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Thursday Tidbits: Everyday Sheroism in Birth and Life

February 2016 005Do you know how many days have gone by in which I’ve said: “well, I didn’t write my dissertation today?”

This past Monday I got to say: I *DID* WRITE MY DISSERTATION TODAY!!!!!!!!!

It may be a first draft rather than a final submission, depending on suggestions from the reviewers, but there is a huge qualitative difference between someone who is writing a dissertation and someone who has submitted a dissertation and who might need to make revisions. It is 187 pages and 88,000 words and involves one year of original research with 100 pages of collated research results. Five years of classes, study, and contemplation, with also doubling my amount of offspring during this time. I grew this dissertation project at the same time I was growing Tanner from a tiny newborn to a walking, talking toddler. And, I feel like I just pushed out the biggest baby of my life. I cannot even describe the energy expenditure this required of me. I feel so satisfied and very, very proud of myself.

At Red Tent last week, when we passed the rattle, we each had a moment to share something we needed to be “compassionately witnessed.” After making a good effort at doing daily dissertation work throughout December, I’ve been semi-half-hearted on it since, averaging one “good” day of intensive work on it per week. I was hoping to have it finished before we go on a trip this month, but I was feeling so strained and drained and tense that adding it to my to-do list felt almost cruel and possibly ridiculous. When it was my turn for compassionate witness, I shared with the circle that I had reached a point in which I could no longer distinguish whether finishing my dissertation was self-care or self-harm.

After making manifestation bracelets together at Red Tent.

After making manifestation bracelets together at Red Tent.

Now, in hindsight, I recognize the “transition” stage. I’ve known for a while now that it is part of my personal process with big projects to have to be able to have a time and a place in which I am able to say, I don’t know if I can do this. And, to have that fear and self-doubt, and vulnerability simply witnessed. And, then, do that thing anyway. It is hard to find a space in which this is “allowed.” Very often well-meaning suggestions are to cut myself slack, to lower my expectations, or to give myself a break. I have discovered that just like these comments are not actually helpful to a woman in labor, they are not helpful to me in “labor” with other big projects either. In fact, I think there is a secret “dark” side to many popular self-care messages, primarily because what we sometimes might pass off as “self-care” is actually a “shadow comfort” (to borrow Jen Louden’s term) and is actually a meanings of inhibiting ourselves, holding ourselves back, or sabotaging ourselves (or those around us, when we offer the “out” of quitting or not following through…of letting ourselves down). When I was able to let out the fear and doubt, only for a few minutes, and have it simply received, it was as if something unlocked within me and suddenly I knew I had it in me after all. Only a few days later, after several focused bursts of intense writing, I submitted my completed project.

Anyway, a long story just to make this point: I felt SO good after submitting it. I may never have been so proud of myself. I was giddy, thrilled, exhilarated, excited, and exuberant. “What if I had QUIT?!” I yelled, “then I would never have gotten to feel like THIS!” When I lower expectations, sure, I might meet them, but when I keep my expectations high…and meet them. There is nothing that can replace that feeling. And, guess what, it keeps stretching me to reach just a little higher and a little higher. And yes, the self-harm shadow side of continuous life-stretching is that I can be trapped into “striving and striving and never arriving,” but the self-care amazing life side, is that I prove to myself that I can do incredible things and that I accomplish that which may have felt impossible for a time.

Bringing it back to birth, I read this post about ten things not to say to a woman in labor and the first reminded me of my own big “push” to finish the dissertation and how compassionate witness is infinitely more valuable than sympathetic shadow comfort enabling:

Scenario 1: If a woman is trying to make a rational and educated decision while in labor (a very difficult thing to do when in pain!) about whether or not to get an epidural (which is a big deal, by the way) by saying “you don’t have to be a hero” is playing to her emotions and vulnerability which isn’t fair. If she’s questioning this choice instead of immediately signing up for anesthesia, she likely has a reason for the hesitation. I guarantee she doesn’t want an unmedicated birth to become “a hero”. Maybe she was hoping for a natural birth, or wants to reduce the chance of further interventions like pitocin, or maybe she’s wanting the best start for her baby. I don’t know. But by saying “you don’t have to be a hero” to help her make a decision is basically blowing her off when she is in a very vulnerable position. It’s a low blow.

