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The Chocolate Chip Diet

July 2015 086My students often express disbelief that my well-worn, purple “Birth Matters” metal water bottle contains only water. I don’t ever drink anything with caffeine in it and people often marvel at my level of energy and my ability to get things done, while still also getting plenty of sleep every night. While I don’t drink caffeine, I have had a little secret: chocolate chips. For about three years or so, at around 3:00 in the afternoon I start feeling the urge for a little pick-me-up and find myself with my hand in the kitchen cupboard collecting a handful of chocolate chips for a little snack. Not just any chocolate chips either, but delicious, dark chocolate, 60% cacao, bittersweet Ghirardelli chocolate chips. In talking to other mothers of young children, I came to realize that I’m not alone in my chocolate chip habit and that it may be a common, secret way of getting a caffeine boost without drinking coffee or tea. (I also learned that feeling a need for sugar at around 3:00 in the afternoon may be an indicator of adrenal fatigue.)

Additionally, after eating oatmeal for breakfast every day for my entire parenting career, at some point I also learned I could dramatically up-level the awesomeness of my morning oatmeal by adding chocolate chips to it as well. Rather than being solely a bowl of oatmeal, my morning oatmeal became an experience. Homemade vanilla, bittersweet chocolate chips, coconut oil, and pecans really kick it up a notch!

In additional to my chocolate chip habit, here are two other things about me: I’ve never been on a diet and I’ve always been relatively happy with my body. About six weeks ago, I realized that I seemed to be hanging on to 10 extra pounds of pregnancy weight and it was starting to bother me. I started out my pregnancy with Tanner about 10 pounds over where I would have liked to be and I’ve been feeling a little “pudgy” or doughier than I’m used to feeling. I decided that I wasn’t interested in limiting what I eat, but that perhaps, just perhaps, the handfuls of chocolate chips per day could go. I stopped eating them in my oatmeal (switching to just vanilla, cinnamon, and brown sugar) and in the afternoon and…what do you know? Last week I reached my pre-pregnancy weight. That’s right. I went on a chocolate-chip diet and lost ten pounds in a little more than a month! 😉

Okay, so this “diet” could be pure coincidence. I also stopped eating dairy fairly recently because I’ve been struggling with discoid eczema on my arms and legs as well as the scalp psoriasis that I’ve dealt with for 20 years (and that a little voice inside me kept saying would get better if I would stop eating dairy). I’ve also kept up an awesome core yoga practice since the spring equinox that has done a really marvelous job of toning up my “mummy tummy.” Also, Tanner is nine months old now and I usually do hit my pre-pregnancy weight right around nine months. However, the connection between no chocolate chips and the magical disappearance of ten pounds seems like a possibility…

(I also learned how to make these awesome buttermints and make them every week, with lots of cocoa powder in them…)

Wisdom from Moon Time for Red Tents

IMG_3728“At her first bleeding a woman meets her power.
During her bleeding years she practices it.
At menopause she becomes it.”

(Traditional Native American saying)

One of my favorite books to have available on the resource table of our local Red Tent Circle is Moon Time, by Lucy moontime2Pearce. I reviewed it in this post, but didn’t have room for all the juicy quotes I wanted to share! One of the ideas I include in my own Red Tent Resource Kit book is to use womanspirit wisdom quotes to stimulate a discussion in the circle. Here are some quotes from Moon Time that would make great launching points for a sharing circle at the Red Tent:

“It is my guess that no one ever initiated you into the path of womanhood. Instead, just like me, you were left to find out by yourself. Little by little you pieced a working understanding of your body and soul together. But still you have gaps.”

Questions for circle: Were you initiated into the “path of womanhood”? What gaps do you feel?

“You yearn for a greater knowledge of your woman’s body, a comprehensive understanding of who you are, why you are that way. Perhaps you have searched long and hard, seeking advice from your mother, sister, aunts and friends, tired of suffering and struggling alone. You may have visited doctors, healers or therapists, but still you feel at sea and your woman’s body is a mystery to you. Or maybe you have never given your cycles a second thought … until now.”

Questions for circle: What do you feel like you need to know about your body? What mysteries are you uncovering?

