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What in the world is a Lotus Birth?

What in the world is a Lotus Birth?

A Lotus Birth is the practice of keeping the placenta intact and attached to the baby for the first few days of the baby’s life, until the cord dries out and naturally falls off on its own, just like a cut umbilical cord would, usually within 3-10 days of the birth.  When I first heard of this practice, back in 2002 as a nursing student, I was completely aghast. Why in the world would anyone want to do something like that?? What do you do with the rotting and mouldering placenta that’s still attached to the baby? How do you dress the baby and care for the baby with the cord still attached?? I had a million questions, and the entire concept seemed completely alien.

(Photo courtesy of Danella Jade, 2018)

Further research into the subject, though, has changed my mind. It turns out many indigenous and aboriginal cultures honour the placenta, which makes a lot of sense when you think of the placenta as a guardian that has nourished and supported the baby in utero. Moari tradition buries the placenta on tribal land to help foster a connection in the child to that land. In the Hmong tribe in South East Asia, it’s believed that the placenta must be retrieved by the spirit after death, in order to ensure physical integrity in the next life, and therefore the placenta is always buried under the house where the baby was born so that the spirit will know where to find it (Buckley, 2003). In Zimbabwe, the placenta is buried by the family home to ensure that the child will always want to return home, and in Cambodia people believe that the child will stay safe so long as they are always near to their placenta (Buckley, 2010).  In Bali, the placenta (as well as the cord, amniotic fluid and blood) are called ‘Ari-Ari’, which means “younger siblings”, and these tissues–and in particular the placenta–are treated with the utmost respect, often bound in a coconut shell or placenta bag with herbs and flowers and buried outside the home (where it’s marked with a stone and then later a prickly bush is planted on top to help protect it).  A Balinese child will greet their placenta in the morning, and pray to it for protection at night, and the spirit of the placenta is thought to live on as the child’s guardian throughout their lifetime (Buckley, 2010).

(Photo credit: Nick and Vanessa Fisher)

In Western culture, the placenta is mostly seen as medical waste, and is often collected into biohazard bags and disposed of or incinerated by the hospital. The newer trend of placenta encapsulation, as well as some couples wishing to follow more traditional practices such as burying their child’s placenta under a tree in their garden, has led to more placentas being requested and brought home from the hospital than ever before.  Lotus Birth was first documented among chimpanzees, but was never practiced by humans until Claire Lotus Day (inspired by some of Jane Goodall’s research) sought an alternative to the routine cutting and clamping of the cord in 1974 and found an obstetrician who was willing to honour her wishes and leave the cord and placenta intact until they fell off naturally (Buckley, 2003; Lim, 2001). Since that time, Jeannine Pavarti Baker, Shivam Rachana and Dr. Sarah Buckley have all been proponents of Lotus Birth, and more recently Michel Odent has also spoken about the advantages of it.  While I can completely understand that this practice might not be for everyone, there are many good reasons to at least consider it.

First and foremost, a Lotus Birth would ensure that optimal placental transfusion occurred. At birth, one third of the baby’s blood supply is located in the placenta, and this vital supply of blood, oxygen, nutrients and stem cells rightly belongs to the baby (and is not waste!).  Left undisturbed, Mother Nature will gradually perfuse the baby with the remaining blood over the next several minutes while the placenta is still attached to the uterine wall; eventually, the cord will stop pulsing and the perfusion will end, often heralding signs of placental separation, followed by the delivery of the placenta. (I’ve written a lot more on physiological management of the third stage of labour in a different post). In hospitals right now, there is a big push to better support optimal cord clamping as we learn more about exactly how important this blood is to the baby. Recently, both NICE and WHO changed their guidelines to reflect the new research on this topic, urging practitioners to wait at least a minute before cutting the cord to allow placental transfusion to occur (a practice known as ‘delayed cord clamping’). However, other clinicians like Amanda Burleigh, founder of the “Wait for White” campaign, argue that a 1 minute delay isn’t nearly long enough to allow full placental transfusion, and believe that we need ‘optimal cord clamping’, which involves waiting until the cord has turned white before cutting it (more information on this can be found at Blood to Baby and in this fabulous podcast with Amanda). Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of room for improvement in this area, and lots of cords are STILL getting cut way too soon. But opting for a Lotus Birth would ensure that this would never even be a question, as the baby would receive their full portion of blood and the cord would never be cut (too soon, or otherwise).

Additionally, a Lotus Birth helps preserve the mother-infant bond, and helps enforce a “lying-in” period, or a “breaking-forth”, as Dr. Sarah Buckley calls the time between when the baby is born and when the cord naturally falls off (Buckley, 2010).  It’s hard to get out and about with a baby who’s still attached to a cord (although not impossible, as placenta bags are portable and easy to use), and the practice ensures that the first few days unfurl at a slower, more gentle pace, with the mother taking it easy and spending the majority of her time resting and bonding with the baby. A baby who’s still attached to the cord is a visual reminder to visitors that the baby is still new and needs to be protected, and also helps prevent the baby being passed from one excited relative to the next (potentially to the mum and baby’s detriment). It’s also a bit harder to fully dress a baby who’s cord is still attached, which gently encourages skin-to-skin bonding to keep the baby warm, rather than dressing, and we know how important uninterrupted skin-to-skin is when it comes to establishing breastfeeding.  Anecdotal reports have emphasised the calm and peaceful transition Lotus Birth allows for, as well as the calmer and more relaxed temperaments of babies who are still attached to their cords (although this might be influenced more by the uninterrupted bonding and attachment fostered by a Lotus Birth, rather than the actual physical presence of an intact placenta). Author Shivam Rachana has written about how babies seem to automatically flinch or cry out or grab their cord as it’s being cut, and Robin Lim, international midwife and founder of the Bumi Sehat birthing center in Bali, reports on a Lotus Birth where the placenta was seen to pulse at the same time that the baby was breastfeeding (Lim, 2001). The father of that baby, himself a PhD biochemist, was amazed by this discovery, stating: “I am certain that something here is being communicated. I am not fooled by the dry appearance of the cord, deep in the center there is life. Something essential is being provided to my baby by his placenta,” (Lim, 2001). In the same article, Robin Lim beautifully sums it up:

Midwives are the guardians of normal birth. Yet in these times we may have forgotten what normal is. We are certain that a close bond between mother and child is normal. My experience is that Lotus birth facilitates that bond. Yes, it is inconvenient to move around with the baby attached to her placenta. So mother lies in, close to the baby and placenta; breastfeeding is established in this sacred circle of quiet, restful seclusion. Yes, few visitors feel welcome while the placenta is still attached. It is during this space out-of-time that family may be invented, and that the new mother reinvents herself.

 

(Photo credit: Veronika Richardson, Fox Valley Birth & Baby, “Tranquility”, 2018)

So what about the practicalities? How does one actually have a Lotus Birth?  This article is great for answering many frequently asked questions (with lovely images of Lotus Birth to boot).  According to Lotusbirth.net,  first you wash the placenta in warm water after it’s been delivered (and after it’s finished pulsing/ transfusing all its blood to the baby) and then pat it dry. Then place the placenta in a sieve over a bowl for about 24 hours to allow it to drain. After this, the placenta can be placed in a nappy or cloth and covered with salt and herbs like dried goldenseal, lavender, turmeric or sage, with more salt and herbs added daily and the nappy changed daily (if you have a placenta bag, the nappy can be placed inside the bag). There are no reported cases of infections being transferred from a degenerating placenta to a baby, although RCOG states that there is the potential for infection and advises that practitioners should act quickly if any signs of infection in the baby are noted. Many anecdotal reports state that the placentas dried out and remained surprisingly odourless for days when salt was used to preserve them.