Source: 10 Things to NEVER Say to a Woman in Labor | Mother Rising

And, here’s the deal…women in labor and postpartum are heroes. They are incredible. They are amazing. We should never deny them that knowledge, particularly if all we are offering in return is a patronizing platitude masquerading as compassion. This “One Day Young” photo project captures that sheroism:

These goddesses headed to a WIC peer counselor's office this week.

These goddesses headed to a WIC peer counselor’s office this week.

“In those first 24 hours, it’s like this warrior comes out in women,” says Jenny. “They gain this inner strength to protect the child and you can see it in the photos. “They’re like those heroic pictures of soldiers on the battlefield or the footballer after the match, still full of the adrenaline of achievement. This moment isn’t often captured in women, but what they’ve just achieved is just as important as that goal or that battle, and that moment deserves to be recorded and celebrated in the public arena.”

Source: Empowering Photo Project ‘One Day Young’ Reassures Women That Childbirth Is Nothing To Fear

At the same time, birth can be very hard work and the recovery can be intense and long-lasting. Culturally, while we may minimize, invalidate or deny women’s power, strength, and amazingness in birth, we also often minimize, invalidate, and deny their vulnerability after birth.

We don’t talk about postpartum pain — bleeding, stitches, not being able to stand upright, or easily walk around. We don’t talk about the struggles of early breastfeeding: cracked and bleeding nipples, mastitis, and worries about producing enough milk. We are only beginning to talk about postpartum depression and anxiety. And it almost seems as if new fathers and adoptive parents don’t matter at all. The rhetoric from those who don’t want change paint a rosy picture of motherhood, but the realities of these anti-family policies are much more grim. In a recent TED talk, I share a number of heart-wrenching personal stories from women who have suffered as a result of having to return to work too soon.

Source: Maternity Leave Policy Postpartum Pain – Susan Crowe

After submitting my dissertation, I was heard to say that I felt like I needed a long nap and maybe several large gifts. After the intensity and unpredictability of giving birth, a ceremony might be in order, either a sealing ceremony like I experienced, or a birth reclaiming ceremony as is described in this article:

“I wasn’t at the birth, but it was super quick and the mother felt traumatised. I came in on a Monday, and the baby looked a little pinched. I asked the mother about feeding and she said she thought it was going okay. I offered to change the baby’s nappy – I took it off and it was bone dry. I asked how long it had been on and it was over 12 hours. The maternal health nurse was due over that day, so we had a bit of time to suss what was going on, since I was a breastfeeding counsellor as well. From chatting, we realised her milk had not come in and the baby was clearly not getting anything.

The mother was super stressed and her baby was about a week old — and clearly not in fabulous shape. I talked about a birth reclaiming ceremony and we ran her a lovely warm bath. It was daytime, so we closed the curtains and played soft music. As she climbed into the bath, I saw her high, tense shoulders drop right down and she let out a big sigh. When she was ready, I stripped her baby, and placed the baby on her chest. We sat quietly, not saying a word. The mother started to cry, then sob, totally overwhelmed by the responsibility of being a parent and not doing a good enough job. All the while, looking at her sleeping baby, holding her.

As the mother eventually finished crying… her milk started to roll down her breasts. She looked at me, so surprised, and said, “Is that what its meant to look like?”

Source: Birth Reclaiming Ceremony – Could It Help You Heal? | BellyBelly

Finally, I like to share this link. I haven’t actually watched any of these, but for people who like TED Talks, this sounds like an interesting round-up!

11 TED Talks for Pregnancy and Birth — Tulsa Birth Doula, Bethanie Verduzco, CD(DONA) – Hello Sunshine Birth Services

February 2016 022What else is up with me this week:

  • The etsy shop is on limited inventory until March 1.
  • I’ve been working on the materials kits for both the Red Tent Initiation and Womanspirit Initiation courses that I have coming up. They’re beautiful and I’m so proud of both of them. Every time I pack up a kit, I feel so thrilled. Both trainings begin March 21st and still have spaces available for registration if you’re interested!

