It seems like the word “mindfulness” is everywhere. But what does it really mean? Is it just a trendy word people use to seem vaguely spiritual or natural? Or is it more than that, something that we all have a deep hunger for even if we don’t quite know what it is? And what does mindfulness have to do with pregnancy, birth and parenting? What does it mean to birth mindfully? Why is pregnancy the perfect time to cultivate mindfulness?
My favorite definition of mindfulness is “the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience”1
Being present with experience means bringing awareness to your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surroundings, moment-to-moment, without judgment or attachment. This means noticing, accepting, and letting go of each moment as it happens. “Accept” is a frequently misunderstood word. Accepting is not resignation, it is not liking or condoning. It means acknowledging that something is the way that it is. How is this helpful? Acknowledging what is makes you free to then respond to that thing, whether that thing is beauty, joy, and love or pain, fear, and anger.
Responding is completely different than reacting. There is no freedom in reacting. Reacting is like following a script programmed in your mind by your past experiences. Without re-training your mind, you react to a tangle of conflicting stories that are activated by the stimulus. With mindfulness, you gain the freedom to choose how to respond. Awareness creates choice.
Take a moment to think about where you are and where you have been in your pregnancy. When have you made “the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience” and when have you become hooked by stories in your head about the experience? Imagine what is to come: the last weeks of pregnancy, being in labor, giving birth, holding your new baby, learning to care for her, the new changes in your relationship with your partner and family… How could “the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience” benefit you, your baby, and your partner? In which situations do you think you would tend to react rather than respond? How would it be different for you if you either reacted or responded to that situation?
Make a list of some situations like these and write down how you might respond or react
Pregnancy is the perfect time to cultivate mindfulness. There is an amazing thing happening right here right now in your body. There can also be a lot of new, challenging emotions and thoughts coming up. And you know that you will soon be experiencing the intense challenges (and joys) of giving birth immediately followed by the intense challenges (and joys) of being a parent, combined with the intense challenges (and joys!) of being in relationship with your partner as new parents. Life can throw challenging situations at us at any time, but being pregnant is one time you know that it’s coming.
Mindfulness is not something you talk about, it’s something you practice. It’s not as important how much time you spend practicing as how often. Your practice sessions can be a short as 30 seconds, or even just one breath. You do need to practice intentionally and regularly. As you practice regularly, you will begin to notice more times of spontaneous attention to the present moment. So if you want to be continuously present with your experience during labor, you need to put in that gentle effort now. In other words, if you’re not doing it now, you won’t do it then. But don’t “should” yourself. If you’re curious, try it. If you want to love all of life - the good, the bad and the ugly, let yourself. Don’t wait until the perfect moment, don’t try to be perfectly mindful. Remember that it’s okay to “ring the bells that still ring… forget your perfect offering… there’s a crack in everything… that’s how the light gets in.” (Leonard Cohen)
But what do you do exactly? There are endless ways to practice mindfulness. Here are some ideas to get you started.
It can be really helpful to practice with a group as well. The group energy, and the ability to talk about your experiences with others makes the practice even more powerful. If you’re pregnant and ready to start cultivating mindfulness, deepen your practice, or just want to learn more about how you can use mindfulness to cope with the challenges and joys of the childbearing year, come join us! Sarah Wort, of From the Heart Doula & Reiki Services, will join me in offering a two-hour workshop on April 15 on Mindful Coping Through Pregnancy, Birth & Beyond. At this workshop you will get to experience techniques for accessing your intuition, coping with pain, opening to the beauty and love of it all, and becoming closer to your partner.
Learn more about Mindful Coping for Pregnancy, Birth & Beyond here.
1Bodhipaksa, What is Mindfulness? 2007. Found at http://www.wildmind.org/applied/daily-life/what-is-mindfulness
Guest post by Roopam Lunia
Tending Mother, 2017. Roopam Lunia.
“Tending Mother” (2017) is a painting that emerged in the months after I miscarried (who was to be) our firstborn son at 23 weeks on Oct 1st, 2016.
In the maelstrom of emotions that followed: guilt, rage, shame, fear, profound sadness and even some relief (as it was a very difficult pregnancy during a very difficult set of life circumstances), and in the days immediately after, I used my brushes, paint, and canvas as vessels to hold it all together and let it all go at the same time. What emerged was a painting about him, about my womb, about time and an attempt to make some kind of meaning out of it all.
But I did not paint about being a mother myself. For without a living child, I could not tap into that experience. Not even in conversation with our doula, with my husband and friends and family, in journaling, in prayer. In fact, the only time I felt like a mom was when my breasts engorged and leaked all over my not-yet-maternity clothes. I remember running to my own mother asking her what to do.
You need a bra, she said.
I need my baby, I said.
After, I picked up the brush again. This time with the theme of Mother in all of its incantations, including the Great Mother herself who holds the threads of lineages. Here, she cradles my own mother who in turn, cradles me as a baby. Behind us are the decorated skulls of our ancestry deeply rooted in Indian soil and before me, my flower of fertility minus one precious petal.
In this painting, there is grounding. Not only grounding but a shift in perception where in visualizing myself as baby I tap into my own Self as both Mother and Mothered. And not just by the woman who came before me, but by the generations of women whose DNA persisted in spite of a culture where odds were far too often stacked against them.
In this painting, I birthed a preliminary understanding of what it means to be Mother without a child. A deeper understanding of my own mother as first and foremost, even through the years of trials and tears, a woman who loved and tended me as best she could. A reverent understanding of the Great Mother as the keeper of the thread, lineage and indeed the needle and stitches.
In this painting, there is the surrender that only those who have trudged this path understand is needed to move forward in the journey. It’s not easy, but it can, will, and (for me) did happen. And for that, I remain in gratitude.