Naturally, Lotus Birth won’t feel right to many women, but if this appeals to you, don’t hesitate to ask for it. As midwives, we need to be able to support all women’s birth choices, including Lotus Birth.  As quoted from a Guardian article on Lotus Birth: “Unsurprisingly, lotus birth is a minority home birth activity, says Mervi Jokinen of the Royal College of Midwives, although there is no reason you couldn’t ask for it at a hospital birth. “The people who do this are happy to see the experience as a life event and a natural thing. It’s difficult to make a clinical comment on this because there are no studies.” Which is all just to say that even if it’s an unusual practice, it’s absolutely something that midwives can (and should) support. We didn’t have a Lotus Birth with either of our home births, but looking at all of this information now, part of me wishes that we had!

 

Buckley, S. (2003) ‘Lotus Birth: A Ritual for Our Times’, Midwifery Today, 68 (Autumn 2003), pp. 36-38.

Buckley, S. (2010) The Amazing Placenta. Available at: http://www.mothering.com/articles/the-amazing-placenta/. (Accessed 8 March 2018)

Lim, R. (2001) ‘Lotus Birth–Asking the Next Question’, Midwifery Today, 58 (Summer, 2001), pp. 14-16.

The Nautilus Shell

The Nautilus Shell

I wrote this yesterday, for a dear friend’s Mother Blessing, and I thought I would share it here as well (with her permission):

I give you two beads, shaped like a nautilus shell. The nautilus is very special—it’s one of the oldest known fossils on our planet, but it also tells the story of growth and maturation. It starts as a very small shell to protect the animal inside. Then, as the sea creature outgrows the first small chamber, it has to create a new, slightly larger shell to accommodate its slightly larger body, which it adds to the front of its old shell like an extension on a house. This is how the Nautilus grows, spiraling around and around with each new addition. The Nautilus is all about growth and evolution, and to my mind, the perfect metaphor for becoming a mother.

Your entire world is about to change. Very soon you’re going to find that you’re too big for your old self, and you’ll have to grow and change to accommodate this new person you’re about to become. Growth is inevitable. But every time you spiral around your center, the newer parts of you will strengthen the older parts of you. You will feel lost for awhile—awkward and clumsy, uncomfortable in your new role. You will mourn who you used to be, before you were a mother—we all do, now and then. But gradually you will get used to your new self and how much bigger you’ve become—and how much stronger you’ve become—and how much more beautiful you’ve become. And to your baby, you will be his entire world. His ENTIRE world. And you will grow as big as you need to be, to be the mother that he needs. But at the very center of your larger shell, the person you’ve always been will still be there, too. And at some point, you’ll realize she hasn’t gone anywhere. She will wait for you to find her again, and you will. You will be both—your new, larger self, and your older, smaller self. And you will love him so much. And he will love you like you are his entire world. Because you will be.

I wish you every blessing as you start out on this new adventure. I wish you health, and happiness, but more than anything else, I wish you time. The time goes too quickly—everyone will tell you this. So many people will tell you this that it will actually become annoying. Of course, of course, it goes too quickly, cherish every moment! They will say things like that—old ladies on the bus and aunts and grandparents and random strangers in waiting rooms—and you will think to yourself that there are moments you don’t want to cherish. It’s hard, to be a mother. It’s so unbelievably hard. The old ladies forget this part of it, I think. The work is invisible, and often unappreciated, and not valued by our society, and the worry will etch lines into your face and make your heart feel like a stone, sometimes. There is always so much to get done, and never enough time to do it in. And the days can feel like months, and the months can feel like years. You will wish for the time to go faster—we all do, sometimes.

But at some point you will look back and realize it did pass in the blink of an eye (because it does that, as well; it’s both interminable and lightning quick at the same time). So my wish for you is that every now and then, not always and not constantly, but moments here and there, you can catch the time and hold it with both hands, for just a second. I wish that for you there will be time to do nothing for an entire afternoon except hold him. There will be time to let him fall asleep on your chest. There will be laundry to do, and meals to prepare, and groceries to buy…but there will be time to ignore all of that, and curl up on the bed with him and take a nap together, just the two of you. There will be time to sniff his warm little head, and kiss his nose, and stroke his feet. There will be time to make him laugh. To tickle him and play peek-a-boo. Time to go on walks together, just the two of you, to push a buggy down the street on cold, blustery days, and balmy summer days. Time to look at the leaves in the trees, to watch the way the sunlight catches them or the wind shakes them—he will be fascinated by things like this—and time to do nothing but watch him watching the leaves.

This is what I wish for you. There will be so much to get done, and so many new concerns. But I wish you pockets of time. Little moments, caught here and there.

I wish you lots and lots of time.

Gentle Mother-led Weaning

Gentle Mother-led Weaning

 

 

Letting Go

First you hold them like a secret
you only suspect is true.
Then soft knockings from within
tap out messages for you.
Slowly the body allows escape,
you hold them in your arms,
dazed and milky, full of love,
pledged to defend from harm.
Then you  hold them to your heart
and put them to the breast.
but they learn to walk away
like any other guest.

Angela Topping, Musings on Mothering (2012)

When IS the right time to wean?  Before I even start, I need to acknowledge the fact that MANY women wean before they want to, without having met their breastfeeding goals, and often feel like they didn’t have a choice in the matter. This is usually due to a lack of breastfeeding support when they most needed it, and I can understand how articles about women choosing to wean when the breastfeeding is going well might be difficult to read. As a lactation consultant, I hear so many stories from heartbroken women who wanted to breastfeed, but weren’t able to for so many reasons, many of which might have been preventable if they had had the right support earlier in the process. In January 2016, the Lancet published a chilling review of breastfeeding rates around the world, and sadly the UK was at the very bottom of the pile, even worse than the US (which is rather astounding, given that many women only receive six weeks of maternity leave in the US, versus the much more humane 6-12 months that most women get in the UK). In the UK, 81% of women want to breastfeed at the start of their postnatal journey, but by 6 months, the numbers of women successfully breastfeeding have already dropped to 34%, and by 12 months only 0.5% of all women in the UK are still breastfeeding. Which partly explains why extended breastfeeding is viewed as such an aberration in this country.

BUT, if the breastfeeding has been going well, and you’ve been enjoying it and carrying on past the 12 month mark, then at some point the question will arise: when IS the right time to wean? To help answer that question, we can turn to the data. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding at least through the first two years of life. Numerous professional organizations, including the Royal College of Paediatrics, UNICEF, the Royal College of Midwives, the American College of Nurse-Midwives and the American Academy of Pediatrics all recommend breastfeeding for at least the first year of life, and then carrying on for as long as desirable for both mum and baby.  New research suggests that there is a link between gut health and brain development, and that nursing well into toddlerhood gives your children a boost in cognitive development and mental/ emotional health. The advantages of extended breastfeeding are numerous and well documented, and carry on well beyond the first year of life. From primate research and indigenous cultures we know that the natural age of weaning for human mammals is probably between 2-5 years of age. If the breastfeeding is going well AND you’re still enjoying it, there’s no reason to stop, and I personally know many, many people who have happily and joyfully breastfed their children until they were 3, 4 or 5 (or even older). I’ve also read and heard so many beautifulbeautiful stories about women who were able breastfeed until the point that their child was ready to stop, a process often referred to as natural term breastfeeding, or child-led weaning.

