Sacred Postpartum: Happy Tea + 40 Week Update

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After having already made Happy Mama tea with my friends at our family’s work party early in October, this past weekend we engaged in more tea-making adventures at the work party at my parents’ house. I had no idea how empowering it would feel to make my own tea blends. The Happy Mama tea based on our class recipe is exactly what I need. I adore it! I don’t have all of the ingredients in the original recipe, so the modified recipe blend I use is as follows:

2 cups each of alfalfa, motherwort, red raspberry leaf, nettle and one cup of cinnamon.

After we made it the first time, two of my friends wrote to me independently saying, “this tea feels like something I need!” And, that is exactly, how I felt about it myself. It lifts my mood and feels like it replenishes something in me that I have been needing. The herbs used are intended for hormonal balancing, anxiety and stress reduction, calming, and immune system support. Until this class, I’ve never made my own tea blends or used loose tea. That has changed!

Here are some pix from our adventures:

And, we had a mini tea ceremony…

October 2014 018May You Never Thirst!

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After the work party, we went to a Halloween party. Unfortunately, I didn’t re-discover this CBE teaching shirt until the following day or I would have worn it!

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Yesterday marked the first “due date” I’ve ever reached without already having my baby in arms!

40 weeks mama for first time ever!

I’ve been saying for a long time that I wouldn’t have been surprised to have him early AND I wouldn’t be surprised to have him late. However, I would also say, I wouldn’t be surprised to have him very close to or on his due date, since that is my pattern with my other kids (39w5d, on due date, and 39w5d). Note how very neatly I covered all of my possible bases, so that no matter what, my “intuition” on the subject will be impeccable! ;) However, I don’t think that in my heart I ever pictured really going past the day. I don’t feel disappointed/distressed over it, more like BONUS! However, I also hope he doesn’t get the “bonus” message TOO long and wait until November. Then, I might be singing a different tune. I also want to make sure he knows that it is okay to be born and that, despite what I may have said several times, we ARE ready for him to join us. I really expected him on October 25th as very likely and I did have lots of pre-labor that day. I really only picture a nighttime birth too, so whenever I wake up still pregnant, I feel pretty confident that I have an entire bonus day ahead of me. At 39w6d I made good use of my “bonus day” by creating six new sculpture prototypes. I listed to Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly on audio book while I worked. I am over the moon about how very much fun it is to be able to “read” and do something else at the same time. It is like a miracle. I wish I would have gotten a library card for this purpose a very long time ago! My sculpture prototypes (not in order of picture) are for a new nursing mama, miscarriage mama, cesarean birth mama, VBAC mama, birthing goddess, and possibilities goddess:

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This will give Mark plenty to do while I sit in the recliner and nurse the new baby!

For my bonus day at 40 weeks, I got my online class all launched and all introduction messages responded to (yes, the new school session started on my due date). I also, thankfully, remembered that my January syllabus is due November 2 and was my own best friend and got it finished and submitted yesterday afternoon rather than scrambling to prepare it with a newborn in arms.

I find that when you are a 40 weeks pregnant birth blogger, you may find yourself paying special attention to lots of the details of the day just in case these details turn out to be the beginning of a birth story. Last night, I felt very much pre-laborish again—lot of low back ache and millions of contractions (regularly every six minutes apart for a couple of hours) that kept going mildly for most of the night. I didn’t sleep well at all and stayed up until 1:30 reading a review copy of The Secrets of Midwives (review actually posted briefly today, but reverted to draft after I found out I need to wait for a new cover image to use for the review).

Today, in addition to lots of little catch-up tasks with emails, etc. I also used my bonus day to add some additional new products to our etsy shop:

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New mother-daughter pendant sets!

