Thursday, August 30, 2012


In the few months before Peregrine was born, as I began to prepare my mind and body and soul for the immense and unknown task of giving birth, I read a lot of birth stories. Dozens, possibly hundreds of them. And I watched videos, too, whenever I could find them. I don't know why I did it, other than just to know a little of what to expect, and to know that birth came in many shapes and sizes, and perhaps just to remind myself of the fact that millions of women had done what I was going to do.

And many, many times, as I read stories of the kind of birth I was planning--out-of-hospital, with a midwife, in the water--I heard birth done this way described as powerful, intense, laborious (yes, pun intended), but overall gentle and peaceful. Gentle birth, peaceful birth, I heard and read those phrases thousands of times. And I watched videos of births I would certainly describe that way--candlelit and quiet, mother making low noises, baby slipping out into the hands of father or midwife or doctor or even mother herself. And then beautiful release of emotions--tears and joy and everything suddenly exploding into goodness and life and light.

Let me first say, very clearly--those birth videos and stories remain some of the most beautiful and amazing things I have ever, ever seen, and it is a picture of birth that I think all women, no matter what their childbirth plans are, ought to see and know. But my birth experience wasn't like that at all.

I suppose I could call Peregrine's birth peaceful, if by peaceful I mean whole and good, shalom if you will. But gentle? Try as I might (and I did try, in the days following the birth), I just could not call it gentle. Everyone who helped me give birth--my midwives, my mom, Andrew, my friend/doula, my friend/doula's husband who fell into the role of emergency doula--were all incredibly gentle. I could not have asked for greater respect or tenderness on any of their parts. The atmosphere, the night, the day, the warm water--they were gentle. But my body was not gentle. And Peregrine, with his hurry to escape my womb and his eager little hands nestled up by his face, was most definitely not gentle.

In fact, as I reflected on his birth in the days and months that followed it, as I retold his story and stamped the details into my mind and heart, as I put words to the tumult of feelings and memories swirling around that story, one of the words I always came back to was violent.

Part of me (the part that chose to give birth without drugs and will choose to do it again, and has therefore spent a lot of time immersed in the natural-birth-culture) feels incredibly guilty using that word. I mentioned it to a friend and she balked, visibly, at my use of it, and asked me if I didn't mean intense instead. I nodded then, because I didn't really know how to explain it, but no, I didn't mean intense. Intense doesn't even scratch the surface of the searing power that took my body over, completely, as Peregrine was being born. Furious comes close. But violent, honestly, comes closer.

I wish the English language had another word to describe what I felt, because I think the word violent conjures up images of rape, of war, of killing and horror and badness. What I felt was the opposite of badness, but it wasn't calm and peaceful. It was, well, violent. Like an earthquake, or a tornado, or a Colorado thunderstorm. Like a piece of awesome and terrifying music, played at full volume. Like God creating the world, in a storm of fierceness and fury and let-there-be-light.

And when I realized that, and made that comparison, it was somehow fitting. I am a (very, very) calm and peaceful person by nature, but I have always been fascinated by ferocity, drawn to the things that sweep me over with their power. Thunderstorms that can kill me, that transform a dry, hot, sleepy landscape into a floodplain within seconds. Music that makes my soul and my arms ache when I play it on the piano. Blizzards and windstorms and fire and lightning. When I experience these things, I think I have felt a piece of God. Giving birth, the particular way it happened to me, felt much the same.

And it was fitting as Peregrine's story too. My child is not calm and peaceful. He has always been in a hurry, has always done everything at full speed and with full passion. A gentle, zen birth would have been oddly incongruous with his nature. Was he directing the story--and he was, mostly, I think--he wouldn't have had it soft and slow, or even merely intense.

There are other words I would use. Sacred. Powerful. Awesome. Kind of terrifying. Simple. Right. Good. But also, violent. Because I didn't control it, it controlled me. It ripped and tore and opened and closed and broke me open and used me as a vessel to bring my child, an incredible living human being, into the world. It hurt. A lot. It was destructive. I tore in and out and up and down. And it was not because my midwives were not careful or because I was too anxious or afraid. It was just--the way it was. The way Peregrine's story happened.