But what happens if you’re no longer enjoying it? And what happens once you get beyond two years of age? I doubt there’s a standardized answer to that question any more, and I’d imagine that, as with everything, it varies from nursing dyad to nursing dyad. Since I’ve found many accounts of child-led weaning online, but relatively few (if any!) examples of gentle mother-led weaning in toddlerhood, I thought I would share my experience here. The course my son and I ended up charting was a bit different than the one I had originally expected for us, but I am finding a way to make my peace with it.

So, this is the story of how I weaned my second son.

With my first son, I stopped breastfeeding at 15 months. At the time, I had just started a new job as an independent home birth midwife in New York City, and I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the breastfeeding while also being on-call and away at births for hours at a time. Looking back now, the flaw in this thinking seems so obvious to me. OF COURSE I would have been able to continue to breastfeed if I had wanted to, especially as he was only feeding a few times a day at that point, and was fully night-weaned. He would have been fine with a cup of cows milk at bedtime now and then if I was away at a birth, and happy to have a nurse and a cuddle whenever I finally made it home. But at the time, my breastfeeding goal had been to make it to 12 months.  After 12 months, anything beyond that felt like icing on a cake–nice to have, but not really necessary.  So at 15 months, I figured I had breastfed enough, and my (rather self-imposed) perceptions about work pressure convinced me to stop. I weaned him abruptly because I really didn’t know any better.  My husband and I went away for a weekend wedding, and he stayed behind with the grandparents, and when I came back, I didn’t resume breastfeeding him again.  And he rolled with it, of course, because he was only 15 months and couldn’t even talk yet, let alone protest.  But I’m sure he missed it, and I’m sure he would have happily carried on if I had let him, and I’m sure that if he had had a say in the matter, he would have wanted to continue. I was a midwife at the time, but had not yet started down the path towards becoming an IBCLC. I didn’t even know how little I knew.

“Do the best you can, until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” –Maya Angelou

With my second son, I wanted to do things differently.  I was an IBCLC by the time I was pregnant with him, and I had a much better idea about exactly how important breastfeeding is into the second and third year of life. My goal was to make it to 2 years this time, minimum, and perhaps continue until he was 3 (or maybe even older). I had lots and lots of friends who were “positive deviants” (in the words of Allison Dixon from Breast Intentions), i.e. people who were still breastfeeding their two and three year olds (and in some cases four and five year olds) despite our rampant anti-breastfeeding culture.  Breastfeeding a two year old didn’t seem like a strange idea to me any more. And my attitude had changed as well. Things that I used to worry about with my first son–getting him on the “right” schedule, getting him to sleep through the night (as if this was actually something I could have controlled!), not creating “bad habits”, not letting him “use me” as a dummy/ pacifier–didn’t really stress me much at all with my second. He wasn’t fully night-weaned until 18 months, whereas my first son was night-weaned by 6 months (granted, this was because I was working as a midwife again at 4 months, thanks to the completely INHUMANE maternity leave policies of the United States of America, and I was terrified that I would make a mistake or dangerous decision during a shift because of exhaustion, so the night feeds were phased out quite early). My second son co-slept with us from the get-go. He was in and out of our bed for many months even after he had begun to sleep in his crib. Things were just a lot more relaxed, and he was (still is) one of the most chilled, easy-going and confident kids I know. Of course, I can’t prove that this is because of our more easy-going attitude, or the extended breastfeeding, but in my mind they’re linked.

And then we made it to two years old–huzzah! And the breastfeeding was still going well, and had become a very easy thing to do. As Sarah over at Nurshable points out so eloquently, nursing a toddler is very different from nursing a baby. As the amount of solid foods he was eating began to increase, he began to nurse less frequently throughout the day, and I gently encouraged this by offering liquids, snacks and cuddles during the times that he might otherwise have wanted to nurse. By around 22 months, he was only consistently nursing about twice a day–when we first woke up in the morning and right before he went to bed–plus the occasional emergency nursing session when he had hurt himself or was otherwise having a really difficult time.  But also right around two years of age, there was a change in the way that he nursed which suddenly made things a lot more unpleasant. First, there was a change in his latch. I’m not sure why or how–perhaps it had to do with the changes that were occurring as his speech developed–but suddenly the latch became incredibly tight and clamped. No matter how wide the latch was initially, he invariably changed the shape of his mouth to a very narrow and shallow latch. I tried all kinds of tricks to encourage a wider latch. I talked about it with him, I explained that it hurt, I would take the breast out of his mouth when he did it and re-latch again (and sometimes resorted to just taking the breast away altogether, especially if he had bit me), I switched positions, I used the nipple flip when latching, at one point I even gave nipple shields a try, but as the weeks dragged on, it seemed like this new change was becoming a permanent fixture in our nursing experience. Whenever we finished nursing, I always had a tight little ring of teeth marks around my nipple. He also began the usual (and very normal) nursing tricks that lots of toddlers play–nursing gymnastics where he wanted to nurse upside down and from every conceivable angle, or have his legs on my shoulder while nursing, or his feet in my arm pits. He began twiddling the other side, which I know from my nursing friends and online forums is a very common thing that many women experience and often find incredibly aggravating, and I could usually prevent this by covering my other breast with my hand whenever he was about to reach for it. He did the popping on and popping off game, and talking with a breast in his mouth (ouch!), and ultimately began to want both breasts out at the same time, so that he could switch rapidly between them at his own pace, five sucks from one side, four from the other, then back to the first side again (I suspect my supply must have been dropping a bit at this point, so that he had begun to instinctively switch nurse, which is a great way to boost supply).

Maybe one of two of these changes on their own would have been easier manage, but somehow all of these changes combined meant that I began to approach nursing sessions with dread, and found myself counting the milliseconds until they were over. It wasn’t that it was awful, but it was no longer the cuddly, lovely, snuggly breastfeeding that I had been enjoying prior to this. I began to think that maybe something was wrong, especially as I kept hearing stories from my positive deviant friends about how much they still loved breastfeeding their three or four year old, and how snuggly and comfortable it still was. I began to wonder if maybe they were just having a very different experience to what I was going through, as I usually came away from a nursing session feeling as if I had just been used and pummeled; I often felt annoyed by it, and sometimes I even felt a bit resentful about it, and this was not at all how I wanted to feel towards my child! I also felt a sort of secret shame about these feelings. How could I feel this way, when as an IBCLC I was supposed to be a breastfeeding guru? How could I dread nursing myself, when one of my favorite things in the world was promoting breastfeeding and helping others achieve their breastfeeding goals?  I knew that for many mothers a nursing aversion can be a phase, so I resolved to grit my teeth and carry on as long as I could–in part because I felt like I should be doing natural term breastfeeding, like any good IBCLC would.  If it was a phase, though, we didn’t seem to be coming out on the other side of it, and the months kept dragging on.  I also began to recognise that I was putting a lot of pressure on myself because of the ‘shoulds‘.  If a client had come to me with the exact same situation, there wouldn’t have been any ‘shoulds’ involved at all! I would have been incredibly supportive, and advocated that she listen to her heart and do what felt right to her. And yet, when it came to myself, I had a much harder time letting go of my own (self-imposed) expectations to nurse to natural term.