I also responded to an interview request for an upcoming holiday promotion for etsy that I’m really excited about. And, I turned down an interview request from the PR department at the main campus of the school for which I teach, since they wanted to meet me for lunch on October 30th and I’m virtually certain I will be holding a newborn by that date (right?!).October 2014 055

I’ve been interested to note that I’ve dreamed with increasing realism about the baby for the last three nights in a row. Last night, I was getting him latched on for the first time. The night before, my mom and Mark had brought him to campus for me to nurse on my breaks from class. The night before that was a water birth dream (two actually, both about twins). To me this indicates that whatever lingering “not readiness” I might be experiencing in my waking life, my subconscious is getting it. At some level, my brain is getting down with the idea of really, truly having another baby and it is incorporating him into my dreamscape/life accordingly. One of the ways I’ve known in the past that I was actually going to recover from my past birth-related injuries is that I have a dream about it and realize that I am getting better and healing okay. To me, these recent dreams about birthing, and nursing, and holding Tanner, indicate that the door that I’ve felt like was “closed” and that I’ve never quite managed to fully open back up during this pregnancy, has, in fact, opened again (at least at the dreamtime level!). It has taken its sweet time to open, but I’ve been patient…

Mother Blessings and the Power of Ritual

Mollyblessingway 116You are the
most powerful
intelligent
inspirational

Woman

Close to my heart.

You continue to
become
exponentially more amazing.

Always giving
others the step UP.

Force of the cosmos
connecting the Web

You are.

Thank you.

–Phanie

 

At the end of September, my friend sat on the floor during my mother blessing ceremony and wrote the above poem for me. When she gave it to me she said, “I’m not like you, I don’t write things and share them on the internet.” It was very powerful to receive the gift of written word from someone who does not often write, but who knows how deeply writing speaks to me. 

My mother’s circle of friends began holding mother blessing ceremonies for each other in the early 1980’s. At the time they called them “blessingways” in honor and respect for the Navajo traditions that inspired them to begin their own tradition. As awareness of cultural appropriation increased, we shifted our language to use “mother blessing ceremony” instead, though I confess that “blessingway” remains the term rooted in my heart for these powerful, mother-honoring celebrations of the power of the life-giving woman. After having been blessed with a ceremony during her last two pregnancies in the late 1980’s and having co-hosted coming-of-age blessing ceremonies for me and my sisters in the 90’s, my mother reintroduced the mother blessing ceremony to my own circle of friends during my first pregnancy in 2003. We’ve been holding them for women in the area ever since. I believe each pregnant woman deserves a powerful ritual acknowledging her transition through pregnancy and birth and into motherhood, regardless of how many children she has.

Early this year, I became unexpectedly pregnant with the baby who will arrive into our arms at the end of October as our fourth living child. I did not intend to have more children and it has been hard for me to re-open the space in my mind, heart, and family to welcome another baby when I had mentally and emotionally “shut the door” and moved on from the childbearing chapter of my life. (However, it turns out that writing blog posts about how you’re not having any more children is not, in fact, an effective means of birth control.)

In the book Rituals for Our Times, the authors Evan Imber-Black and Janine Roberts, identify five elements that make ritual work. Mother blessing ceremonies very neatly fulfill all of the necessary ritual elements (which I would note are not about symbols, actions, and physical objects, but are instead about the relational elements of connection, affection, and relationship):

  1. Relatingthe shaping, expressing, and maintaining of important relationships…established relationships were reaffirmed and new relationship possibilities opened. Many women choose to invite those from their inner circle to their mother blessings. This means of deeply engaging with and connecting with those closest to you, reaffirms and strengthens important relationships. In my own life, I’ve always chosen to invite more women than just those in my “inner circle” and in so doing have found that it is true that new relationship possibilities emerge from the reaching out and inclusion of those who were originally less close, but who after the connection of shared ritual, then became closer friends.
  2. Changingthe making and marking of transitions for self and others. Birth and the entry into motherhood—an intense and permanent life change—is one of life’s most significant transitions in many women’s lives. A blessingway marks the significance of this huge change.
  3. Healingrecovery from loss, special tributes, recovering from fears or scars from previous births or cultural socialization about birth. My mom and some close friends had a meaningful ceremony for me following the death-birth of my third baby. I’ve also planned several mother blessing ceremonies for friends in which releasing fears was a potent element of the ritual.
  4. Believingthe voicing of beliefs and the making of meaning. By honoring a pregnant woman through ceremony, we are affirming that pregnancy, birth, and motherhood are valuable and meaningful rites of passage deserving of celebration and acknowledgement.
  5. Celebratingthe expressing of deep joy and the honoring of life with festivity. Celebrating accomplishments of…one’s very being.

