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.

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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!

National Midwifery Week!

“…As we ready ourselves to accept new life into our hands,
Let us be reminded of our place in the dance of creation.
Let us be protectors of courage.
Let us be observers of beauty.
Let us be guardians of the passage.
Let us be witnesses to the unfolding…”
Cathy Moore (in Sisters Singing)

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Lots of events in October! I just found out that National Midwifery Week is October 5-11 (same as Babywearing Week). It is finals week for me (I teach on an 8 week session schedule) and so I don’t have time for a lot of things other than grading, but I did pluck some delicious quotes out of past blog posts…

“It’s hard to describe if you’ve never been there, but to watch a woman access her full power as a woman to give birth is awe-inspiring, and I never get tired of being witness to it. It’s an honor to watch that transformation take place.”

~ Julie Bates, CNM

“There is no ‘normal’ birth–each is individual and nonconforming. Childbirth opens an extraordinary spectrum of physical, emotional, and spiritual growth opportunities that is  nothing less than extraordinary, which women should be supported in freely exploring. The Midwife must guard parameters of safety, yes, but she should also encourage women to play their edges, experience deep currents of emotion, discover their own ways of transformation, and chart new creative territory.”

–Elizabeth Davis

“Midwifery asks us to truly become at home with ourselves, with nature, and with women. Birth takes us out of our external experiences, our linear timing of progress, and our everyday rituals. In contrast, birth time is measured in a circular movement like the seasons. There are rhythms and patterns. If we let birth unfold with spontaneity and attuned to nature, we will end up appreciating the nature of our souls as well.”

–Mary Sommers (More than a Midwife)

To me, midwife means: loves women. I wrote about this idea in a past post:

I know the traditional root of the word midwife is “with woman” some sources say “wise woman”, but I’d like to offer another. When I was pregnant with my second son, I had a wonderful midwife and we spent many hours together talking about birth and midwifery. During one conversation she said to me, “you can’t be a midwife unless you love women.” This struck me profoundly—a midwife must love women

via Midwife means “loves women”… | Talk Birth.


To acknowledge midwifery week and the profound gift of service offered by midwives to so many women, we also set up a special discount code in our etsy shop. It is our best one ever: 20% off a purchase of $12 or more (expires October 12). This could be the perfect opportunity to find a special gift for your midwife! To receive the discount use midwifeweek2014 for the 20% on $12+ (Remember, this week only we also have one for International Babywearing Week: babywearing2014 for 15% off any purchase.)

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We’ve been working on improving our colors for our birth art sculptures recently and are finally getting some really nice results! We also have new pigments ordered so we can do even more colors soon.

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Tuesday Tidbits: Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Many of us are all too aware of the face of pregnancy loss and the 1 in 4 women who will have this experience as part of their journey through the childbearing year. When my third baby died during my second trimester of pregnancy in 2009, I found the image of tiny footprints on my heart to be a very significant symbol. Since that time, I always keep footprints charms on hand to share with other mothers. I’d hoped to create a new sculpture in honor of this year’s awareness month, but didn’t manage to do so. Instead, in honor, we created a new memorial bracelet for mothers impacted by babyloss. A portion of the proceeds goes to benefit the local pregnancy loss support group in making jewelry items for memory boxes.

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Footprints on My Heart Memorial Bracelet by BrigidsGrove on Etsy.

Our shop also picks one organization a month for a donation to a nonprofit organization. Our October donation went to Brittany’s Blankets for Tiny Babies. We sent footprints charms and forget-me-knot charms:
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My Sacred Postpartum class started on October 1st and our first week’s assignment was art journaling about our birth experiences. It has been almost five years since my first miscarriage-birth and while sometimes I feel like I seem weird or like I “shouldn’t” keep counting it, I’ve always given Noah’s birth equal weight as a birth experience in my childbearing life.  So, I included a page for his birth story in my art journal as well.
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(Side note: I have been seeing a chiropractor recently to make sure I’m in good alignment for my upcoming birth and it means a lot to me that she remembers and counts Noah’s birth experience too, saying things like, “well, since you’ve had four births before,” even though I’m in her office with only three kids.)
I’ve mentioned before how powerfully I needed other women’s stories after my own miscarriage experiences. My two favorite books for this are:

I’ve also shared the link to my friend’s miscarriage-birth story in a past post. It is one of the most powerfully written miscarriage stories I’ve ever read. October also marks her due date with that baby and so I want to honor her memory by sharing the link to their birth story again today:

…Three words. It only took me three words to tell you, friend, acquaintance, or stranger, what happened to me. I wonder how many more words it will take to tell myself — the MAMA, the bearer of lost life — what happened.

11 weeks. Saturday night. Walgreens bathroom. By myself. Cabernet Sauvignon in the public toilet. Doughnut-sized clots of tissue that just kept coming. The sensation of birthing jellyfish. Sticky red hands from trying to clean myself up, pulling red chunks out of my underwear. Staring into the toilet and wondering how in the world I could possibly flush it I did, after a long time and many tears. Drips running down my legs and polka-dotting my feet. Telling an employee there was a bloody mess in the bathroom. Walking out of Walgreens in blood-stained jeans.

Did you like it better when I had only said three words? I liked it better when I was still pregnant.

via Losing Susannah | Peace, Love, & Spit Up.

I did note in an article I just read this week via a different friend who recently experienced miscarriage, that personal stories can also be unhelpful to others though, especially when they redirect from the woman in front of us to our own experiences (though, I would venture to say that is because so many of us feel as if we have to hold our own stories close to our hearts, and therefore somewhat unresolved, because of a lack of cultural permission to talk about them normally):

I am left feeling more alone than I ever thought possible. Solicited or not, countless women say to me, “Why is no one talking about miscarriage. No one talks about postpartum depression either. All of these things women go through that nobody talks about. Why are we not talking about it if everyone is going through it?” It’s only now that I realize why I don’t want to share my experience as openly anymore. The more I talked about it, the less understood I felt.

