Sunday, November 04, 2012

Happy Birthday, Little Bird

Tonight, after reading The Enchanted Oranges from the Yellow Book of Fairy Tales to my little girls, I kissed them goodnight and said goodbye to nine years old (at least for one kid). Tomorrow, my firstborn child will turn 10.

Her story began in London where my husband was finishing his MFA. We lived two doors down from Abbey Road Studios and around the corner from St. John & Lizzie’s where I learned everything I was going to learn about birth. It is a tiny hospital for the elderly on the bottom floor and a few midwives in a birth centre on the top floor.  Should any complications arise you would have to be transported across town to a proper hospital. They had two pools for waterbirth that were built in, with one being much more grand than the other. I was due at the same time as the supermodel Kate Moss so spent much time worrying that she might get priority over little-nobody-me for the best birthing tub. Fortunately, she went a week or two before me and I got the pool, and the whole centre for that matter, all to myself.

I’d had a gorgeous pregnancy and felt like a goddess for the first time in my life. I had divine purpose. I am one of those women who adores being pregnant and wish I could bottle all of those glowy good feelings for my melancholic non-pregnant self. Most days I walked across town to Primrose Hill to do yoga and did prenatal classes that were more intense than any type of yoga I’ve ever done in my 20 years of yoga in the US. Hanging upside down by ropes at nearly full term, for example. God, that feels good. The UK has a beautiful view on birth and that is that it is presumably natural and the woman’s choice unless something goes awry. It is not an emergency medical event. Lucky for me, it didn't cross my mind that it would go any other way.

On a sad note, I found out my sweet father had liver cancer three days after I found out I was pregnant and his last chapter paralleled that of my growing belly. He held on long enough to hold her in his arms and to allow me to care for him for the last two months of his life. Partly because of this immense sadness and the fear of being unable to fly if I needed to come home, I began having Braxton Hicks at about 22 weeks and the midwife asked me to slow down. I remember her asking me how much walking I was doing during the day and I quickly calculated my answer: about 10 hours? Come on, I was delighted to be living in London and was exploring every inch of the city, every day. The only time I’ve had a super hard ass in my life was when I was pregnant walking all over the place and living on the fourth floor with a  lift that was inevitably always broken. The doctor-should-I-need-to-wake-him -up later recommended that I drink two glasses of organic red wine every night and I had to laugh as I am a one drink girl on a good day. The British pregnancy books recommend diluting your alcohol as they quite frankly know not many ladies are going to quit full stop. ; )

When I was three days overdue, we went on the prowl for spicy food. We stopped at our favorite thai restaurant and I made some hand signals to my belly and was delivered the magic dish: green papaya salad. The papaya contains enzymes that can trigger uterine contractions. That and a little after dinner action and voila the labor started.

 I labored at home for 20+ hours before walking to the birth centre. I had four contractions on the way and two of them were in the middle of the road on the famous Beatles Abbey Road crossing walk. I simply stopped traffic and clung onto my husband and breathed through two full contractions. In retrospect, had she been my second kid and I, a tad bit more bold,  would’ve squatted on the crosswalk and popped her out right there. “Baby born on the Abbey Road album cover!” Instead, we carried on into John  & Lizzie’s where I was told I was handling it too well and I should go back home to sleep! At this point, I almost cried and said I had not the strength to go home so she checked me and I was almost fully dilated! I don’t remember because they don’t get all hung up on things like checking you every minute, ultrasounds, weight etc. She said I was at 9 and I better get in. No one even took the time to change out the Carpenter's record that was on repeat.  I jumped in the warm pool where the labor intensified greatly. I’m now at 22 hours labor with zero food or drink because the labor would blow me away if I took a sip of water. But, by golly,  I’m in England, so the whole labor ladies are bringing me tea with toast and jam on silver serving trays and insisting politely that I eat!

No one believes me that I didn’t push out my babies, but they pushed ME. The best way I can describe it is that I felt as though I was on a wild ride, as though I was spiraling down the rabbit hole and struggling to keep my life. I felt as though if I let go, I would pass away. I have very intense mind control and concentration.  No one was allowed to poke or prod me or talk to me or they would break my focus. I am like a cat hiding in a dark corner and not to be messed with when I am in labor. Just rub my back, keep the lights off and keep quiet, please.  I was on my knees in the pool and had my forehead pressed against the rim of the pool on top of my hands, face hidden, absolutely intensely focused. 

My birth was not painful, as I don't think waterbirth typically is, but was the most exhausting experience I’ve ever known, no question.  I remember looking down to see the top of her head as she crowned and she had dark hair that was billowing softly in the water like seaweed in the ocean. She was born at 3 am on the dot on Guy Fawkes Day which is the British version of 4th of July in honor of a bloke that made an unsuccessful attempt to blow up Parliament. All the while I thought all of those fireworks were for my baby on the way! With much fanfare, Little Bird emerged smiling, I kid you not, and she peacefully turned her gaze to the one candle that was burning in the dark room. The bit of light in the room was the only awareness to her that she'd left the comfort of her warm womb.