“Through knowledge we gain power over our lives. With options we have possibility. With acceptance we find a new freedom.

Menstruation matters.”

Question for circle: How does menstruation matter?

Additional information about why menstruation matters on a physical, emotional, and relational level:

We start bleeding earlier today than ever before, with girls’ first periods occurring at 12.8 years old now, compared with 14.5 years at the beginning of the last century. Coupled with lower breastfeeding rates, better nutrition and fewer pregnancies, women now menstruate more in their adult lives than at any time in our history.

From the age of 12 to 51, unless you are pregnant or on the pill, every single day of your life as a woman is situated somewhere on the menstrual cycle. Whether ovulating or bleeding, struggling with PMS or conception, our bodies, our energy levels, our sense of self, even our abilities are constantly shifting each and every day. And yet nobody talks about it…

via Moon Time: Harness the ever-changing energy of your menstrual cycle

As I noted in my review, one of the things this book was helpful for to me personally, was in acknowledging myself as a cyclical being and that these influences are physical and real: IMG_5194-0

Each month our bodies go through a series of changes, many of which we may be unconscious of. These include: shifts in levels of hormones, vitamins and minerals, vaginal temperature and secretions, the structure of the womb lining and cervix, body weight, water retention, heart rate, breast size and texture, attention span, pain
threshold . . .

The changes are biological. Measurable. They are most definitely not ‘all in your head’ as many would have us believe. This is why it is so crucial to honour these changes by adapting our lives to them as much as possible.

We cannot just will these changes not to happen as they are an integral part of our fertility.

From there, another relevant quote:

“There is little understanding and allowance for the realities of being a cycling woman—let alone celebration.”

Questions for circle: What allowances do you make for yourself as a cycling woman? Are you able to celebrate the experience?

In my own life, I’ve had to reframe my understanding of the impact of the monthly moontime experience by looking IMG_4269at it through the lens of healthy postpartum care following birth—it is crucial that we care for our bodies with love, attention, respect, and time. Our local Red Tent Circle definitely doesn’t focus exclusively on menstruation or on currently menstruating women (all phases of a woman’s lifecycle and her many diverse experiences and feelings are “held” in that circle)–in fact menstruation sometimes barely comes up as a topic—however, one of the core purposes of our circling is in celebration. We gather together each month to celebrate being women in this time and in this place, together. I started out my work with women focused on birth, breastfeeding, and postpartum. While those are formative and central and important life experiences, it became very important to me to broaden my scope to include the totality of women’s lives, not just pregnant women. I want to honor and celebrate our whole lives, not just pregnancy and birth. Having a mother blessing ceremony during pregnancy is beautiful and important and special, but I feel like that care, attention, value, and ceremony can be brought into the rest of our non-pregnant lives The_Red_Tent_Resourc_Cover_for_Kindlethrough gathering together in a Red Tent Circle. This is one reason why I’m so excited to offer an online Red Tent Initiation Program this summer. This program is designed to be both a powerful, personal experience AND a training in facilitating transformative women’s circles.

Back to Moon Time quotes!

“There is no shame in tears. There is a need for anger. Blood will flow. Speak your truth. Follow your intuition. Nurture your body. But above all … Let yourself rest.”

Questions for circle: Do you allow yourself anger and tears? Do you feel shame? How do you speak your truth? How do you give yourself time to rest?

To be clear, I wouldn’t use all these quotes at one Red Tent Circle! I would use them individually at different gatherings. This one blog post has enough potential circle discussion prompts to last for more than six months of Circles! 🙂 This month I also bought a bundle of copies of Moon Time to have available for women at our local Red Tent.

More good discussion quotes here: Talk Books: Cycle to the Moon | Talk Birth.

And, there are others in my Red Tent Resource Kit.

Please consider joining us this summer for the Red Tent Initiation Program!

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Talk Books: Moon Time

moontime2My first reading of the book Moon Time in 2012 had a profound impact on my personal understanding of the natural ebb and flow of my energy in connection to my body’s cyclical nature. The author, Lucy Pearce, explains it so well…

Each month our bodies go through a series of changes, many of
which we may be unconscious of. These include: shifts in levels of
hormones, vitamins and minerals, vaginal temperature and secretions,
the structure of the womb lining and cervix, body weight, water
retention, heart rate, breast size and texture, attention span, pain
threshold . . .