Dancers, by Donna Bodnar Papenhausen
In the end, birth is a solitary journey. You alone face and stretch your limits. You alone access the knowledge you need in the moment. This work is hard, unscripted, sacred, and vital to the health of your community. And it takes the support, guidance, and protection of a community to enable you to fully dive into it - and fully resurface.
In ancient times, and any time that women’s traditions have remained uncompromised, this feminine community support was woven into women’s lives. Midwives, shamans, priestesses, and grandmothers were keepers of wisdom which they transmitted to younger generations through storytelling, mentoring, ceremony and rites of passage. Instead of birth- and postpartum doulas, women gathered to serve one another during what was understood to be a vulnerable and significant time in the life of the mother, the baby, the family, and the community. Of course, we live in a modern post-industrial society and cannot return to ancient times, nor should we. We have passed through very dark times in the history of birth, and we are now in a fruitful moment in which we can, and are, creating new ways of mentoring, supporting, and protecting one another. We are looking to ancient wisdom for guidance - but creating something never before seen.
My first pregnancy, labor, and postpartum experience was a very solitary one. During my second pregnancy, I discovered Pam England’s ground-breaking book Birthing From Within. Just a few pages into the book, I was in tears. I realized what I had missed the first time around. It was such a relief to know that at least one other person saw birth as not just a medical event, but one that brought a woman into the unbroken chain of mothers - mothers who had deep wisdom to share, who knew the significance of the transformation, who had completed the journey and returned “with dirt under their nails.” For this second journey, I had this book, I had a meditation group, I had a yoga group that really lifted me up (thank you, Steve Koc and all my kundalini friends!) I had a doula. And during my postpartum period, I had a friend who was also a new mother. (You know who you are! How I miss those endless days of nursing and chatting!) As I started to emerge from the postpartum haze, I felt called to bring community back into birth and have been working toward that goal ever since. Unbelievably, my baby turns ten this week!
Support during each crucial phase
If we look at birth as a rite of passage, we can divide it into three parts. Preparation (or Severance), is the part where you get ready to leave behind your old life and step into the unknown. Labor and postpartum occur during the Descent (or Liminal) phase. During this time you are deep in the unknown, you face challenges that erase the old parts of yourself. You are just being. With proper support, you gradually begin to re-incorporate yourself, to make sense of what you have learned. At some point (many months later), you emerge, ready to share your new gifts and strengths with the world (Incorporation). Without community support during each of these phases, women are unlikely to complete the journey.
Women once taught each other about birth through storytelling and ritual. We still do teach one another through stories, but something got broken along the way and these stories are so often wounded stories - whether stories of trauma or pride - which only serve to plant more seeds of trauma. Choose your mentors with care. Mine their stories for the medicine you seek. Ask about what they learned about themselves from the experience. Ask about moments of surprising strength. Ask about the first time they experienced a connection with their baby. Ask about a moment when they felt completely supported. This will help them see their story in a much different way, and their answers will provide wisdom that you can guide you well.
With so much information available online, women also teach themselves by gathering facts about birth. That, along with busy lifestyles, has led to a decline in the popularity of childbirth classes. I urge expectant parents to look to childbirth classes as a way to deepen their relationship, relieve stress, build a support group, and connect with their baby. A good childbirth class will allow parents to learn in a deep way about themselves and how they may cope with unknown challenges.
Labor - solitary work, within a container of support
The evidence for the importance of continuous labor support is strong. Hodnett et al (2012) reviewed studies of over 15,000 women and concluded that “Continuous support during labour has clinically meaningful benefits for women and infants and no known harm. All women should have support throughout labour and birth.” These benefits include higher likelihood of spontaneous vaginal birth, less likelihood of using pain medication, and higher satisfaction with the birth. Continuously supported women also had shorter labors and fewer Cesarean births. A less-complicated and more emotionally satisfying birth is indeed something to strive for, but also consider the longer-term benefits of being well-supported when a birth is medically complicated or physically and emotionally traumatic.
Klaus et al (2012) shares the results of several studies that found highly significant longer-term effects of continuous labor support. He finds that, compared to women who did not have labor doulas, women with doulas had less incidence of anxiety, depression, and feeding problems. They were more likely to say that their relationship had improved since the birth and reported more satisfaction with their partner. Women with doulas were found to have an increase in positive perceptions of self and baby at six weeks. Think of the difference we would see in the emotional health of an entire generation of mothers, and the benefits their children would enjoy, if they all received continuous labor support!
Postpartum - the newborn mother
About one million new mothers experience postpartum depression each year in the U.S. (Stone, 2010). Continuous labor support is one factor that can reduce these numbers. I believe that community support during the postpartum period can further reduce the incidence of postpartum depression.
Countless cultures around the world have, or used to have, a tradition of mothers and babies staying home, resting, eating special foods, and being cared for for 40 days after birth. In the U.S., we have the tradition of the six-week medical checkup, to see if the mother’s body has healed properly and screen for postpartum depression. But what has been going on during those 40 days? How has her physical healing been supported? How have her emotions been supported? Who has guided or witnessed the huge shift she is going through? Who has been taking care of her so that she simply enjoy falling in love with her baby?
In this country it may seem impossible, for some even undesirable, to stay in the sanctuary of your own home, free from outside responsibilities, for six entire weeks. But if we truly value the work of mothers, we will find creative solutions to bring a modern version of la cuarentena to our newborn mothers. Peer-to-peer support is an important step in the right direction. La Leche League https://www.facebook.com/groups/LLLSalem/ offers on-line and group peer-to-peer breastfeeding support. The Salem Hospital hosts a weekly New Moms group (503-814-2432). The Salem area has a new local peer-to-peer postpartum depression support group called Postpartum Community Wellness. Mothers and fathers can call the warm line (971) 301-2159 anytime to get in touch with a peer support volunteer. In addition to taking advantage of these groups, be sure to request AND accept help from friends and mentors that have walked this way before you.