Notice that what is NOT included on this list is any mention of a specific religion, deity, or “should do” list of what color of candle to include! Mollyblessingway 177I’ve observed that many people are starved for ritual, but they may also be deeply scarred from rituals of their pasts. As an example from the planning of a past ceremony, we were talking about one of the songs that we customarily sing–Call Down Blessing–because we weren’t sure if we should include it in case it would feel too “spiritual” or metaphysical for the atheist-identified honoree (i.e. blessings from where?!). I also remembered another friend asking during a body blessing ritual we did at a women’s retreat, “but WHO’s doing the blessing?” As someone who does not personally come a religious framework in which blessings are bestowed from outside sources–i.e. a priest/priestess or an Abrahamic God–the answer, to me, feels simple, well, WE are. We’re blessing each other. When we “call down a blessing” we’re invoking the connection of the women around us, the women of all past times and places, and of the beautiful world that surrounds us. We might each personally add something more to that calling down, but at the root, to me, it is an affirmation of connection to the rhythms and cycles of relationship, time, and place. Blessings come from within and around us all the time, nothing supernatural required.

I also find that it is very possible to plan and facilitate women’s rituals that speak to the “womanspirit” in all of us and do not require a specifically shared spiritual framework or belief system in order to gain something special from the connection with other women.

In the book The Power of RitualRachel Pollack explains:

“Ritual opens a doorway in the invisible wall that seems to separate the spiritual and the physical. The formal quality of ritual allows us to move into the space between the worlds, experience what we need, and then step back and once more close the doorway so we can return to our lives enriched.”

She goes on to say:

You do not actually have to accept the ideas of any single tradition, or even believe in divine forces at all, to take part in ritual. Ritual is a direct experience, not a doctrine. Though it will certainly help to suspend your disbelief for the time of the ritual, you could attend a group ritual, take part in the chanting and drumming, and find yourself transported to a sense of wonder at the simple beauty of it all without ever actually believing in any of the claims made or the Spirits invoked. You can also adapt rituals to your own beliefs. If evolution means more to you than a Creator, you could see ritual as a way to connect yourself to the life force…

In the anthology of women’s rituals, The Goddess Celebrates, wisewoman-birthkeeper, Jeannine Pavarti Baker explains:

The entire Blessingway Ceremony is a template for childbirth. The beginning rituals are like nesting and early labor. The grooming and washing like active labor. The gift giving like giving birth and the closing songs/prayers, delivery of the placenta and postpartum. A shamanic midwife learns how to read a Blessingway diagnostically and mythically, sharing what she saw with the pregnant woman in order to clear the road better for birth.

Baker goes on to describe the potent meaning of birth and its affirmation through and by ritual acknowledgement:

Birth is a woman’s spiritual vision quest. When this idea is ritualized beforehand, the deeper meanings of childbirth can more readily be accessed. Birth is also beyond any one woman’s personal desires and will, binding her in the community of all women. Like the birthing beads, her experiences is one more bead on a very long strand connecting all mothers. Rituals for birth hone these birthing beads, bringing to light each facet of the journey of birth…

As my friends spoke to me at my own mother blessing ceremony, I felt seen and heard. They spoke to me of my own capacities, my Mollyblessingway 190strengths as a leader, teacher, and organizer. And, while I believe they were also actually trying to remind me of the opposite message, to take it easy and relax sometimes, one of the things I woke up the next day realizing is that yes, I do feel overwhelmed and overbooked and stretched thin at times. And, yes, I do whine and complain about it on Facebook sometimes, but in the end, I am always enough for whatever it is. I get it done anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever felt overwhelmed and then not done it (assuming “it” wasn’t a self-imposed expectation that I mercifully realized could be let go of). That is one my strengths: feeling the fear or the strain or the pressure or, yes, the excitement and thrill, and NOT getting paralyzed by it or letting myself off the hook. I work my way through and come out the other side, usually with my smile intact, my energy full, my head bubbling with ideas, and my eyes casting around for the next project. Occasionally, I do drop a ball, but pretty rarely, and when I do, I either find it or explain where it went and why I’m going to let it keep rolling away.

