if you want to shout you can mock-shout instead – essentially take the seriousness out of the moment but let that energy move forward in the direction it wants to go. It is kind of like taking the horns out of the bull but still letting him tackle you (horrible as that image is – for the bull); or it is like how some people will say sports are tribal violence ritualised – you still get the factions and the belonging and the adversarialism without the killing. Anyway, the important thing is that you don’t deny but transmute the energy of anger into something lighter and more fun. Experiment with it – start with the little things – and let me know if it works for you.
  9. Meditate – in whatever way makes sense to you. It is important that this isn’t used as a sneaky, spiritual way to repress your anger, though. Don’t let the fragrance of spiritual peace fool you into thinking anger is something to be avoided. Enlightenment is not being ‘free’ of emotions but being beyond them or detached from them, does that make sense? Let the anger be there. Find out for whom the anger arises. Knowing yourself and being in tune with that – that is what we are aiming for here.
  10. Spend time in nature, breathe it in, feel the wind, listen to the waves, sit under the tree. You will experience healing of the Heart, for sure.

— — —

What activities would you add to express, release or transmute the energy of anger in healthy ways?

Mommy-brain or not… I still have a brain!

“So, what do you do?” She says in a break between talking about her world travels and her fulfilling job working with refugees.

“I am a full-time mom”

“Good for you. How old is your child?”

“She is nearly two years old”

“Oh. That is a long time. How important that is…” Her eyes drift as she looks for somebody else in the crowd… anybody to talk to.

— — —

Am I alone in this? I have been noticing since I gave birth – and especially since I decided to ‘stay home’ and care for my little one myself – that it seems as if people think my IQ has dropped several dozen points, that I have now no interest in world affairs and that even if I do, what I have to say about them is of no consequence, because, you know, I am only a mom.

Arrgh. That irks me. I don’t write ‘irk’ posts very often, I don’t think, but this got to me and I felt the need to share, to vent.

I am still the same person, guys! My memory might be slightly addled by hormones and yes my first love and interest is my child, but I am still me. I still love photography, spirituality, nature, travel, world politics (with a very small ‘p’). I am still me. I’d like to think I am still as fascinating, engaging and funny as ever (the dellusion may be in thinking I was ever any of those things – lol) and that my thoughts are as as insightful, thought-provoking and challenging (in a good way) as they were a couple of years ago. But it seems some people phase out before they have a chance to find out. Even some people (uh… men) very close to me seem to talk to me slightly differently, slightly more slowly, now. It would appear, the consensus is that the onus in now on me to prove I can keep up.

Somehow, it reminds me of when I went travelling around Central America with my (then) very blond boyfriend who did not speak a word of Spanish. Invariably, people would address themselves to him. I would speak to them in near-fluent Spanish and, for example, ask for some information about some local curiosity. They would respond by looking him straight in the eye and giving him their full answer. I’d have to kind of wave at them while thinking, “Hello, over here! Can you talk to the one that can talk back and, you know, understand you?”

My breasts are tiny… but I imagine that is the issue big-breasted women face: “Hello… I am up here!”  Now it seems the distraction, that keeps people from talking to me, is not my breasts or the fact that there is a man, nearby (who must be more competent and capable than me at receiving information). Now, the distraction that makes people’s eyes wander and assume I cannot possibly contribute to this exchange is my job or lack thereof.

I know I am preaching to the converted, here. Most of my readers are women. Most of you are moms, some of you stay-at-home (and go out a lot) moms. But I just want to remind everyone that if you have a degree, a Masters or a PhD it does not expire when you give birth. If you held a powerful job in a big organisation (or a meaningful job in a non-profit or what have you), you did not lose those skills over-night by chosing to care for a child. If you were able to string conversations and interesting thoughts together, before you got pregnant, you probably still can now.

We could be having a different conversation here, about the equal value of different roles in society. We could point out that in a post-feminist world, we have CHOICE and that intelligent women can and do chose to stay home; and that the world needs all these roles to be filled – and with passion… And that, in fact, the world may even be a better place for women being able to chose to stay home and educate their children themselves, rather than leave them in the care of well meaning but over-stretched, underpaid care workers who divide their attention between your and a host of other children and whose main agenda is likely to be to minimise crying, rather than light the fire of imagination, discovery and self-‘discipline’. Some of the most interesting people out there, were not the products of mass education but were lovingly home-schooled. Here’re some CNN chose to highlight. Here are some more. And here is a big old list that includes Einstein, Mozart, Monet, Alexander Graham Bell, FDR, Washington among many others. Was the world enriched because their mothers (and sometimes fathers) guided them rather than handing over their education? Were the men and women who raised their kids at home less because they were not also working a job?

And I am not even a ‘homeschooling mom’. My child is, as I said, not even two yet! But in any case that is not my main point, here. My point is only this: don’t talk down to stay-at-home mums, you don’t know if they indulge in astrophysics as a hobby.

And, to be clear, my hat is off and tilted in the direction of working moms, too, both those who do it because they have to for economic reasons and those that ‘have to’ for themselves because it is their right place, to be back in the millieu, contributing to the world in that way. I am in favour of free choice (if only we all could have that). I am for honouring everybody who follows their passion, their dream, their Heart and knowing that we each contribute, when we are true to ourselves in this way, we do truly help to make the world a better place.

So come on, talk to me like an equal, like you used to, like I matter, like caring for a child doesn’t mean I can’t do anything with my brain in a ‘real’ job, in ‘challenging’ situations with high level decision making that affects many. Know that I (and many) chose this path because we feel it is our higher calling, not because we can’t do anything else or because it is in some way ‘easier’, softer, less… In fact, having talked to lots of working moms, I think many would agree a day at the office, as stressful as it can be, is often a blessed relief from the non-stop, draining intensity of caring for a baby. Plus, relinquishing a job and a second income often means many sacrifices for the whole family. I know that in our case, chosing to stay at home, meant downsizing, living in a flat, rather than a house, going out less, having less holidays and less ‘nice things’. But it is okay, this was our loving, happy choice. We think we are helping to change the world, one child at a time. People… society seems to think we are dropping out, being boring and have nothing of value to share.

And with this, let us for a moment celebrate our differences, the incredible gift of choice (for those of us that truly have it) and the enlightened age we live in that is able to recognise the vital role that ‘full time’ moms play – and that when we make that choice, the hospital doesn’t say “oh, you are chosing to be a stay-at-home mum, shall we excise a part of your brain then, while you are here?”