what I wish I'd known about giving birth

Someone asked, "What did no one tell you about birth and postpartum that you learned the hard way?" I replied:

that both can be far simpler and easier than this culture tells us.

that it is not necessary to have an audience or to have anyone touch my body, and that those things can interfere with the normal production hormones that regulate the birth process.

that contractions don't mean birth is imminent, and that it is crucial to rest and sleep as much as possible in early labor.

that labor augmentation (even "natural" methods) can be counterproductive and even dangerous, and that I should have trusted my body to give birth in its own best time.

that directed pushing is also counterproductive, and that if we had been patient my body would have moved the baby out easily and efficiently on its own.

that putting a hat on the baby's head obscures the lovely baby smell that is a chemical part of bonding.

that having my baby taken away from me for even a few minutes after the birth would sever my instinctive connection to him.

that breastfeeding could hurt, that if it does there's something wrong but there so many things that can fix it, that lactation consultants don't always know what they're talking about, that not being able to pump doesn't mean that you're not producing enough milk, and that bras can hinder normal breastfeeding by harboring bacteria that cause infection.

that I didn't need all the "essential" baby products like crib and bassinet, changing table and pad, baby mobile, wipe warmer, diaper container, baby powder, baby nail clippers, butt thermometer, darling (and later to find impractical and uncomfortable) clothing, baby tub, hooded towel, baby shampoo and lotion, pacifiers, playpen...

that keeping the baby with me would help me sleep longer and better and that I should always sleep when the baby sleeps.

that my husband wouldn't just know what I needed from him after the birth.

that resisting holding the baby only makes the baby insecure so that s/he is more clingy and cries more easily.

that I had no duty to let anyone else hold the baby, not even for a minute.

that my hormone levels would drop off sharply after the birth, making me emotionally vulnerable, and that having visitors under these conditions would make me feel weird and emotionally out of control.

that I didn't have to have visitors.

sleeping with the baby

Eight years ago I was a newlywed visiting my husband's grandmother. She was working through her many years of accumulation and encouraged us to go through her books and let her know if there was anything we wanted. Her library seemed to consist mainly of old musty coffee table books from the 1950s and '60s, so I didn't take her offer very seriously. She was sure though that there was something I must need, and as I was leaving she insisted I take a book she chose for me. It was Carl Larsson's Home, a book of photographs of the interior of a Swedish artist's home. I wasn't initially impressed as I flipped through, but I thanked her and accepted to be polite. I still can't imagine why it was that she thought I would like this book in particular, as she didn't know anything about me at the time other than that I was (probably) to be the mother of her grandson's children.

The book sat on my shelf for a very long time. It seemed like the sort of thing I ought to like, as I am generally interested in architecture and interior design and arts and crafts, so once in a while I'd take it down and look through it. I did this again and again with a kind of irrational hopefulness, like when you keep looking in the refrigerator for something good to eat even though the last time you looked there was nothing there.

One of these times I noticed something odd that had escaped my attention before: while Carl had his own bedroom, his wife Karin (a textile artist) slept in the nursery with the children.

This struck me as strange and unfair. I had never heard of parents and children sharing sleeping quarters and it didn't occur to me that there might be a practical reason for doing so, much less that they might find it emotionally satisfying. I assumed that she slept with the children simply because there were only two bedrooms and the man of the house claimed the right to have one all to himself, leaving her no choice but to share a bedroom with the children. Or perhaps there were more bedrooms, but that the nursery was regarded as her place (as in, "putting her in her place.")

When I had my first child, we dutifully set up a bassinet and crib, as all parents in this culture are told is right and correct, and though the baby didn't like either I kept trying to get him to sleep in them. Eventually I realized it was easier to keep him asleep if I didn't have to transfer him from my soft, rounded, warm body to a cold flat surface, so we exchanged the crib for a twin-sized mattress where I would nurse him to sleep then carefully roll away and go to sleep with my husband. Who I didn't actually care that much to sleep with as I'm a light sleeper and he snored. Yet there was this idea in my mind that it was the baby that was the burden.

When I became pregnant with my second child I began to hear some stories from other mothers. This was the dawn of the internet for mass consumption; for me this meant access to voices I hadn't had previously. At first I looked for support and information, but soon found myself fascinated by the extreme radicalism (as it seemed to me then) of some of the practices I was coming across. One term that came up over and over again was "attachment parenting", based in the idea that babies are wired to gain the most optimal physical, neurological, emotional, and social development via early physical contact with the mother. It involved staying as near to the baby as necessary to satisfy its needs, and the claim was that mother and baby would both be happier together than apart, and that the mother would get more sleep as she wouldn't have to get out of bed and fully wake to tend to the baby.