At about 27 months, I met up with a good friend of mine who was still nursing her five year old son, and in the midst of setting the world to rights, breastfeeding came up. I spoke with her about my aversion towards nursing, and how I was carrying on through the aversion with gritted teeth but not at all enjoying it, and she talked about how she had certainly gone through many phases like this during her long breastfeeding tenure (though never quite as long an aversion as I had experienced at that point). It was lovely because she was able to normalise the experience for me, so that I no longer felt like I was alone in feeling touched-out and resentful towards my child instead of feeling loved-up and oxytocin-blissed out after a feed. But she also said something which I had never really thought about quite in those terms before: nursing is a relationship.  Well, duh!  I was very well versed in all the ways that the breastfeeding relationship is incredibly important to a baby’s bonding and emotional and psychological development and attachment, but I had somehow forgotten that there are always two people in a relationship. I had never quite stopped to think about the ways that my own needs and desires factored into the equation as well. I began to think that I had a say in the matter too; that maybe the right time for us to wean wouldn’t just be when he was ready to stop, but at a point where I was ready to stop, and when stopping wouldn’t be too detrimental to him.  I began to think of it as a compromise between the two of us–I would carry on through the aversion until we came to a point when he could at least be gently persuaded to cut-down and/or stop.

And thus began our very slow and gradual weaning process. I began to think of the entire process as nudging, rather than weaning. I was gently nudging him towards less and less breastmilk, bit by bit, but doing so very slowly, and as gently as possible. For the record, though, this was definitely my idea, not his, i.e. mother-led rather than baby-led.  He would still be nursing right now, if I had been willing to continue. I had to find a middle ground between his desire to continue to breastfeed, and my desire to stop, and hopefully do so in a way that was gentle and respectful of his desires (while still honouring mine).

We began by cutting down the bedtime nursing first, helped by the fact that we have an older child who drinks cow’s milk at bedtime.  It was easy to offer him a little bit of mommy milk first, and then slowly cut-down the amount of time we were nursing, and finish with cow’s milk and books, just like his older brother. There were also a few nights when I was away from him, and he was perfectly happy to have cow’s milk and books with his grandparents or babysitters. He no longer nursed to sleep, and was able to go to bed without me there, so the nursing was no longer the nightly fixture that it had once been. Over the course of a few months, the night nursing became a cuddle and a minute or two of mommy milk, and then occasionally there was a night or two when he didn’t even ask for mommy milk in the first place (and I was operating under the ‘don’t offer, don’t refuse’ policy), so he began to go to sleep with cuddles and cow’s milk, just like his older brother.

The morning feed was a bit more difficult to cut down on. My supply was much larger in the morning than in the evening, and he was in the habit of waking up and coming to crawl into bed with us and having his mommy milk then.  Slowly, though, I began to gradually shorten the length of the feeds, making it up with lots of cuddles and persuading him to come down to the kitchen with me for a drink of almond milk or cow’s milk while continuing the cuddles. Over time the morning feeds became shorter and shorter affairs, finally down to about 5 minutes in the end, but I began to realise that he wouldn’t voluntarily give them up.  I decided I would probably just need to pick a date, and work towards it. Knowing that he couldn’t keep more than a week in his head at one time (his concept of time is still rather shaky), I began to count-down the days with him. Every morning, as we were breastfeeding, I talked with him about how much bigger he had gotten. I talked to him about all of the things he was capable of doing now that he couldn’t do when he was a little baby. I talked to him about the foods and drinks he could enjoy now that he was so much bigger.  I talked about how his older brother had had mommy milk for a long time too, but that eventually as he got older he began to drink cow’s milk instead of mommy milk. And I talked to him about how much I had enjoyed breastfeeding him, and how special it was to me.  And at the end of these little conversations, I explained how we would be stopping the mommy milk in six days…four days…two days…tomorrow. He took it all in stride, and began to count down with me (“no more mommy milk tomorrow” etc.), but of course I wondered how much he actually understood what that meant.

And then, the day finally arrived. “Tomorrow” became “today”, and when he crawled into bed with me in the morning, I explained that the mommy milk was finished. He cried, of course. We both cried. But I held him and talked to him again about how much I had loved breastfeeding him, and about how sad I was that it was over, and about what a special time it was for both of us. And then I talked about how much I love him, and all the ways that I can still comfort him, with cuddles and snuggles in bed, with hugs during the day, with stories on my lap, with kisses when he hurts himself, with tickles and sniffs and rough-housing. And he was comforted, in the end, and we went downstairs to get him some almond milk or cow’s milk, cuddling all the while.

That wasn’t it, of course. He continued to ask for mommy milk in the coming days, but there were fewer and fewer tears involved. We had the same conversation many times, about how lovely the breastfeeding had been, and how it was sad that it was over, and all the ways I could still comfort him, and how much I loved him. And we had lots and lots of cuddles, to try to make up for it, but I have to admit that he was a lot clingier than he normally was for the first several weeks. I felt incredibly guilt-ridden about my decision. Also, in retrospect, I realize now that I could have picked a better time to do this, as I ended up weaning him about 2 months into starting my midwifery course, which meant I was no longer around as much as I had been before. It was a big adjustment for him—to end our breastfeeding relationship at the same time that I was also away from him for the first time—and it would have been an easier transition if I had held on for just a little while longer, giving him the comfort of nursing through my transition to school.

But, after these first few weeks, he did begin to find his equilibrium again. He sometimes cheekily asked for mommy milk at random times throughout the day, even asking for “bonus milk” at one point, which I think was a way of testing me to see if there were any loopholes in our new relationship. And one morning many weeks after the weaning, while I was getting dressed in front of him, he plaintively asked if he could try one more time, and without giving it much thought, I let him. I was curious to see what would happen. He was amazed and delighted that I had relented, and gave it proper go (he still had his latch, for the record), but the milk was no longer there. After a few sucks on one side, then a few sucks on the other, he declared that “the milk was all gone.” And since that day, he’s asked for it a lot less (although he has also suggested that we should have another baby, so that the mommy milk will come back). He’s also asked to put his hand on the “milks” a few times when he’s snuggling me and wanting comfort, which I’ve let him do.

And so, at 31 months of age (2 years and 7 months), we ended the breastfeeding chapter of our relationship. Even preparing for it as I have been, even talking about it and cherishing the last few weeks of it (amidst the gritted teeth and sore nipples), even wanting it to end, I have been amazed at the mix of emotions this has caused in me. It’s been incredibly bittersweet. I have been simultaneously incredibly proud of him, and also crying inside, particularly as he’s my last baby, and I’ll never breastfeed again. In some moments, I feel inordinate relief that it’s over. In other moments, I feel incredibly guilty about it, particularly in the moments when he’s being clingy. Like so many things with motherhood, there is a lot of self-doubt and uncertainty. I wonder if I made the right decision, I wonder if I should have held on for longer. These things keep me up at night, sometimes. But by and large he seems to be taking it all in stride, and aside from the initial clinginess, he’s returned to his normal, happy, relaxed self. We keep having lots and lots of cuddles, and still talk about it now and then. It was a beautiful, magical time in our lives, and I knew, even as it was happening, that it wouldn’t last forever. Now that it’s over, we’ve moved on to the next beautiful, magical time in our lives (as these toddler years are also way too brief). Our relationship continues to evolve and grow, as it always will, and I will weather these changes as he grows up and needs me less and less. But for now I still sniff his head (which still has that sweet, intoxicating baby smell now and then) and watch him when he’s asleep (he still looks so small) and marvel at all of the new things he’s learning and doing every day (he’s begun asking about using the potty like his older brother, so I can guess what’s coming next). The days are long but the years are short, and the seasons of motherhood continue on.