All I yearn for is the simplest of engagement, “How are you feeling?” Four words. Nothing more.

Instead, I am bombarded by horror stories of women losing their longed for dream in a pool of blood or heroic war stories of women whose histories in no my way resemble mine and go on to have healthy children. Are the details of someone’s sister’s friend’s friends’ 4 consecutive miscarriages supposed to be heartening?Women use my openness about my loss as a springboard to delve into their reproductive aches and pains, recent or decades old. The sharing feels tinged — needing to be less this, more that, better than, more than, and most definitely triumphant in achieving their desired family size. I propose that we simply listen to one another, with presence of mind and heart, no matter the level of uncomfortability.

via Grand Losses: Musings on My Miscarriage | Christy Turlington Burns.

This article is extremely powerful and I highly recommend it. The author goes on to explore how women blame themselves for their reproductive losses:

Miscarriage is simpler than all of that. It is loss of life that wasn’t sustainable.

I have fantasies of shouting this from rooftops and tweeting random cryptic notes containing the facts about pregnancy loss in the hopes of galvanizing women’s perceptions of themselves. I daydream about pleading with women not to blame their beautiful bodies for their reproductive devastations. I wish I could dare every woman who has at some point or another wondered if they were somehow the root cause of a reproductive disappointment to turn that question on its head. “What if you are not the reason that this happened to you? What if it just is?” I can’t help but wonder if this would illicit more anger, more grief, more relief, and/or more hope. Or maybe something else completely. I am confident that it would engender less competitiveness, less perfectionistic strivings, and more self-love.

via Grand Losses: Musings on My Miscarriage | Christy Turlington Burns.

Related past posts:

Tuesday Tidbits: Miscarriage Care | Talk Birth.

Tuesday Tidbits: Miscarriage and Story-Sharing | Talk Birth.

Tuesday Tidbits: Miscarriage | Talk Birth.

 

 

 

International Babywearing Week!

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October 5-11th is International Babywearing Week and we’ve cooked up a couple of new things just in time! First, we have been working on casting one of my original babywearing sculptures in hand-finished resin and after a lot of trial and error, we’ve finally got some ready and listed!

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And, not to pat myself on the back too hard, but I’m really, really pleased with the new pewter babywearing pendants we’ve created together too. These are hard to get to cast correctly, which is probably why I’m so pleased with them. We only have a limited quantity available. One of them is actually freestanding, so she can double as a tiny little birth altar figurine when you’re not wearing her. I stand her by my bed at night. :)
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We also have a new discount code that is available for this week only! For 15% off on any of our etsy shop items, enter babywearing2014.

For more about Babywearing Week, check out the info pages and celebration ideas from Babywearing International: International Babywearing Week – Babywearing International

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…all babies are born hard-wired for connection. For dependence. It is completely biologically appropriate and is the baby’s first and most potent instinct. I remind mothers that after birth your chest literally becomes your new baby’s habitat. Mother’s body is baby’s home—the maternal nest.

via Inseparable | Talk Birth.

I’ve never written much about babywearing on my blog, perhaps because it is such an integrated and essential part of my life with a baby that I don’t spend much time consciously thinking about it. When my aunt was here, she gave us a wonderful new Boba carrier for Tanner and I’m so excited! I think all babies need their own new carrier, no matter how many other babies and carriers we’ve already had. ;) I’m a huge fan of my Ergo, but I’m also looking forward to trying something new (but similar) for our new baby.

This is an excerpt from one of my only past posts about babywearing:

…She most wants to be with me, but often she doesn’t want direct play, she wants to ride along and see what interesting things I’m going to do. I think this is part of baby’s biology and part of how the motherbaby relationship is socially and biologically meant to be at this point—mother goes about her business grinding corn, perhaps, with baby very close and watching. Unfortunately, this doesn’t include typing things on the computer, which is what much of my work actually entails. So, I save household work to do while she’s awake and riding along and I do computer-based work while she sleeps. That way, we usually both get our biologically appropriate needs met within our cultural context…

via Integrated Mama | Talk Birth.

And, one more related post:

Before Descartes could articulate his thoughts on philosophy, he reached out his hand for his mother. I have learned a lot about the fundamental truth of relatedness through my own experiences as a mother. Relationship is our first and deepest urge and is vital to survival. The infant’s first instinct is to connect with others. Before an infant can verbalize or mobilize, she reaches out to her mother. Mothering is a profoundly physical experience. The mother’s body is the baby’s “habitat” in pregnancy and for many months following birth. Through the mother’s body, the baby learns to interpret and to relate to the rest of the world and it is to the mother’s body that she returns for safety, nurturance, and peace.

via Talk to Your Baby | Talk Birth.

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Womenergy moved humanity across continents, birthed civilization, invented agriculture, conceived of art and writing, pottery, sculpture, and drumming, painted cave walls, raised sacred stones and built Goddess temples. It rises anew during ritual, sacred song, and drumming together. It says She Is Here. I Am Here. You Are Here and We Can Do This. It speaks through women’s hands, bodies, and heartsongs. Felt in hope, in tears, in blood, and in triumph.Womenergy is the chain of the generations, the “red thread” that binds us womb to womb across time and space to the women who have come before and those who will come after. Spinning stories, memories, and bodies, it is that force which unfolds the body of humanity from single cells, to spiraled souls, and pushes them forth into the waiting world.

via Womenergy | Talk Birth.