The changes are biological. Measurable. They are most definitely
not ‘all in your head’ as many would have us believe. This is why it is
so crucial to honour these changes by adapting our lives to them as
much as possible.

We cannot just will these changes not to happen as they are an
integral part of our fertility.

Moon Time is written in a friendly, conversational tone and is a quick read with a lot of insight into the texture and tone of our relationships with menstruation.

The book contains information about charting cycles and about our relationship to our bodies and our fertility. I especially enjoyed the excellent section on minimizing PMS through self-care measures and how to plan time to nurture and nourish yourself during your monthly moon time. I also appreciate the section on motherhood and menstruation:

“What strikes me reading through a lot of the material on menstruation is that is seems oddly detached from the fruits of the menstrual cycle: children.”

Moon Time also includes planning information for Red Tents and Moon Lodges and for menarche rituals  as well as for personal ceremonies and self-care rituals at home. It ends with an absolutely phenomenal list of resources—suggested reading and websites.

Towards the beginning of the book Lucy observes, “We live in a culture which demands that we are ‘turned on’ all the time. Always bright and happy. Always available for intercourse–both sexual and otherwise with people. Psychologist Peter Suedfeld observes that  we are all ‘chronically stimulated, socially and physically and we are probably operating at a stimulation level higher than that for which our species evolved.’ It is up to us to value rest and fallow time. We must demand it for ourselves to ensure our health.” She also comments on something I’ve observed in my own life and have previously discussed with my friends, in that the frustration and anger and discontent we may feel pre-menstrually or during menstruation is actually our body’s way of expressing things we have been feeling for a long time, but trying to stifle (rather than hormonal “irrationality): “There is no shame in tears. There is a need for anger. Blood will flow. Speak your truth. Follow your intuition. Nurture your body. But above all … Let yourself rest.”

One of the things that Moon Time helped clarify for me is that my moontime is worthy of careful attention to my physical and emotional well-being, just as careful attention is important during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. I’ve been a devoted proponent for years of good care of yourself during these phases of life, but had not applied the same rationale or expectation for myself during moontime. This monthly experience of being female is an experience worth respecting and is a sacred opportunity to treat my body and my emotions with loving care and self-renewal. I changed the way I treat myself after reading this book! Sound like too much to expect from your life, schedule, and family? Moon Time includes a great reminder with regard to creating retreat space, taking time out for self-care, and creating ritual each month: “Do what you can with what you have, where you are.” You don’t have create something extensive or elaborate or wait for the “perfect time,” but you can still do something with what you have and where you are. (This is a good reminder for many things in life, actually.)

I highly recommend Moon Time as an empowering resource for cycling women! It would also be a great resource for girls who are approaching menarche or for mothers seeking ways to honor their daughters’ entrance into the cycles of a woman’s life. I always have a copy on the resource table at our local Red Tent Circle (related note: I’ve got an online Red Tent Initiation Program beginning next month!)

Disclosure: I received a complimentary e-copy of this book.

Sign up for Lucy’s mailing list

Purchase options:

Amazon.com  moontime2
Amazon.co.uk
Signed copies
Book Review:  Moon Time: Harness the ever-changing energy of your menstrual cycle by Lucy H. Pearce

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Womancraft Publishing; 2 edition (April 22, 2015)
  • ISBN-13: 978-1910559062

http://thehappywomb.com/

Reviewed by Molly Remer, Talk Birth

Talk Books: Cycle to the Moon

c2m3D“Moontime opens up our intuition.
By allowing ourselves to honour this time,
we can eliminate premenstrual tendencies…
Moontime is a sacred passage leading
to a greater awareness of self.”

–Veronika Robinson, Cycle to the Moon (p. 142)

In April, on the evening of our local Red Tent Circle, a package arrived for me from the UK. In it was the beautiful book by Veronika Robinson, Cycle to the Moon, that I won in the Red Tent fundraising auction for Moontimes. March 2015 183

Cycle to the Moon is a quick read and an inspiring one. The line illustrations are beautiful and the combination of journal pages/prompts and text is nice.