Emerging - rejoining the community
In a culture that understands rites of passage, this Return would be recognized and celebrated. In the U.S., however, it is more likely that your Return will be expected quite soon after birth and that you will be expected to “return to normal” rather than transformed (which necessarily changes everyone around you, like it or not). Rather than a cultural rite of passage, birth in the U.S. is more of a solitary Hero’s Journey that the community is unaware of, or actively resists. Again, we need to be creative and come up with ways to welcome, celebrate and learn from our Returning mothers. Preparing mothers, fathers, and other family members with the understanding that this lengthy period of resurfacing is normal, essential, and not to be rushed would be a good start. It would be tremendously helpful if mothers could count on a couple of friends or mentors to remind them where they are in their journey when they feel frustrated or confused, and to celebrate with her when they see her finally step over that threshold into the “new normal.”
Community is inclusive
When I talk about a circle of support for the childbearing year, I am not talking about something that is only for a certain type of privileged woman. Birth and postpartum education and support are not luxuries, they are the right of every woman. Everyone has that right as a member of a community. This is not just for the benefit of the individual. Diving whole-heartedly into the work of birth is vital to the health of the community. Without sufficient knowledge and support, we run the risk of women not completing the rite of passage and remaining in a place of brokenness. When this happens generation after generation, it creates deep wounds in the community. With support, women can come out the other side of birth stronger, wiser, and more open-hearted - and give this gift to their community and future generations.
In order to build a healthy, thriving community, it is essential that we support its most vulnerable members. Women with few resources, women coping with numerous risk factors, and women that have recently arrived in this country should be surrounded by helping hands and open hearts, especially while they are doing the work of becoming mothers. For those that have felt disempowered in their life, the transition to motherhood has the potential to build confidence and agency - or to reinforce negative messages of the past. This is why I see it as a crucial time for community support. Additionally, pregnant women that are new to this country need to be guided through the doubly--unknown terrain of birthing in a foreign country.
Portland and Seattle provide examples of what inclusive birth support could look like. St. Vincent Providence Women’s Clinic in Portland includes doulas as a part of their Pregnancy Care Package. Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center also offers a Doula Package which can be paid for using a FSA or HSA. Programs like these are normalizing the role of professional birth support and making it more accessible to all. Non-profit community outreach programs are another way to bring needed support to all members of our community. The International Center for Traditional Childbearing, in Portland, has a community-based doula program for African-American mothers and works to increase diversity in perinatal professionals. Open Arms Perinatal Services, in Seattle, offers no-cost support during pregnancy, labor, and early parenting. Their program includes community-based doula services, which means that Native, Latina, African-American, and Somali doulas serve women from their own community which helps to bridge cultural and linguistic barriers to accessing services.
Here in the Salem area, we are starting to see more volunteer-based support for mothers. Beginnings Refugee Birth Support (http://beginningsbirthsupport.weebly.com/) provides birth doulas, postpartum doulas, childbirth classes, and mother-baby groups for refugee women. Willamette Family Medical Center and Silverton Health Midwives offer the Centering Pregnancy model of prenatal care. Centering Pregnancy combines prenatal checkups with group support and childbirth preparation, including Spanish-language groups. The New Moms group, La Leche League, and Postpartum Community Wellness are free and available to everyone. We can do even more to support and protect the most vulnerable in our community. We need to become the elders we seek.
A community for birth-workers
Doulas dedicate themselves to supporting women through the journey of childbirth. Many doulas work independently and do their work in isolation. They can experience intense emotions and challenges just like birthing parents. In fact, the same could be said about doulas and mothers: You alone face and stretch your limits. You alone access the knowledge you need in the moment. This work is hard, unscripted, sacred, and vital to the health of your community. And it takes the support, guidance, and protection of a community to enable you to fully dive into it - and fully resurface.
Much of what doulas do in the birth room is modeling. They model a confident, sensitive, nurturing attitude, which helps fathers, and even hospital staff, do the same. By mothering the mother, they model a caregiving approach that mothers are then more likely to emulate with their babies (Klaus et al 2012). And so it’s just as important that they surround themselves with a community of support. Doula Sarah Wort expresses the birth worker’s need for community in this way: “On the advice of a friend and doula, I waited until my boys were at school before I started on the path to become a doula. I knew I needed to find my village. My community widened and I now feel secure and supported, which, of course, goes both ways.” Doulas can guide each other in processing birth experiences, they can share their knowledge and skills, and work together to create a thriving birth community, which in turn will support a thriving mothering community.
A new feminine framework
It seems that humans are coming to the end of a long period of a masculine-dominated thought. People all over the world are noticing this change and it has caused a lot of fear and resistance. Change means leaving behind the comfortable, known world (full of beliefs and strategies) and crossing a threshold into the unknown. Sound familiar? What would a world guided by a feminine framework look like? When we experience the type of support that enables us to jump wholeheartedly into the unknown challenges of birth, and to make our slow, steep ascent out of Laborland, we learn what this looks and feels like. In the humble act of creating a circle of support around each new mother we are sowing the seeds of a new future.
Hodnett et al, 2012. Found in https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23076901
Klaus et al, 2012.The Doula Book (3rd ed.). Da Capo, Philadelphia.