Sleep and “Self-Soothing” Roundup

Sleep and “Self-Soothing” Roundup

There is so much conflicting information out there on sleep, and so many messages you’ll hear on why having your baby “sleep through the night” is the holy grail of parenting and that if your baby isn’t hitting this milestone by (insert whatever age you like here), it’s a disaster or they’re not a good baby or you’re not a good mother or you’re allowing them to create bad habits etc. etc.  But the truth is that every baby is unique, sleep needs vary tremendously between kiddos, and learning to “sleep through the night” is a developmental milestone that you can’t really force a baby to hit before they’re ready, just like you can’t force them to sit up or crawl before they’re ready. Also, it’s important to remember that even as adults we wake up several times in a night (because we’re thirsty, or hot, or cold, or have to use the toilet, or had a bad dream, or heard a loud noise, or are stressed about something, or uncomfortable, or or or…), but the difference is that as adults we have learned to roll over, self-soothe and go back to sleep. Babies are still learning this skill.  It takes years for them to fully master it, and until they do, they often still need our help, input and reassurance to fall back asleep. Meeting a baby’s needs is not “creating bad habits”; it’s being responsive and attentive to the baby’s needs, which in the long run will create more security and independence.

Strangely enough, discussing sleep and self-soothing is a very “controversial” topic. On parenting boards and facebook groups and public forums, there are strong advocates for sleep training, using either “controlled crying”, “gradual extinction” or “crying-it-out” (CIO) methods as a way of teaching a baby to sleep through the night. There are equally strong advocates against these methods. Because every parent is exhausted (EXHAUSTED!), there is an unending market for books, sleep gurus and training methods as desperate parents (understandably) look for ways to get more sleep. And not surprisingly, the message you get from mainstream sources, news articles and “how to get your baby to sleep” books suggest that a baby who isn’t sleeping through the night by (insert whatever age you like here) is a problem that needs to be fixed. But what I am more interested in looking at is the actual science behind these differing approaches. Research into sleep, such as what Professor Helen Ball at the University of Durham is doing through the Infant Sleep and Information Source, is still a relatively new field, but there is a growing body of evidence which is beginning to refute the claims of the many (insanely popular) sleep experts and authors and gurus who recommend this or that sleep training technique.  The following is a round-up of some of these articles.   

First, Sarah Ockwell Smith has a great article on realistic sleep expectations for babies. As you can see, there is A LOT of normal variation in this, and even if one baby is ready to sleep through the night at 8 months, another baby might not be ready to do so at all. Each kiddo is unique and has different needs. 

Sarah Ockwell Smith also has a good article on what’s really happening when you teach a baby to “self-soothe”. Unfortunately, sleep training methods don’t really teach our babies to self-soothe. This is a developmental skill which they can only learn with time and maturity. Instead, it teaches a baby to stop signaling her distress. Babies are smart and they very quickly learn that if crying doesn’t bring a response, it would be better to conserve their energy instead and not use a method that doesn’t work. A study done in 2012 by Middlemiss et. al. monitored the cortisol levels (i.e. stress levels) in 25 mom+baby pairs and found that at the beginning of the study, the mom and baby were synchronised in their stress response, meaning that when the baby was stressed and signaled this to the mother, the mother responded to this with a rising cortisol level of her own. In other words, if baby was distressed, mom was distressed, and their cortisol levels were in sync. By Day 3 of the study, after using a gradual extinction sleep training method, the researchers found that the baby was no longer exhibiting stressed behaviour, but the baby was still distressed (as demonstrated by high cortisol levels). Meanwhile, because the baby was no longer signaling its distress, the mom’s cortisol levels had decreased, indicating that she was no longer in sync with her baby (at least in terms of cortisol levels).

Calm Family wrote a very detailed response to the BBC One’s recent airing of Panorama, Sleepless Britain, which addresses many of the ways “sleep issues” are portrayed in the media.

The Analytical Armadillo, another IBCLC blogger, has also written a good analysis on what happens during self-soothing, and that even though it works (and it does work), it’s not necessarily harmless.

Evolutionary Parenting looks at the science behind exposing our kids to stress, and what’s actually going on neurochemically in their brains when this happens. 

Uncommonjohn also looks at the science behind self-soothing

The Milk Meg writes about the many reasons our babies wake so frequently in the night.  

And while this doesn’t actually get into the science behind it, Mama Bean Parenting documents quite…succinctly…the many, many, many messages we receive in our society which tell us that a baby that doesn’t sleep through the night is a “problem”.

Finally, Dr. Sears has some good suggestions on ways to get more sleep without using CIO methods, as does Dr. Jay Gordon in this article. The Milk Meg also has some ideas on ways to gently night-wean breastfeeding babies.

And one final disclaimer, since I know this is an incredibly sensitive subject for many parents. I understand the desperate need, the overwhelming desire, to somehow find a way to get more sleep! We’ve all been there. Many of us are still “there”.  Parenting is exhausting, and waking frequently with our babies in the night is not at all conducive to our modern lifestyles. I absolutely get it. And I have many clients and friends who have used sleep training methods, sometimes with very good results–hell, I’ve attempted a few of these methods myself with my first son out of sheer desperation (but wasn’t able to follow through with them). I am in no way judging the reasons why parents might turn to these methods, and I have nothing but empathy for the desperate exhaustion that makes these methods seem like the only answer. Getting more sleep is a positive thing for everyone involved, and allows us to be better parents, and in our bleary, sleep-deprived states figuring out how to get more sleep seems all-consuming and anything promising a quick fix seems like mana from heaven. But it’s important that we as parents do careful research and make informed decisions before deciding on a parenting course of action. Our media and society is saturated with messages about sleep and ways to “fix” it, and nearly all of these messages usually recommend some form of sleep training. That is one side of the debate. All of the articles I have posted here are the other side. It’s important to understand both sides before making an informed choice.

As a midwife, asking “Is your baby waking regularly and feeding regularly?” is a much more supportive and useful question for new parents instead of “Is your baby sleeping through the night?”. Most likely, a normal and healthy baby who’s feeding regularly and growing well will NOT be sleeping through the night, so rather than make parents feel like there’s something wrong, it’s much better to emphasise what’s absolutely right about this scenario. And then look for other ways to support exhausted parents to sneak a bit more sleep into their lives.

Sealing Birth

Sealing Birth

I’ve been finishing up the requirements for a Sacred Pregnancy Belly Bind and Sealing course which I started years ago, but was never able to complete thanks to the birth of my second son, which threw me for a bit of a loop. Two years later I’m finally coming back to it again, and have been enjoying it very much. At the heart of the course are the skills needed to do a bengkung belly bind (pictured below), but the course is about more than just the physical binding itself. It’s also about learning how to create a sealing ritual to honour the birth and provide closure for the woman, as well as supporting her through her postnatal journey–both of which are sorely lacking in our modern world!

Pregnancy and birth is all about opening, on so many levels: opening yourself physically, opening yourself spiritually and emotionally, opening yourself up to the vulnerability of a new and powerful love, and opening yourself mentally and psychologically to the needs of another human being (and being willing to put those needs first). Our western culture is fairly good at discussing the physical opening that takes place (just go to any childbirth class or antenatal prep class and it will be all about the stages of labour and dilation and what happens to your body), somewhat good at acknowledging the mental and psychological opening that takes place (but better at focusing on the baby’s needs than on the mother’s needs), and generally not so good at the emotional or spiritual opening that’s going on. Antenatally, there is the tradition of the Baby Shower (very popular in the US, much less so in the UK), which revolves around gift-giving and providing for the material needs of the baby but tends to gloss over the emotional or spiritual needs of the mom and the transition she’s undergoing. A Mother Blessing, based loosely on a Navajo tradition known as a Blessingway, is a newer tradition that’s been growing in popularity and does a better job of filling the emotional and spiritual void by honouring the mother and her journey and showering her with love and blessings from her community. However, this still pertains mostly to the antenatal time period, and is focused on the birth itself. Overall, in our modern society, very little attention is given to providing closure for women, helping them to ground and center themselves again after such a transformative experience, and acknowledging their new role as a mother. That’s where a sealing ceremony comes in.

