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When Birth Doesn’t Go As Planned

childbirth, loss, pregnancy No Comments

Woman hold in her hand 4 different colored wax crayons

“I want you to pick your six favorite colors from these crayons, and draw the scene of your ideal birth.”

Oh, shit.  I am not visual or artistic.  This is going to be hard… she continues:

“You can use images, stick figures, symbols – don’t worry about it being a piece of art.”

The instructor smiles knowingly while everyone in the room glances around, slightly panicked.

I’m sitting in a room of 15 women. It’s our 5th week of doula training. We are here to learn how we can best support women during the biggest transition of their lives.

We take our time picking our six favorite crayons, latching onto the one piece of direction we have.  Having the perfect colors seems like the best chance of success at something so elusive.  By the time the crayons get to me, there aren’t many options left, but I’ve made peace with the fact that this isn’t going to come out very well.

Less than a minute after we begin, just when most of us are starting to feel a little direction, “now, take your three favorite colors of the six.  Set them aside.  And keep going”.  I had only liked 3 of my colors to start with.  I am left with brown: red: orange.

I keep going, unsettled, but something begins to well up.  I had seen water.  Now, I see rain; it belongs too. February is full of rain.

And then, what feels like seconds later, the instructor’s voice over the music – “now, take your paper and turn it sideways.  And keep going.”

It is not hard to maintain the vision that has been forming.  I know this is no piece of art but it has a little life of it’s own.  Startled, I realize that the images finding their way through my unskilled and intentionally limited hands represent my family.

And finally, “I want you to switch to your non-dominant hand.”  This is the final straw for many, and for me too.  I struggle to create fluid lines, already impaired by the sideways view.  Yet, I know what the final touches need to be.

It is all here, they are all here; my whole family, all of my babies, everyone I want to feel present with me at my birth, in this silly chicken scratch crayon drawing… and now I’m struggling to keep it together in a room of near strangers.

The instructor tells us we are done.  She asks about the experience, and specifically if there is anything that came out visually that surprised us.  A week or two before, we had written a description of our ideal birth.  This exercise clearly accesses a different part of us – many express that there is some person, some element, some feeling present on paper that we did not know should be there.  For me, it is Rowan.  I realize that he will have a voice in this next birth, a place we make for him.  I look at the childish drawing in front of me and I see so much fullness and completion, despite the missing parts.

The central goal of this exercise is to get us thinking about how our dreams and wishes for birth are important and valid and yet sometimes things change; sometimes things are taken away.  As we share and reflect on our drawings, it is evident that even with seemingly crippling limitation or loss, we can still create, we can still dream, we can still be present.  We can still go on.

We talk about how we can support women in creating these beautiful, empowering images of what they see for their bodies and their babies, and yet be able to hold these with open hands.  And, as I am experiencing, focusing less on the details and more on the feelings that really come down to support and presence anyways.

The last time I had a birth plan, it looked a lot different.  Far from an exploration or depiction of what I envisioned birth feeling like, it was a list; of all the interventions I wasn’t going to allow and the perfect sequence of events that would mean the perfect birth. That birth, my first, was long and difficult – a series of stalls and interventions that left me exhausted and overwhelmed, and horrified at the deviations from my plan.  In the end, I pushed him out, despite my doctor’s warning that “if you don’t get this baby out we’re going to have to pull him back up and cut him out” (reverse psychology?).  Even with this apparent victory, there was no peace or accomplishment in his birth – just exhaustion, manipulation, and in the months that followed, achy sadness.

I had been really set on my three favorite colors, and when they were taken, I did go on.  But I never found any peace or joy in what was left to me.  Even though I would have been lost without the amazing support of my husband and mother, these were not the focus of my experience.  Most of the things on my list didn’t go as planned, and I felt like a failure.