Stone, Katherine, 2010. How Many Women get Postpartum Depression? The Statistics on PPD.
ultimate doorway. A mother crosses through countless thresholds and doorways during the childbearing year. Katsi Cook, a Mohawk midwife, explains that “Birth is the movement of the physical and the spiritual through the threshold” and the mother herself is the doorway through which the energy of birth and new life flow. She is the ceremonial space, the sacred ground, in which new life comes to be and is brought forth (Gonzales 2012, 63).
The term threshold has several meanings that are particularly relevant to the childbearing year.
From the moment you get that positive result, you know that you’ve entered a radically different state of affairs. Pregnancy is a time of rapid changes, each one a point of no return: the moment you say “yes” to this visitor in your womb; the moment you realize you can’t do everything you could before; the moment your pregnancy becomes obvious to others; the moment you begin seeing the world through baby’s eyes; the moment you realize you are a mother. Labor itself is an even more rapid and intense series of beginnings, departures, and transitions: the first contraction; the moment contractions “get real”; the moment you can’t do this anymore but you do anyway; the moment you enter “Laborland”; the first moment you see your baby and so many moments after that. At each of these thresholds, you may feel fear, resistance, or doubt (as well as excitement, trust, and love). It’s not easy to let go of what was before and step into a new, unknown reality. This is the work of pregnancy.
A threshold is a boundary that is intentionally crossed in answer to a Call. What does it take to voluntarily leave behind the comforts of the known world and go to an unknown place that will change you forever? Mythology and literature provide us with many examples of women crossing the threshold into the Underworld - a place where everything you have known is turned upside down: where the parts of yourself that you have rejected live, your identity is challenged, and power is reversed. Inanna crossed the threshold a proud warrior answering the call to adventure. Psyche crossed it reluctantly, only after receiving encouragement and mentoring from an Ally. Alice was led by her curiosity and imagination into the rabbit hole. Sometimes this descent into the Underworld feels like an abduction, as with Persephone, although that’s just one interpretation of the story.
Patrisia Gonzales (2012, 62), in drawing parallels between childbirth and Native ceremonies, describes both as “entering into an unknown dimension that is largely not controllable by human intervention.” This transition - from the belief that we can control outcomes if only we make all the right choices, to an acceptance of our powerlessness before the mystery of birth (and life) - is a difficult one, much like stepping into an abyss. It’s a necessary transition though. It might happen during labor, signalling a deeper descent into Laborland, or well after the birth, opening the door to self-forgiveness.
In many tales, doorways are guarded by gatekeepers. In order to pass through, you must pass a test, or answer a question, or give something up. The journey of labor is a succession of guarded doorways. In the story of Inanna’s Descent, the gatekeeper stops Inanna at each of seven gates demanding, “Who are you?” The gatekeeper’s name is Neti, which means “Not This, Not This.” He then illustrates his point by taking from Inanna, at each gate, something that she holds dear, something that defines who she thinks she is in the world (England, 2002). While Inanna’s journey represents the stripping away of ego, we should consider that for very young or disempowered women, the journey through the underworld of birth can be an opportunity for ego-strengthening, as in the myth of Psyche. In either case, these locked gates can feel like frustrating obstacles that get in our way and slow our progress. But they also ensure that we do not move onto the next phase of the journey until we are ready. The locked gate gives us time to find answers within - answers that will guide us through the next unknown dimension.
While the work of pregnancy and birth is in one sense a series of doorways to be passed through, the entire process takes place in a liminal space - with one foot on either side of a great doorway. Gerry Maguire Thompson(2015, April 30) opens his article on thresholds with a verse that captures one aspect of labor:
This is a time that is not a time
In a place that is not a place
On a day that is not a day
Between the worlds,
Labor exists on both sides of the doorway between two worlds. It is the doorway where “two lives are held on a thread between life and death.” (doña Filo in Gonzales 2012, 44) It is the doorway between maidenhood (dependence or independence) and motherhood (responsibility or sacrifice) - a process through which the former self dissolves in preparation for the emergence of the new mother. And, in my experience, it is a doorway between the physical and nonphysical, potentially allowing access to unlimited support and knowledge.
Is it possible to move through pregnancy and labor without consciously crossing any or many of these thresholds and gates? Probably. I know that I have entered cathedrals and walked amongst sacred ruins without knowing the power of those places. Yes, it is possible on a conscious level, but the soul knows. When we don’t acknowledge or fail to engage with the psychic transitions of the childbearing year, we have to continually work to keep them buried in the underworld, as the soul continually strives to bring them to light. “Narrowness and rigidity tend to grow where initiation would create conscious growth and flexibility. Yet events that had initiatory qualities continue to live in the psyche. To initiate means to begin, and what the soul begins waits to be continued and completed throughout life.” (Meade 2006, 139)
Knowing ahead of time that you are on a path of many thresholds and gates can help you make sense of your experience, giving you a story that is both personal and universal in which to place the events of your birth. Without such a container, the intensity, uncertainty, and vulnerability of the process can easily result in feelings of trauma and confusion rather than a sense of growth and rebirth. During pregnancy, there are many things you can do to build your awareness and tolerance of threshold-crossings and transitions. I invite you to build upon these ideas and create your own. The Feast Day of St. Brigid/Imbolc is a perfect time to start.
Make a point to be conscious of transitional times of day (dawn/dusk).
Throughout your day, ask yourself: Which threshold am I about to cross? (from one role or
activity to another). What do you need to let go of to make this transition?
When moving from room to room in your house, pause at the doorway and become aware that
you are moving from one space to another, and the purpose of each space.
Draw a map of your life, including doorways to represent the thresholds and gates you have
Draw yourself passing through a doorway of labor. Draw yourself as the doorway of life.
Notice the pause between in-breath and out-breath. Notice the ease with which it changes
direction and purpose.