After an opening, it makes sense that there should be a closing. A woman needs to be sealed, on so many levels. Physically, her womb and pelvis and pelvic floor need to contract again, after softening and expanding and dilating. Her abdomen has to knit together once more after the diastasis recti muscles have literally come unzipped.  Her blood volume shrinks and her blood pressure may rise again (slightly–this is normal, and has nothing to do with the stress of having a newborn!).  On a chi/ energy/ prana level, she has to re-balance herself and find her own, singular energy rhythms again, after having adjusted to holding her own chi as well as that of her growing baby.  Emotionally, she has to adjust to the sudden emptiness inside of her, after having grown used to sharing her body and feeling the baby’s movements inside her for months and months.  And even more importantly, she has to adjust to being the only occupant of her body again, reclaiming herself as a single entity, and feeling the wholeness of herself once more. Spiritually, she is going through perhaps one of the biggest transitions of her life, from maiden to mother, with all of the new uncertainties, vulnerabilities and identity upheaval that contains. It’s a very big deal–SO much is happening on so many levels, but in our western culture there is no formal way to acknowledge or honour this process.

Many traditional cultures around the world have sealing ceremonies and traditions which are an important part of the postnatal process. In China, new mums are encouraged to stay in bed for the first 30 days and are fed “warming” foods, often with lots of ginger and bone marrow in them to help . In India and traditional Hindu cultures, women remain home with their new baby for the first 40 days to help promote breastfeeding and avoid infection (interestingly enough, it takes about 6 weeks for a woman to fully establish her milk supply, which may be the underlying reason for this), allowing family and friends to care for her while she learns to care for her baby.  Bengkung binding traces its roots to Malaysia, where it’s part of the traditional postnatal care offered to women. But of course, in modern America and the UK, there’s often very little room made for the woman’s transition during the postnatal phase. The focus is very much on the baby. The early weeks of the postnatal period involve trips to the paediatrician (in the US) or home visits by midwives and health visitors in the UK, checking the baby’s weight gain before finally discharging the mother/baby dyad from care around Day 10. Well-intentioned family members and friends encourage the mom to “get her life back” or “get her body back”, set up feeding schedules and routines for the baby and attend baby classes and postnatal groups as a way of socialising, all of which require the mum to leave the house with her newborn at a time when she’s not fully confident in her new identity yet, and often still overwhelmed by the transition and the round-the-clock needs of her baby.

And of course, we’re getting it wrong again and again. For one thing, very few women are recovering from a peaceful or empowering birth in the first few weeks.  Most are having to process and contain experiences that ranged from disappointing to outright traumatic.  As a midwife and lactation consultant, part of my job is to listen to women’s birth stories. Often I’m visiting with women in the first few days or weeks after the birth, when the experience is still very raw and they’re still processing it. Asking them to share their story can sometimes open floodgates of emotion for them, particularly if the birth was traumatic to them. A big piece of my job is to give the woman time to tell her story, in her own words and at her own pace–not just to share the details of it for the purposes of collecting her medical history, but to give her a chance to debrief. Even if she’s already told all of her friends and family about her experience, there’s something different about the listening you do in the role of a birth worker. It’s important to give her space, without judgement, and to acknowledge her experience. Sometimes sharing her story will bring up questions about it that she didn’t even know she had, which I’m sometimes able to help answer (particularly if the question is about something technical), and sometimes not (but sometimes just being able to formulate a question for the first time is helpful). Other times she doesn’t have any questions, but will simply repeat something over and over again, usually until it’s acknowledged (and here, echoing the woman’s words back to her helps tremendously; she might say at 6 different points in the story that she hadn’t really wanted to be induced, and saying a statement like: “You really didn’t want to be induced” allows her to feel like she was heard). There are many counseling tips and tricks that you pick up along the way, such as active listening, asking open-ended questions, reflection, paraphrasing, summarising and clarifying etc. But the root of it, of course, is listening without judgement, and holding space for her to be or feel whatever is coming up for her. This is an important part of sealing a birth, and can be very healing for a woman.

Mothering is incredibly invisible and unappreciated in our society. In other cultures, mothers are respected and honoured on a fundamental level which we seem to be missing. So much of our identity comes from what we do professionally. Just think of a dinner party with new acquaintances where everyone is going around asking you about “what you do”. When I was not working professionally but rather staying home with my children, I would often respond to these types of questions with something like: “Oh, I’m just a mother right now” (JUST a mother…), or “Not much”.  Not much! As if the enormity of my daily work–caring for my children, nourishing them with my body when I was breastfeeding, preparing and cooking meals for them, running the household, doing laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping and a gazillion other domestic chores, but more than anything else teaching them *constantly* by my words and actions and attitudes–amounts to nothing much at all because at the end of the day I had very rarely achieved anything, at least anything that could be crossed off of a to-do list or recognized by the wider culture as important.  The work is repetitive, monotonous, lonely and under-valued, and in our culture it’s very low-status work. One has only to read a book like What Mothers Do by Naomi Stadlen to see the damage this lack of status inflicts on women on a daily basis. Here we are working our guts out, but the idea of a stay-at-home mother in our culture connotes the idea of not doing much of anything (but actually, this applies to any mother, because even working mums still have to come home from their paid job to begin their unpaid job of mothering, and are most likely only recognised for the work they do as part of paid employment). And we wonder why women are suffering from postnatal depression and anxiety in higher and higher numbers, or why modern women today are struggling as much as they are find their way.  The author of this article eloquently points out that perhaps feminism has let women down on this front. I agree with that, but I also think it’s part of a wider malaise in our society: raising children and parenting the future generation is not seen as important, meaningful work, and this is a problem.

Which brings us back to sealing birth…rather circuitously.  We need to get better and sealing birth for women. We can do this formally, through a ritual like the one Sacred Pregnancy has created (or something that we create on our own), or informally through birth debriefing, but at it’s very heart sealing a birth involves acknowledging the transition she’s been through, recognising the incredible work she has done and is currently doing–the work of giving birth, which is in itself a monumental achievement, but also the ongoing work of mothering–and honouring her for this. Sealing birth won’t elevate the status of motherhood overnight, or fix the many deficiencies in our culture, but it can definitely help to make a difference on an individual level to the woman herself. And every woman who feels supported, recognised and honoured as a mother will bring that confidence to her vital and incredibly important job of raising the next generation, and shaping our society in the process.

Looking back, I think that I was very lucky in that I was able to seal my first birth pretty well. While I never had a formal ceremony done, I was lucky to have had a very empowering birth experience (I’ll get my two birth stories posted soon) and I happily recounted my birth story over and over and over to whoever would listen. I felt like superwoman–I felt like I could do anything, after having given birth! There was something about repeating it again and again, something in the telling of the story, that helped make it real for me, and helped me gain closure on it. The telling of it and the closer helped to translate the confidence I felt about my birth into a growing confidence I felt about my new role of as a mother (Breastfeeding? Pshaw! OF COURSE I can breastfeed. I just gave birth after all–I can do anything!) I also had loads of support and help from friends and family in the first few weeks after my first birth, which made it a relatively smooth transition. With my second birth, this wasn’t the case. Even though the birth itself was wonderful, joyous and empowering, the postnatal period became incredibly stressful due to a medical emergency with my 5 day old son, which threw everything off kilter. Also, since it was the second time around, my expectation was that of course I would be able to manage it, just like I had with my first…but in reality, I found the transition from one child to two children incredibly difficult!  And perhaps not surprisingly, I suffered from postnatal depression with my second son (again, I’ll share the story on here sometime soon). I think sealing is crucially important part of the birth experience. Was your own birth sealed? And if so, how was this accomplished?

 

Bengkung belly binding

 

 

Breastfeeding News Roundup

Breastfeeding News Roundup

Breastfeeding has been in the news a lot the last few weeks. Here’s a quick roundup of some of the most interesting and exciting new articles regarding our first food, and why it’s so important.

First, a viral post about the microbiology research of a Vicky Green, a Biosciences student at South Devon College, who demonstrated the power of breastmilk by placing it in petri dishes cultured with some of the nastiest bugs around, including MRSA and E. coli. In the picture in the link, you can actually see clear rings surrounding each drop of breastmilk on the petri dish where the bacterial growth was halted by the breastmilk proteins. What’s even more remarkable is that she’s using the breastmilk from a mum nursing a 15 month old and a mum nursing a 3 year old, which just goes to show that breastfeeding DOES continue to play an important and vital role in nourishing our children and providing optimal health for them well past the first 6 months of life. Unfortunately, as an IBCLC, I hear all too often from clients that they were told by a (presumably well-meaning) GP or Health Visitor that there’s no benefit to nursing a baby past 6 months. Absolute nonsense, as this research so clearly demonstrates! And who knows, perhaps the protein in breastmilk will hold the key to defeating bacteria like MRSA in the future.

And speaking of nursing babies beyond infancy, Tamara Ecclestone recently posted a lovely photoshoot of herself nursing her 2 year old daughter Sophia and just about broke the internet in terms of controversial backlash, as people reacted so negatively to the photos that she was actually forced to defend her decision for posting the photos in the first place. Which honestly is just a very sad state of affairs. Also, the BBC article linked above doesn’t provide 100% accurate information. UK guidelines for breastfeeding are in line with WHO guidelines, and state that babies should be breastfed exclusively for six months and then continue to be breastfeed for a minimum of 2 years OR BEYOND, in addition to the food they’re eating. For the record, the right time to wean is whatever feels right for mom and baby, but the biological norm for our mammalian species is to breastfeed for anywhere from 2-3+ years, and as with all phases of growth or development, there’s a huge range of normal in terms of the right time to wean depending on the mother and baby dyad. It’s irresponsible to suggest that the UK guideline only encourages breastfeeding for the first 6 months. As for the controversy, unfortunately that’s nothing new. People are often outraged by the thought of breasts being used for purposes *other* than sexual, and sadly we hear of stories all the time of women being shamed for nursing in public, or told to use the toilet instead. And not surprisingly, most likely due in part to these cultural perceptions, the UK has one of the worst rates of extended breastfeeding of any developed nation in the world–even lower the the US’ rate of extended breastfeeding, which is quite surprising given that women in the UK routinely have 6 months of maternity leave (and often a year) compared to women in the US who often receive a scanty 6 weeks, if they’re lucky enough to receive anything at all. Clearly there’s still A LOT of room for improvement, and personally, as someone who’s still nursing her own two year old, I applaud Tamara Ecclestone’s decision to share her beautiful photos, which is an important part of how we can begin to normalize breastfeeding in the first place. The Milk Meg also has a wonderful article on this entitled: 9 Reasons my child is not “too old” to breastfeed.

And finally, this is a fascinating article by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, IBCIC (who I saw at the LCGB conference last year, and is a fantastic speaker), discussing all of the ways that breastfeeding doesn’t just provide the optimal food for our babies, but also provides the best emotional and neurological foundation for their mental health. Breastfeeding encourages responsive parenting, promotes sleep (which in turn supports better parenting, as well as lowering the risk of postnatal depression–and breastfeeding is an independent factor for reducing maternal depression as well, regardless of sleep). Breastfeeding also promotes nurturance, attachment and bonding. As I often tell clients, breastfeeding is 10% about the FOOD we’re feeding our babies (and what incredible food it is!) and 90% about THE MANNER in which we’re feeding our babies, setting them up for healthy brain growth, emotional processing and psychological attachment in addition to optimal nutrition.

My First Week Away From Them

My First Week Away From Them

I just spent a week away from my boys–the longest time I’ve ever been away from them since my eldest son was born five years ago. I went skiing with some good friends, entirely on my own, while my partner held down the fort in my absence.

I think I’ve been dreaming about this week away for nearly five years now. In the early, bleary-eyed days of new motherhood, when I was certain the exhaustion would kill me, I dreamed about mere hours away.  A week was unimaginable, but I would fantasize about someone taking my son and holding him for three hours while I took a nap. And in all fairness, there are several occasions when I can remember exactly that happening. My in-laws would babysit every now and then, or my partner. Once two work colleagues took him for a walk for two hours while I slept on the couch, and once, in desperation, I went to a friend’s house 10 blocks away and slept in her bed for three hours, as I found it nearly impossible to sleep–really sleep, deep and undisturbed–if the baby was anywhere in the house with me. Even his slightest whimpers, faint snufflings in his sleep, would set me bolt upright, in those early days, so any chance of a real nap would have to be done away from him.

And then, as he grew older, I began to dream about entire days away, and even entire weekends. I would imagine how glorious it would be, how unfathomably luxurious, to have an entire day to myself. To do the things I used to do, the things I took for granted, before I had children. To sleep in late, have a lazy morning in bed reading the paper, showering for a full, uninterrupted 20 minutes, enjoying a leisurely brunch at a local restaurant, lingering over my coffee–hell, on some days even an uninterrupted 5 minutes on the toilet felt luxurious, the stuff of fantasies.  I couldn’t imagine an afternoon spent browsing through bookstores or watching a movie, cooking a complicated meal from a new recipe book, knitting while watching TV, drifting off to bed whenever I felt tired, rather than trying to sprint through the evening’s interminable to-do list with the bed at the finish line and the distance between us growing longer and longer.

My partner would leave, often for work but sometimes for pleasure, and I would think about how much easier it was for him to have a week or weekend away. He was less tethered, his life carrying on in many of the same ways that it had before children, whereas for me my post-kids life was unrecognizable to my pre-kids life. I was often unrecognizable to myself.  Some days I would cry bitter, jealous tears about this. Some days I felt like I was the default option, taken for granted. He could head off on stag-dos and weekends away because I was at home, maintaining the routine, ensuring that naps were had and noses were wiped, food was cooked and cleaned up and cooked and cleaned up again, bodies bathed, teeth brushed and bedtimes kept. Needs were met. That was partly where the bitterness came from; that needs came before wants for me now, and that there was never time or room or energy for my wants, whereas my partner could still occasionally fulfill some of his wants.

But little by little, I started to have opportunities to leave. First an evening out with girlfriends after putting the boys to bed, so that they never even knew I was gone, and then an afternoon here, a morning there. A day spent at a conference now and then. I started working again, one day a week as an IBCLC at a breastfeeding drop-in (strangely enough, my day spent “working” often felt like a holiday), and then I began working two days a week, and then three. An avid runner, I began to train for another marathon about a year after my second son was born. I spent hours away, running. And then, for the race itself, I left for an entire weekend away with my partner, while the grandparents watched our children. Brief glimpses of my former self, snatched here and there like an exhausted swimmer coming up for air.

But now, for the first time, with a five year old and a two year old, I am finally in a place where I can go for a week and not feel like my absence will be harmful to them. In fact, I feel quite the opposite–that it would be good for all of us.  Good for me to be away, good for them to realize that they can manage without me (for a little while, at least), good for my partner to be on his own, and understand what it feels like to be the one left behind, holding down the fort, and good for them to see their daddy not just helping me, but single-handedly doing all of the tasks I normally do.  Good to change the routine and remind ourselves that we’re all flexible, that we can adapt. And for the record, my partner is an incredibly capable and involved dad. Leaving him alone with the kids for a week is by no means beyond him, or even a stretch for him, and I had absolutely no qualms about it. They’re in good hands.

And so, here I am, on my own for a week…and it’s been WONDERFUL! But it’s also felt like I’ve had an arm chopped off. I keep feeling the phantom twinges of my family all around me, as if I’ve lost something really important and keep forgetting what it is. I walk into restaurants and start to ask for a high chair before remembering that it’s not needed.  During dinner, I keep feeling like I should be doing a gazillion different things besides just eating my meal and enjoying the conversation. I should be reminding the older one to use his cutlery, reminding the younger one to sit still or he’ll spill his water, trying to get both of them to have a few more bites or else there won’t be any pudding, snapping at both of them to stop harassing each other, refilling plates and making pointed reminders about using napkins, cutting meat and retrieving forks off of the floor etc. etc. It’s as if I’ve gotten used to juggling eight balls while also eating a meal, and now all of a sudden the balls have disappeared…but I still feel like I should be juggling.

And how strange it’s been to move through the world unencumbered again!  To only have to think about myself and my own needs. To be the one traveling light, to sail through airport security in a matter of minutes. To board a plane on my own, with a good book to read and no mental checklists involving emergency snacks and drinks, knowing exactly where various toys, books, games and Lovies have been stowed, checking the batteries on the iPad which is the inevitable emergency back-up to the games and books, and making sure that nappies have been changed and wees had before boarding. To just get on a plane, sit down, put on my seatbelt and be ready to go. How unbelievably decadent! I can roll out of bed and be ready to go 20 minutes later, whereas usually dressing, cleaning, feeding and preparing my children to leave the house is a 1.5 hour long endeavor. The freedom and ease is staggering!

Our culture is really good about focusing on the positives of motherhood and glossing over the negatives, but in truth, motherhood is usually always a mix, and it’s important to acknowledge the dark as much as the light. So much love you feel like you’ll burst (!!), on a daily basis, but also so much uncertainty, responsibility, tedium, loneliness and isolation (and in many cases, depression and anxiety as well). Lots of dark in addition to the light, and rarely a perfect balance of the two. And in those first few days and months, nothing can prepare you for how swift the bulldozing of your identity and former life can be! I feel like the process of becoming a mother razes your identity to the ground, and then, in the wreckage of your former life, you slowly begin to rebuild your identity from the ground up, trying to figure out how to reincorporate all the pieces of who you used to be into this new shape.  And bit by bit, over time, you remember the things you used to enjoy and do on your own before motherhood, and learn new ways to do them again. But this week has made it very clear to me that you never go back to being the person you were before you had kids, even when you do get to the point that you can leave them for a week. All of those months and years fantasizing about time away, so that I could be who I used to be, even for just a little while, is impossible.  That person is gone. Those things I used to love to do before children, I still enjoy, but now they don’t feel like they’re quite enough for me, on their own, because I guess it takes more to fill me up now.

And I miss my kids like crazy. This time away has been nourishing and vital, and very eye-opening, but I feel like what it’s done more than anything else is give me energy to plunge back into the fray of parenting again. And be a better mother for it, as well. I can’t wait to see them again!

The Wasted Hour

The Wasted Hour

We’re mammals. We like to ignore this most of the time, but when you attend births, it’s something which is impossible to forget. And like all mammals, we’ve been programmed to perform an elaborate bonding dance in the first hour after birth, often referred to as The Golden Hour*. During this time, babies are primed to respond to their mother’s voice, to look for her face, to root and nuzzle and find their mother’s nipple, to fix in their mind the image of their primary care-giver, and to breastfeed. Simultaneously, mothers are primed to fall in love with their babies. In fact, the hormonal cascade of labor is actually designed to change the brain chemistry of the woman who just gave birth, increasing her desire to nurture her newborn. Oxytocin, the hormone of love (and breastfeeding), peaks at its highest level immediately after the delivery, ensuring that motherly love—strong enough to move mountains, to fight like a tiger for your cub, to throw yourself in front of a moving bus to save your child without thinking twice—is cemented into place.

Bonding is crucial to survival; evolution has demonstrated this again and again. It’s well documented that in nature, if an animal fails to bond with her baby, that baby’s chances of surviving, let alone thriving, are pretty slim. With humans, it’s not as clear cut. Obviously strong bonds can form even without sharing the very first hour of life together, as adoption and chosen family (as opposed to biological family) demonstrates again and again, but it takes a lot more work. The beauty of the Golden Hour is that the wheels have been so perfectly greased—all you have to do is show up and be present, and falling in love is just about guaranteed.

Or was guaranteed, even just a few years ago. These days, it seems as if we’re almost willfully trying to shoot ourselves in the foot, having gotten way too meta about the entire experience. Since nothing has really actually happened until it’s been posted on Facebook, the very first thing new parents are doing these days is whipping out their phones to share the good news with the world. Gazing in wonder at the new human being who’s just entered their lives is often done through the lens of the smart-phone camera. It’s all about the stats—weight, height, name, time of birth—which is then texted to all the anxious relatives, ensuring that in addition to their parents’ voice, the very first thing the baby will hear is a barrage of beeps, vibrations or ring-tones heralding the arrival of each new text or tweet; their parents are often lost for 10-15 minutes at a time as they respond to the deluge of sms congratulations.

When I first started my career back in 2003, smart phones didn’t exist yet. Parents brought cameras with them to the hospital and maybe snapped a few photos before cuddling with their baby, but that was it. How refreshingly quaint that now seems! These days, I find myself frequently reminding parents to put their phones down. The updates can wait, the baby needs your attention now. Back in New York, when my husband and I tuned in to an episode of the American version of One Born Every Minute, we watched a well-intentioned new father accidentally drop his phone on his sleeping infant while trying to take a picture. Phones have become so ubiquitous now that no one in that delivery room even blinked—except the startled baby.

Right now we’re in the middle of giving birth to the first generation who will come into the world with smart phones as a given. My two year old son seems to think everyone has a phone the same way that everyone has a nose. He’s already quite adept at unlocking mine. The other day, in an unguarded moment, I caught him queuing up Winnie the Pooh on my Netflix app. While the American Academy of Pediatricians and Royal College of Paediatrics have warnings about this, recommending that television and other entertainment media be avoided for the first two years of life, it seems impossible to enforce. Media is everywhere we turn.

Evolution is a very slow process. Birth and bonding hasn’t changed that much in the last two thousand years, nor has our mammalian hard-wiring, while technology seems to move at the speed of light by comparison. Who knows what will happen to our species over time if we continue to squander the Golden Hour*? Put down the phone. Falling in love will never be this easy again.

*For the record, it’s not just a Golden Hour…it’s more like a Golden First Six Weeks! The many benefits of skin-to-skin contact–increased oxytocin release for both mum and baby, improved breastfeeding success, comfort, stable newborn core temperature, bonding etc.–can still occur well after the first hour of life. So even if the first hour wasn’t that golden (because you were separated from your baby, or under anesthesia, or in too much pain during a repair to be able to hold her) you can make up for it by putting your baby skin to skin as soon as possible. And for as much as you’d like to in the weeks to come!