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To Hell and Back (Part II): Surviving Motherhood

Surviving motherhood...finding your vitality.

Last week we examined the assumptions underlying the wellness movement: that when you make diet and lifestyle changes you will feel great and everything will be ok. But sometimes it’s not so easy…sometimes things get worse before they get better, and we have to hunker down and do the work.

Motherhood can be the same way.

Yes, babies are exciting and wonderful and miraculous and beautiful. Babies also ask you to renegotiate every single part of your life, and that is something that no one can prepare you for.

No doubt, some women start dreaming of motherhood early on in their lives. They know they want to have kids. I think that’s wonderful, but motherhood was not in my plans.

If you take Facebook and social media at face value, what you see is all the joy. But once again, there is something lurking underneath these images of bliss that we need to name.

The flip side of creating new life is that something must die.

Lots of women have thoughts of dying during labor, and of course, this is a real concern. You can die in this process, but more often than not, it is a symbolic death. This is not a fear to live from; it is a fear to respect. Parts of you are going to die in order to bring new life into this world.

And if you don’t look like you’re enjoying every minute of it, you think you’re doing it wrong, or at its worst, you think that something is deeply wrong with you as a woman.

The first three years of motherhood were a unique form of hell for me. A few months into it, I realized that I was in the same pattern as when I was sick, many years ago. Who I knew myself to be was dying AGAIN. I had been here before. And I called upon the inner strength I had developed in my first round of healing to get me through this transition.

But in some ways, this was even more intense because in my previous experience, it was just me I had to take care of. When I gave birth to our child, I had to continue to take care of my family – our newborn, my husband, and my mom. I essentially stopped mattering, even though I mattered more than ever.

This is in stark contrast to people who believe that having a baby is no big deal. Someone said to me one day, “I don’t get what all the fuss is about. You just carry on with your life but you’re holding a baby.”

I am confronting this denial.

I have friends who spend thousands of dollars on yoga training, silent retreats, and meditation to find inner peace. Nothing wrong with that; those are good tools. But I think to myself, “You want a spiritual experience that won’t ever stop? You want to break your ego? Have a baby and give ALL of yourself to it.” I call it Baby Boot Camp.

But, once again, our modern world takes short cuts in parenting. Just like you can take an Aspirin or drink a glass of wine to dull your pain, we have found ways to dull the pain of parenting. These shortcuts may make us more comfortable in the moment, but what are the long-term consequences?

I truly recognize that there is a wide spectrum of choices in parenting and not all of them are available to everyone. Many parents must make hard choices and sacrifice what is ideal for what is available to them, given their circumstances.

The last thing I want to do is come across as a parenting expert. I’m not. I also realize that these are very personal, complex decisions to make, and there is so much judgment of each other and our selves. But I also believe that we need to question the status quo as frequently as possible, and if something doesn’t make sense, then do something different.

Let’s take a look at a few of these shortcuts.

American culture: We set up nurseries and isolate our babies in little jail cells that we fondly call cribs, and we break their spirits by letting them cry it out, so that we can get a good night’s sleep. The goal seems to be to make the baby as independent as possible as soon as possible.

Our family: Babies are not designed to sleep through the night. My husband and I kept our son with us. Drake got his own room when he was two. We put him to sleep there in his bed and then he comes and joins us in the middle of the night. We haven’t slept well in four years and know deep within our bones that we are doing the right thing, not the easy thing.

I have never spent one night away from Drake because I know that mommy and baby need to be together. I bathe with him every night.

Recommended reading: The Family Bed by Tine Thevenin and Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith Small.

American culture: Worst-case scenario is to feed our babies formula or pump our milk. I get that pumping has a place, but it is far from ideal, and our ancestors did not have these contraptions.

Our family: I have breastfed exclusively. No pumping. No bottles.

I want to say right here that I am not ignorant to my privilege in this world. Obviously, some women can’t be with their babies and will need to pump because their income is important. But I also know lots of privileged people who don’t give breastfeeding the time a day. It is still a choice, and I refuse to dismiss my commitment, based on not having to work in an office. I realize I am lucky to have a career where my work allows me to be with my child.

Recommended reading: The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff.

American culture: We use television as a babysitter.

Our family: We do not expose our child to screens. When we go out to eat in a restaurant, I see that the TV screen mesmerizes Drake. It has a drug-like effect. The screen is like sugar. I will not lie: there are times in our home when I want to plop him down in front of the television and go do something that I want to do. But we don’t. Our home is screen-free, so we have to get creative and out of our comfort zones.

American culture: Sometimes we use pacifiers when our babies make too much noise and need soothing.

Our family: We didn’t use a pacifier in our home. For a few months we gave Drake our little finger to suck on. Extremely inconvenient, but felt better than plastic. His urge to suck dissipated naturally. Pacifiers aren’t about the baby’s comfort; they are about the parent’s comfort. A crying baby strikes a deep cord of unresolved grief within our selves.

Recommended reading: The Aware Baby by Aletha Solter and The Conscious Parent by Shefali Tsabary.

Here’s the real truth…we live in a world that we aren’t designed for.

Over and over again, in pregnancy, birthing, and parenting, my husband and I ask a single question: how close to nature are we? Not what's considered to be right or wrong, but how can we bring ancestral wisdom into our modern family.

I have used motherhood as a spiritual path, just like I used my chronic inflammatory illnesses as a source of transformation. In both cases, there was nowhere to go. How I felt about anything didn’t really matter. What I wanted to do was now irrelevant. When I was sick, my spirit was trapped in a body that didn’t want to get up off the bathroom floor. And in the first few years of parenting, I gave up everything to be with my child. All of the self-care that I had mastered to deal with my health concerns literally went out the window.

I talked to friends who said, “Oh, we just did whatever made it easy for us.”

I would have loved to do what was easy, but taking the easy route is in conflict with my soul.

Easy doesn’t resonate. Easy gets us into trouble. Easy isn’t always right. Putting a frozen pizza in the oven is easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Nope, I was going to do it again: throw myself into motherhood with everything I had, just like I did when I was getting well.

EVERYTHING had to be renegotiated.

I let go of my body. My breasts were for Drake now. My stomach is still soft and round. I look different.

I let go of the future I had created in my head.

I let go of my marriage, as I knew it.

I let go of pooping by myself.

I let go of doing anything on my time frame. I remember two weeks after giving birth, I left my house for the first time as a new mother. I needed to go buy some new breastfeeding bras. I’d never been so excited and so discouraged. It took all of my being to get out of the house that day. I thought to myself, “I just won’t ever leave the house again. Fuck it.” Now, was that true? No, but that’s what it felt like, and I am learning that feelings are real and wise.

I let go of having any kind of agenda or to-do list. What a joke? At one point, I remember it took me 5 days to send a 3-sentence email to someone.

Had I been involved in the online community, I would have let that go, too, but I hadn’t entered into this world yet.

And the weirdest thing is that everyone somehow expected me to be the same. I would show up in the world and everything was the same but me. It’s like I had to go back into my old life to say good-bye to it.

For me, motherhood was devastating.

Many health professionals would have turned this into a disease. They call it post-partum depression. I knew better. I was in the midst of a transformation, and it was spiritual. My life was expanding. I had been here before. It was going to get better, but not yet.

You see…six months before I found out I was pregnant. I was in a state of prayer. My prayer is “Infinite Spirit show me the way.” I had realized that my life was unsustainable. I was not living in a model of wellness. I was running a business with my husband AND managing my own business Eat in Peace Wellness Consulting. It wasn’t working. I wasn’t taking good care of my clients, yet my heart wasn’t fully engaged with my husband’s business. It was all wonderful, and yet I felt torn.

This prayer had always worked to give me clarity in the past. I always got the sign or series of signs I needed to determine my next move, usually pretty quickly, but the months were going by and nothing was happening.

I was getting ready to take the bull by the horns….

And then, my period didn’t come, so I got a pregnancy test and the call came, “Charlotte, I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re pregnant.” Some unique version of fuck came out of my mouth. My husband and I were celebrating our two-year wedding anniversary at Perry’s Steakhouse. We had just had this amazing meal when the phone rang. THIS was what Spirit was asking of me. THIS?! I was going to be a mother?

It was hard to make sense of my getting pregnant when I had friends who wanted a child and couldn’t, but life’s not fair. There’s an old saying that we get what we need, not what we want. That can be hard to swallow sometimes.

I hope my son reads this one-day and feels proud. Life is full of surprises. Children are one of them. My son asked me to be a mother and my husband to be a father, and we said, “YES! Let’s do this!” It was a conscious choice to bring him into this world. He has such power. He changed my life before he was born and continues to turn me into the woman I have always longed to be, and my husband is by my side.