Cycle to the Moon also suggests a neat idea of creating a “Red Box” for a pre-teen daughter. Either together with your daughter or on your own for a surprise, collect special items in a box to be given to her upon menarche. It can have jewelry, garnet gemstones, books, cloth pads, tea, and so forth. She makes the potent observations that how we welcome young girls into womanhood, sets the stage for how they will view themselves and their life cycles and transitions for a lifetime:

“As we hold the hands of our young sisters when they cross the menstrual threshold, we would be wise to remember that their experience of this cycle will affect them throughout their childbearing years and into menopause. There’s a red thread which weaves through these major themes of our life. Every moment is connected. Whatever we have learned and integrated benefits not only us, but the culture” (p. 41).

Robinson also writes about the idea how you treat yourself during menstruation as a “mirror of your life”:

“The simple truth is that menstruation is a mirror of your life. If you’re not honouring your body through healthy food choices; ample hydration; rest; playtime; calmly managing stressful events; positive thoughts; creativity and sleep; then it will show up in your menstrual cycle…your hormones will come to call; and they will demand that you rest. You might try and quiet them down with headache tablets or something pharmaceutical for cramps, but they will keep talking to you (even if it takes twenty years), until you get the message. If you don’t honour your body during the menstrual years, you are highly likely to suffer when you reach menopause…

She also makes an interesting distinction between what is “normal” and what is “natural”:

“There is such a wide variance in cycle length these days that doctors consider it normal to bleed any time. It might be normal, but it is not natural. Modern statistics relating to menstruating women are taken from huge cities about women whose lifestyles are not in accord with Nature. Artificial street lighting, pollution, stress, foods coated in chemicals, nutritional deficiencies, are just a few contributing factors in the variance of cycle days.

Our body’s cycle is regulated by the Moon’s light. The pituitary and hypothalamus glands are light sensitive, which is why we disrupt our cycle immensely by sleeping near artificial light, such as street lights, computer, mobile/cell phone or clock-radio lights. In fact, keep all electromagnetic devices well out of your sleeping space. If you intend to be conscious of cycling to the Moon, and ensuring optimal health, then don’t sleep under or next to any artificial light. Instead, keep your room dark, and only open your curtain for the week of the full Moon, thus coming into alignment with it. If you live in the country it will not be necessary to keep out starlight…city girls often begin menstruation earlier than country girls because of street lighting” (p. 142).

There are also a number of great resources at the end of Cycle to the Moon, such as:

Red Wisdom

Red Tent

Red Tent Booklet

What we do in our own local Red Tent Circle varies each month, but we start with introductions using our maternal May 2015 047line and a red thread to represent our connection to the women who came before us and who will go after us, we sing, we have a sharing circle where we “pass the rattle” and talk about our lives and have what we say witnessed and held in safe space. We do a guided meditation and journaling and then a project. In April we had a salt bowl ceremony and then did footbaths and in May we made moon necklaces. We close with a poetry reading and a song. There is tea and a “reflection” table with guidance cards, art supplies, and books to look at. At our May Circle, I shared these two quotes:

“The revolution must have dancing; women know this. The music will light our hearts with fire,
The stories will bathe our dreams in honey and fill our bellies with stars…”

–Nina Simons in We’Moon 2012

“A woman’s best medicine is quite simply herself, the powerful resources of her own deep consciousness, giving her deep awareness of her own physiology as it changes from day to day.”

–Veronica Butler and Melanie Brown

I asked the women to share their revolutions and their medicine. As they spoke, I realized that my “revolution” and my “medicine” were in the planning and facilitation of these Circles, as well as in the online Red Tent Initiation Program I will be offering this summer. I’m so glad I decided to go this direction this year.