I discovered in this post-ritual reflection that it is just part of my personal process to be able to say, and be vulnerable enough to have people hear, see, or read, that I think maybe I can’t do something or that I’ve said yes to too much. The answer for me is not, “then don’t” or “stop” or “quit” or “take it easy,” it is to move forward and to see, again, that I was actually enough for what scared me or felt too big or too exhausting. I woke up the morning following the ritual in appreciation of my own capacities and how they continue to expand, even when I feel as if I’ve reached my own edges. I actually feel “too much,” “too intense,” “too big,” or “too fast” for people a lot, but what I don’t ever need is to be told to make myself smaller. I usually need to be able to say, “Yikes! What am I thinking?!” have that held for me for a minute, and then do it anyway. Just as those of us deeply invested in birthwork would never tell a laboring woman, “you’re right. You probably can’t do this. You should probably quit now,” my mother blessing ceremony reminded me that I am stretched thin precisely because I have it in me.

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I wish for you a life full of ritual and community.” –Flaming Rainbow Woman, Spiritual Warrior 

(in The Thundering Years: Rituals and Sacred Wisdom for Teens)

Molly is a priestess, writer, teacher, artist, and activist who lives with her husband and children in central Missouri. She is a doctoral student in women’s spirituality at Ocean Seminary College and the author of Womanrunes: A guide to their use and interpretation. Molly and her husband co-create at Brigid’s Grove: http://brigidsgrove.etsy.com.

Portions of this post are excerpted from our Ritual Recipe Kit booklet.

Adapted from a post at Feminism and Religion.

Other posts about mother blessings can be found here.

All photos by my talented friend Karen Orozco of Portraits and Paws Photography.

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Ready or Not!

October 2014 116

I woke up this morning thinking that considering how close my due date is to Halloween, I’m surprised I have not managed a pumpkin + belly picture of any kind! So, despite the fact that I am intensely crabby crabbilicious, have a cold, and am wearing ugly clothes, I can now check pumpkin belly picture off my list.

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I also dreamed I gave birth in a random driveway full of Halloween decorations! I said: “this was my first outdoor birth!” (the baby also had all his teeth, including molars)

Also, non-belly, but here is our annual pumpkin patch picture from our homeschool group outing last week:

October 2014 153The inexorable march towards Birth-Day is such an interesting, liminal place to be in. It both feels “mysterious” and inevitable. The closer I get to my official due date, the more wide open the possibilities seem as to when he will be born…when, in reality, the options narrow each day! I still have a certain sense of unreality about the whole thing—like, am I really going to do this? Am I really going to have a BABY????!!!!!

However, I’ve spent the last nine months working towards exactly this…

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(This is what my schedule for this week looked like on Monday)

And, I hit 39 weeks on Monday too!

October 2014 070Look! My mom made matching mother-baby birth socks for us to wear after the birth. :)

October 2014 094And, this is how Alaina has been…

October 2014 098(Clingy clingolicious and sleeping like crap)

We realized a couple of weeks ago that we’d better order a couple of key things, like a car seat, to finish getting ready for Tanner. Shortly after, UPS, the mail carrier, and FedEx all came to the door within the space of about thirty minutes and then, same day in the evening, FedEx came AGAIN.

October 2014 011 It is also both fun and a little shocking to see Tanner’s clothes come out of the laundry with the rest of the family’s. He’s really on his way!

New Etsy Pictures 005My final night of in-person class until January was October 7th and my students surprised me on final exam night with a whole bundle of baby presents and said it is in appreciation for everything I’ve given to them and how committed I am. I came very close to crying!

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(I felt a little guilty about their three part comprehensive final exam then!)

My “crunchy mom” student also gave me an amber teething necklace. And, there wasn’t a bottle or pacifier to be found in the bundle of gifts.

A post about American postpartum practices continues to make the rounds on Facebook and when I read this quote…

“The problem is that no one recognizes the new mother as a recuperating person, and she does not see herself as one. For the mourning or the injured, we will activate a meal tree. For the woman who is torturously fatigued, who has lost one 10th of her body’s blood supply, who can scarcely pee for the stitches running up her perineum, we will not.”

Why Are America’s Postpartum Practices So Rough On New Mothers? – The Daily Beast.

…I thought that this is what I am SO not looking forward to doing again any time—the being someone in recuperation. I am healthy and happy and strong while pregnant and it is such a hard adjustment to “suddenly” be weak and wounded. I hate it. I’ve tried to explain to Mark how weird it is to one day be a bopping around pregnant woman and the next day to be having to have someone help you get into the shower and feed you! AND, that said, I have totally excellent postpartum support because it is like my personal obsession to get those needs adequately met after not having a clue how hard it would be after the first baby. Every baby, I have less and less of a birth plan of any kind (other than, “have baby at home”) and a more exhaustively detailed postpartum plan right down to: “I get this kind of tea with this honey in it immediately after the birth.”