I didn't expect it that way, honestly. I expected it to be truer in line to my nature, to the core of my calm and peaceful self. Or to start that way, but to encounter complications along the way and to need interventions to bring safely to completion. Not to do its own thing, in its own way, so, well, so violently.

But it was good. It was so very, very good. And I wouldn't have had it any other way. It was Peregrine, and the opening to his life outside the womb. It was his story and his way of coming into the world. Birth, I guess, comes in as many different ways as the different children it brings. It comes in gentle and zen, in tears and intensity, in beauty and humor and curiosity, in speed and rush and stormlike violence. And all those ways lead, eventually, to a new and tiny and unique little person and a new and complicated and beautiful love.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

When Theory Meets Reality

I had a lightbulb moment once.

A very small lightbulb moment, but luminous, and there, nonetheless.

I had nursed my tiny, days-old Peregrine for the second or third time that night. Nursing him in those early days was a tedious ordeal, mainly because he refused to nurse if his hands were within chewing distance. So for every feeding, I had to first un-swaddle him, then pin his hands behind his back with a blanket. After he nursed, the straitjacket came off and the swaddle went back on. It was awkward; we were both learning to live in a whole new world.

So, in the wee hours of this particular August morning, the whole thing was finished and Peregrine was ready to go back to bed. Only, he wasn't quite ready. He wanted to look at me first.

I had been told that the easiest way to teach a baby the difference between day and night in those early days when they sleep all the time anyway was to treat them differently when you feed them. In the day, be playful, make eye contact, talk, sing, bounce. At night, be silent and gentle, no words, no playing, feed and snuggle and lay back in bed. It's good advice, I'm sure. It's worked for many babies. The problem is, it didn't work that way for Peregrine. Over the last few nights, I had begun noticing a pattern. If I turned off the light and laid him back in bed right away, even with snuggling and patting, he would fuss and squirm and cry. Until I turned the light back on, and picked him up, and propped him up against my knees and looked at him--just looked at him--for a couple of minutes. That was all it took, and then I would turn off the light, put him in bed, and soon he would be peacefully asleep. So that became our ritual--re-swaddle, prop him up, and stare in each others' eyes for awhile.

And this night a thought fluttered through my head and hung there for awhile.

That's interesting. It doesn't work the way it's supposed to for Peregrine. The extended lights-on "play" doesn't make him more awake. It calms him and helps him sleep.

And then the lightbulb.

So that's how parenting works. You just figure out your own child.

I'm no stranger to theory meeting reality, really. I've been a teacher, a babysitter, an oldest sister, for many, many years. Theories and ideas are there because they worked for someone, or because they worked for many someones, and they exist to help us all navigate the very difficult world of raising human beings. But human beings are human beings, and they have their quirks and sometimes, what you've read or heard or had recommended may not fit with the real live person in your life.

And that's okay.

The day/night difference thing was small, very small, in the grand scheme of parenting choices I have made. But it meant something to me then, and I remember it still and reference it often. Parenting is a lot more than choosing how to raise a child, and then following your plan. It's a lot more than subscribing to a style or an idea or a philosophy. It's learning a person. And it's learning how you, as a person, relate to this person. And that will look different, for every single parent and every single child. Sometimes it will fit the theories. Sometimes it won't. Usually--perhaps always--it will fit some theories and not others. And then it will change the next day.

And you know what? Because of me, despite me, whatever you will, Peregrine has never had an issue telling day from night. Within weeks, he gave up the staring ritual and ever since, has eaten and gone right back to sleep.

But he does have a bizarre addiction to being swaddled very, very tightly, with his hands trapped at his sides. I know of no one else who still swaddles their one-year-old like a newborn.

And that's okay, too. For now. We might rethink the swaddling thing when he starts middle school.