Notice when you are stuck at a locked gate in your life. What is needed to pass through? What
is on the other side?
Imagine what things might be taken from you at each gate of labor. Who are you without these
things? (England, 2002)
Become familiar with stories with characters that cross thresholds into an unknown world, such
as Inanna’s Descent, Psyche and Cupid, Demeter and Persephone. What other stories
can you find?
Visualize yourself as the doorway through which new life flows, practice treating yourself and
your body as sacred ground.
England, Pam. 2002. Initiation & Return: A Journal to accompany the storytelling of Inanna’s
Descent. Albuquerque: Birthing From Within Books.
Gonzales, Patrisia. 2012. Red Medicine. 62, 63. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.
Meade, Michael. 2006: The Water of Life: Initiation and the Tempering of the Soul. 139. Seattle:
Thompson, Gerry Maguire. (2015, April 30). The Ancient Celtic Concept of Thresholds in Time
and Place. Retrieved from
Valters Paintner, Christine (2016, January 31). Feast of St Brigid + Free Mini-Retreat ~ A love
note from your online abbess. Retrieved from
How can you stay centered and make clear-headed decisions during the intensity of labor? One thing you can do is craft a personal, powerful question that will help you know what to do even in unexpected situations. It has been said that “to live without sufficiently powerful questions is to enter the heat of battle unarmed,” so be sure to have at least one powerful question in your labor toolbox. This article will guide you through the creation of your own question and show you how to use it.
Why do I need a powerful question?
There are so many medical decisions to be made during pregnancy, in the midst of labor, and immediately after birth. Being informed is essential, but what you do with that information has as much to do with your personal story as with statistics. Emotions are high when your baby is involved. Lots of stories get triggered in your mind. The brain functions differently during labor - rational thought and verbal communication skills are suppressed. These factors can make it difficult to take part in the decision-making process. That’s why you need to come prepared with a question that cuts through your mental chatter and takes you directly to your center. Once you have a clear head about the present situation, it is easier to take action - to do what needs to be done in the moment.
What is a powerful question?
It is not a question that can be answered by someone else - you are the only authority. It cannot be answered with yes or no - yes/no questions lead to uncertainty, not action. And it is never about the future. The present is where insight and action are found. Your powerful question is one that, when you ask it, causes you to shift your attention inward, to the present moment, and toward the way of being that is most meaningful to you. Try it out for yourself.
How do I create my own powerful question?
When you have found a question that resonates with you, write it on a special paper. Share it with your partner and your doula so they can remind you of it during labor. Ask it frequently, in all kinds of situations. Ask it right now. It doesn’t just apply to yourself in childbirth, but to every day of your life. By practicing and living your questions now, you will have access to this powerful tool when you need it.
The highlight of my summer was definitely attending The Emerald Tent, a Birthing From Within storytelling retreat. Attending this retreat meant a lot to me because it signified the attainment of a goal that often felt far out of reach - becoming a certified Birthing From Within mentor. This six-year journey was for me a matter of personal growth. The trainings and retreats were mind-blowing, nourishing, and truly touched my soul. The in-depth conference calls on so many aspects of birth and mentoring not only take education to a new level, but make Birthing From Within a true community. The many and varied required books fed my hungry mind and I am now inspired to deepen my knowledge in so many fields that I don’t know where to begin: narrative medicine, jungian psychology, mythology, the toltec way, co-creation of ceremony, and artistic processes for healing and understanding the self, to name a few. (If you'd like to learn more, the Birthing From Within Mentor and Doula Workshop is coming to Portland November 5-7.)
The most terrifying parts of my learning process so far have been recording myself in the classroom and learning Birth Story Listening. I know that it’s true that learning cannot happen without exposing oneself and receiving honest feedback - but I still resisted, and it was still painful! You could say that my process of becoming a mentor has been the process of growing up. Just being 40-something does not automatically make one an Adult, I’ve found. Neither does being a mother. While the entire process of becoming a mother seems designed to bring about Adulthood, there are many pieces missing in our modern version of this initiation, rendering it incomplete. Luckily, people all over the world have created stories that can help us locate ourselves in our journey, find our way back to pieces we missed, remember where we are going, and what tasks we must complete in order to get there.
Stories can be told, sung, drummed, danced, and drawn. Stories are the oldest form of teaching. Stories may not automatically speak to you, though. When we read Greek Mythology in 8th grade, I found it completely irrelevant, yet these same stories, when presented as a living story by a master storyteller, feel deeply personal and insightful. I wonder what Medicine is waiting for you in the familiar stories of your childhood?
And now, with that unmistakable slant of light that heralds autumn, I’m feeling the pull from within, from below… to deepen, to come together, to create, and transform. Won't you join me?
This March marked one year since I created Quetzal Community Birth Work. The year started off intensely. On February 27 I said goodbye to my job as a family support worker at Family Building Blocks and two days later I began an challenging, nourishing and joyful week of Sacred Doula Training. A week after that, I took my family to Mexico, where I had the incredible opportunity to meet with birth workers, both traditional and modern. It was a favor for my friend Judy, but I really feel that I was the one who had been given a beautiful gift. As that powerful month came to an end, I sat down and got to work on creating a business that I had been dreaming for many years. This is where the different paths I have taken in my life somehow come together: studying art, anthropology, and Spanish; learning the craft of teacher, interpreter, and mentor; practicing yoga and meditation (here and there) and then becoming a mother (yoga and meditation suddenly essential lifelines.) This is where I struggle each day to do the personal work that I both yearn for and am terrified of.
