Birth/Rebirth: The Emotional Anatomy of a C-Section

DSC02265My sister-in-law has a wonderful story about the birth of her first child. “I feel complete,” she told me. “My body has now done everything it’s supposed to do.” Every time I’ve heard her tell it, she’s been giddy. She speaks of the wonder of a woman’s body, the physical instincts that take over during labor, the miracle of actually pushing a child into the world.

Three children later, I am still jealous.

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All I Really Need To Know About Mothering I Learned From My Cat

While I raised my children I remember watching myself over-expend energy. I was aware of what I was doing: helping and working, sharing and caring for everyone who needed me. However, it seemed there was never enough time in the day to slow down and provide for myself what I routinely (and for the most part happily) provided for others.

Midnight is missing from this photo. But my three mewing children are all there.

Midnight is missing from this photo. But my three mewing children are all here.

At work I was a skilled and compassionate nurse. At church I invested heart and soul as a primary teacher, den mother, young women’s leader, choir member, whatever I was called to do. At home I was a deeply devoted and exhausted mom to three kids. Honestly, most days I was overwhelmed by all the responsibilities. But I did the best I could. We ate cereal for dinner on really hard days. Other days it was a rotating menu of tuna casserole, spaghetti, grilled cheese sandwiches, hamburger patties with Rice-A-Roni. Taco Time, Arby’s and Stan’s Drive-In fed us more times than I can count. This was a time of endless giving and comparatively little receiving on my part.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t gain anything from serving and loving all those people at work, church and home. I gained a great deal of understanding about the human condition via those relationships. My capacity for love was enlarged because I believe God gave me strength beyond my own when I chose to serve people in need, especially my own children, and that was a good thing. But I learned lessons along the way about how to give and receive in more enriching, nourishing ways, rather than just “on the run.”

Amazingly, the most empowering example of how to be a good mom and good caregiver came from our cat. My daughter named her Midnight because, well, what else can you call a black cat? Midnight was an indoor-outdoor cat, a combination of street cat and diva and I came to love her for this. We had no pets in my own childhood home and I recognized being pet-less was one of many tragedies of my early years. (I’m both sarcastic and serious when I say that, depending on the day). So, I let my kids have pets. Through the years we had gerbils, mice, rabbits, fish, lizards, frogs and the occasional garter snake. But mostly cats. By the way, it turns out cats like to eat frogs, especially in the middle of the night. And then leave the remains in the hallway for you to step on in the dark on your way to the bathroom. Just in case you were wondering.

Anyway, one afternoon I retreated to my bedroom to fold laundry on the bed, away from the sounds of TV and whatever else was going on in the house. It must have been a Saturday because it was mid-day and I was at home. A few days earlier Midnight had given birth to a litter of kittens in a blanket-lined box in my closet. As I folded towels and matched socks, I watched her caring for her newborn kittens. She nursed them, cleaned them, let them cuddle next to her. Then she did something that surprised me. She left her babies.

She got up from where she was lying, stepped over them, and left those newborn-blind, helpless kittens mewing plaintively in their box. They began feeling around, smelling for her, trembling as they tried to walk on tiny paws. And she just walked away. I stopped what I was doing to watch. I remember feeling sorry for the kittens. But I also felt compelled to follow Midnight to see where she was going.

She went to her food dish. She ate. She drank. She went outside and did her business. Then she came back in the living room, found a spot on the floor where a shaft of light had warmed the carpet and she lay down. She cleaned herself, stretched her legs, laid her head on her paws and closed her eyes.

That’s when it hit me. BAM! This cat instinctively cares for herself. No one has to tell her what to do. She doesn’t buy books about feline co-dependence or how to be a good mommy cat. She doesn’t call her cat sister on her cat telephone to cry about how hard it is to create balance in her life. She leaves her kittens safe and sound and follows her natural instincts to care for herself so she can care for her offspring. Period. End of story. Her cat brain does not allow her to over-ride her instincts like a human brain does.

Maybe you were raised in a home with a mom who provided a good example of how to do this. Unfortunately, I wasn’t. So, this was a big deal for me. In fact, I was permanently altered that day. Midnight’s example of self-care was all I needed to let go of mommy guilt that held me hostage. I stopped feeling bad about the time I spent in my garden. I made sure to provide regular lunch dates for myself with friends. I joined a writer’s group. I started paying attention to my physical, emotional and spiritual resources and began responding in a more organic, instinctive way to cues of stress and exhaustion. This may be the time when I began taking routine afternoon naps. I no longer made excuses for my particular energy level or lack thereof when it came to church callings. I realized that my own instincts were the landmarks God gave me to define my mothering and care-giving limits.