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Tuesday Tidbits: Joyful Birth + New Year Resources

“As mothers, we discover that we love our children in whatever form they are in: a kicking bulge in our womb; a baby sucking at our breast; a toddler leaving play-doh crumbs on the couch; a pierced and tattooed teenager blasting rap music at midnight. We love them when they’re I’ll and when they are damaged. We love them long after they haw died. And in discovering this, we open to a kind of love that transcends form and time. It’s at the heart of our humanness, yet you might call it divine.”

–Susan Piver (Joyful Birth)

I found myself feeling startled at several points during the holidays. One moment came in looking at my “memories” from Facebook and seeing pictures of myself last Christmas with my tiny bundle of a sweet new baby against my chest. This year, he opens presents and crows, “yaaaaaay!”

December 2015 029

Still plenty of eyebrow action a year later!

The second moment was in talking to my sister-in-law about homebirth + composting toilets (not an ideal combo, fyi). When Zander was born in 2006, we were living in our temporary shop house and didn’t even have a composting toilet, just a not-very-nice outhouse. I remember having to walk out there in labor and feeling like it was not a fabulous thing. I looked over at Zander, now nine, and had such an intense moment of remembering what it was like to be that mom in that temporary house with my new little baby and my other toddler son. That version of me seems far away now, as does that baby-version of Zander, and yet, here I am still nursing a small boy to sleep and throughout the night…

“For me, giving birth was more gritty than romantic–and much more potent. Like a lotus that rises up from the mud, joy at seeing my daughter blossomed from the experience of reaching my physical and emotional limits.”

–Susan Piver (Joyful Birth)

I see this face a lot--the "uhhhhhhh!" pick me up, face.

I see this face a lot–the “uhhhhhhh!” pick me up, face.

This morning I read an article about why everyone deserves a doula:

Doula and mother-to-be form a relationship with each other throughout the pregnancy. The doula meets with the expectant mother, talks to her, and earns her trust and affection (or in my case, a full on girl crush). Whether the mother hopes to give birth hanging from a tree by her armpit hair or is planning an elective caesarean, the doula is there. Whether she wants an epidural from the onset or plans on going utterly drug free, the doula is there. Completely without judgement, she only serves to support the mother in the birth that she desires.

Source: Why Everyone Deserves a Doula — Pregnant Chicken

And, this quote about the physical intensity and potency of birth and the joy that accompanies it:

“Giving birth, in fact, is a messy business for any mother. Whether you have a midwife or a doctor, a homebirth or a hospital birth, a natural birth or an assisted birth, birth has a physical intensity, involving blood, pain, uncertainty, and risk. It is a physical, mammalian experience, organic, animal, earthy, direct. Yet in that very earthy messiness, as we are pushed to our limits, there’s the potential for joy. By Joy, I don’t mean a superficial pleasure that comes and goes and depends on conditions being to our liking. I’m talking about a different joy, tinged with sorrow. It is the tender heart of love.”

–Susan Piver (Joyful Birth)

I have been enjoying the relatively quiet days between holidays and read this post about the silence of this time of year, the lull, the liminal space before the birth of a new year (is this the rest and be thankful phase of the year?).

The most subversive thing is silence. In this odd interregnum, in the days caught between Christmas and new year, the world suddenly falls quiet. Unless you are determined to face dubious sales, there is nothing more to buy. Travel, especially if you use public transport, is curtailed. We are forced to look at ourselves, to our own company, and those nearest us.

Source: With Christmas gone and new year approaching, now is the time for silence | Philip Hoare | Opinion | The Guardian

And, I enjoyed this post about the value of solitude for parents (and the difficulty in carving out time for it):

Solitude is like punctuation. A paragraph without periods and commas would be exhausting to read. In the same way, conducting relationships without the respite of solitude can lessen the benefits of those relationships. Downtime is important for you and your kids. They benefit from solitude too. Taking care of your own solitude will not only help you restore yourself but also show your kids this positive model of self-nurturance

Source: Solitude is Going Extinct: The Stress of Modern Parenting

On the porch of the former clubhouse turned tiny temple/workspace for me to work in solitude.

On the porch of the former clubhouse turned tiny temple/workspace for me to work in solitude.