True, I was tired of having to get out of my warm bed at 2:00 in the morning and not be able to go back to sleep until the baby was asleep. So when my second was born, I didn't put him away. I kept him with me and slept in a recliner with him in my arms. And by the time I was ready to move to the bed we were so much a natural unit that I could not imagine putting him anywhere else.

It took a little time getting used to nursing in a prone position, positioning myself in a way to both accommodate the baby and stay comfortable myself, but once I figured it out it was vastly preferable to what I had been doing before. It was a lot like learning to ride a bike -- there's an understanding, a knowing, that your muscles have to have for it to be easy, and once you've got it you can't imagine not knowing how.

A very common question is, "aren't you afraid you'll roll over on the baby?" No. There is a mechanism in the brain that paralyzes the body in deep sleep, and in lighter sleep there is a body awareness that keeps you from lying too long in the same position or from rolling off the bed... and from rolling onto the baby. Mother are especially wired to be aware of their babies in relation to their own bodies.

Infant mortality is higher in "co-sleeping". But these rates include mothers who sleep with their babies while intoxicated, and who sleep where a baby can become wedged in a tight space and not be able to turn its head for air. There is no differentiation made; it's all lumped in together. No one knows the real incidence of mortality in various types of sleeping arrangements. However we do know that physiologically babies do better when their sleep patterns are regulated by their mothers', and when their mothers are close enough to be able to sense unusual changes in breathing, and therefore able to do something about it. Science and common sense are not in opposition to the baby being with the mother.

A less serious objection concerns supposed disadvantages to mother-baby attachment and is in two parts: "The child will not be able to sleep alone when s/he needs to, if s/he gets used to sleeping with a parent" and "Parents need time alone with each other, and the nighttime specifically should be devoted to that." Both are examples of things that people believe because they want to believe them, not because they are true.

First: Children and adults are different things. When I was a child I wanted a lot of close physical contact with my mother; I don't anymore. She didn't have to push me away for that change to occur in me; natural human development took care of that. In other words, I grew up. I've seen it happen in my own children: I hug them and hold them and sing them to sleep. I brush their teeth and comb their hair and hold their hands when we cross the street. I console them when they're scared or hurt. I watch out for them and protect them in all kinds of ways. And then, one day (though not all at once, of course it happens gradually) they do not need these things from me anymore. They can, and want to, do them by themselves. Forcing it on them earlier than they're ready for might stunt their independence; but allowing them to move into it when they're actually ready, allows for a foundation upon which to build something strong. 

And frankly, I trust the child. I trust what nature has done with her and every child before her. Her instinct is to be as close to me as possible. She won't always feel that; it will naturally fade as she grows. It is only by the fulfillment of the needs specific to a developmental stage that one is able to move beyond it to the next. Anybody who really believes that a baby will always have a child's needs unless you force them out of them has a serious lack of understanding of how humans progress developmentally.

Second, there are countless ways in which lovers can connect with each other.




I have four children now, and they all sleep with me -- the baby and four-year-old in bed with me, the six- and eight-year-olds in their own beds in the same room. Bedtime battles are nonexistent at our house. They have no reason to resist going to sleep when they're tired because they get what they want, which is to sleep near those they love and the security that comes with that.

It's come to be what I want too. I don't mean just because I believe that it's a good parenting practice, but because it feels good. This is because the more intimate physical contact you have with people you love, the more you produce oxtyocin, and the more you produce it, the more receptive you become to it. Oxytocin is known as "the love hormone"; in addition to being instrumental in the processes of sexual arousal, birth, and lactation, it induces maternal behavior and attachment and is associated with reduced physiological and psychological stress. And that can't be anything but good for my relationship with my children.

The book of photographs of Carl Larsson's home has a permanent place on my bookshelf now, as a reminder to me that there was a time when I could read about a mother keeping her children near her in the night and not understand, and as such, in comparison to what has since been revealed to me, a reminder also of the transforming power of the biological process of becoming a mother.

learning to read

Jake is having so much fun with learning to read and write. I am really thrilled about this, especially so because he's clearly ready for it now, wasn't before, and I feel proud for having trusted him (against popular opinion) to come to it in his own way and in his own time.

He has no idea that he is what is regarded as a "late" reader. There is no shame or feeling of anxiety in him about not being where he's "supposed" to be. I'm (rather smugly) inclined to believe that patience on our part has meant bypassing the frustration, resistance, insecurities, and labels that plague children who are not ready to learn but are pressured to anyway, just because some authoritative institution says it's time. I don't think it's coincidental in the least that he has such a positive attitude about it, and that it is coming together so easily.

"Work is love made visible."

From Seven Times the Sun, by Shea Darian:

Years ago my mother told me she would have been eternally satisfied being a homemaker and parent. She said her years at home, raising children, were deeply rewarding. When I heard this, I puzzled at the thought of anyone (especially my mother, the gifted woman) envisioning the rewards of her life in such simple terms. Now I know better, as I meet the daily demands of parenthood.

Chop wood. Carry water. Wash dishes. Sweep floors. Bake bread. Wipe noses. Mow grass. Pick up toys. Fold clothes. Small gestures of usefullness. Small gestures. Small. As I wash dishes, I look at my hands and smile at how much they are becoming replicas of my mother's. I see her ironing freshly laundered clothes, slicing bread from the oven, tying the laces of my shoes. Her hands moved from task to task, as if they were opening intimately to the mystery of the ordinary.

[...]

These days as I watch my hands opening more intimately to such small endeavors, I think of my mother hundreds of miles away, and I whisper, "No greater gift could you bestow." Chop wood. Carry water. "Work is love made visible."[*] Our children will see it and sense it through the joy and meaning we find in our daily tasks. And they will be nurtured through these small gestures of compassion... for the way we come to small things shows our reverence for all things.


*Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste,
it is better that you should leave your work
and sit at the gate of the temple
and take alms of those who work with joy."

--Kahlil Gibran
"What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are Real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

“The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

reasons not to quiz

1. It is disingenuous. It is defended as "just having fun" when the real reason for it is to ferret out where the child is "lacking".

2. It is not only disrespectful to the parents (as it implies that they are not doing their job) but even worse,

3. it makes the child anxious and makes them second-guess themselves and their abilities, leading to insecurity: Can I measure up in this person's estimation? And, if the child doesn't know the answer, I don't know what I'm supposed to know and ultimately, I guess I'm not very smart.

4. It is always taken for granted that the quizzer is a rightful authority to which the child has the duty to respond. (I have seen adults insist-- even to the point of getting agitated about it -- that the child comply.)

5. The adult doing the quizzing takes a perverse pleasure in showing up the child's ignorance, feeling big because they know something the child doesn't, and improving the child by teaching them something. Ah, how satisfying to be the savior!

6. It is akin to drilling in which the end result matters more than the process, which is antithetical to the brain learning to function creatively and critically.

Related is my annoyance with adults always having to show children how to do something the "right" way. The children can't possibly be allowed to enjoy exploring the thing themselves, and they can't possibly really learn that way, so they must be directed and guided right from the beginning. This is, of course, the whole idea behind schooling, that you will only benefit from me having my hand in your learning process and will be lost if I don't.

When J was little he was a whiz at doing puzzles. He was fast and confident and enjoyed it immensely. It was a beautiful thing to see him feeling it out, and knowing that as he approached it fresh, from scratch, his brain was developing a deep understanding of the connections between things.

Then someone came in and said, "Wait, look here, here's a better way to do it. You look for like kinds of pieces first and put them all in separate piles. Find the corners first, then fill in the edges..." and proceeded to watch over and correct him if he diverged from taking those exact steps. In an attempt to please and do it "right", he had to essentially divorce himself from his intuitive process and focus on the rules. He slowed down. He lost confidence. It wasn't fun any more. And then he gave up, discouraged and disgusted.

I can't tell you how sick I felt about allowing this to happen, and have tried since then to be on guard to minimize opportunities for it to happen again. And it's a good part of the reason I don't want to send my kids away to be taught by others where this sort of thing would happen every day, all day long.

overheard

J: What's his name?

N: Hallah.

J: Well, go ahead and live in Powerworld. First I have to round up a hundred people. I'm going to stay here until I've finished...

J: You have to enter the correct passcode to get in the travel ship.

J: Name?

N: I entered the code.

J: (talking to handset) Everyone in the city, whoever wants to go to Powerworld...

N: I already entered the password!

J: If you want to enter Powerworld forever, go outside and stand still for five minutes. It will take five minutes to download the process. (N runs outside.)

J: There the rest of the world... mumble mumble... (Loud) Everyone! it will take a new twenty minutes! I will send...

(they run outside.)

(faint snippets heard from a distance:) Help me! Help me!.... the earthquake! brother! they are trying to get you! watch out, they're coming to get your blood! yeacchh! oh yeah? oh yeah? URRRGH! around me! hold it! right... I said hold it! ohhhh... ching! ... every single move... brothers, they're trying to... stop! power... AHHHHHHH! chhkkk shhhu stop! ahhhhhh! ... we didn't even come back again! they're in here! guys! this is where the... I didn't tell you! HAGH! ... you'll live... I'll find another shield... dig everywhere... to find the magic... here's one! ... YAY! schhhhh ...

(they come back in)

J: Yeah, they're kids, just the same age as you. They're still your mom and dad. That's the weird thing.

N: Hm. Let's go.

J: Oh, one more thing. If you want you can travel for fifty miles all the way to another one, because I need cyber shield blades and...

N:... science battle. And what about staffs?

J: Staffs! YES!

N: What about Wonderland?

J: That is way too powerful. We need a hundred things... I can do it. Hey you know, the best place to be in Powerworld would be the national staff room, it's only a hundred miles away from here if you head south.

N: I have a traveler.

J: Nope, it won't work. It only works if you want to get out of our dimension.

(they run off again)

the change that comes with motherhood


I went from filling my time with constant doing, a consumption— of time, activities, ideas— to being able to be with the vast silence of the interior stillness.
-- Brenda Clews, Mother of Milk


There is much here that speaks for me and to me.

the value in science fiction and fantasy

Untitled

A friend a while back was saying that she couldn't understand my attraction to science fiction and fantasy.

Well, the other day I was recalling some of my favorite stories and why it was that I liked those better than others, and I realized that science fiction and fantasy, by virtue of being imaginary worlds, make possible deeper analogies than our limited real world can provide; and are unlimited in their ability to create social and philosophical conventions other than what we're used to, and by doing so are an almost effortless way (for the reader anyway) to go beyond those usual conventions so that we can gain perspective on them.

A few examples of stories that do this: Dune, Frank Herbert; House of Bones, Robert Silverberg; Rangriver Fell, Paul Park; Solitude, Ursula K. Le Guin; Contact, Carl Sagan; Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card; The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis; Souls, Joanna Russ.

the good of being sick

Yesterday I was pretty sure that I was seriously ill, maybe with cancer or kidney disease, or maybe even meningitis. I kept thinking of this woman I read about in the paper last year who had what she thought was a simple headache and she died days later of meningitis. I certainly felt like I could die.

My whole body ached, I had fever and chills, ringing in my ears, and a debilitating headache. All I could do was lie in a dark room with a cold wet cloth over my forehead and the rest of my body covered by mounds of blankets, waiting desperately for sleep to give me some relief. I also, to my horror and dismay, found a large lump in my hot and painful breast. Cancer for sure. Maybe cancer and meningitis.

Turns out I had mastitis. Unpleasant and inconvenient to say the least, but not normally life-threatening.

Well, I wouldn't wish that on anyone, least of all myself. Nonetheless a very nice thing can happen when one is sick -- the midwife who attended Noah's birth pointed this out to me once when we were talking about the almost obsessive desire to avoid all illness and pain in our lives -- and that is that someone gets to take care of someone, and someone gets to be cared for. To have someone lie down with you and hold you gently, to have them put their hand on your head, to have them sweetly assure you, "you'll be better tomorrow, I promise." How much someone loves you is evident in how they care for you when you are sick. And I don't think anyone, being given that, would not be thankful to be reminded.
Last night when we got home it was nearly dark and there was one bright star in the sky. When I went back outside to pick some honeysuckle, Noah came along and asked me to help him wish upon a star, so I said the words and he repeated after me:

Star light, star bright,
the first star I see tonight.
I wish I may, I wish I might
have the wish I wish tonight.

What did he wish for? His brother's broken game controller to be fixed. Sweet, sweet boy. For the past few days he'd been telling me that he was going to give a present to Jake: he was going to fix his controller. I hardly paid attention, since I knew that he couldn't do it. What I didn't know was that his plan was to wait for a star to wish on.

This morning first thing he raced upstairs to the playroom, then came back down looking miserable and bitter. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, barely holding back tears, that his wish hadn't come true. Oh no, I thought. I should have foreseen this. Of course he would take it literally. Of course he would really believe it. He's six years old.

He was inconsolable and wouldn't come to me. And what could I say that would make it better anyway? I sat next to him and told him the truth, that magic to alter material things doesn't exist, but that he could wish for something that we could help make come true.

The poem is really a prayer of intention to ourselves, not an incantation. Maybe, just maybe, the universe is listening too. I don't know. But tonight I want to remember to let him know this, then go outside to look for another star and make a wish together.
Yesterday was one of those perfect beautiful days. We were at the fountains on the waterfront, the sun was warm, almost hot, but there was a cool breeze to offset it. I was watching people behind my sunglasses (a good way of keeping oneself from lapsing into mind-numbing boredom while the kids play) and my attention came to rest on one particular woman.

I think this was at first because she was my type -- meaning that she looked like me -- white skin, pink cheeks, small lips, roman nose, long brown hair, graceful hands and feet, and wide fleshy thighs and arms. It's always interesting to me when I see people who share my physical characteristics; to imagine us having come from a genetically homogeneous tribe. Illusory -- after all, she could be as different from me as one could possibly be, but still compelling.

So, I was watching her. When her young son bounded up to her, her face came alive. She put her hands out to him, touching him. They spoke a few words to each other, and then he went back to play. It was such an ordinary thing, but I was transfixed. I noticed how casually she sprawled on the park bench, her sunburned arm lying along the back of it, her legs spread apart, totally relaxed. I glanced quickly around at the other parents, suddenly aware now of the messages their bodies were sending: "I am uncomfortable, people are watching, I think this outfit makes me look fat, I don't really want to be here doing this, I am distracted, I am not really here, I have other concerns. I know I am supposed to have leisure time, but I am an adult, and adults are serious."

And back to the woman. A feeling came over me -- I would call it happiness, but it was more complex than that -- of being outside of human affairs but inside the day. It felt viscerally exactly as it had when I was a child. It came to me very suddenly, this different world. And I fell quiet and still, as if it could evaporate at any moment if I wasn't careful, leaving me back in the plain, dull, tense world I'd just been in.

The bright blue sky, the dappled light of moving leaves in the trees, now so sweet and so clear and fresh and fine. Self-consciousness left me, and I hummed a song to the baby, who laid her warm head against me. People heard me and I thought, strangely, good for them. I had mostly forgotten the woman now, she was still there, still lovely, but as magic emerged around me, her magic melted into it, rather than standing out amongst dullness as before.

The kids splashed in the water, soaking wet, clothes dripping and hanging from them, jubilant, unconcerned. Water splashing, flowing, laughing, moving cold whirling bumping rainbow sun sky cement warm smell mother baby.

...


Some substances help us to access parts of that place, albeit with a drugged feeling. It's much better -- experientially -- to be there without the drugged feeling, which can be distracting, uncomfortable, isolating, exhausting, and labeled shameful. Another drawback with chemically inducing a natural state is the possibility of becoming dependent on it to reach that state. Yet doing so can help us remember that the state exists at all, so that when we get a chance to enter it naturally we recognize it and allow it to be, undisturbed.

The interesting thing is that the "responsible" among us intentionally try to avoid it. Despite the licentiousness of our culture, there is still a strong puritanical ethic informing it -- the feeling that pleasure is essentially just not good for us, aside from in a few culturally sanctioned and ritualized (controlled) ways, or private, or secret, and often unhealthy. Young children are not generally welcome out in society and so disapproved of when they are; they are not yet very conscious of this ethic, and don't seem capable of abiding by it even when we expect if of them. They make noise, they move too much, they are having too much fun. People purse their lips, brows furrowed, bodies stiffened. Seeing that kind of pleasure in being alive brings up feelings of discomfort, conditioned over time to be an automatic response.

Sad thoughts like that aside, today is promising to be as beautiful a day as yesterday. I can smell the sun warming the soil and the kids are asking if we can go to the fountain.
Noah gets thoughtful when he's tired. "Why are people here?" he asked.

After a pause I said, "I don't know, what do you think?"

"To take care of the earth," he said.

While I was pondering that he asked, "Why does the world have criminals in it?" [pause as I tried to think of what I could possibly say to explain this to a six-year-old] Then he told me in a sleepy whisper, "Criminals try and make the world die, by giving it a poisonous sickness."

Then, "Linda? Will you please get off the computer so we can go to bed?"

Yes, sweetie, that's a good idea. Good night. Sweet dreams.