I held her in my arms and nursed her in the water for the first time feeling utter exhaustion. My husband petted her between the eyes like a kitty and said he loved her and I remember feeling like what is he talking about? I just did the biggest marathon of my life and am almost dead. It will be another minute before I feel love. No mother ever verbalizes this, but it’s true. I mean, whew. It’s all you can do to just get that baby out.

Just when I think the deed is done, the midwife puts her book down, stands up from the corner of the room and starts telling me something about a placenta and taunting me with her Aussie accent that she will pull the plug in the pool if I don’t start pushing it out. I was too tired to move and I ignored her. The bitch pulled the plug! She actually started draining the pool to incentivize me to get that placenta out. She was brilliant, it worked and that was that. They filled it up again with warm water and allowed some family time in the pool before checking the baby out.  Oh, and sewing me the hell up. That baby came flying out and yeah, ripped me open. That was the worst part because the doctor was at home sleeping and fell back asleep while I was waiting for the stitches. They had to call him a second time.

A craniosacral treatment for mom and baby was first on the list. It’s just par for the course. She had an apgar of 10, a job well done when a mother is left to do what her body does best. Happy Birthday, Little Bird, I’m so glad you’re here!

Friday, November 02, 2012

The value of stillness

Stillness. I took a trip last summer that changed my life. The very next day after school got out, I took my two girls off the grid to live in a 100 year old tobacco barn on a biodynamic farm 2 hours from my house. We were so remote that my phone reception failed 30 minutes before reaching the farm and I was unplugged for three beautiful weeks. The barn was romantic and dilapidated and airy, with wide gaps in the boards and critters large and small roaming its crevices during the night. The barn is used for storage and we slept on the floor on an old mattress, with our sleeping bags and a mosquito net to ward off spiders. I brought with us a solar powered globe that I would charge in the sun and bring into our ‘room’ at night, to do tick checks and find our way to the ‘bathroom’ during the night. The first night we arrived late, and I didn’t have the opportunity to charge the globe and wasn’t yet familiar with which rooms of the barn had no walls. We were sleeping on the second floor and there were many areas of the barn that were wide open and you could step off the edge if you weren’t paying attention. That first night was restless and wild with screaming owls and the night was so black that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I had to pee and I’ll tell you that I made it as far as I could to where I imagined the drop-off to be, and then just had to squat right there and pee on the floorboards. This was only the first layer of inhibition that was to be shed on this journey. Peeing like a toddler was liberating but I was certain to make charging my light a priority the next day. To be fair, the ‘bathroom’ was merely a 5 gallon bucket with a toilet seat and compost so it’s not like peeing on the floor was that crazy.

We slept in a barn, pooped in a bucket and went to bed with the moon (that means 8pm!) and woke with the sun. The resident little boy was delighted with the new barn occupants and would race to the boards under which we were sleeping and would pretend he was a rooster or a wolf and howl out a wake up call luring his little ladies to come and gather duck eggs and begin their chores. My girls would literally fly out of bed in their pajamas like bats out of hell at 4:30 in the morning, grab their coats and race at full speed down the barn steps to run after Ira and let out the chickens and ducks and gather their eggs.

My intentions for the trip were many but to name a few: to give my children an experience they would never forget and to expound on the gardening block offered in the 3rd grade Waldorf curriculum, to take a hiatus from the internet and all things electronic, to help the farm family with their three children so they could focus on the garden and each other and to see how long my armpit hair could grow.

 My days were spent mostly in the kitchen, but standing barefoot in an outdoor kitchen pavilion cooking freshly picked organic vegetables for a mass of children is pretty much my idea of bliss. The baby hung out with me in the kitchen most of the time. She is two years old and was the most content child I have ever experienced. A duckling died and she wrapped it in a bit of purple cloth and played with it as though it were a doll. Nobody told her to wash her hands, nobody said put that down it’s yucky. It was so beautiful in that purple cloth and her complete immersion in self play that I felt pangs of guilt for every moment that I interrupted my girls’ play to do what I wanted to do when they were little. In the kitchen, I would shoo the hens that would stand on the table and chase after the ducks that would eat every scrap I happened to drop. In the afternoons I would do yoga in the grass for so long that the ducks would form a circle around my body watching me curiously. Every night, we would walk to the top of the gardens and pick blackberries and blueberries. I would marvel at how symbolic a blackberry is to just about everything in life. You absolutely would not find a ripe juicy one until you reached through wasps and thorns and your hand was bleeding. The kids would then grind wheat and corn with a hand grinder and I would make pies with the fresh berries. My girls would spend their days doing whatever they wished. They would take journals and a camera and disappear for 4 hours at a time looking for fox dens and baby deer and catching fish. I allowed them to roam freely with the exception of the creek and to stay with Ira at all times. I had to let go of the hovering mother and embrace their journeys of excursion and discovery. If I had any questions about safety I would just ask Ira. Ira never wears shoes and can run on shards of stones as though it is velvet and Ira knows everything.