I also began to understand better that each woman has different capacities and only she can interpret her own inner cues in context of her mothering.

This moment of enlightenment has stayed with me for more than twenty years. Initially, I thought about it every single day. Now, it’s only on occasion. But I do still think about it and remind myself to pay attention to what my body, heart and mind are telling me. I also use the Midnight-the-Mother-Cat allegory to provide support and counsel regarding caregiver burnout for my patients and their families.  I did this just last week for an eighty-year-old spouse of one of our dialysis patients. He became misty-eyed as I told him how I learned about being a good caregiver from my cat. I think Midnight’s example helped him. I hope it will help you too.

 

How do you nurture yourself?

Are you planning ways to provide good self-care during the holidays?

Do you have a cat?

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Post-partum depression, one year later

Post-partum depression, one year later

Tomorrow marks a few milestones for me. My son turns 1 1/2, and despite his frighteningly early birth and warnings from doctors that we could be dealing with a lot of delays and health issues, he’s pretty close to normal on the developmental chart and is healthy (robustly so) and strong (he handles the stairs in our second-and-third-floor condo at now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t speed). It’s the 23rd anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, something seared into my brain because I’d spent several weeks the previous summer in what was then the Soviet Union, and despite people talking in cafes about independence and our translator’s curiosity about free markets and the nuts and bolts of owning a small business, Eastern Europe still looked like an unpickable lock. It’s the birthday of a few friends, one in particular whom I’ve known since childhood.

Tomorrow also marks a year since I signed myself into a psychiatric ward, suicidal, untrusting of family, resentful about church, furious with my husband, feeling desperately alone. I stayed for a week and a half, waiting for a new combination of medicines to work, waiting to trust myself around sharp objects and empty spaces. I slept a lot, went to workshops and meals when I felt I could, put together jigsaw puzzles and then pulled them apart again.

While I was in the hospital, one of the occupational therapists on the ward handed me a list of events that could trigger post-partum depression. Nearly all of them applied to me. Unexpected pregnancy? Check. Complications during pregnancy? Check. Early delivery, baby in NICU, long-term separation of mother and baby? History of depression? Recently stopped breastfeeding? Check, check, check. I hadn’t chosen any of these things. No wonder I was feeling that my life was in freefall, that nothing I did had any effect or meaning.

I think I re-emerged from the depression seven or eight months later. I couldn’t give you a day when I knew I was going to be all right; I still have afternoons that yawn at me like enormous sharp-toothed beasts. For the most part, though, I am myself again, and I am grateful.

About that post-partum checklist: Everything on it represented either an outside stressor or an internal hormonal shift. We are good at recognizing stressors for what they are, but hormones are stealthy, and they are serious. Men are subject to them too, of course, but the word “hormonal” conjures up a specter of a wild-haired, wild-eyed woman at the end of her rope, screaming at her children and threatening her husband with a carving knife or cast-iron skillet. It’s chiefly a female attribute, and it stands in for unstable, unbalanced, irrational, emotional — the opposite of what men tend to pride themselves on being. Label a woman hormonal and she is immediately the other, the unknowable, an embarrassment.

I have a lot of resentment about this, but other than pointing out that hormonal changes are actually normal, I’m going to leave the men-have-hormones-too, emotional-is-neither-better-or-worse-than-analytical arguments for another time. Because yeah, hormones have huge effects on me. I knew that I was pregnant each time — taking a pregnancy test was only ever a confirmation of something I’d already known from fatigue, nausea, and blurred vision. I can feel it when I ovulate. I know when I’m too weepy or too angry or too withdrawn (or maybe just more weepy or angry or withdrawn than usual) that my body is marinating in some new chemical mixture.

And I guess what I really want to say with this post is, first, that sometimes our bodies betray us. We secrete chemicals that change our reaction to the world around us, that alter our lens on reality. I think it must be inherent to mortality: these bodies of cells, dependent on DNA copying over and over correctly, dependent on chemical messages, dependent on small electrical charges lighting up parts of our brains, have constant failures. It’s in the design. It’s miraculous that it works at all, so none of the failures are surprising, and some of the failures are bound to be distorted messages that say “null” instead of “whole,” “harm” instead of “bless.” Things break down. It doesn’t mean that the universe has betrayed us or that the presence of God has withdrawn. It just means that we are mortal and our bodies fail in infinite small ways. Sometimes, like starfish, we are self-healing. But sometimes, because we are social beings, we need someone else to help us heal.