One of my friends who shared the article made the interesting observation that perhaps this phenomenon is made worse by the empowerment culture of the homebirth/natural birth community, because of our emphasis on women as strong and capable (which they are). But, perhaps that translates into the assumption, goal, or expectation (either from herself or others) that the mother than then “triumph” over the vulnerability of postpartum just like she can or did during labor and birth. After I thought about this, I went ahead and took my sister-in-law up on her offer to come help me postpartum this time as well. I already have my mom and Mark and my postpartum doula and I have midwifery care. So, when my sister-in-law originally offered I felt like I shouldn’t say yes, also because she has a little baby herself. However, then I thought, bring on the love and help!

Though as I mentioned, I haven’t spent a lot of time making specific or detailed birth plans, I have revisited this past post based on the “what if” thoughts of Leilah McCracken:

Let’s shift the internal dialogue and think “what if?!” in powerful ways: “What if I have the most beautiful experience of my life? What if I could actually feel a wet, moving baby on my belly—just after birth—and fall in love with that feeling forever? What if I give birth and feel pure exhilaration? What will happen if I give birth as a powerful, free woman—what will happen if I claim my right to give birth as my biology impels me to? What if I emerge victorious, free, and powerful? What if—what if my baby never feels anything in her first moments other than my body and my love? What if I push my baby out into my own hands, and pull her up, and kiss her wet head, and cry and moan and weep my joy in private, darkness and love—what if… what if this birth is the most loving, sweet and gentle moment of my life? What if I give birth with wild joy and courageous abandon? What if…”

What If? Shifting the Dialogue of Birth | Talk Birth.

And, I’ve been wondering if going on a massive Unsubscribe From All The Things mission is a type of virtual “nesting”?! (Our non-virtual kitchen cabinets have been getting a ruthless sweep through too.)

I do not picture laboring during the day at all, so every night I go to bed thinking “tonight could be the night” and then when I wake up in the morning, I feel like I’ve got a “bonus” day ahead of me! Since two of my other babies were born two days before their due dates, I’ve had my sights set on tomorrow as a likely possibility… (the 25th, which could be tonight or tomorrow evening and still qualify)

Also, not totally related, but we got some new pigments recently and I am very fond of this “rose gold” one…

October 2014 062I keep feeling a sensation of needing to “get more done” during each “bonus” day I wake up to and have been feeling frustrated with what feels like overall household inertia from everyone else around me—all the rest of the family members seem content to just “hang out” and wait. I do not do “hanging out” well at all and feel like perhaps I should somehow go ahead and knock out the 50 page paper I have rolling around in my brain for one of the remaining three classes I have left in my D.Min degree. However, then my brain isn’t quite in it (and the household is not cooperative. Seriously. My other kids lately. Whoa!). So, today, I made one of the teas for my Sacred Postpartum class and did some other small projects and to-dos instead (like this post). The 50 page paper can keep waiting!

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Sacred Postpartum, Week 1: Birth Stories and Vow

Backtracking a little into week one of my current Sacred Postpartum class, for the first week’s assignments in reviewing our own birth and postpartum experiences, I set up a mini sacred space and put on some of my birth power bracelets (Mark and I started making these recently and I love them! It is like carrying a mini-mantra, birth power reminder with me every day).

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I did my vow page and then a collage of reminders to myself. I made a birth stories page and then printed out copies of each of my kids’ birth stories and stapled them to the back of one journal page per story, including one for my third baby who was born in a second trimester miscarriage (the stories are all available on my blog here. I didn’t include pictures of the actual print outs! ). Then, I did a page on the front of each birth story with pictures of each kid and significant words/lessons from their stories. I ended with a collage of myself as I prepare for my upcoming birth at the end of this month (39 weeks now, 37 when I did the assignment) and took a picture of a blank page as well as a symbol of the story yet to be written…

(click for bigger pix)

I also just have to pat myself on the back again about having enrolled in these trainings at this point in my own pregnancy. It was a stroke of genius! And, while I knew I would benefit from them, I had no idea how very deeply I would do so.