The shocking bit of truth and I had a lot of time to think about this, is that Ira at age 8 has MORE SURVIVAL SKILLS THAN ANY adult that I know. Ira can grow any kind of plant from seed. The seed he knows to save that is not genetically-modified. He can grow vegetables, he can identify every tree in the forest, every snake, every bug and bird. He would laugh when I would mistake a box elm for poison ivy. He can kill a fish with a slingshot and a stone. He can build a fire and he can find his way in the total darkness through 250 acres of forest. If he had to forage his food, he knows what nuts and plants and berries he could eat and which would kill him.

Ira is the Bird Boy and though only 8 years old has $900 in a cigar box that he sleeps with. He’s earned every penny by selling eggs at the farmer’s market and knows everything there is to know about chickens and ducks. His companions are two little ducklings; one with only one leg called ‘one-legged’ that followed us everywhere we went. We took our baths with the ducklings in the crystal clear creek and cooled off every afternoon with a swim. I had hours on end to sit on the creek bed and stare at the rocks below. After hours had passed, the rocks would take the shape of crayfish and I would begin to notice life tucked within the rocks that I would not have noticed in the first hour or two. I started realizing that I had been missing many of the details of life and that I was beginning to truly see myself. I was beginning to experience stillness for what was probably the first time in my life since I was a child. I’ve always been on the fast track and was never one to waste time.

 My husband stayed behind to work but visited on the weekends. Upon arrival, he walked past a field of cosmos flowers and stopped and commented on the brightness of these flowers. He must’ve stood there for 15 solid minutes soaking in the neon orange of these flowers and I realized in that moment that he is my perfect match. I learned to be grateful for him when he used to drive me crazy that he didn’t multitask the way that I did.

Around the second week, I started feeling hungry. The family drinks a lot of raw milk for protein but I have been off dairy for a few years. We have always used raw dairy at home (for the child that doesn’t have a dairy allergy) but I felt the preciousness of food and didn’t feel it right to take too much. Before leaving home, I told myself that I would not bring my usual stashes of food that I travel with everywhere being the mother of two children with food allergies. I told myself we would only eat what we pulled from the ground that day. What a detox this trip was! We were there prior to the peak of summer so dinner often consisted of sweet potatoes stored from last fall and perhaps breakfast was leftover rice or oats. I normally eat a ton of protein so quickly found myself almost fixated on food and I started to sneak nuts out of the jars reserved for the farm interns. When the food was put on the table it was devoured in minutes with not a scrap left over. The two year old’s leftovers were the dog’s ONLY source of food. I had to teach my girls to elbow their way in and get something to eat or it was all gone before they realized it was their turn to grab a scoop. They are used to chatting and dancing around the table recounting every detail of the day and only eat when prompted. They learned to be grateful and to finish their food on this trip.

My hunger turned into an obsession and it was to KILL. (Note: I was very strictly vegan my whole adult life until I became pregnant. For 15 years I did not eat anything animal) The first time I was aware of the desire to kill, I was walking along the path to the creek and saw a toad and thought to myself that I could fry it in coconut oil. During the next few days I started thinking that if I am going to eat chicken, for example, I should earn the right to eat it, not only by observing the death of a chicken, but by actually doing it with my own hands. I started asking questions about how to do it, how brutal it is, could I handle it but most of all WHEN would they let me kill a chicken? Oh my god, I was hungry. I have Jamie Oliver’s fantastic roasted chicken recipe committed to my memory, access to fields of sage and raw cow’s butter that I could slide up under that skin and salt it and roast it to perfection if only I could get my hands on a chicken! Surely, they will let me sacrifice just ONE on this visit! They have hundreds up on the top of the hill. I was not only ready to do it but insisting like a kid in the backseat of the car asking ‘are we there yet?’ every five minutes.

Sigh… I didn’t get to do it because Calfy Calf was having a calf and the calf was stuck so she was in labor for days with the farmer looking after her. Sadly, she delivered stillborn and I never got to kill my chicken. Gratefully, I no longer feel hungry enough to remember wanting so badly to kill a chicken and I’m sorry to all the vegetarians out there for writing this (our products are cruelty-free!). But, I learned to be truly grateful for what I have, the food and family that I have and that material possessions not only do not matter but are a burden. I would joyfully sacrifice my phone and go back and live there forever if my city husband would have it. It is the most beautiful life one can ever live…. And I am forever changed for the better because of it.