When I got pregnant with Rowan, I instinctively knew I wanted things to be different.  I had no formal birth “plan” this time – just a lot of dreams and conversations adding up to hope that my body could do this better, more easily.  Somehow, even with the lingering, primitive fears I carried from my first birth, this one was was different from the start.  I could feel the progress of my body immediately, knew that it was responsive and true.  I had the benefit of having been through this before, but in a way I had distrusted my body so completely the first time that I felt like I had to learn completely from scratch.  This time the words of my mother and my midwife and Ina May and all of the others were inside of me and they knew I could do this and so did I.

And then he was gone.

He was more than just my favorite colors.  I didn’t know if I could go on.

I sometimes struggle to talk about my birth with Rowan because it’s hard to explain how something so painful could be so peaceful.  This is how I know the point of the drawing exercise to be true – my people came around me in the most incredible way and they carried me up and into and through the most healing experience of my life.  Rowan gave me the gift of coming so peacefully that I cannot remember him any other way.  He was not angry or lost.  My body did not fight him.  He also gave me this gift – of believing in my body again.

Birth doesn’t always go like we plan.

I still think a lot about how I want my next birth to be.  It’s what I do, it’s how I am.  It’s what I help other women do.  But this exercise has shown me the power of focusing not so much on a sequence of details but instead on discovering the elements that will make me feel the most supported and strong.  I am inspired to help mothers create empowering images of birth that can be fluid and adaptable and lifegiving.

When birth doesn’t go as planned, we become afraid, or angry, or overwhelmed.  So much feels at stake, beyond the obvious “healthy mom and healthy baby”, and for good reason – our culture first cuts us off from our intuition and wisdom, the gifts we were given as women, and then, demands we have to live up to a standard of perfection in everything we do.  Dreams crystallize into something rigid and idealistic… and when things don’t go like they’re supposed to we have a lot to lose.

If we let go of our tight hold on all these plans and expectations and what they mean to us, we make room for birth to be what it needs to be, and room for us to find who we are as well.

You should try it.  Draw your birth (or your marriage, or your graduation).  Take away your favorite things, limit yourself, change the perspective.  See what new direction meanders through your fingers; what really lies beneath your desire.  See who is there with you, and how they make you feel.  See how you have the strength to go on.


*This exercise was part of the Labor Doula Certification offered by Birthingway College of Midwifery in Portland, OR, taught by instructor Raeben Nolan.  The thoughts shared here are my own personal reflections.

How to Name a Baby

motherhood, pregnancy 6 Comments

Your oldest brother had his name before he even had a real shot at existing.  Your father and I, young and infatuated with each other, read a book together, a novel – an epic tale of an Irish monk named Aiden whose story went deep inside us and became part of our story.  We met and fell in love in Ireland, after all – and so your brother came to us, even then.

When he came to us, in the flesh, it was through fire – true to his name and to the spirit he would own from the beginning.

Your second brother’s name also came to us without fight – boy or girl, Rowan was always who that baby would be.  We washed all of the baby things and reassembled all of the furniture and set up camp to wait.  Your brother, he had other plans.  We packed all of the baby things and sold all of the furniture and set fire to our camp, letting it burn until nothing was left.  His name also meant “red” or “fire” and it rings perfectly from beyond, like it was only ever chosen by a son who knew he wouldn’t be able to stay.

But we got lucky, with these names.  They came to us.  Now, we hold our dreams a little differently, less and more sure all at the same time of who we are and where we are going.  When you came along and your green tender soul peeked at us from the dirt we said “there you are” and “who are you?” and “will you be able to stay?” all in one breath.

Your father says we will choose a name for you and you will both ride it and be crushed by it for the rest of your life.  It will become part of the fiber of your being, something that you wake up to and fall asleep to, oblivious to and in wonder of it’s power all at once.

Yes, we do hold you differently.  You are more precious, in the sense that we know now life is not a given, that we don’t get to call the shots.  You mean something different than your brothers, whose presence was taken for granted.  We know to hold you with open hands, even as we want you so badly.

I search for names that meant “gift” or “longed for” or even “rainbow”.  They all fall short.