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Belly Bowl! (and new altar bowl)

During this pregnancy, one of my personal philosophies has been to do stuff that I haven’t done before. This is my last chance to be pregnant (really!) and I want to make sure I leave no stones uncovered or cool stuff undone! ;) So, if I’ve thought about doing something in past pregnancies that I didn’t do or learned about something new to try since past pregnancies, I’m doing it now! One of those things was making a clay belly bowl. I’ve already done plenty of belly casts and, of course, I did a new one during this pregnancy too. Luckily, I have a mom who is a potter (everyone should be so lucky!) and so I drafted her for this project. Luckily, she is also a mom who is game for pretty much anything.

Mark and I made another cast of just my belly to use as a mold. FYI, it isn’t as fun to make a second belly cast during the same pregnancy—it feels more like a “chore,” or this again?!

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I am known for my efficiency, so of course we made this cast right before my ceremonial bath project. After it dried for several days, I took it over to my mom’s house and we (mostly she) rolled out a chunk of clay until it was a rough circle. After that, we pressed it into the belly cast and smoothed it out as best we could. She reminds me that there are many steps to go and it may not make it to the end of the project, but it has gotten started!

As we worked on it, I said, “we’re so weird! Look at us!” But, then I said, “but, I like us. I’d so much rather that we actually do stuff like this than be like ‘normal’ people.” Yesterday, she popped it out of the cast mold and it did come out, which was one successful step of those remaining! Now it has to dry (without cracking!), get fired the first time (without cracking or exploding!), and then get glazed and fired a second time. So, it will be quite a few more weeks before we know the final result! At least we tried. :)

20141016-095615-35775498.jpgAnd, speaking of pottery bowls, last year I mentioned to my mom that I’d really like to have an “elemental altar bowl,” which is basically a portable little all-in-one altar. It “holds” all four elements in one: Earth the clay it is made from, water in the dish surrounding the candle, fire in the candle, and air in the smoke/flame. Anyway, I had no idea that she then worked and worked to try to create one for me, experiencing many collapsed or cracked bowls in the process of learning how to make one. But, because that is who she is, she did it! And, I received a beautiful elemental altar bowl for Christmas. While I may say my “love language” is “words of affirmation,” I also know that “gifts” is one of the love languages I express and, I think it may be my secondary love language. It really means a lot to me when someone has paid attention so well to something I’ve said or mentioned or written or expressed and then show that attention via a careful and loving gift like this.

Anyway, she made several other altar bowls recently and we actually have one of them on etsy now! It is hard to photograph in a way that shows all of its loveliness.

It also doesn’t have to only hold water, it can be used in many ways. Yesterday, I picked some rose petals to put it in and added one of my sculptures and lit a candle in honor of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.

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“This is my body; this is the temple of light. This is my heart; this is the altar of love.” –Sufi song (quoted in Birthrites)

 

Pap Smears I Have Known

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Photo by Karen Orozco, Portraits and Paws Photography

Your body is your own. This may seem obvious. But to inhabit your physical self fully, with no apology, is a true act of power.”

–Camille Maurine (Meditation Secrets for Women)

“I used to have fantasies…about women in a state of revolution. I saw them getting up out of their beds and refusing the knife, refusing to be tied down, refusing to submit…Women’s health care will not improve until women reject the present system and begin instead to develop less destructive means of creating and maintaining a state of wellness.”

-Dr. Michelle Harrison (A Woman in Residence)

One afternoon at the skating rink for homeschool playgroup, a few of my friends sit in a hard plastic booth and the conversation turns to pap smears and pelvic exams. Later, I read Michele Freyhauf’s post about her hysterectomy experience and the skating rink pap smear stories come back to me with vivid clarity.  Being a woman is such an embodied experience and we have so many stories to tell through and of our bodies. During my conversation with my friends, I warn them: watch for my new one-woman show…Pap Smears I Have Known. At the time, several other friends are preparing for a local production of the Vagina Monologues and I have a vision: The Pap Smear Diaries. But, really, how often do we have a chance to tell our Pap smear stories, our pelvic exam stories? Where are they in our culture and do they matter?