I’ve started working on my 2015 review for my 2016 Shining Year workbooks and am feeling a certain resistance towards doing it this year (I also got my 2015 Year in Review from wordpress: Your 2015 year in blogging). I found this worksheet for kids on doing a year in review and I printed it out to do with my own kids on New Year’s Eve: 2015 Year In Review Printable – Skip To My Lou Skip To My Lou

The Brigid’s Grove etsy shop is open again with limited inventory. We will be back with our complete assortment of sculptures and ceremony kits (plus, new surprises!) after the first of the year.

The next section of my Womanrunes Immersion course begins on January 5th. This course takes you on a 41 day journal through the runes and includes journal and photo prompts, worksheets, full moon and new moon rituals, and access to the 2016 Calamoondala class.

December 2015 006“To parent well, you have to have the gentleness and courage of a warrior.”

–Carol (in Joyful Birth by Susan Piver)

Tuesday Tidbits: Happy Holidays

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We’ve set our etsy shop to vacation mode and are taking the next week off to enjoy an assortment of holiday festivities with our family! Here are some resources that we are using:

Here are some past holiday-themed posts that you might enjoy or find helpful, or both! The first is about Mary and Christmas:

Another thing that Mary surely understood was that she was specially chosen to bring October 2015 193this new life into the world through the capabilities of her own body alongside that unconstrained power that placed him there in the first place. For birth is about releasing expectations and trusting that you are supported. It is knowing that just by the way your body was designed and grew this life, you are capable of bringing this life forward.

Source: Thesis Tidbits: Mary Christmas | Talk Birth

The second is about alcohol and breastfeeding:

The takeaway message: Long before you have enough alcohol in your milk for your baby to even notice, you would be so hammered that you would hardly remember you even had a baby. The concern for occasional drinkers is not really alcohol being passed to the baby, but mom and dad remaining sober enough to care for the baby–and that’s a really big deal where co-sleeping is concerned! Safely sleeping with a baby means being stone cold sober. Period.

Source: Guest Post: Alcohol and Breastmilk | Talk Birth

The third is about coping with loss and infertility during the holiday season:

I distinctly remember sitting through Thanksgiving and Christmas after the loss of my third baby. The sense of hollowness. The sense of having to put on a happy face. Guilt for laughing. Guilt for not laughing. Going through the motions. Pretending to be okay. When I received this short guest post on coping with infertility during the holidays, it brought back those memories of tension, strain, and grief.

Source: Guest Post: Holiday Coping: Dealing With Infertility or Adoption Process During The Festive Season | Talk Birth

The fourth is a past guest post about toddler meltdowns during the holidays: Guest Post: 8 Toddler Pitfalls to Avoid on Christmas Morning | Talk Birth

(My own personal best tips involve an Ergo and plenty of “nonnies” on tap, on demand.)

The fifth is a funny little post about the 12 Days of Birth Activist Christmas:

On the second day of Christmas, a birth activist gave to me two comfy birth balls and a woman wanting to birth free…

Source: Twelve Days of Birth Activist Christmas | Talk Birth

And, the sixth is the memory of my fun little foray into the world of cookie-birth: Gingerbirth, Gingermamas… | Talk Birth

peace on earth

Thursday Tidbits: Recovering from Birth

December 2015 029“Before I had children I always wondered whether their births would be, for me, like the ultimate in gym class failures. And I discovered instead…that I’d finally found my sport.”

–Joyce Maynard

People often use running a marathon as a metaphor for birth. Turns out that science has discovered that birth is actually more difficult…

“The researchers used MRI equipment typically used to diagnose sports injuries to explore the full scope of trauma that a woman’s body experiences during childbirth. The MRI images revealed that almost 25 percent of women had fluid in the pubic bone marrow or fractures that are similar to stress fractures that athletes often suffer. And 41 percent of women had pelvic muscle tears.

Also revealed by the study is the startling statistic that 15 percent of women never fully recover from the birth-related pelvic injuries.”

Science Says Childbirth Is Harder Than Running a Marathon – In The Loop Tips & Advice | mom.me

The same research was covered in this post as well:

Childbirth, as anyone who’s been through it knows, can feel very much like an extreme sport. And, it turns out, some childbirth-related injuries are surprisingly like sports injuries, including the very long time they need to heal.