But there is this one name.  I have a list, a dozen names that I like or love.  I run them by your father; he shoots them all down.  No mere mortals name will do for his daughter.  This one name haunts me – but he doesn’t feel it and I have some reservations too.

There is also another name – one we circle again and again, trying it on, ridiculous in our attempts to imagine who you will be.  We have almost decided on this name, this name that makes the most sense, but then I envision you and you are a bossy 5 year old.  Your father cannot shake the image of an evil stepsister.  We know these thoughts are juvenile – like a schoolgirl writing her name next to every boy in class, but we can’t help it.  The name doesn’t fit.  We let it go without ever saying as much.

I am anxious for your name – I knew your brothers by name since they were fresh in my womb and urged them from that same womb to my arms by their name.  You feel far away without yours.  You are a girl, which makes you more the same as me but even more unfamiliar to my experience as a mother.  How will I know who you are?  How will I bring you into a world where you belong?  Your name feels like the right place to start.

I had always said that I would never choose a name with a strong meaning again.  Aiden means “fiery one” and there were days where that seemed like a cruel joke – one that we had unintentionally played on ourselves.

I would name another child something that meant “great sleeper” or “fond of quiet play” or “listen to the words of your mother”.

But it turns out that these are not the names I like.  I search for names for you, poring through lists of Irish names, Hebrew names, any names.  I find names I love that mean “descendent of the sad one” or “this child, too, will die” (northern europeans were very dark in the dark ages).  We rule these names out because no matter what you believe about the meaning of a name, this is just too much.

We rule out beautiful Irish names based on their pesky non-phonetic spelling.  We rule out names simply because your father thinks they are not noble enough, or are too whimsical, or too down-to-earth.  The bookending of vowels becomes a sudden and inexplicable taboo.  Another name gets close consideration but is ruled out for being too obviously copycat.

Still, your name has not come.

Then, one night in bed your father whispers your name to me.  I am high on love drugs from an unexpectedly sweet bedtime with your brother, who stroked my belly for some time, whispering “baby sister” and words of love to you and I.  He does not know the gift he gave me that night, or how it was the first time you really felt real to me.  He does not know that it was the first moment I believed we are actually going to be a family.

Your father whispers the name.  It is the name that has haunted me for weeks now.  Just two days ago I saw a photo of a young girl that I imagined to look like you and in my heart this is her name.  She is perfect and she is you.  But your father hadn’t felt it yet.  It feels like it is deep inside of me, waiting to be called out.  This night, when I see you so clearly inside of me, inside my future, it is found.  First you; now your name.

It is the same name as your brother Aiden.  It’s feminine version, also meaning “fiery one”.  You will own your fire, just like he has, and it will be the best part of you.

And so, in the end, I believe that a name is found, like treasure – or maybe it finds you.  One way or another, sometimes before it’s time or seemingly after, but it will come.

Dear Pregnant Mom Whose Older Child Is Being an A**hole

family life, motherhood, pregnancy No Comments

Dear pregnant mom whose older child is being an asshole,

Little girl with pout that looks at her pregnant mom in her bedroom.

You are worried.

When you agreed to sign up for the obvious madness of having another child, you’d held some naive hope that you’d done this before and it would be crazy for awhile but then you’d find your groove.  And now, your toddler has reached whole new levels of asshole-ness.  Perfect timing, asshole kid.  You are exhausted, probably puking as a not-so-side gig, and concerned about how much more quickly your body is expanding this time around than the first.  You don’t have enough emotional bandwidth to email a friend, let alone deal with the raging psychosis of a 4 year old.

You are also embarrassed.  Your family life has never been instagram-perfect but you haven’t considered complete quarantine a potential option until now.  Maybe it’s potty training regression, maybe it’s massive tantrums, maybe it’s sudden reports of escalating aggression at daycare.  Whatever it is, this isn’t how you envisioned your family, and you can’t imagine what people must think of you at school, at the grocery store, at playdates, at church.  It’s humiliating.