The second thing I want to say is that things do regrow and heal, and that we are not alone. You are not alone. Someone — a visiting teacher? — made a list of people who knew me and loved me, people I could turn to when I felt most helpless and most unloved. Phone numbers. E-mail addresses. I left the list hanging on my refrigerator for months. I rarely used it, but when I did my friends never failed me. Even reading their names made me feel safer. Following this blog and hearing other women’s stories made me feel less “other.” I spent hours reaching out to my Mother in Heaven, asking her for help and feeling her beside me, whispering to me that I would be all right someday, that the only way around was through. I read and re-read Sara Burlingame’s Prayer for a Friend Contemplating Suicide and thought, Other people have been through this, and they have survived, and I will too. It has been a year, and I am still here, and I made it through, and I will keep making it through.

Who and what do you turn to when you feel alone? What are the things that help you see more clearly or feel more connected?

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Relief Society Lesson 19: Temporal and Spiritual Blessings from the Word of Wisdom

When I was young, I was often frustrated that one of the only things my peers knew about our faith concerned the negative aspects of the Word of Wisdom. They had a good grasp of the things that we don’t do, without having the same grasp of the positive things that we do do and believe.

Many years later, and many, many states away from my Oregon homeland, I found myself on the East Coast for grad school. I am still not certain if more people smoke and drink there, or if I was just more aware of it, but either way, I began to feel immense gratitude for the “negative” tenets of the Word of Wisdom that had previously caused me some frustration.

What exactly was I grateful for? That my lungs and liver had the greatest opportunity to be clean and healthy, and that I was free from these specific dependencies. While years and residences have again changed, I feel the same measure of gratitude for the Word of Wisdom–both the negative and positive aspects of it.

From the Life

Lesson 19 begins with a story from the life of a young George Albert Smith. He was very sick with typhoid fever, and his doctor advised his mother that it would not only be good for him to be on bed rest for a certain number of weeks with no solid food, it would also be good for him to be given coffee.

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Announcing the “My Planned Parenthood” Blog Carnival hosted by Shakesville and What Tami Said

Announcing the “My Planned Parenthood” Blog Carnival hosted by Shakesville and What Tami Said

I am an avid reader of Shakesville.  You may have noticed that I can’t write a post without at least linking to it, let alone quoting directly from it’s main blogger Melissa McEwan.  I have also been on the lookout for various feminist-themed blog carnivals for The Exponent to get involved with.  I love blog carnivals.  They widen readership, allow cross-over from unexpected places, and get conversations going in fresh, new ways.  Plus, women’s issues are so ubiquitous.  It makes sense to join in the national conversation sometimes.

As I was reading earlier this week, I stumbled across this post announcing Shakesville’s intent to co-host a blog carnival next Thursday, July 7th.  It’s called the “My Planned Parenthood” blog carnival.  And I am here on The Exponent to announce that we are participating.  Our own blogger Stella will be writing a post for next Thursday, as part of the larger conversation regarding Planned Parenthood.

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My Choice

My Choice

“So though the fight over Planned Parenthood might be about abortion, Planned Parenthood itself isn’t about abortion. It’s primarily about contraception and reproductive health. And if Planned Parenthood loses funding, what will mainly happen is that cancer screenings and contraception and STD testing will become less available to poorer people. Folks with more money, of course, have many other ways to receive all these services, and tend to get them elsewhere already.” –Ezra Klein on What Planned Parenthood Actually Does

When I was 20 weeks pregnant with my second son, I went in for my ultrasound and checkup hoping to find out the gender of my baby.  I already had one three-year-old son, and I was hoping for another boy.  The ultrasound tech saw the male gentalia and told us.  I was ecstatic!  I asked a lot of questions about the heart and brain and bones.  The technician asked if I was a nurse, surprised by my inquisition.  I said no, I was just interested in physiology.  After studying many sciences, and then modern dance in college, I had an awareness of and interest in the human body that was automatic.  The idea of growing a skeleton, muscles, life in my womb was mesmerizing in the dark of that ultrasound room.

A few minutes later, my husband and I spoke to my obstetrician about the baby.  She said that their equipment was old, but that she was fairly certain that our baby boy had a cleft lip.  I had read about cleft lips in biology a few years before, but I did not really know what was done for cleft babies.  I was not worried.  We were to go to fetal and women’s center with a “million dollar ultrasound machine”.  Honestly, the only thing I thought was to hope for a 4D ultrasound picture for the fridge.  My husband and I had no idea what we were in for when we made that appointment.

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