In honor of this anniversary, I want to talk about the name I chose for my business. Although the name is rather long, and maybe hard to pronounce, I chose each word to represent an important aspect of the work that I do and the directions I dream of traveling in the future. This post was going to be about all four words, but the first, Quetzal, apparently has a lot to say and wants this entire post to itself.
The Resplendent Quetzal is a Central American bird, known for its long, green tail feathers. In case you’re not sure how to pronounce it, the English version is KET-sl (remember the wise old dragon on Dragon Tales? Like that.) The Spanish version is ket-SAHL. You can say it either way.
Connecting two cultures
I chose this bird to represent my business because it symbolizes many things that are important to my work. It represents the fact that it’s a bilingual business, serving both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking families. For two decades, I studied and made a living teaching Spanish. The time came when I felt called to use that skill to give back by removing the language barriers that make services difficult to access, and also including latina immigrants in the ever-growing birth options available in the U.S, which can include the best of both cultures. When I visited the maternity ward of a hospital in Zihuatanejo, Sara, the social worker that was showing me around, enthusiastically announced to everyone we met that I attended births at an American hospital where they practice “parto amigable” (friendly birth). Her dream is that her hospital will one day do the same. It’s ironic that part of what is making American birth more “friendly” is the growing acceptance of traditional techniques, like the use of the rebozo, which were originally learned from Mexican midwives, yet are not available in Mexican hospitals, where “progress” means a Cesarean rate of around 50%. (Read Judy’s book for much more on the changing landscape of midwifery and hospital birth in Mexico!) By being a bilingual doula and childbirth educator, I can interpret and inform about policies and options as well as help create a comforting birth environment.
Another reason the word quetzal resonates with me is its connection to mythology, which plays a big part in Birthing From Within classes. When we look deeply at any Great Story, myth, or folktale, we can see important moments of our own life reflected in the hero’s adventures. This can help us see the significance of our own experience. I have found mythology to be a powerful tool for processing and creating meaning in our birth experiences.
Quetzal is associated with the Mayan warrior and Guatemalan national hero Tecún Umán, the last warrior to fall in the battle against Pedro de Alvarado’s forces. His spirit guide, Quetzal, flew down and rested on his body, forever marking its feathers with the warrior’s blood. A warrior is one who lives passionately with no attachment to outcome. Women are warriors in childbirth, doing whatever needs to be done, and are forever marked by the experience. What form do your red feathers take? What do they represent to you? Wear them proudly.
It is said that the spirits of women who die in childbirth -and warriors that die in battle- become hummingbirds. While birth does still carry the risk of physical death, it is also true that the ego, our self-concept, is embattled and faces death during childbirth. It is an unusually intense time of transformation. Now, when I see a hummingbird, I think of the parts of myself that I have surrendered -sometimes joyfully, but more often after putting up quite a fight- as a part of the process of becoming a mother. When I see hummingbirds I honor these parts of myself, the strength that it took to release them, and the beauty and knowledge that eventually blossomed from that sacrifice.
The word quetzal means “feather”, “precious”, and “beautiful” and appears in Mesoamerican mythology in the name of the goddess Xochiquetzal and the god Quetzalcoatl. Xochiquetzal (Beautiful Flower) is the goddess of fertility, female sexual power, beauty, pregnancy, childbirth, and and is a protector of young mothers. She is also the Mesoamerican representation of Rainbow Mother, “the energy of the poet, dancer, weaver, and seer” - who mothers by inspiring her children (Lynn Andrews. Jaguar Woman, p. 48-9).
She is accompanied by colibrí, the hummingbird, and adorned with butterflies. A butterfly’s metamorphosis mirrors the transformation that heroes and mothers go through in the midst of their journey. What lies between caterpillar and butterfly appears to be a hopeless mess - a not-caterpillar/not-butterfly. Mothers can take heart knowing that there is a complex intelligence to that mess, eventually resulting in a perfect butterfly.
Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent) is a god of learning and knowledge, and associated with the legendary 10th-Century Toltec ruler, Ce Acatl Topiltzin.
The term “Toltec” is considered by some to refer to the pre-Aztec culture centered in Tula, Hidalgo. For others, such as Carlos Castaneda, Don Miguel Ruiz, and Allan Hardman, “Toltec” is a lineage of spiritual wisdom, passed down from ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica. In his popular book, “The Four Agreements”, Ruiz offers practical wisdom for cultivating personal freedom. The Birthing From Within approach draws from these and other Toltec teachings. Personal freedom is really what Birthing From Within is all about: Freedom to wholeheartedly embrace the events of your birth, no matter what happens. Freedom to create your own story. Freedom to look your fears in the eye. The resplendent quetzal is a bird that represents personal freedom, both because it famously cannot be held in captivity (without becoming merely a shell of itself), and because of its association with the warrior Tecún Umán, who embodies this verse of the Guatemalan national anthem, “Antes muerto que esclavo será” (“Death before slavery”).
Stories of the trials and tribulations of heroes and warriors give us clues about what our own process of gaining personal freedom might look like. All cultures and religions have stories of this kind.
Honor your resplendence!
There is so much more I could say about the Resplendent Quetzal, so many tangents I could happily follow. Perhaps it is enough just to say that it is my dream that all pregnant, laboring, and new moms know and feel that they are resplendent- beautiful and precious. That you know you are strong even in your times of weakness. That you feel free even when the yoke of motherhood weighs heavily on your shoulders. That you are living a story that is much bigger than the one that our society expects to hear from you.
People often ask me what made me decide to become a doula and childbirth mentor, after teaching Spanish for so many years. When I stopped to think about it, I realized that the reason I started doing birth work is not the reason I am doing it now. I started for the wrong reasons.