And the scary part is, you really believe this is your new forever.  Parenting a young child has an interminable quality to it to already – like a comedian trying to fill an hour, you chase your child around the living room or read them a story and – DON’T YOU DARE DENY IT – when you’re done you’re like, “that was probably about 3 minutes”.  But you don’t have to fill an hour.  YOU HAVE TO FILL A WHOLE DAY THAT STARTED AT 4 AM.  Not to mention all of the rest of the days for eternity.

Of course, your rational brain is capable of reassuring you that this, too, shall pass.  But when you have a young child and things are rough, you actually believe on a cellular level that you’re stuck here, in this horror, forever.  There is no listening to reason.  And if you happen to be pregnant and today has you wondering who should be institutionalized first; HALP.

So, you’re worried.  You’re worried that you’re raising a sociopath, you’re worried that all this stress is going to negatively affect your pregnancy, you’re worried that it’s really only going to get worse when the baby arrives and how will you cope then if you’re barely coping now, you’re worried that maybe you didn’t get the timing right after all.  Your spouse doesn’t really get it – he’s unconcerned, or checked out, or amused, or not around enough to know how bad it really is.

You’ve got your imperfect tools and you try it all – time outs, time ins, positive reinforcement, yelling at the top of your lungs, ignoring the behavior, redirection, the removal of privileges.

(as a side note, have you tried pretending to be asleep?)

When I was pregnant with our second, the first was 3.  We’d finally decided there was no use in stretching it out any further, we didn’t want kids too far apart – and suddenly, mysteriously, our 3 year old was facing some complicated and very stressful (non-life threatening) health issues.  This primarily affected his sleep/mood/behavior (need I say more?) and he was too young and I was too pregnant to meet each other where we were at.  It was a traumatic 9 months – anxiety bloomed like a virus inside of me and he and I spent that season locked in a battle of will and emotion that took a serious toll.

It wasn’t until I learned how to truly let go – of my agenda, of my assumptions about the future, of my fear – that we began to heal and find each other again.  Now, I am 20 weeks pregnant again and this time with a 7 year old – yes, he’s older and more reasonable and he and I have WAY more practice at being human to each other, but guess what?  He’s being an asshole again.

If we were having coffee and telling stories that made us laugh and cry, these are the only things I would want you to know, dear mama:


What you’re experiencing is normal.  So normal, in fact, that it’d be abnormal if you weren’t.  Somewhere, some mother on instagram can’t relate and is posting photos of a luminous child kissing her pregnant belly accompanied by anecdotes of breakfast in bed.  She’s either lying or she’s one of the unicorns who actually has a child that doesn’t struggle through transition.  Either way, you should pay no attention to her.  The rest of us?  We’re not sure if everyone’s going to survive today either.

You are going to have days where you do great and days where everything falls apart (mostly you).  You will fail miserably and be certain you’ve made everything worse.  Accept where you’re at.  You are hormonal and tired, your child really is being an asshole, and nobody else has to live with it the way you do.

What if your child isn’t broken?  They are going through something real, just like you are, and if you see your child as something that needs to be fixed you will spend your whole life trying to fix them.  Let go of what people think.  Let go of trying to figure out how to “handle the situation” perfectly.  Let go of the idea that any of this has anything to do with how this child is going to turn out.  Just let go.

Our children know when we need something from them that they can’t give.  They know when we feel like the stakes are unimaginably high, like everything is riding on this situation that they are clearly at the center of.

But what if your child isn’t broken – what if they are just waiting for you to really see them?   What if they just need to know that you believe things are going to be ok, that THEY are going to be ok, that this hard day/week/season isn’t anything other than just that?

I don’t believe we’re only “given as much as we can handle”.  The truth is that sometimes you get broken wide open and spilled everywhere.  You will crack and you will break.  On the other side of this, someday sooner than you think, you’ll laugh and drink wine excessively and face some new challenge with just an ounce more belief that it’s not going to last forever.

Hold onto that ounce fiercely when you get it.