May 2015 072

 

 

 

Ceremonial Bath and Sealing Ceremony

IMG_9629At three days postpartum, my mom and my doula, Summer, came over to do a sealing ceremony for me based on what I’d learned during my Sacred Pregnancy and Sacred Postpartum certification trainings. A sealing ceremony is based on the idea of “closing” the birth process. Pregnancy and birth are all about opening. We open up our bodies, minds, spirits, and hearts for our new babies. After birth, the body remains “open” and the idea with sealing the birth experience is to psychologically and physically “close” the body and help the mother integrate her birth experience into the wholeness of who she is. It is part of her “return” to the non-pregnant state and it is transition commonly overlooked by modern culture and sometimes by women themselves. We chose three days postpartum because that is a classic day for the “baby blues” to hit and it seemed like an important day to acknowledge, but it can be done at any point, preferably within the first 40 days. We started with the ceremonial bath. I had a very powerful experience with pre-birth ceremonial bath I did and this postpartum bath experience was very profound as well. My doula ran the bath and added milk and honey and I set up a small altar by the tub. I chose items for the altar that I felt had a connection to the birth altar I set up before birth, but that were now connected to postpartum and mothering another baby. So, I used things that were mother-baby centered primarily, but of course also included the birth goddess sculpture that I held all through my labor as well. Continuity.

IMG_9477IMG_9482 Summer brought me a small glass of strawberry wine and then Mark came in with some rose petals and scattered them in and then left me to rest in my bath. I started my Sacred Pregnancy playlist and the first song to play was the Standing at the Edge song that I’d hummed during labor. Continuity.

IMG_9478It took me a little while to settle into it, but then I did. I reviewed his birth in my mind and sipped my wine. After I finished the wine, I used the glass to pour water over each part of my body as I spoke a blessing of gratitude for each part and what it did for us. I cried a little bit over some parts. I spoke aloud some words of closure about my births and my childbearing years. I felt grateful. I also felt a sense of being restored to wholeness, complete unto myself. As I finally stood to leave the tub…the Standing at the Edge song began to play again.

I’ve written before that I use jewelry to tell my story or to communicate or share something. I wore one of our baby spiral pendants through most of my pregnancy because it helped me feel connected to the baby. I wore it all through labor and birth too. The baby spiral pendant was one of the things I put on the little altar by the tub as a point of continuity between his birth and now. When I got out of the bath, I was going to put the spiral back on, but suddenly it didn’t feel like the one I wanted to wear anymore. I went to my room and there it was–my nursing mama goddess pendant. Putting down the baby spiral and putting on the nursing mama felt like a powerful symbolic indicator of my transition between states.
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I put on the same purple tank top I’d worn in my pregnancy pictures and nursed Tanner. I had a sarong nearby for the “tuck in” part of the ceremony and I put it over my shoulder and asked my mom to take a picture. After we took the pictures, I realized the sarong was also the same one I wore in my pregnancy pictures. Continuity, again!

IMG_9515With Mark then holding the baby, Summer and my mom “tucked” me in using heated up flax seed pillows and some large scarves/sarongs. This tucking in symbolically pulls your body back together after the birth (sometimes called “closing the bones”) and also re-warms the body, which according to Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic understanding, is left in a “cold” state following the birth. I felt a little strange and “shroud-ish” while being tucked up and then especially when they put my mother blessing sheet on top of me and left the room.

IMG_9516 IMG_9519As I laid there though, I reflected that the shroud feeling was not so creepy after all. In fact, it was pretty symbolic itself—the ending of something and the emergence of something, someone, new. I felt a sense of wholeness and integration and coming back into myself. I had a sensation of unity and, yes, of my body coming back together into one piece.

When I felt done, I called them to come back in and Summer put a “belly firming paste” of turmeric, ginger, and coconut oil that I’d made in my class on my belly and then she and my mom wrapped me up in the belly bind I’d bought for this purpose. I don’t have time to write a lot about bellybinding right now, but you can read more about it here. It is anatomically functional, not just symbolic or pretty. When I first learned about it, I was sold on the concept, distinctly remember how weak and hunched over I felt after previous births.