After my second child was born, I wanted to help other women prepare for birth as I had, and have the birth experience I had. I remember with regret, the conversation I had with a friend that had called me, seeking childbirth advice. I offered her a big slice of what is called in Birthing From Within, “Birth Pie.” That is, if you follow my recipe exactly, look at this beautiful thing you’ll get! When her baby was born by Cesarean she was devastated. I was confused and felt I’d failed her. What had gone wrong? Did I give the wrong recipe? Did she not follow the steps? Who was to blame? And if there was no magic recipe, what was the point of helping women prepare for childbirth? One of the reasons I had switched from academic teaching to childbirth mentoring was to teach without the focus on tests and grades, without a pass/fail system. But in this way of thinking about birth, there was definitely a grading scale and the goal was for the student to get an A.
I had prepared for my first birth with a method that implied a promise that birth would be peaceful and painless. Unfortunately, it “worked” for me. I say unfortunately because it is a very dangerous thing to believe that you have the magic recipe for birth. It perpetuates Birth Pride and Birth Shame. It keeps people outcome-focused. It stifles deeper exploration of the complexity and richness of birth. The unfolding of each birth is influenced by countless factors, many of which will always remain a mystery. Unless there is some disconnect between beliefs and experience, causing a need to search for meaning, growth does not happen. And if a teacher has not gone through the process of true learning, how can she teach? Fortunately, the tension between outcome-focused childbirth preparation and the unpredictable nature of birth became too great for me, and my own learning began.
Years ago, when I was still teaching Spanish, a student of mine who was writing a paper on natural birth came to interview me. She asked me, “Why should women prepare for natural birth?” I’m not sure what I said at the time, but this is what I would say now. Preparing for natural birth is a lot of work. It means getting to know yourself and your stories about yourself, becoming familiar with the ways that you engage with the uncomfortable and the unexpected, examining how you cope with uncertainty, asking yourself, “What do I do when I don’t know what to do?” No matter how your birth unfolds, this kind of preparation will serve you. Because it is also preparation for birthing with an epidural, for birthing through unexpected complications, for giving birth by Cesarean, and for parenting. And so, even if you know you will have a medicated or surgical birth, whether by preference or by necessity, doing this work will serve you. I don’t consider this to be natural birth preparation. It is aware birth preparation. When you prepare to give birth in awareness, there is no grading scale, no pass/fail!
Why do I do this work now? Becoming a parent is a time when great love and intense challenges come together. It brings about changes in self-image, identity, priorities, and relationships. It brings to light old fears and creates new ones never before experienced. My intention is to offer parents the tools and the clarity to navigate these experiences. My hope is that each parent comes away from their birth experience with a more open heart. Each parent is on their own personal journey for their own reasons and with their own goals. I’m their sherpa. I know the terrain and what might come up at different landmarks, but I follow, rather than lead. I share what I observe. I carry a pack full of tools - questions, stories, maps - to be used if needed. Every couple that I walk with teaches me so much, invites me down new paths. I do this because I love the journey.
There was a point last week when everything changed. Golden autumn gave way to darkening autumn. Winter is at our heels. I imagine that for weeks now, bears have been slowing down their activity, having grown large with the inner resources they will need to sustain themselves through the winter. At some unknown signal, perhaps that same thing we felt last week, they each enter their solitary cave and begin hibernation.
Bear lives in the West of the Medicine Wheel. This is the place of intuition, emotion, dreams, the energy of adolescence, and feminine energy. Pregnancy can be a time when the West is very active. It can be a time of vivid dreams. Intuition can be especially strong. Emotions well up in powerful waves.
Although intuition may be strong in pregnancy, it may easily be drowned out by the voices of others. Pregnancy is a vulnerable time due to the rapid changes, uncertainties, and new responsibilities. It is natural to want to depend on the advice of experts and those that have tread this path before. But having access to an abundance of contradictory facts and opinions gets us no closer to the answers we seek. For someone that’s trying hard to “get it right”, this can be overwhelming and set the stage for a sense of failure. Another natural tendency is to seek out only that information which supports what is already believed to be true. Again, rather than give us the deeper truths we need, this approach blinds us to the full range of possibilities and can in fact contribute to emotional birth trauma.
Bear embodies the power of Knowing. Bear is her own authority, seeks her own counsel. How do you find out what you need to know to give birth and become a parent? Where do you find the sweet honey of your own truth? What does it mean to find the answers within? Let’s learn from Bear by tracking her journey into her cave.
David Carson (Medicine Cards) uses rich imagery to illustrate the meaning of the bear cave. He calls it the Place of Rites of Passage, the Dream Lodge, the Womb, the Great Void “where solutions and answers live in harmony with our questions.” He uses the Hindu concept of the Cave of Brahma to describe Bear’s journey: In India, the very center of the four lobes of the brain (the third ventricle) is known as Brahma’s Cave. Imagining the Medicine Wheel superimposed over your head, the West would be over your right ear, the intuitive side of your brain. As winter approaches, Bear leaves the West and walks the inward path of silence, slowing down with each step she takes, toward the cave of Brahma… where she dreams. I liken this journey to that of the labyrinth. Tracing the inward path calms the mind and prepares the seeker to sit in the center and hear the answers she carries within. Tracing a labyrinth is an ancient way of finding answers to problems that the thinking mind could not solve. It is a type of meditation, which allows brain waves to slow down and change from Beta (thinking, analyzing) to Alpha (relaxed mind) to Theta. When Theta waves are activated in your brain, intuition becomes stronger, it becomes easier to see a situation in its entirety, and complex problem-solving can take place.
Tracing or walking a labyrinth is one way to enter your Bear Cave. Other types of meditation and visualization can accomplish the same thing. Creating art while focusing on the process, rather than the product, will also lead you down the inward path, toward your inner Knowing and personal Authority.