Rainbow, Baby

miscarriage, pregnancy 9 Comments

rainbowflagThere are some secrets you can only keep for so long.  

I am so pregnant, you guys.

Keeping secrets can be good or bad, healthy or not, and it’s all about intuition.  I wrote earlier this year about how silence during pregnancy can be more harmful than we realize, and I stand by it.  But, the real gist of that article was that you should tell who you want, when you want.  Which takes some awareness and intuition to really understand, rather than just going on what your fear or expectations are telling you.

In my last pregnancy, I told a lot of people, right away.  It felt really right.  That pregnancy felt so serendipitous, so natural, and I went with it.  I was about to make the public, formal announcement to anyone who didn’t know yet, when we had a miscarriage at almost 13 weeks.  It was heartbreaking for so many reasons, not the least of which was the automatic questioning of my intuition – how could I have felt so good about something that wasn’t ever meant to be?  It was a disturbing and cruel irony.

This time around, I felt a lot more like letting the air out of the balloon slowly.  A person here, a person there.  Whoever felt right to tell, and whenever I felt safe.  If I didn’t feel safe, whether with the person or with myself that day, I didn’t say anything.  There were times it felt unnatural, but it always felt right.

I’m almost 18 weeks now.  In fact, we find out if we’re having a girl or a boy in a few days.  Part of me is tempted to wait until after that appointment to make this announcement.  We’ll know for sure if we’re working with 10 fingers and toes, limbs where they’re supposed to be, and growth markers on track.  But, as much as I have trusted and honored my need for an extra bit of privacy and safety during this pregnancy, I also know that it is time to publicly honor this life and this time in my life.

Because I know, more than ever, that there isn’t a day that comes where all the fears are put to rest and all the unknowns are known.  When you say yes to becoming a mother, you say yes to holding all of that uncertainty – forever.

So, I’m letting the rest of the air out of the balloon all at once.  It’s not safe; we’re not all safe.  But we are loved, and we are together in this journey, you and me.

We’d love for you to hope with us for this rainbow baby.

Trying to Get Pregnant Can Make You Crazy

pregnancy, stillbirth 5 Comments

DeathtoStock_Creative+Community8Trying to get pregnant can make you crazy.  Trying to get pregnant again after losing a baby could practically be an A&E Intervention episode.

You possess both an insane amount of optimism (you didn’t get to the point of trying again without that) and also a paranoia that understandably, cannot be reasoned with.

You will take more pregnancy tests than is psychiatrically advisable.  You’ll decide to buy them in bulk because that seems like the financially responsible to do.  You will wonder if they are less effective because they cost 90% less than what you can get them at the drugstore for.  But you did buy the best reviewed brand on Amazon so you will mostly ignore that thought.

From the Beginning (Trying Again After Stillbirth)

pregnancy, stillbirth No Comments

imgYou will build and tear down and rebuild a million times before you decide to have another child after stillbirth.  Most of this constant construction will go unnoticed – you are strong, resilient, brave.

You will be so many different women, so many different mothers… to yourself, to your family, to the world.

You will be like a child yourself; so unsure one moment, so free the next.  Dreams will turn ashen then kaleidoscopic then back again.

Rowan’s Birth Story

childbirth, pregnancy, stillbirth 4 Comments

babyrowanRowan was due on Aiden’s birthday.  I always loved and hated that.  It seemed so perfect that they would be almost exactly 4 years apart, no matter what.  I could also picture inevitably angsty teenage boys shouting “no one ever thinks about ME!!” and slamming doors during birthday week.  We intentionally planned Aiden’s birthday party a couple of weeks early to hopefully avoid the chance of my being in labor at that time.

Ironically, I spent Aiden’s early birthday party and the next couple of days in “prodromal labor”, which we intermittently thought might be the real deal.  Aiden’s birthday/Rowan’s due date came without incident, and we settled in to the notion that we’d have another late baby, and that the boys birthdays would hopefully be separated by a few days.