Thursday, February 11, 2016

One Hundred Thousand Contractions and Counting

Sitting in the still, quiet spaces between contractions one night while attending a birth, I did a rough calculation of how many labour contractions I have witnessed in my career as a doula.  A modest estimate is well over 100,000.

Some people prefer to use different words for this wave of powerful energy through the pregnant body.  I have heard "surges", "rushes", and "expansions".  Personally, I enjoy "contraction".  The uterus squeezes hard for its door, the cervix, to open.  The baby is strongly embraced and moved downwards by its power.  Instead of the more masculine "hero's journey" of forging outwards to find our holy grail, birth givers are drawn progressively more inwards with their strengthening contractions, guided instinctively towards their deepest coping resources.

For me, "contraction" is a good word.  As a seed is nestled in the sheltering Earth and a loved one is squeezed tightly in a welcoming hug, a contraction is an embrace leading to powerful opening.

Contractions are the steps on the journey towards delivering a baby.  Everyone has had them at some point in pregnancy, felt or not, so those who have planned Caesarean births have participated with them too. Each contraction is its own unique entity, though they flow in sequence towards their inexorable conclusion.  I liken them to a stone pathway, Each individual stone has its own shape, texture, and story although they are similar in nature and arranged in patterns ranging from the measured to the haphazard.

I have been listening to the stories taking shape within and between contractions for many years.  They are rich and varied.  Though the imprints of some last longer than others in any given labour, they always pass, being finite in number. Every single contraction wave which emerges from the oceanic tide of labour concludes on its shore, closing the gap between the states of "pregnant" and "postpartum".

Some contractions speak of a change in the nature of labour, keening at the peak, gutteral at the end, heralding a firm descent of Baby into Birth Canal.  Others are a whisper, speaking of a dance of the greatest concentration.  Some suddenly reveal to the naked light a memory of childhood not previously known.  Some trigger the grief of loss.  There are the occasional ones which can generate actual orgasms, much to everyone's delight. There are yet others which create a temporary desire for oblivion.

I have known contractions to heal patterns of self-limiting belief, changing the birth giver indelibly.  I have witnessed others create beliefs of failure and regret.  Some contractions imprint the story of trauma, others the ecstasy of triumph.  The very last contraction is often accompanied by a shout of such intense ferocity that any self-respecting predator within miles would think several times before sniffing around the birthing space.

Every contraction lends its imprint to the totality of a birth experience.  I meet every one of the stories with welcome, honouring their place in a developing labour, supporting the birth givers on their terms in this crazy dance of bringing forth a being of flesh from their own depths.

If the power of birth were to be seen as pure, white light and the birth giver/baby unit as a prism, each experience, while still light,  is absolutely unique in its appearance. Birth's expression through each prism creates a magnificent kaleidoscope of perceptions, sensations and feelings, no one birth the same as another.  Some birth stories are joyful.  Others are not. They are each a sacred unfolding of a new person Earthside, therefore inherently precious, and inherently worthy.

I am a doula, free from the tasks of being clinically vigilant and medically responsible at births. Simply witnessing one hundred thousand contractions has taught me more about the nature of birth than almost any other resource I've drawn upon for learning.  I am grateful for the teaching of each and every one of them.

I am a doula.  Imprinted by 100,000 contractions, I am rich in story.


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

I Can't Stand Being Pregnant...and that's ok.

The message many women receive upon sharing the news of their pregnancies can sound a little like, "Congratulations! You are now a sacred vessel of life",  as if a pregnancy somehow legitimizes their existence.

I believe the intention behind the "sacred vessel" type comment is well meaning, but the message can exert pressure upon women to match this "beatific" state with beatific responses towards the hurdles on the journey.

Many women enjoy their pregnancies, feeling beautiful and powerful. Sure, most experience some of the uncomfortable effects, but are ultimately happy.  Others for one reason or another simply can't stand being pregnant. And that is OK!  

I have been in the birth support business for a long time. I have had many mothers-to-be, truly suffering with their pregnancies (physically and/or emotionally), cry on my shoulder about comments they've received like, "Others have been trying to get pregnant for years and can't.  You should be happy," or "Your negative feelings are bad for your baby."  Essentially the suffering woman hears, "You aren't grateful enough.  Stop crying.  Get over it."  

Though for the most part my pregnancies were fantastic, the nausea in the early months for me were intolerable.  I had unmedicated births no problem, but had there been some kind of early-pregnancy anti-sickness epidural, I'd have been the first in line for it.  Many of my friends responded to my nauseated whimpers with patient comments like, "The nausea is a good sign.  It will pass," Though I knew they meant to be helpful, I didn't feel heard. Instead I felt isolated and annoying.  

As a birth doula, I was keenly aware others had it worse than I.  
The “Lucky you, your pregnancy is healthy!” message served to deepen my feelings of shame around having a hard time coping with simple nausea.  We need to realize that when a pregnant woman expresses displeasure, it doesn’t means she would trade in an uncomfortable symptom for a less healthy baby. The "Stop whining, you're a sacred vessel" message fails to honour this fact: not only outcomes, but experiences are deeply important to mothers.  Experiences are woven into the tapestries of our motherhood, shaping who we are.  

Voicing something that hurts isn’t a cry of “I’m ungrateful!”  It is often a cry to be heard.  Not fixed.  Not judged.  Just heard.  Within this listening space lies an opportunity for knots in the tapestry to be unravelled and examined, helping us to reweave our patterns of experience with more richness and beauty.

Most childbirth books don't contain a chapter called "When Pregnancy Sucks Just Because".  Someone doesn’t have to be crippled by pain or wrapped around a bowl of upchucked Diclectin pills for nine months to experience suffering (though bless you if you are). Some women are inexplicably miserable while pregnant. Is this the mark of an unworthy "sacred vessel"? Absolutely not.

Litanies of woe can get tiresome for listeners, it’s true. But what if we were to give someone the benefit of the doubt? What if they really are having a hard time and not just whining? What if we stopped letting the complaints we hear go in one ear and out the other and we tuned in with a commitment to empathy?

One day many years ago I was supporting a birth with one of my apprentices.  I was pregnant with my fourth child and green with nausea. I wanted to crawl under a rock. My apprentice touched my shoulder, looked deeply into my eyes with concern and asked, "Are you okay?"  My eyes filled with tears at her tenderness. Our client's labour was still in its early phase, so without a word she took me by the hand and sat me in the comfiest chair in the waiting room.  She wrapped me up gently and securely with her shawl, which smelled of lavender.  She rubbed my feet and spoon fed me some mashed potatoes. I felt nurtured to my very core. She said, "I've got this birth.  Don't worry.  Rest."  Not once did she remind me that the labouring woman we were caring for was likely far more uncomfortable.

After a good cry, a nap, and more mashed potatoes, I got up and we saw a lovely baby into the world together.  My student taught me much that day. Receiving love and compassion with no questions asked or expectations demanded was a great healing.  Without words being exchanged, I knew I had been absolutely heard. Something shifted in my pregnancy that day.  What she gave me remains a beautiful thread that shines brilliantly from the tapestry of my pregnancy experience.