The bottom line, Miller says, is: “if women don’t feel that their body is back to what they expected after six weeks, it’s not in their heads. Women do some self blame or feel like they’re not as robust as their sister or friend. But they may have one of these injuries not visible on clinical exam.”

Source: Childbirth As An Extreme Sport — And Why Its Injuries Can Take So Long To Heal | CommonHealth

I do have to admit that I perhaps would have re-titled the articles: “Science Reports Something Most Women Have Known Since the Beginning of Time,” but, oh well. Picky me.

I’ve written about birth and marathons in several past posts. Giving birth is the original “extreme sport.” One that tests your reserves, your endurance, your courage, and your stamina like nothing else. Truly, we have the comparison wrong. Running a marathon is kind of like giving birth, rather than vice versa! The first older blog post of mine isn’t related to childbirth/sports injury, but instead the emotional satisfaction of finishing your “marathon”:

She goes on to share: “I want that feeling of going beyond what you think is possible for laboring women. If you let go of control and allow the process to unfold, you are so proud of yourself. Then pride morphs into self-confidence and trust. What a perfect combination for parenting. When it comes down to it, you have to do this by yourself, be it labor or running. You might hear other laboring women around you or have the support of crowds in a race, but it’s still up to you. there’s a start and a finish and only you can see it through. Fortitude brings a new self-awareness and strength that feels overwhelming…I know one of my greatest challenges in the vocation of perinatal education is getting women to trust the process and her own capabilities before labor. My practice runs helped prepare me for the marathon, but there is no practice run for labor. Women must rely on their confidence and the legacy of the many women who have birthed before them…”

Source: Births & Marathons | Talk Birth

Women giving birth often experience a sort of post-race euphoria:

Those who push themselves to climb the last hill, cross the finish line, or conquer a challenging dance routine often report feelings of euphoria and increased self-esteem…women who experience natural birth often describe similar feelings of exaltation and increased self-esteem. These feelings of accomplishment, confidence, and strength have the potential to transform women’s lives. In many cultures, the runner who completes the long race is admired, but it is not acknowledged that the laboring woman may experience the same life-altering feelings… —Giving Birth with Confidence (by Lamaze International)

Source: Birth Feelings | Talk Birth

And, they can draw on those feelings for strength again and again:

“Whether it be the thick memory of enduring a non-medicated labor and finally pushing our third child into the world, despite feeling as though I hadn’t an ounce of energy left, or the meager sprint I managed as I neared the finish line of the marathon…, I hold tight to these images as proof that I can and will be able to rise to the occasion–again and again, if and when I need to-–because the ability to do so is in my very bones. Because I am a woman.”

Source: Woman Rising | Talk Birth

Mothering can also feel like a marathon:

“My body? I was ashamed to admit that, after two powerful homebirth experiences, I no longer felt intimately connected to my body. Pregnancy and giving birth were all about every little feeling in my body; mothering felt like a marathon of meeting everyone else’s needs and rarely my own…Most days, the question I asked was, ‘How are their bodies?’ My body was in the back seat, unattended, without a seatbelt.”

Source: Tuesday Tidbits: Birthing Bodies | Talk Birth

This article about recovering from a Cesarean Birth After Cesarean (CBAC) is packed with helpful information:

As we have discussed, everyone celebrates a VBAC but many CBAC mothers feel alone and unsupported, both in their physical and emotional recovery. This needs to change.

Source: The Well-Rounded Mama: Physical Recovery After CBAC

And, this article has some ideas to share about lowering back and pelvic pain during pregnancy: The Birthing Site – 5 Things you can do to Help Lower Back and Pelvic Pain in Pregnancy

All of these posts and topics remind me of the importance of planning wisely for postpartum:

My son’s birth was a joyous, empowering, triumphant experience, but postpartum was one of the most challenging and painful times in my life. I had not given myself permission to rest, heal, and discover. Instead, I felt intense internal pressure to “perform.” I wondered where my old life had gone and I no longer felt like a “real person.” A painful postpartum infection and a difficult healing process with a tear in an unusual location, left me feeling like an invalid—I had imagined caring for my new baby with my normal (high) energy level, not feeling wounded, weak, and depleted.