Three experiences come to mind as I talk with my friends…

1999. I am married, twenty years old, and a graduate student. I go to the student health center for my annual exam. As I walk up to the door and place my hand on the handle, I feel this intense, visceral reaction in my body of wanting to run away. For a few moments, I can’t open the door, instead I think only of fleeing. The thought comes to me: I’m going in here to volunteer to be assaulted. Having to undergo a routine pelvic exam and pap smear as a condition of having access to birth control pills feels like a routine humiliation, like a ritual of physical invasion and “punishment” designed to shame young women who dare to have sex.

This is MY BODY.

2003. In my Type-A way, I head to a doctor for a “preconception visit” before my husband and I begin to try to conceive our first baby. This appointment is at a birth center in which you wear flowery housegowns instead of paper dresses. When the doctor touches me (she asks permission first), I flinch and recoil slightly. She looks at me with surprise: “haven’t you ever had a pap smear before?” I am intensely embarrassed because I know what she is thinking: she is thinking I must have been sexually abused and she is probably writing that on my chart right now. I haven’t been sexually abused, though I’ve spent my formative late teens and early twenties working in domestic violence and sexual assault centers. I’m not sure why this feels so embarrassing to me, and I also still wonder, isn’t it actually more normal to flinch when a stranger pushes their hand into your body than to be totally cool with it? Later at this birth center, I give birth to my first son. In what will eventually be six pregnancies, I only experience a single pelvic exam ever while pregnant, during his birth immediately before pushing. This is good. I prefer hands kept outside my body. After his birth, clots form in my uterus and prevent it from clamping down properly. The doctor does a manual exploration of my uterus to remove the clots. I scream out at first with the pain of this invasion and then hum my Woman Am I blessingway chant in order to cope.

This is MY UTERUS. March 2014 082

2009. My third baby has died unexpectedly during my second trimester. I give birth to him at home alone with just my husband. The baby’s birth is surprisingly peaceful and empowering, but then the clots come, eventually the size of grapefruits. When I become unable to distinguish whether I am fainting from the unbelievable sight of so much blood or dying from the loss of it, I ask to go to the emergency room. The ER doctor tries to examine me to see if I am hemorrhaging, but she only has a child-sized speculum. She is unable to get her hand inside me because of the clots in the way. She puts the miniature speculum in over and over and it keeps flopping out because it is too small for me. I have never been so miserable. “This wouldn’t hurt so much if you’d stop moving around so much,” she says in an irritated voice. When she leaves the room, she leaves bloody handprints streaked along the sides of the bed and my blood in a puddle on the floor.

This is MY BLOOD. 

“…no woman is powerful, no woman has ‘come a long way baby’ when she’s made into medical mincemeat when giving birth. No woman is powerful when she lies on her back and flops her knees open for stranger’s fingers and casual observation.”

Leilah McCracken, Resexualizing Childbirth, quoted in Birthdance, Earthdance, master’s thesis by Nané Jordan (p. 58)

This February, I attend the local production of The Vagina Monologues performed by several of my friends before an encouragingly full theater in our small Midwestern town. One of them delivers a powerful portrayal of “My Angry Vagina.”  She is amazing and intense and angry as she stomps across the stage:

“…why the steel stirrups, the mean cold duck lips they shove inside you? What’s that? My vagina’s angry about those visits…Don’t you hate that? ‘Scoot down. Relax your vagina.’ Why? So you can shove mean cold duck lips inside it. I don’t think so.  Why can’t they find some nice delicious purple velvet and wrap it around me, lay me down on some feathery cotton spread, put on some nice friendly pink or blue gloves, and rest my feet in some fur covered stirrups?”

During my pregnancy with my daughter three years ago, I buy urinalysis strips on the internet and keep track of the protein, sugar, and leukocytes level in my urine. I monitor my blood pressure in the pharmacy section of the grocery store. I buy a Doppler and check her heartbeat myself. When I find myself continually worried about what I will do if she is not breathing at birth, I travel to a city several hours away and become certified in neonatal resuscitation. I buy a neonatal resuscitation bag and show my husband and mother how to use it. After she is March 2014 116born, breathing well, in wild, sweet relief into my own hands in my living room, I drink liquid chlorophyll to rebuild my blood supply and I ingest my own placenta dehydrated in little capsules prepared by my doula.

An acquaintance comes to me complaining that her insurance company does not cover her prenatal visits and she is tired of paying more than $100 for a five minute visit while they check her urine and the baby’s heartbeat. I feel a little nervous about it, but I pass her my Doppler and my leftover urinalysis test strips on the front porch of my little UU church. Later, she tells me how empowering it is to take care of these responsibilities herself, rather than going to the doctor for something she is perfectly capable of doing. Another friend borrows my Doppler several times to check heartbeats for other friends—sometimes with good news and sometimes with bad news—and in January of this year I have the honor and privilege of finding my brother and sister-in-law’s first baby’s heartbeat for the first time.

My friend asks to borrow my neonatal resuscitation equipment in case she needs it for a birth she is attending (it has already been to several other friends’ houses during their births). I tell her, “I love black-market health care,” and pass it to her furtively at the bowling alley.

Later, I reflect that it isn’t black-market healthcare that I love, it is women taking care of each other and themselves. I love empowered self-care. I love feminist healthcare, though it has yet to exist on a systemic level in this country, and I love the possibility and potential found in taking the care of our bodies into our own hands whenever we can.

I have yet to invest in any speculums, but maybe I should. And, purple velvet.

This post was previously published on Feminism and Religion.

Sacred Postpartum, Week 2: Ceremonial Bathing

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My Sacred Postpartum class began last week, though this is my first post about it. One of the assignments this week was to prepare a ceremonial bath.

Despite the deceptively simple sound of the assignment, this bath was an incredibly surprising and illuminating experience. I originally put off doing it because I had “too much to do” and then when I started getting it ready and setting up a little altar and doing the smudging, I felt both nervous and kind of apprehensive. I told my husband, “I think this is the first real bath I’ve ever really taken.” I’m not really a bath person. I took baths as a little kid and then moved on to showers and never took baths again except while postpartum with each of my kids. And, that is when I had my “breakthrough” moment. My eyes were prickling with tears and I said: “I associate taking baths with being weak and wounded.” I associate baths with cleaning blood away from myself and gingerly poking around for tears in my most vulnerable tissues. I associate baths with crying and holding my empty belly after the death-birth of my third baby in my second trimester. In fact, the last bath I remember ever taking in my current home was the one following his birth in which I sobbed my sorrow into the water and bled away the last traces of my baby’s life. (I think I probably did take a postpartum bath after the birth of my rainbow daughter the following year, but I don’t have a memory of it. The only bath I remember ever taking in this house was my post-loss, grief bath.) I associate baths with strings of blood and mucous floating away from me through the water and feeling injured, hurt, damaged and invalid. Deconstructed, taken apart. Lost. Shaking. Barely being able to lift my legs to get myself back out. Having to call for help and be dried off. Hollow. Changed forever.

For this bath, I set up an altar space, turned on my Sacred Pregnancy playlist, smudged the room and the tub. My husband brought me my October 2014 004mother’s tea (a blend I made last week with friends using the recipe intended for later in this class). I added salts from the salt bowl ceremony at my Mother Blessing. I added a little bit of my sitz bath mix. I added almond milk and honey. My husband went and picked a rose and scattered the petals in on top of me after I was in the tub. As I settled into my milk and honey bath, I felt restless at first, but then I calmed and my mind became more still. I went through my previous bath memories and I cried a little bit. I completely relaxed and sank lower into the water. I touched my body gently and honored what she has given and where she has been wounded. I rubbed my wiggling belly and talked to my baby about having a gentle, easy, smooth birth with a gradual emergence. My thoughts turned to my possible plans for water birth for this baby. I realized that my own “weak and wounded” bath memories are probably, in part, related to why I don’t feel particularly attracted to water birth (though I wasn’t really attracted before I ever had any kids either, so it isn’t all related to those past bath experiences). Can I be strong and powerful in the water, or is that just where I bleed and cry? I’ve been planning to try water during this upcoming birth because I’ve never done it before and because it might help prevent the issues with tearing that I’ve had in the past. However, I have had trouble actually picturing myself doing it. As I stilled into this peaceful, non-wounded, ceremonial bath, I could picture a safe, secure water birth better than ever before.

And, later that night we set this up in the living room…

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(glowing pumpkin head courtesy of the kids decorating for Halloween, not for Sacred Atmosphere!)

And, to finish the assignments for this week’s class, we made and enjoyed Thai sweet tea for dessert after dinner!