Pregnancy can suck sometimes.  Receiving loving kindness won't necessarily make it not suck, but when we feel heard and understood, a battle of tension within dissolves, and we can relax into the truth of the experience with more strength.  

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Jewish transgender man gives birth and embraces life as a single ‘abba’

Jewish transgender man gives birth and embraces life as a single ‘abba’: (JTA) — When Rafi Daugherty went to the hospital for the birth of his first child, he posted a sign on the delivery room door. “I am a single transgender man having my first baby,” it read. “I use he/him/his pronouns and will be called ‘Abba’ (Hebrew for father) by the baby. Papa, Dad, Daddy,...

Friday, January 1, 2016

5 Realistic Parenting Resolutions

I have made more New Year's resolutions about parenting than I can count. Many of them sounded desperate, like "I want to not yell at my kids anymore when I'm upset." The majority of resolutions I've made have fallen to the wayside.  I'm sure you can relate.

I am a mother of four kids ranging from 10 to 23. I know well the struggle of clinging to the hope that I'm a good enough parent.  

I am continually learning about and developing my powers of goal achieving as a mom, a parent support professional, and a cancer survivor who maintains a thriving level of wellness.  It is my sincere New Year's hope that you can feel as amazing about yourself as a parent as I know you want to.

The problem with resolutions:

Only a very small percentage of New Year's Resolutions get followed through.  There are the initial good intentions, the excitement of sticking to your plans for a few days or weeks, and then the inevitable distractions that take over.  You fall off the Resolution Wagon and add "Failure to Stick to Anything" to your ever growing list of "Things to Beat Yourself Up Over", feeling worse than when you started out.


This is your year to succeed, Fellow Parents!  Why?  Because this tip to goal achieving will deeply nourish your resolutions.  Before even setting your parenting intentions for the New Year, keep this crucial principle in mind to become the parenting rock star you want to be:


When you watch a scary movie, your heart pounds, your palms sweat and you hide behind pillows until someone tells you it's okay to look again.  Why? While your rational mind knows the film isn’t real,  your unconscious mind doesn't! Jittery feeling adrenaline is released by your body in response to a perceived real threat of zombies, resulting in the experience of fear.  See it, feel it, be it.

For your goals to begin to manifest as realities in your life, your unconscious mind (like an unruly child) needs to receive strong direction from your rational mind (firm parent).  Neural pathways that connect the parts need to be created.  The connections prime your whole system to be aligned with your desire for parenting success.  

What needs to fuel this direction from your rational mind is INSPIRATION.  Real inspiration doesn't come from the part of your mind that might believe a Porsche is your key to satisfaction and power (though as a by-product of an abundant life, a Porsche is perfectly fine). Inspiration is received from your HIGHER unconscious (and from where beyond that is the Great Mystery).  This is the part of you that is moved beyond words by music, gobsmacked by the beauty of a sunset, and able to experience an inexplicable sense of Grace even in times of grief.  The underlying theme of the higher unconscious (which, if we have the unruly child mind and the firm parent mind, is the wise elder mind), is guessed it, Love.

Nothing sabotages your goals more than the inner critics and unhealed parts of you, remnants of past experiences and conditioning, which live in your unconscious with the belief they haven't been invited to participate in love.  You can say to yourself, "I will be a good parent" all you want, and it's about as effective as herding cats if you're not programming your brain to forge new pathways of healing connection.  

Training the different parts of your consciousness to work cooperatively takes practice and love; love for what your goal seeks to achieve, love for whom your goal serves, and love for the goal setter (you).

Back to our formula:

SEE IT:  State your intentions as if they are already done.  Not, "I want to be a great parent," but "I AM a great parent."  What do you see yourself doing as a great parent?  What does a great parenting moment look like to you?  Your imagination is a powerful gift.  If this goal is in alignment with your nature and speaks to your heart, imagining it frequently will help you achieve your goal.  In your imagination, you already are the best parent ever.  Take time to “live” there.  If you can’t actually see something in your mind’s eye, you can get a sense of it in another way.  We can all imagine, either visually or more subtly.

FEEL IT: Take a moment to feel that statement fully in your body as you “see” it.  What does knowing you're a great parent FEEL like?    Feel the joy and sense of freedom from guilt and anxiety that our perception of ourselves as "not good enough" parents often fills us with.  Good, right?  The breath flows more deeply and you stand a little taller.

Feeling into an image of yourself as a great parent nourishes that unconscious mind which tends to pounce upon feelings hungrily, fuelling your perception of the world.  If the feelings behind the resolutions you make are continually negative, they will speak more loudly to your unconscious than the positive sounding words. Spend time feeling good!  You are really gearing up towards reaching those goals.

Don't believe it yet?  Keep at it.  Keep seeing, keep feeling, and know that repetition is key.

BE IT: While you may still believe you have a lot of parenting kinks to work out, your unconscious mind is meanwhile receiving the messages of those consistent wonderful feelings of freedom and joy inspired by your higher unconscious, and directed by the part of you that is choosing to transform. The magic?  As you repeat your intentions to yourself daily WITH SEEING AND FEELING, your responses to sticky parenting situations will gradually begin to change in ways that reflect this blossoming belief that you ARE a great parent!

Exercise: Every day, speak your parenting resolutions to yourself with seeing and feeling five times each.  Take your time. See it.  Feel it.  Be it.  Make this a daily committed practice, and you will begin to feel fantastic about yourself as a parent.  You will even spontaneously being to develop specific goals for each resolution. You know those moments your heart swells when you see your kids proud of themselves?  Let yourself feel that way about you. You will never be perfect.  Let perfection go.  But your children will notice you feeling good about yourself, and that in and of itself is healing.

So, here are are the five resolutions I want to share with you.  May they transform your parenting from the inside out, and prove to you what I already know: You are amazing!

1)  I AM a loving parent.  Even if you feel like you mess up sometimes, if this message is embedded deeply within your cells, you will see that most of what you do comes from love, even if some of the unconscious lenses your love filters through aren’t yet “polished”.  Having compassion for yourself teaches your children to be more compassionate.

2) I AM a grateful parent.  Sometimes you feel so bad about something you've done as a parent, you get the sense your kids would be better off it they had picked another parent.  I am blessed to have learned an important lesson in my life:  I was once a very sick parent.  I was a dying parent.  No matter how much I may screw up, my kids are emphatically not better off without me.  I am here, and as imperfect as I am, I am so grateful to be the parent I am with the love resources I have.

3) I AM an effective parent.  With this message nourishing your system, those moments you feel like your children are unprofessional little monsters who won't get into their jammies, you will gain perspective.  Instead of reacting in frustration, you will start to take moments to think about what would be the most effective (and least damaging) way of dealing with the situation.  You will feel more skillful, and that feels good!

4) I AM an understanding parent.  We are always asking our kids, "Do you understand what I'm trying to tell you?"  It is amazing to see what happens when you first seek to understand.  Intending deeper levels of understanding of your children will begin to give you insight into what motivates some of their more rankling behaviours. At the end of the day, we all want to feel understood.  Actively seeking to understand your kids will help them develop their skills in understanding themselves, you, and others.

5) I AM a parent who puts on their oxygen mask first.  Like they tell you on a plane before take-off, in the event of an emergency, you must put on your own oxygen mask first before tending to others.  You MUST take care of yourself.  If you saw your best friend ragged, exhausted, giving everything to her children at the expense of her own dreams and well being, wouldn't you be concerned?  Be concerned for yourself.  Take tender care of your beloved children's parent. This will not breed selfish kids.  This will teach your children how to value and nourish themselves as radiant vessels of joyful, balanced service to the world.  

We at MotherWit Doula Care Wish you a Wildly Happy New Year, Dear Parents.  May this be your best year ever!

Love and Blessings,

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

4 Keys to Night Time Survival for New Parents

In parenting as in life, everything is about perspective. It is our outlook combined with basic biological factors which make the soundtrack of our lives, helping us transition through the common adjustments the postpartum period requires.

Becoming a parent is perhaps one of the biggest shifts in life, one that requires major adaptation. Not only do we adjust physically as mothers to allow room for another human being to grow and develop inside us, but we prepare psychologically to become parents. We seek out education, and look to our families, friends and acquaintances for guidance and example. But truly nothing can prepare us for the reality of early parenthood. Even the comprehensive and detailed courses that bring us information that is vital to new parenthood seem millennia away!

Awake late in the night, holding your fresh baby, much of what you learned seems out of reach. Being at home with that new little being can be overwhelming for new parents. There is so much to know and we feel often inadequate and afraid that one simple decision is the only thing separating us from calamity. Our perspective is coloured by desperate love and inexperience. The truth is that we have everything it takes. We always had it. We just have to trust it. But how?

There are four keys which MotherWit Postpartum Doulas use to help new parents develop strategies to balance life: NUTRITION, SUPPORT, LOVE and SLEEP.
  • NUTRITION is paramount to keeping a sleep-deprived, adrenaline-pumping brain in check. Accepting healthy meals from family and friends is key. Postpartum Doulas also bring food according to your needs.
  • SUPPORT refers to asking for help, calling on family and friends, asking questions, and seeking out respectful, non-judgemental resources. 
  • LOVE speaks to laughter, joy, allowing worry to melt away from time to time and relishing this new experience. It means loving yourself, your partner, and your new family member. And throw in a cart-load of forgiveness. You may as well start now! 
  • SLEEP... ah sleep.  I leave sleep for last because the lack of it is the wrench that can throw all of the above into chaos. When we are sleep-deprived our perspective can be very warped. If you have never been woken up every hour for days on end, suddenly have a tiny and extremely demanding life depending on you absolutely and completely, then new parenthood will feel like some sort of insane Amazing Race you can't get out of! Days and nights melt into each other and seem endless.
 Often family and friends can be a great support here. Having a set of arms to hold Baby as you nap can be a life-saver. But sometimes what is needed is a (nearly) full night's sleep. This is where overnight Doula support comes in.

A Doula, experienced in pregnancy, birth and postpartum care, is a great choice of person to care for you and your baby during the night hours, when things can seem even more overwhelming. Doula arrives as you are ready for bed and often spends a few moments making tea and discussing your concerns before tucking you into bed.

The Doula will take care of Baby's needs as they arise, tending to changing, burping, and soothing. If your baby needs your breast, they are brought to you for feeding, the Doula providing hand-on support and company in those challenging wee hours.  Doulas will also feed Baby with a bottle to help you get more sleep if this is your need.  A Doula will, however, know when Baby needs that comfort only mama's arms can provide. You don't need to worry that your baby will be missing you.  We can find the balance between as much sleep for you as possible, and ensuring Baby's needs for connection with you are met.

Burping, diapering and rocking are generally taken care of so the new parents can get as much sleep as possible. What is the result? It seems it is almost a miracle! Parents rise in the morning and coffee is brewing and ready. They often have time to shower before meeting Doula with a smile.

Our goal is for you to need us less, not more. Even one or two nights of restful sleep is often a turning point for many new parents. The brain is boosted with sleep, the over active adrenal glands take a break, and sweet relaxation takes over.

The many nights I have spent caring for new families in their cozy home are some of my most memorable moments as a Doula. It is perhaps the epitome of what it is to care for and nurture a new family into being. It is a sweet and gentle time, a time to move slowly and carefully. The world slows down, and in this moment space is created for your family to take its rightful place.

We no longer live in a world where "elders" are part of our cultural structure, but we can be sought out and utilized. Nothing is more comforting that sleeping soundly as the world is cared for by someone else. That is why Doulas do this work and carry this cultural tradition forward. It is important, valuable and often miraculous!

Millie Tresierra
Postpartum Doula
MotherWit Doula Care

Monday, December 14, 2015

Adjusting to Life with a Toddler and a New Baby

When we have our first babies, it doesn't matter where we come from or how well we have mastered other areas of our lives.  We all begin parenthood as newbies, and the learning curve is steep.  We fumble and falter, gain confidence and wisdom, run into stumbling blocks, and hopefully learn to forgive ourselves those days it feels like we should start making large deposits into our child's future therapy fund.

Despite what a balancing act having a child is, many of us venture to have more than one.  I went on to have four.  Parental concerns shift with subsequent babies from "How do I take care of a newborn?" to  "How will my toddler and I cope with my attention being so focused on the new baby?"

With older children it is different, because they can communicate their feelings more clearly.  Toddlers, who are often still in diapers and just learning how to string several words together, are the ones parents tend to worry about the most.

These are the most common concerns parents have about how their toddlers will cope with the new baby:

1)  What is the best way to introduce my toddler to the new baby?

Every family has different wishes for the first meeting.  Some parents experienced a rough birth and prefer their toddlers to visit when they're feeling less sore and more present.  Others want the toddler to be brought over right away.  Some are even present for the birth.  Whatever feels right for your family is likely the best plan.

What parents are often afraid of is their toddler reacting negatively to the new baby at that first precious meeting.  It can happen, and it is best to not take it personally, or as a sign that things aren't starting on the right foot.  Toddlers are unpredictable, and don't always show up emotionally in the way we hope.

Having the toddler be introduced to their sibling in the presence of someone else they are attached to is an appealing idea to many families.  If the older child becomes upset, Grandma or Uncle can be there as the safe harbour.  It is around this time many toddlers begin to see that it is not only Mom or Dad who can provide a loving haven.  And it can be hard for some parents to see this happening, as they interpret it as a withdrawal from them.  They feel guilty.  But in fact it is okay to let "the village" help.

Many parents have a tradition of giving the toddler a gift from the new baby, as a way to honour them for being a wonderful big sibling.  This can definitely smooth the rough edges for some kids.

Encouraging visitors who come to see the new baby to take time to connect with the toddler helps too. In all the new baby excitement, the older kids can definitely feel overlooked, which enforces their feelings of exclusion.

2) Will my toddler regress in behaviour?

Most likely?  Yes, to a greater or lesser extent.  Without being able to communicate skillfully with words, it makes sense they'll articulate their feelings, intentionally or not, through their actions.

It is normal for kids who were perhaps using the toilet to begin having accidents, or even giving up the toilet all together for a while. Night waking can be more frequent, and bottles/breast may be requested again.

Many parents want to have their toddlers be a little more grown up before the baby arrives, and think about stopping some of their comfort seeking behaviours. But stripping away too many of the things that may provide their toddlers with comfort (binkies, blankies, and bears, for example) at a time they may most need to have some security, may not be most helpful.

Either way a parent decides, if a new habit has been formed, regression for a while is normal.  This too shall pass.

3) Will my toddler be jealous with all the time I spend with the baby?

Yes, they will probably be jealous.  It is absolutely normal for a little one who is used to their parents' consistent attention to feel jealous when a new baby comes. We cannot reason that feeling out of a kid.  The reason parents ask this is not because they can't handle the behavioural acting out the kid will likely do as a result of their tender feelings, but because their hearts are broken at the thought of their beloved child being sad.

To minimize some of the jealous feelings, some parents play the "Being a Baby is SO Boring" game. It gently encourages the toddler to feel proud to be a bigger kid.  It goes like this: "See Baby having her milk?  Poor Baby, she doesn't get to eat big kid food like you do. She only gets milk.  And she can't understand the books we read together.  It's not as fun for Baby, because she's not big like you. How about you eat your snack and I read to you while Baby drinks her milk?"

The goal isn't to push the toddler into any given behaviour, but to suggest that it's kind of cool to not be a baby anymore. As cushy as baby life might look being in Mom's or Dad's arms a lot, baby life is comparatively limited.

4) How will I ever love my new baby as much as I love my toddler?

As a mother of four, I have learned that the heart is not like a loaf of bread.  It is not a finite thing that is sliced up into pieces and given away in increments, leaving the possibility of nothing left.  With the intense love we've shared with our older kid since their birth, we can worry we're down to the heel of the loaf.

The good news is that the heart is infinite.  It has an absolutely endless supply of love.  It has the capacity to welcome and include our new arrivals with as much intensity as we share with our older kids.

5) I hate to say this, but I find my toddler annoying.

What often concerns the birth giver most is that there can be a period in which they feel like they actually love the new baby more.  This can be unexpected and distressing, something they may not admit to people, even though it is quite normal.  Hormonally, our bodies are geared towards bonding fiercely with and protecting our babies. Toddlers can appear suddenly huge, loud, and demanding.

Let's repeat our parental mantra: This too shall pass.  In a normal situation, hormones adjust, toddlers adjust, and everyone finds their place a little more comfortably in the family.  The love will then generally not be seen as "more or less", simply as different, because our children are different people.

Parent hearts are often so very tender over the fact their toddler is having to go through some tough emotional adjustments.  As loving parents we want to spare our children from pain.  It hurts us to see them sad.  And the sadness that can be expressed in a myriad of toddler ways in response to Baby fills parents with guilt and worry.

If we think about it, almost all major life transitions contain elements of pain.  Growth can hurt.  It is a natural part of the process of being human.  Even for toddlers.  If we can connect with our toddlers time to time in the authenticity of their pain and simply love them without trying to fix the feelings we wish they wouldn't have, we honour the human growth work they are doing.

The acknowledgement, "you are sad, this is hard, and I love you exactly as you are," can be more effective in facilitating growth and healing than drowning out the reality of pain with gifts, distraction, or words like "but don't you want to be a good big brother/sister?"

While it can be hard to come to terms with the role adjustment of going from being "the baby" to being a big sibling, we do get used to it.  And we can even end up enjoying it.

Lesley Everest

Sunday, December 13, 2015

BellyFit Giveaway! MakeMyBellyFit

Winter is coming! (eventually) Mamas keep those bellies and babies snug and warm with a BellyFit by MakeMyBellyFit!
MotherWit Birth Essentials Prenatal Classes is honoured to partner with MakeMyBellyFit to offer someone a FREE BellyFit Jacket Extender!! 
The BellyFit is a jacket extender for maternity and baby-carrying. It allows you to keep using your OWN jacket through maternity and to extend around your baby-carrier. Included in the prize is a BellyFit, Warmth Layer (for extra toastiness) and any Zip Adapter necessary to make it attach to your jacket. 
To enter:
Like and Share our MotherWit Birth Essentials Prenatal Classes page. (please show MakeMyBellyFit some love and like their page too!)
Leave a comment on this post on why you'd like a BellyFit Extender! 
BONUS! We will also giveaway a 2nd prize: a $75 gift certificate towards MotherWit Birth Essentials Prenatal Classes!
We will pick 2 winners randomly on Sunday December 20th!

Friday, December 4, 2015

Just Eat the Monkey: Keeping it Simple in Birth and Breastfeeding

Guest post by MotherWit Doula Megan Tolbert

Doulas in a group tend to get kind of chatty. And in my neck of the woods, doula chatter swings from the ridiculous to the sublime in the blink of an eye.

One late afternoon, a smack* of doulas was sitting around my living room, enjoying a glass of wine in preparation for our evening reservation at a local spa. Naturally the conversation turned to how we would survive stranded on a desert island.

I'd tame a monkey, and teach it to breastfeed. I'd relactate, and survive off my own breastmilk!” declared one enterprising doula.

Lengthy, heated discussion followed about how one would tame this alleged monkey (it would have to be a baby monkey, it was decided), how long the relactation process would take (given the fact that the doula in question had not breastfed for eight years or more at that time), and whether the caloric expenditure involved in producing the breastmilk would be worthwhile in the first place.

Meanwhile, deep into a second glass of wine, I had an epiphany.

You GUYS. Why are you breastfeeding this monkey, when you could be EATING it?”

We all have a tendency to overcomplicate things sometimes. I see it done during birth in hospital settings, where a C-section can be proposed before even considering a simple solution, like changing positions to help baby descend.

I see it with new (and sometimes experienced) doulas in some of the Facebook groups I belong to, frantically listing all the things they've done so far to “fix” a clients long early labour—only to be reminded that maybe the best thing they could do right now is get their clients to sleep, and just leave them alone for a while.

I see it with new parents when I visit them postpartum, frazzled and exhausted, baby fussy and demanding—they've forgotten the first thing they ever learned in hospital about newborn care: Skin to skin. So back to bed we go, pillows placed just so, dress down mama and baby, and just....breathe. And suddenly this breastfeeding thing doesn't seem so challenging.

Going back to basics oftentimes gets the job done. Occam's Razor is a vital principle in my work as a doula, one I have to remind myself of over and over: The simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

In birth, in parenthood, in life: Keep it simple. And for goodness sake, stop breastfeeding that monkey and just eat the darned thing!

* “Smack” is the unofficial collective noun for a group of doulas, like a murder of crows, a pride of lions, or an exaltation of larks. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I Did Not Fight Cancer

Many people use fighting words when it comes to cancer. “I battled cancer.”  “My mother lost her fight with cancer.”  

For many, The Warrior Path is essential to their journey, and I honour that.  When I had cancer, I felt a strong aversion to using the language of war.  I chose a different path that I felt worked for me, and want to share another possible way of being fierce in the face of illness.

In 2012 a blood test to investigate pains in my lower back and unusual vaginal bleeding determined my kidneys were in distress and I was anemic to a level that required blood transfusion.   

I was hospitalized, and upon further investigation it was determined I had invasive cervical cancer. Flooded with shock, rage, and fear, I was tempted to fight it tooth and nail. But something in me said, "Breathe".

I went through a procedure in which a tube was placed into each kidney for drainage, since my ureters were dangerously narrowed by the cancer which riddled my pelvis.  After my kidneys were drained and stable, the tubes were replaced by stents in my ureters.  Those stents were hell.

I began six weeks of chemo along with daily radiation.  I received three treatments of Brachytherapy, a process involving radiation directly to the tumors.  I didn’t see these fierce medicines as weapons against my cancer, rather I chose to embrace them as friends that would help me reboot my system to be open to healthier patterns.  I blessed them with such gratitude for their availability at this point in time, as well as the magnificent doctors who had the skills to apply them.

Unmanageable pain was the worst part of the experience for me. There was no real life, as I was either out of my head on drugs or frightening my children with the sound of my moaning.

So did I want to fight cancer at times?  You bet I did.  I had moments of rage and panic, which breed the "fight or flight" impetus.  With cancer that advanced I was terrified of dying and leaving my husband and four children.  I believed I would never feel better, that my “good” days were entirely behind me, and that this existence was all that was left.

I was bitter that cancer was in my cervix.  I was a doula, a veritable cervix fairy, and here was mine obliterated by disease.  I would have taken cancer anywhere else in my body far less personally.  But as a wise friend said, "Of COURSE it's in your cervix!  This is how you will make meaning of this journey."

A few months after treatment, which had showed promising results, I was admitted to the hospital again in renal failure, vomiting my face off and feeling like there were bugs crawling all over my skin.  Three doctors stood at my bedside telling me that an MRI showed a mass near my lower spine, and that if this wasn't metastasized cancer, it would be a miracle.  

I checked myself out of the hospital with re-inserted kidney tubes. I schlepped them around attached to some not-so-sexy looking urine collection bags I wore strapped to my legs. As awful as this sounds, I was grateful for the tubes, as life feels much better with functioning kidneys.

The doctors wanted me to stay in the hospital to get an immediate PET scan to determine the extent of the cancer.  I told them I’d get the PET scan in six weeks as an out-patient, as I wanted to take some time to enjoy feeling stable.  Nobody argued, as there were no medical heroics to be had.

Clear headed and with nothing to lose, I wanted to go deeply within and explore how I was going to live my precious available moments.  I wanted to be with the friends who made me laugh.  I wanted to do things I didn't normally do for fear of being judged, like explore more esoteric healing practices.  I wanted to express overflowing love and blessings to all those who sent me thoughts and prayers for healing, and who supported me in doing the things that nourished my wellness.  I needed to come hurtling out my suffocating spiritual closet into a place of freedom for my soul's expression without caring if people didn't understand me.

I wanted to teach another doula training, but this time include the spiritual aspects of the work.  I had always shied away from teaching from that place of spiritual authenticity because I thought people wouldn't want to learn from me, judging me as being earthy/crunchy woo woo, which frankly is not great for a professional doula's reputation.  I scheduled a course and taught it in Toronto the way I wanted, including ceremony and deep soul nourishment for my beloved students. It remains one of the most powerful gatherings I've ever been part of.  

I drank Cosmos with friends and walked around my beloved city, eating whatever I wanted. I enjoyed my family fully. I focused on life, not the lurking mass. I participated in a Sweat Lodge with a spiritual community in New York state without apologizing to the non-crunchy folks in my life, and revelled in the joy of feeling fully myself.  

On that pivotal trip to Sweat Lodge, I learned from a friend about an amazing school in New York City called One Spirit Interfaith Seminary.  Its program focused not upon promoting any religious dogma, but upon serving as a presence of peace and healing in the world on people's own terms.  Despite my diagnosis, I applied to this two year seminary program in order to become an interspiritual minister, trusting the internal “YES” that guided me.  I chose to love life again, no matter what.

I noticed that relinquishing my bitterness about cancer and choosing to live fearlessly made me feel better physically and emotionally.  I did the things that were meaningful to me without caring what people thought. I kissed my fears of living my real dreams goodbye, realizing that the fears I carried were simply the awesome parts of me I had never claimed.

I discovered that a chapter in the story of my cancer was about a part of me that had grown wild.  I had gotten so caught up in being the mother/wife/doula I thought I SHOULD be, I denied the woman I truly was, and she was demanding to be witnessed in all her passion and ferocity.  Fighting cancer meant fighting myself, and that just didn’t make sense in my narrative.

I have never been religious, but I realized I was still struggling with my concept of "god". Through insights that came from working diligently to heal what I felt was a toxic, disempowering relationship with a disassociated higher power “out there”, I learned to trust what emerged from the higher power within.

I finally went for that PET scan.  When I saw my oncologist a week later he said, “It appears you have no evidence of disease.”  Do I think my approach provided a magical cure?  No.  I think I had a lot of good luck on my side.  But I do believe making peace with cancer left me feeling serene and with the ability to cope with whatever life threw at me.  Had I discovered cancer was still there and advancing, I would not have thought I "lost" any "fight".  I don't see cancer as some foe trying to conquer people. Illness and death are not failures.

Three years later, I remain cancer-free, living a life dedicated to helping people have awesome birth experiences, training doulas to have healthy, thriving practices, and providing spiritual support to folks as a minister.

Many people fight cancer and win.  Fantastic!  That is their story, and I deeply honour it. My intuition spoke to me of working differently with cancer, and learning the lessons it had to teach me.  I like to think it worked for me.  Everyone who sets their foot to the path of healing must decide their own approach, and infuse it with their own belief.

May your motherwit, that innate intuitive knowing, be a strong partner in your healing.  


Friday, November 6, 2015

Trying to Find Your Voice in the NICU: A Mother's Story

I am so honoured to have received this recount of a precious new mother's experience after the premature birth of her son.  I will refer to her as Anne.

Anne's quest for healing after her disempowering experience in the NICU led her to write out her story as an exercise in personal process.  She has generously agreed to allow me to share it.

As a doula, I am rarely allowed in the NICUs in my town. The odd times I am, all I can do is offer support. Parents don't have time to read books I might recommend on evidence based care, and they are not something people generally choose to read in pregnancy, as rarely do people expect, nor should go around fearing the possibility of having a premature or sick baby.  I am not a medical expert.  What I do with every contact I have is say, "You are doing amazingly.  Be strong about saying you'll be holding and breastfeeding your baby as much as possible.  It will be better when you get home."

I can only bolster parents' trust in their own instincts. encourage a lot of question asking in the hopes they will receive correct information, provide information on the benefits of Kangaroo care, and listen heartbroken to the parental feelings of overwhelm and self-doubt.

Parents are so busy in the NICU and catching up on rest, that our communications are usually few and far between, their focus completely taken up by the care of their child and themselves.  As a doula, I make sure my communications are calm and as encouraging as possible.  The best healing I can bring is to love them up when they get home (where I am allowed to be with them as long as they wish, unlike in the NICU), and support them as they begin to reconnect to their fractured motherwit.

Even the fiercest and most knowledgeable of self-advocates may, at the mercy of postpartum hormones, exhaustion, fear for their baby's health, and perhaps even a sense of guilt about not wanting to seem ungrateful for the fact their baby is in loving, capable hands, be at risk for being completely railroaded by the environment.  It hurts when my role becomes more about emotional damage control than being able to do much practical support as I can in a birthing room. When I do have the opportunity to be in the NICU, I am treated as someone taking up too much space, and am often told impatiently that I can't be there much longer.

It is my wish all parents, health care providers, and doulas take away from Anne's and her partner's story the inspiration to  participate in the creation a more nourishing, correct information providing, and parent/baby-as-symbiotic-unit approach to caring for families spending time in the NICU.

Here is her story:

Trying to find your voice as a new parent in the NICU

Advocates for less medicalized births often talk about the dangers of the “cascade of interventions” when laboring in hospitals and they encourage pregnant women to be as informed as possible when deciding what they do or don’t want or need while birthing. I am a researcher by profession, and so when I was preparing to give birth to my first child, who was born this past September, I really heeded this call. I feel empowered when I am informed. My husband and I read books on pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, among other topics, we hired a doula, we attended birth prep and baby care classes, I scoured literature reviews on baby health and safety issues, and as a result, we both felt relatively informed about the process that was about to unfold in front of us. We knew that there was no such thing as being “ready” to have a baby, but having spent so much time reading and listening and talking gave us a sense of the kinds of possibilities and issues that could arise during this huge life transition, and it felt good to feel like we were not going in blindly and like we had enough knowledge to be able to make decisions that were right for us when the time came.
The unfortunate catch-22 of preparing to have a child is that you will most need to feel educated and informed when things do not go as planned, and yet it is both not realistic and not healthy to prepare yourself for every little thing that can go wrong. Most writing that calls for less medicalization of moms and babies assumes a context in which everything goes relatively normally – it is often reiterated that healthy births are not “medical events”. But how can we maintain our agency and our dignity when they do become medical events? What I want to reflect on here is the difficulty of trying to be informed, advocate for yourself and make healthy choices for your newborn outside that “normal” context. When my water suddenly ruptured just a day shy of 35 weeks pregnant, I was prepared for the very easy and uneventful birth that followed. What I was not prepared for were the 2 weeks we spent in the NICU afterwards, and how we would struggle to make the right choices for our son in such a constrained and often enigmatic place. We had not done our research on caring for a preterm infant – why would you? And while our son received loving and attentive care during those two weeks and is now thriving, we found ourselves stressed out, disempowered and really struggled while he was there. It was an experience that really marked us and shaped our early days as parents, and one that I am struggling to let go of.
We often found ourselves invoking the “cascade of interventions” not when discussing my birth, but while trying to make sense of what was happening to us in the NICU. Our son was born at 35 weeks on the dot, screaming, for which I will always be grateful. A neonatology team was in the room and examined him within minutes of his birth. He was just shy of 5 lbs and they quickly declared him healthy and said they did not think he would need any time in the NICU. I had about four glorious hours of skin to skin with him before that opinion changed because he repeatedly flunked his blood sugar test. We consented to have him taken to the NICU to help sort out his hypoglycemia, and we were told that this was such a minor issue that we were looking at an overnight stay, at most.
I was wheeled into post-partum and a nurse gruffly gave me a breast pump and told me I was going to need to start pumping. Assuming that everything would go normally, I had never even looked at a breast pump before, nor did I know how to use one, much less all those “tricks” I know now to pump more effectively. I got very brief instructions and then warnings about keeping up with it or else I would mess up my milk supply. I visited our son in the NICU as soon as I had settled in, and I was truly moved by the kindness of the nurse who was gentle and reassuring as she completed his intake. But seeing him small, vulnerable, in an incubator and hooked up to monitors was heartbreaking. When the nurse wasn’t looking, I opened the incubator door and put my hand in to hold his little hand and touch his head. I felt like I was cheating. No one had thought to tell my husband or I, that first day, that we were actually allowed to hold our child and do skin to skin with him. It was only while texting about it with Lesley that she mentioned that NICUs always let their parents hold their babies except in the most dire circumstances, and so I worked up the nerve to ask. Those first hours I just stared at him in there and tried not to cry.
This was a running theme of our NICU experience – the strange feeling of needing to ask permission to care for your own child. It was two days before we would even change one of his diapers. Our son’s hypoglycemia cleared up within 24 hours and so we were excited to go home. However, the IV he had in got messed up and needed to be removed, so a nurse suggested putting in a gavage (feeding tube that goes through the nose) instead, as it would be less invasive and less prone to infection. We consented. They had made it seem like no big deal. What we did not know at the time was that NICU protocol almost everywhere is that once a baby has a gavage, they will not be released until they eat without it for 24 hours. And so while the issue that brought us to the NICU had disappeared, the gavage kept us there for two weeks. We were now there for feeding issues. No one thought to mention this change in medical concern. It would be days before we really understood why we were there.
This was another running theme of our time in the NICU; the lack of true informed consent. No one explained to us what it meant to put that tube in, and then we felt blindsided when we got stuck there like we did. Gavaging preemies is a really standard, common practice in NICUs; there was no reason not to explain to us the implications of going down that path. The absence of clear information was not for lack of trying on my part. For example, our son had a moderate/borderline severe case of jaundice, and I asked our attending resident some questions about how they were making the call whether or not to treat it for three days in a row before I finally got a reply that explained their decision and the risks and benefits that informed it, rather than just reiterating it. (If I remember correctly, that eventual reply actually came from the attending pediatrician.)
Our son’s new diagnosis was “prematurity”. There was nothing wrong with him; he was just young and struggled to stay awake long enough to eat. NICUs have very particular ways of measuring what that means. They do 8 feedings a day, every three hours, and they use the baby’s weight to determine a set amount of milk or formula the baby needs to be able to ingest at each meal. “Feeding on demand” was out the window. I had very little colostrum, which I now understand to be normal, so he was immediately started on formula to meet the quantity they had determined he needed. If we put him to the breast, which many nurses encouraged, whatever he got at it did not “count” as it could not be measured. Breastfeeding was therefore mostly for “practice” and to help with my supply, but he still needed to get a set quantity either by bottle or by gavage. If he fell asleep finishing a bottle, the rest would be gavaged. The NICU was very encouraging of breastfeeding, and yet the fact that you cannot quantify it the way you can a bottle meant that for all the breastfeeding tips I received, bottle-feeding had to be our focus. By the end of our stay I would feel guilty if I put him to the breast for a feed because I worried (incorrectly, it turns out, but this is what I was told) that it would wear him out for his subsequent bottle and we would get stuck there longer because of my stubborn insistence on breastfeeding.
I would pump at least every three hours in order to try and give him as much colostrum and then milk as possible. Those first few days, nurses kept asking me if my milk had come in yet – at one point a hospital lactation consultant told me that because it was day three after a vaginal birth, I should expect to be engorged within the next twelve hours. I watched the clock. It didn’t happen. I thought something was wrong with me. The doctor would do his rounds every morning, conferring with nurses and residents within earshot of me and my son in the incubator, talking about us in the third person. “How’s mother’s milk?” he would ask, and they would always answer that I had a weak supply. The first few days, my son actually hated the formula and refused to drink from it (we had much more success getting him to drink pumped milk from a bottle); with my supposed weak supply, I felt like I was failing him and keeping us in there. What no one told me, until a kind doctor on one of our very last days there, was that my supply was weak because we were there, and that most women experience supply issues when they are in the NICU, because they are stressed, and are only allowed to put their babies to the breast a few times a day, and because the pump is not as effective as a baby at dictating how much milk to produce.
I heard a million comments over those two weeks, which were innocuous in their intentions, along the lines of, “wow, you don’t have a lot of milk, do you?” Never say something like that to a post-partum mom. I held back tears every time. Those comments crushed me. I wish I had known that it was just because I was there. I saw so many mothers who, by the end of their stay in the NICU, had given up on breastfeeding, quite understandably; pumping 8-10 times a day only to produce inadequate milk is brutal. It felt like the hardest thing I had ever done. I would set my alarm at night to pump and every time I woke up I would feel disoriented, wondering where my baby was, and sadly trudging to the pump instead. I had constant nightmares. It felt profoundly wrong, in this really primal way, to sleep and wake at night without my son there. When we came home it was such a pleasure to wake to a crying baby instead of the breast pump.
I do not debate that our son probably needed to be in the NICU. It would have been incredibly stressful trying to feed this small and sleepy baby all by ourselves at home. There is a decent chance we would have ended up there anyway. NICUs are amazing places that work very hard to care for often very vulnerable babies, and the nurses we encountered there, with literally only two exceptions over a two week span, were among the kindest, most caring people I have ever met. I cried while saying goodbye to them. They taught us how to care for our son; how to swaddle him, bathe him, burp him, and they were always encouraging and gentle with us. They are the most talented nurses I have ever encountered and they worked their asses off as NICUs in Montreal are painfully understaffed, often pulling doubles or giving up days off, coming back early from sick leave or taking on more babies at a time than they were supposed to. My son was in very good and loving hands and I think about them with enormous gratitude every day.
What made our time in the NICU so difficult was mostly not the individual caregivers (although I will mention a couple of exceptions below), but the larger structure of this place and how it worked. The nurses were kind, but the system itself was incredibly unkind. We ended up in two different NICUs; first, a huge high-level NICU for 5 days, which then (mercifully) transferred us to a lower-level one closer to home for the next ten days. The higher level one had 75 beds for babies, and only three courtesy rooms for the parents to sleep in, which we therefore had to fight for every day. Doctors talked about us in the third person, but spent little time talking to us. Our son was on such a strict schedule that we generally had to ask for permission to do things like take him out of his incubator. He was hooked up to heart and respiration monitors despite there being no concerns about his heart or lungs; it was just standard protocol to monitor him. This might seem like a little thing, but he was talented at ripping the monitors off (our little rebel!) and so they would constantly malfunction and the beeping frayed our already damaged nerves. And on a less avoidable note, it was brutal experiencing that post-partum hormone crash in a place as frenzied as a high-level NICU. There were sick babies, harried parents and alarms going off everywhere, and we all felt very keenly how fragile all these little lives were. It is just a really hard place to be. Between sick babies and crazy hormones, I realize now that I was probably the most emotionally vulnerable I have ever been in my life during those two weeks, and I therefore had to navigate all of the issues I am describing here feeling like a walking open wound.
Experiencing all of this is especially brutal when it feels like a machine that is much bigger than you, where there is more action than information. Like the example of when they put in my son’s gavage or monitored my son’s jaundice, informed consent was hard to come by. Despite this standard 24-hour feeding rule, every day in our first NICU they made it seem like we might be going home imminently. They told us they did not want to make any “predictions” that would give us false hope, and so all we ever heard was “at least until tomorrow.” We ran ourselves ragged and therefore didn’t really sleep for 5 days thinking that this was a very short-term stay. When we arrived in the second, lower-level NICU, a kind pediatrician, in his initial assessment, told us, “you will be here for a maximum of ten more days.” I just about burst into tears, as that was so much longer than we had expected, but we were so, so grateful to have someone give us an idea of what was to come, rather than being evasive. His assessment was prophetic as it was exactly ten days later that we went home.
While most nurses were truly gifted caregivers doing their best in impossible circumstances, we nevertheless felt very vulnerable when it came to the couple we encountered who were not. One nurse that we had over two nights described herself as “old school” and told us she did not believe in skin to skin or bonding, nor did she know anything (nor really care) about breastfeeding. Our baby was a medical problem to solve, not to snuggle. She made my husband feel particularly unwelcome visiting our son at night, and so we eventually stayed away as much as possible while she was around in order to avoid conflict. We realized that there were two approaches to caring for babies in the NICU; one that saw only the babies as the patients, and another that saw the whole family as part of the caring process. I know now that all medical evidence about newborns shows that they and their parents are basically one entity in the early months, and that their health is inseparable. Nurses like this one, who believed that their only responsibility was to the baby, were going against pretty much all current research.
It was during his first night with this nurse that my son began to have bradycardias, which is a brief deceleration of the heart caused by his still-developing nervous system. We were repeatedly assured by all medical staff that these were harmless unless they started occurring extremely frequently, yet they somehow made a big deal of them every time one happened anyway, such that they felt terrifying. It becomes hard to assert yourself when you are terrified. What I did not know until I did some reading once we got home was that the best cure for bradycardias is “kangaroo care”, i.e. extended skin to skin contact between mother and baby. After our terrible first night with this nurse, which left me sobbing on the phone with my mother, I kept saying that it could not be a coincidence that this problem had cropped up with such an unkind caregiver. I now know just how right I was. Her “old school” approach actively impeded his development. And yet when the doctors did their rounds, all they noted was the bradycardias, without reflecting on where they came from or the context in which they occurred.
While that was the most extreme example, we still found ourselves at the mercy of nurses’ and doctors’ often subjective opinions. In our second NICU, there were signs at every incubator encouraging skin-to-skin contact. My husband and I would spend about 16 hours a day there, holding our son as much as we could, trying to make a place as weird as the NICU as normal as possible during those formative first days of his life. During one exhausted night towards the end of our stay, a nurse got fed up with how much we held him, and told us our son would rest better in the incubator. Sheepish, we put him back in the incubator and prepared to leave for the night, but I wanted him to fall asleep first. He lay there, eyes open, hiccupping, unable to fall asleep as well as he did in our arms, for about an hour, while I held back tear. I put my hand into the incubator and lay it on his head, afraid to touch him more because we had just been chastised. He looked tiny and alone and I cried the whole way home.
The next day we asked the attending pediatrician about this, who of course confirmed that the nurse was wrong, and that in fact babies rest better through skin to skin than through an incubator, which is a machine trying to simulate that environment. She said that as he was a healthy baby who just needed some time to grow, “TLC” was all we could really do for him at this point. This helped us feel more brave about insisting on holding him (and at least this NICU allowed us to hold him without permission, although we still needed their OK to feed him), although certain nurses then viewed us as “difficult”.
Similarly, when it came to feeding, some nurses would come over beforehand and discuss with us our options for the next feeding – should we try breast, bottle, gavage, or what kind of combination of these methods? They trusted that even though they were the medical professionals, we also knew our baby as we spent all day with him, and could read his cues regarding how awake and hungry he was at any given feeding. Others would come over and tell us, without asking our input, that X method was best for the next feeding, in particular treating me as difficult if I insisted on trying even five minutes at the breast beforehand. I was once chastised for taking my baby out of his incubator when he woke up hungry a bit ahead of schedule and putting him to the breast, figuring that it couldn’t hurt to do so while we waited for the nurse to prepare his bottle anyway. Watching my baby root around because he woke up 15 minutes ahead of schedule and not being allowed to feed him seemed counter to any common sense about how to help a baby whose principal health concern was his ability to eat.
The very same doctor mentioned above eventually let us in on the secret of the NICU, at least when it comes to things like helping preemies develop and learn to eat independently, rather than treating specific illnesses that one sees in more serious cases; as she put it, “it is not an exact science”. Frustrated by the gavage, which I worried left my son so full that he did not feel enough hunger to work on his feeding, and by the different approaches of the nurses to feeding him such that our experience seemed to depend so much on the individual opinions of whatever nurse was assigned to us on a given day, she admitted that the process is very much subjective. She also said that the obsession with him ingesting particular quantities was not evidence-based nor actually particularly essential – they could tell if he was eating enough the same way all parents of full-term babies do, through diapers and weight gain – but rather it was a liability issue, i.e. to have numbers on record to prove that the hospital had fed a baby enough in case anything happened. So my stress about not pumping enough, the formula, the dictatorial schedule with bottles all the same amount - that was less about what was necessary and more about making sure we couldn’t sue them were anything to go wrong.
Our son got amazing, attentive care in the NICU. But we were not prepared to navigate its procedures, because who prepares to spend two weeks in the hospital with a premature baby? After we were released, I read up about kangaroo care for premature infants, about best practices suggesting that the parents care for the baby as much as possible, about how to encourage breastfeeding, etc., and I could see all the questions we could have asked and all the places where we were not given the opportunity for informed consent (either in terms of information or in terms of consenting). We got very, very lucky when our son was discharged, because we happened to have a nurse that day who really cared about breastfeeding, and faxed in a referral for us for a breastfeeding clinic as well as asking the doctor to give me a prescription for domperidone to help get my supply up. I am not sure I would still be breastfeeding were it not for her encouragement and those resources she pointed me to. People like her helped us survive.
Nevertheless, adjusting to home life after such a quantified experience of infant care was rough. We were so happy to be home, away from the sound of beeping monitors and able to feed and snuggle our baby whenever we wanted. But as I texted to Lesley in the immediate days afterwards, I felt like my “mother’s intuition” was broken. We were used to looking at a monitor to make sure our son was breathing, rather than looking at him (and trusting that he was probably breathing). We had no idea how to wean him off the bottle to encourage him to take the breast. It took me a couple of weeks to believe that he was getting any milk at the breast at all. He did not know how to feed on demand. All is well now, but it took a full five weeks to get back fully breastfeeding, and to emerge from the path that the NICU had started us on.
Advocates for less medicalized birthing and more natural parenting spend a lot of time talking about “evidence-based” practices and the tendency of large institutions to move slowly when adapting to research and to be very conservative for reasons often more related to liability and convenience rather than actual need. The NICU is, of course, a very “medicalized” space by necessity, as it should be when it comes to healing sick babies. But I should point out that parents of sicker babies than ours probably need the transparency and compassion we ached for even more than we did. Having had the experience of trying to care for a healthy, just undercooked, baby in the NICU, it is so hard to find the balance between the medical and the, well, normal. It is clear he needed help learning how to eat, for example. But the way in which he was given a gavage was confounding; not only was there no informed consent, as I explained above, but it also felt like they had created the problem (baby is being fed by tube) that we now had to fix, which due to their systems, required a bottle. In short, it felt like they broke him in order to fix him. In reflecting on our experience, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what more humane care for premature babies would look like – it is obvious, for example, that it would involve babies rooming in with parents and more real breastfeeding support (rather than mere encouragement that it is a good idea) and less obsession with the quantitative. It would allow for feeding on demand and parents doing most of the care of their babies themselves. All of these things, however, could not work in hospitals concerned with liability issues and would require infinitely more resources; how could feeding on demand work with busy nurses’ schedules? And how could there possibly be enough rooms to allow parents to room in with babies? And so for all my hard feelings about my experience, I get why NICUs are the way they are; we are kind of stuck in the system that we have.
And so I am left with this question of how parents can apply the ethos of gentle, informed and respectful birthing practices to medicalized environments like the NICU. We were so ready for birth and yet so blindsided by what came after. How can you maintain your agency as a parent and your right to care for your child when you find yourselves unexpectedly hospitalized? And why is this experience staying with me like it is? Life is great now; our son is healthy and, if you ask me, perfect. And yet I still find myself thinking back to those early nights, full of hormones, waiting to be given permission to hold my son, trying to remind myself to look at him to see how he was doing rather than at the monitor. Why was this experience so destabilizing?

I am simultaneously so grateful to the NICU for caring for him and getting us through his prematurity and yet angry that we were often left out of the decisions made about his care, and allowed so little room to maneuver within that larger system. It is hard to balance that gratefulness and that anger. I might feel differently had he been truly ill, but we were in the strange position of having a totally healthy child and yet having his care really quantified and medicalized nonetheless. This was hard to negotiate and impossible to prepare for. What I am left with is the same wish that many birthing advocates have for laboring mothers; more transparency, more information, more concern with giving parents agency and helping them make empowered decisions about their babies. Even when things do not go as planned and we find ourselves requiring medical intervention, it does not mean the process needs to be so unkind and opaque. I wish I knew then what I know now about caring for premature infants, but surely I shouldn’t have needed to have prepared myself with mountains of research to have had a more humane experience. Humanity in such stressful situations should be the norm.