Source: Planning for Postpartum | Talk Birth

November 2015 013

Happy Birth-Day: Tanner’s Home Water Birth Video

_DSC0461fToday, my sweet, energetic, fiery, powerhouse of a baby boy turned one! In honor of his birthday, Mark finished putting together Tanner’s birth video. This is the first time I’ve ever had any video of any of my children’s births and it feels tender to share (which is why it took a year to put it out there). Birth is a very private, inner experience for me. I like to give birth virtually alone. So, having video feels like having another observer there, and birth for me is about not being observed. The music that plays in the video is the song Standing at the Edge from Sacred Pregnancy that I listened to throughout my pregnancy and then hummed to myself during labor. When I shared about my sealing ceremony after his birth, I mentioned how meaningful it was to me that this song started to play both as I was entering my ceremonial bath and again as I was getting back out. Well, guess what happened when I went to take a shower this morning on his birthday? This song was also the first to begin as I stepped into the shower!

The written version of his birth story is here: Welcoming Tanner Matthias! | Talk Birth

I’ll do a separate Happy Birthday blog post in a couple of days. I just wanted to make sure to get this video up today! I spent some time at Tanner’s naptime today going through the cards from my mother blessing ceremony and enjoying that energy and affirmation, rather than rushing to my to-do list.

wheel

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Listening to the Soul of Art

I’m moving some of my blogging over to Brigid’s Grove. This is a crosspost of a post first made there.

I saw an image on the Dreaming Aloud Facebook page with the words, “I make art to show my soul that I’m listening,” and felt a hum of recognition. When I create a new sculpture, I am most often creating something that I need to remember or want to learn. Our most recent Centered Mama sculpture and our Meditation Goddess were created while at a friend’s house for a weekend work exchange as my baby toddled around. While I love creating figures of mothers and babies, I was feeling a strong urge to make a goddess representation complete unto herself. It felt like a reclaiming of my non-maternal identity and a declaration of self-sovereignty. She turned out a little bigger than some of my other figures, strong and secure and independent. Then, the baby crawled over and knocked off one of her breasts, knocked her over on the tray, smashing the side of her head. I came close to crying. I was also annoyed with my husband who’d “let” him come over and destroy my work rather than noticing him doing it and stopping him. I was frustrated, dismayed, and my feelings felt hurt in a sense. First I felt like, Argh! This is a metaphor for life! And, then I realized it was not just a metaphor for life, it is my actual life! I said I was just going to smash her and give up and I made some bitter faces at my husband and some long-suffering huffs and signs, but then the baby fell asleep in the Ergo, held close against my chest. I kissed his soft hair and I took my clay and started again. I reclaimed her from the smashed parts and she sat stronger and taller than ever.11890947_1658752111003671_3875428907499186114_n

She reminds me not to give up and that beautiful work can come from struggle, but also of interdependence (not just the independence I was going for!), co-creation, and tenacity. When she sits by my bed at night or overlooks my dinner preparations, she reminds me that I am strong and that persistence is worthwhile. She also tries to remind to be calm and steady, centered and zen, even though I more often feel like a whirlwind.

That same Saturday at my friend’s house, as my baby tentatively toddled around the kitchen, chewed on a piece of watermelon, and snoozed on my chest, I felt moved to begin creating a new Centered Mama sculpture (I posted a sneak peek of her earlier). I’ve been through kind of a rough patch emotionally over the last two months. I feel very buffeted by variable emotions and erratic and unpredictable in my enthusiasm and confidence. I also feel impatient, snappy, and irritable.

“I will be gentle with myself.
I will be tender with my heart.
I will hold my heart like a newborn baby child.”