While they are powerful tools, entering the Bear Cave doesn’t have to entail these special activities. It can be as simple as acknowledging to yourself and others that your pregnancy and postpartum period is a significant time, a time during which it is natural to hibernate. It’s probably not practical to give up all of your outside responsibilities for months on end, like bears do, just because you are pregnant, although this sometimes does become necessary. But Bear teaches us to pull back from activities that drain our energy, that do not nourish us. This is a time to re-evaluate what you give your energy to. Ask yourself, “Is this absolutely necessary? How do I know this? Is this still a priority for me? What would happen if I stopped? Who am I without this? Who am I becoming? What nourishes me? How do I know this?” Also, give yourself permission to take naps. Take breaks to focus on your breathing. Notice if you are holding tension somewhere in your body. What can you release?
Mother bears teach us the importance of timing and of listening to the body’s signals. Female bears enter hibernation carrying fertilized eggs. Although she may have been carrying these eggs for months, they are not implanted until the conditions are right, ensuring that the cubs are well-nourished and born at the proper time. The mother bear wakes up briefly to give birth to her cubs, then returns to snoozing while she snuggles and nurses her babies for the next three months. Only at some inner signal does the new family emerge to embrace the newness and activity of springtime and the outside world. This is a powerful reminder that a mother is still in her Bear Cave for months after her birth. This is the fourth trimester. How will you know when it is time for you and your baby to leave your Bear Cave? What will your inner signals be? Will it be hard for you to wait? Or will you need some help rousing yourself? These are important questions to consider as you anticipate, or try to make sense of, your new life with baby.
You have entered your Bear Cave carrying dreams and goals for yourself as a mother, your birth, your baby, your new family, and this next stage of your life. Introspection is necessary to bring these dreams to fruition. Introspection and time. This is what Bear teaches us. Allow these seeds to dwell in the darkness, within the protective walls of your Dream Lodge, until a signal moves you to bring them outside, to the light, where they can blossom and grow into their true shape. While in the Dream Lodge, these seeds contain infinite possibilities. A season in the Bear Cave will give nourishment, strength, and wisdom to your dreams so that when they emerge in spring they are ready to take off running.
In summer, all of life answers the call of the sun. Reaching, growing, expanding. All answering the urge to become the fullest expression of one’s being. And then... there comes a moment when the pendulum hangs in the air. The pause between breaths. Golden stillpoint. All is ripe, complete. The Golden Autumn, just before giving way to Darkening Autumn, Eldritch Autumn. Electric blue sky. Whispering of golden leaves. The call of a hawk high overhead. Sitting outside on a day like this, I feel the stillness, the fullness and richness that comes from a season’s work well done. The moment is so… pregnant. And then - suddenly, silently - one golden leaf drops.
In the last days of pregnancy, this double voice can be heard, if we allow ourselves to listen. Culturally, our focus is all on the joyful firsts… seeing, holding and feeding the baby for the first time. Baby’s first smile, first rolling over. And these things are indeed magical and to be cherished to the fullest. However, if we fail to acknowledge the entirety of the experience of becoming a mother, including that autumnal awareness that some things - important things - are coming to an end, we not only fail to prepare properly for this new stage of life (and, I would say, increase the likelihood of postpartum depression), but we miss out on this exquisite paradox.
Two major things that come to an end with childbirth are the maiden self and the state of pregnancy. Some women enjoy being pregnant and others do not. The experience of being pregnant certainly can be fraught with discomfort, uncertainty, and intense emotions. However easy or difficult one’s pregnancy, it is indeed a special state experienced perhaps once or several times during a lifetime. It is common to become impatient as the due date approaches, wanting to meet this new little person and wanting relief from pregnancy discomforts (in fact, the Spanish expression for “When are you due?” is “¿Cuándo te alivias?” or “When will you be relieved?”) To be sure, there is a collective sigh of relief whenever a baby finally makes her appearance.
I invite you to take some time to enter into the stillness and rich fullness of your last moments of pregnancy. Feel your heartbeat and his, the Original Song. Cherish one more time that odd, unique feeling of arms and legs moving within you. Reflect on nine-months’ work well-done. All is ripe, complete. Never again will you hold your child this close. Never again will your baby’s needs be met so perfectly and continuously. Soon, very soon, that first golden leaf will drop. Your baby begins her own path. Soon, too soon, you will learn the work of mothering, the work of letting go. Allow yourself to feel all of this. Honor all of this. And then open your arms to embrace the joyous adventure that is just around the corner.
Parents are continually trying to explain to people without children that having a child changes everything. It is difficult for them to explain what they mean and impossible for those who haven’t experienced it to understand. For women, there is an archetypal shift that occurs: from Maiden to Mother. To help my students reflect on what this change means in their own lives, I give them a drawing of a tree and a seedling. There are roots and footsteps leading toward the tree. Here I have them write where they have come from - the strengths and challenges that they bring, and that have brought them, to this journey. Half of the tree is in summer and half in autumn. On the summer side, I invite them to write words that represent their independent, self-contained maiden self. On the autumn side, they write what they anticipate letting go of in order to become mothers. The seedling represents what they will gain and the ways in which they will grow through the experience of being a mother.
So as you sit in the darkness with your soon-to-be-born child, sit with your maiden self as well. Sit with the girl and woman that you have been and have become. Acknowledge her, honor her, laugh with her, cry with her, conspire with her. Feel the beauty tinged with sadness. Tell her you must leave her soon to start a new journey. Ask her to watch your back. You will meet again.
Christy is a doula and Birthing From Within childbirth mentor committed to strengthening families and communities through storytelling/storylistening, meaningful celebration, mindfulness, and reflective work.