I am again reminded of a quote from Sheila Kitzinger that I use when talking about postpartum: “In any society, the way a woman gives birth and the kind of care given to her and the baby points as sharply as an arrowhead to the key values of the culture.” Another quote I use is an Asian proverb paraphrased in the book Fathers at Birth: “The way a woman cares for herself postpartum determines how long she will live.” Every mother deserves excellent care postpartum, however, the “arrowhead” of American postpartum care does not show us a culture that values mothers, babies, or life transitions. I am fortunate to have had the kind of excellent care that every woman deserves and that few women receive. Part of this was because I actively and consciously worked towards building the kind of care I wanted following birth, but part of it is because I am lucky enough to belong to a “tribe” that does value pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and mothering.

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The Breastfeeding Brain

IMG_9880I have many blog posts building up, but the bulk of my energy is devoted to lactation and newborn-cradling right now and I need to accept that as my current focus! (Or, I should learn how to write very short posts with one hand or even one finger–circumstances not very conducive to sparkling insights or sustained creative flow!). The picture above is of my favorite new nursing mama sculpture. Her deep redness reminds me of seeing thermographic images of lactating women at a La Leche League International conference in 2007. The chests of the women in the slides were brilliant swirls of red, orange, and yellow energy. The thermographic images of non-lactating women were a blue-green color. The speaker was Peter Hartmann, a researcher from Australia, on the topic of “The Anatomy of the Lactating Breast.” It was a keynote luncheon speech, so we all chowed down on our salads and looked at thermographic images of lactating breasts at the same time. It was awesome and I still wonder what the Chicago Hilton staff made of our luncheon “entertainment”! This evening I dug out my notes for the exact numbers and 30% of the mother’s resting energy in the body is diverted towards lactation, while 23% of her resting energy goes to the brain. This demonstrates biologically the intense amount of importance nature places on lactation. It also demonstrates why a nursing mother may feel “fuzzy” or like she can’t think (or write blog posts!) like she used to, because literally, the energy formerly being used by her non-lactating brain is now centralized in her brilliantly colorful chest (baby’s habitat)! Hartmann said that lactating breasts are “on fire” and non-lactating breasts are “cool,” indeed the chest of the lactating mother is of a higher temperature. And, the mother’s chest can adjust by several degrees in response to her baby’s body temperature.

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Re-reading these notes led me to then re-read notes from Nils Bergman, MD’s lunchtime presentation about “Mother-Baby Togetherness: The Biological Needs of the Baby for the Mother” as well. I’ve referenced this presentation before in my article The Birth-Breastfeeding Continuum. This extremely high-energy, enthusiastic, and fast-paced presentation by Bergman remains, to date, one of the most powerful and impactful conference sessions I’ve ever attended about any topic, ever. He was passionate about the concept of the mother as baby’s habitat. Literally, the mother’s chest is the “maternal nest” after birth, providing the baby’s home for at least the next six months after birth. He shared that there are four patterns of mammalian infant care patterns: cache, follow, nest, and carry. Homo Sapiens are a “carry” species. Human milk is very low in protein “which suggests that human newborns should be continuous feeders.” I have long joked that babies nurse at the precise rate of speed of their digestion. Biologically, this turns out to be true!

Bergman cited research from Gallagher that, “through hidden maternal regulators…a mother precisely controls every element of her infant’s physiology from its heart rate to its release of hormones and from its appetite to the intensity of its activity.” Breastfeeding provides ALL of the sensory stimulation a baby needs and is “an invisible hothouse in which the infant’s development can unfold,” with breastfeeding quite literally providing brain wiring for the baby. The brain is a social organ and breastfeeding is about creating love as much as it is about food. And, the mother herself is the baby’s natural environment with everything the baby learns filtered through the mother’s body. Bergman was emphatic that separation from mother feels life-threatening to the baby, because it is in the “wrong place” when it is not with mother. “The universal response to separation (wrong habitat) is protest.” And, a period of intense activity trying to find the habitat and restore the rightful state of being. The Motherbaby is a single psychobiological organism. Bergman also said that the mother doesn’t need to specifically DO anything—“just by being she meets all baby’s biological needs.” And, mother herself has a biological need to hold and care for her baby.

So…this is me right now with Tanner, exactly. His habitat. His place. Where everything is just as it should be.

Pap Smears I Have Known

Mollyblessingway 027

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.