This song by Karen Drucker replayed in my mind as I sculpted. The baby woke, the watermelon got dragged along the floor collecting dust, and it was time for our collaborative dinner, so I had to put her away unfinished. When we got back to our own home, I was compelled to finish her, working feverishly as the baby pulled on my legs and I said, “just a few more minutes!” to the older kids who were trying to play with him to let me work. Again and again I re-rolled the clay baby’s head, trying to make it “perfect,” and worked to lay down the strands of her hair, against of the backdrop of this often-chaotic, noisy, home-based life we’ve consciously and intentionally created together. She was created to represent holding my own center in the midst of motherhood. I will be tender with my heart. I don’t create sculptures like this because I AM so “zen” and have life all figured out, I make them to remind me what is possible if I listen to my soul.

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Talk Books: Touching Bellies, Touching Lives

touchingbelliesEvery so often I end up reading a book that is nothing like I was expecting and yet is totally amazing. Touching Bellies, Touching Lives is one of those books. Subtitled “Midwives of Southern Mexico Tell Their Stories,” I was expecting a collection of birth stories from Mexican midwives. While there are birth stories, and everyone knows that I love birth stories, this book is so much more than a birth story collection. It is a personal pilgrimage, a preservation of the legacy of midwives, an examination of cultural birth practices, and a sobering first-hand account of the declining culture of traditional midwifery in Mexico. Many people may have the misconception that in Mexico or other South American cultures, midwifery is commonplace and maybe even flourishing. In Touching Bellies, we come to understand that Western medical practices are encroaching at a steady pace and that many midwives are elderly, retiring, and not being replaced. A steady theme runs throughout of women going to midwives for “belly massage,” but going to “modern” facilities to have their babies (unfortunately, they’ve imported some U.S. 1950’s-style practices in terms of birth position, birthing alone with no husbands allowed, and being treated dismissively in labor. This is along with a cesarean rate over 40% and up to 70% much in some cities).

The author, Judy Gabriel, takes multiple trips to Mexico on her quest to document the lives and stories of Mexican midwives (most of whom are age 65 and many of whom do not live to see the end of the book). She photographs the midwives and, with some hurdles with language barriers, listens to their stories–asking about the first birth they attended as well as any births that were problematic for them. She returns to them bearing hearing aids, dresses, and photos of family members from the United States. She travels through rough terrain and to distant villages on her quest to listen and learn from these midwives. I was completely absorbed by Judy’s dedication to her mission and her personal insights and life lessons as she travels and learns.

The “belly massage” practice for which Touching Bellies gains its title was endlessly fascinating to me (and to Judy, the author) with midwives regularly helping position the baby, release tight muscles, and ease aches and pains through a gentle process of abdominal massage and fetal manipulation. This aspect of midwifery care was so pervasive that when Judy would ask in a village where the midwives are, many people would not understand and say that they don’t know what she is talking about. When she asks for the woman who massages the bellies of pregnant women, everyone knows where to tell her to go.

In this quote, a 75-year-old midwife tells the story of helping a woman who is in premature labor. The doctors have tried to stop her contractions without avail and now say she must have a cesarean and the baby will most likely die:

“…The mother-in-law said, ‘This woman knows more than you doctors. You may have gone to the university, but, excuse me, for you doctors it is always puro cuchillo, puro cuchillo [just knives, just knives]. Leave the midwife to work in peace, and you’ll see what can be done without knives.’

So I did my work. I rocked the girl in a rebozo and massaged her belly, moving the baby up. The contractions stopped.

The doctors asked, ‘How did you do that?’

I said, ‘You were standing right there watching. I did it in front of you. I’m not hiding anything. You saw me rock her; you saw me massage her.’

‘Is that all you had to do?” they asked.

I said, ‘Yes, that’s all I had to do. What else would I have to do?’

(The baby survived and was born at full-term six weeks later.)

The dedicated care for women, in touching their bellies, touches their lives. Almost all of the midwives in the book have access to nurturing touch and almost no other resources available and yet almost all of them report never losing a baby or a mother in childbirth.

I absolutely loved reading Touching Bellies, Touching Lives. It is an extremely interesting, thought-provoking, and thoroughly fascinating journey. The information about the gradual decline and near-extinction of midwifery in Mexico is sobering, but the book does end on a hopeful note.

You can read more about the book here as well as see some of the interesting documentary-style photographs of the midwives from the book (one of the points of Judy’s travels was to photograph the midwives and share pictures of their families in the U.S. with them and vice versa). The book itself is available via Amazon.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes.