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Mothering on the Middle Road

Modern mothers are bombarded with vast amounts of conflicting information about their parenting choices and are pressured to choose sides. Even upon becoming pregnant, it felt as if I had to opt between a hypnotic orgasmic water birth at home or a conveniently planned c-section at a baby factory hospital. Like most issues in life, I don’t find myself drawn to either extreme, but fall somewhere in the middle. Maybe it’s because I’m a Libra, or a peacekeeping middle child, but I’m often able to see value on both sides of any argument. The birth of my son ended up falling in the middle,too –  a natural childbirth in a hospital (and I’m not ashamed to admit that if there’s a next time, I’ll probably choose an epidural).

The middle road does not grab headlines. It doesn’t spur comment wars in blog posts. The middle isn’t sexy, but I’d venture to guess most people dwell there and are doing just fine, taking bits and pieces from this or that side of the spectrum and making it work for them when it comes to a whole host of issues, from sleep training to deciding what to feed their babies. Yet at each new stage, I continue to be barraged by the fear-mongering headlines and blog posts and forums of those opinionated enough to say that their way is the right way. Little Man is eight months old now and I’m hearing things like I should be getting him on preschool lists now (or more like, yesterday) and I should be starting to develop his brain with education materials, especially bilingual ones if I want any chance of locking in a foreign language while I can. And so I’ve stumbled upon the next two camps looking for new recruits: “concerted cultivation” vs. “slow parenting”.

I can very easily turn into a Type-A worrywart overachieving listmaker, but over the years I’ve learned that very little comes of this. Worrying doesn’t make things go my way and the stress of spinning my wheels just isn’t worth it.  So I try not to buy into all this fast-track parenting, the concerted cultivation thing saying I should be giving my kid a head start by inundating him with educational materials on him, signing up years in advance for the right school, taking a million classes, etc. Not because I’m too lazy or it’s too overwhelming, but because I don’t really believe in the end result. Jump into the rat race now and it will never stop. I don’t want him to live in a pressure cooker this young, only to end up a stressed-out adult. It’s difficult to avoid, though. Even after reading Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, which debunks a lot of the myths we think will make our kids smarter (hey, it turns out those lame Baby Einstein videos are actually bad for your kid!), I found myself making a checklist of things that their studies show do work. I had to give myself the ‘ol “whoa nellie”, when I started getting excited about having Little Man write up play plans because it will improve his concentration and help him engage in extended play. Hello! He’s eight months old!

So I was relieved to discover the other side when I heard Carl Honore being interviewed about his book “Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting“. He actually doesn’t use the term “slow parenting“, though there is a whole group of people who do. Instead, he encourages doing things at the “right speed”, or the appropriate pace at which each task can best be enjoyed, emphasizing quality over quantity, and being present in the moment. A quote from a New York Times interview with him says “childrearing should not be a cross between a competitive sport and product development. It is not a project; it’s a journey.” Ah…what a relief. I’m sure I will end up in the middle of the two extremes as usual, but it helps to be aware I have choices and there is no right way. I will make my best concerted effort to cultivate enjoyment of this journey.

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The Story – Part 2: It’s Called Labor for a Reason

(Things have gotten tough around here as Little Man thinks nighttime is party time with an all-you-can-eat buffet. So it’s taking me awhile to write this in short spurts, on little sleep and with one hand, so please pardon typos or nonsensical rambling. The rest of the story will include some nitty-gritty details that may be tough for those with weak stomachs or no up close and personal experience with childbirth. It’s a messy, bizarre process. Be forewarned.)

Prodromal labor is the pits. Having never heard of it before, I was overjoyed when I started feeling regular cramping sensations in my lower abdomen the Sunday before my son’s Tuesday due date. They actually started Saturday night, after a spicy Indian dinner at Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley (maybe it’s worth giving a try all you ladies ready to induce), but were so mild and a couple hours apart, I didn’t think much of them, even though they woke me up throughout the night. I carried on as usual that Sunday, and even tried out a new church, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. I mention this only because I wonder if the highly unusual experience also contributed to the process.  There was incense and singing and dancing in circles around the beautiful sanctuary painted with a mural of saint icons that included the likes of John Coltrane and Sojourner Truth right alongside Mother Teresa and Frances of Assisi. During the dancing, the cramping became more intense, but I was so distracted by my husband holding hands with other parishioners and concentrating hard on his grapevine step, that I was busy just trying not to laugh.

Mutually deciding that was not the church for us, we went home to walk the dog, and that’s when these sensations that had felt like my usual period cramps started to intensify and come more frequently, about every half hour. My aunt called (sensing something from afar?) and I told her what it felt like and said, “But it can’t be contractions because I can talk through them, right?” I had the movie version of labor in my mind where women are always sweaty and cursing, but she assured me that “This is how it starts. You’re in labor!” Sure enough, when I got home from our walk and went to the bathroom, there was my mucous plug (I told you this would be nasty), a brownish gelatinous blob in my underwear. With equal parts revulsion and elation, I thought “Here we go!”  I packed up any last items in our hospital-bound suitcase and my husband installed the car seat. I read over my affirmations and relaxation techniques one more time, preparing myself for this beautiful, natural, miraculous process to begin. I texted some friends and family the exciting news.

This turned out to be a bad idea. I was suddenly inundated with texts and calls checking in every few minutes to see how things were progressing. Which would have been great if there was progress to report. But for the next grueling twenty-four hours until Monday afternoon, these “cramps” became full-on contractions around ten minutes apart, but never closer than six minutes. The natural childbirth books suggest changing the language of labor to decrease the fear around it.  Instead of contractions, they call them “surges” or “waves”, and encourage embracing each one as bringing your baby closer to arrival. But “contraction” was definitely more appropriate verbage. For about 30 seconds to a minute my body would tense up with enormous mind-numbing pressure. I tried to breathe into it. I tried getting in various positions – on all fours, draped over a birthing ball, my husband applying pressure into my hips or back, even taking hot showers – but nothing eased the feeling of  a boa constrictor squeezing my mid-section tighter and tighter until the contraction passed and the serpent released me to recover for the next six minutes. My instinct when the constriction began again was not to breathe and relax, it was to tighten up and fight the pain.

Needless to say, I was not sleeping through this. So with the third evening approaching, and the contractions not getting any closer to the magic 5-1-1 we learned was the ticket to hospital admission (contractions 5 minutes apart, each lasting 1 minute, over at least a period of 1 hour), I called the labor and delivery midwife on duty exhausted and desperate for a solution.

“Sounds like prodromal labor,” she said.  “Real labor always progresses. Contractions consistently increase in frequency and length. Yours have bounced back and forth between six and ten minutes. We can’t admit you until it turns into active labor.”

“You mean this is not real labor?” my voice cracked and tears started pouring down my weary face. If this pain wasn’t the real deal, how the hell could I handle active labor when it came? “This is all for nothing?

“Prodromal labor is often called false labor, but it’s not nothing. Your body is preparing for birth. Your uterus, baby and cervix are getting ready, but prodromal labor can last for days, even weeks. Have a glass of wine, relax, and since you live close, don’t come in until your contractions are consistently three minutes apart. The best thing you can do now is get some rest.”

REST?! How can I possibly rest?! I can’t take this anymore. Isn’t there anything you can do?” As another contraction came on, panic set in. This was not at all what I had imagined. Screw natural childbirth, I was ready for them to cut the kid out of me if that’s what it took to stop this pain.

“We can’t admit you, but what we can do is give you a morphine shot to help you sleep, which often is what your body needs to kick it into active labor.”

I hung up completely discouraged. This could last for days?! They had told me before they wouldn’t induce until 41 weeks. I might have to endure another week of this? Still, morphine seemed like a strange option. I immediately hopped online to see if anyone had anything to say about the matter. Turns out prodromal labor is not uncommon and I found several threads about women getting morphine to successfully rest up for active labor. As the hours pressed on and I found myself screaming into pillows in the living room at 4 a.m., I thought there’s no way I can carry on like this. I roused my snoring husband and said, “It’s time,” not in the sweet, exciting way I’d envisioned, but in an urgent, despairing tone. “Take me in, please. I need that morphine.”

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The Story – Part 1: Great Expectations

(It’s been 10 days since the birth of my son and I am finally feeling normal enough to participate in the world again. If I waited for enough time to write out the whole story of his arrival in one sitting it would never happen, so I’ll just do it in installments.)

It’s funny to me now how backward my expectations of labor and delivery and the first days with the baby turned out to be. I didn’t worry much about labor because I thought of it as this very brief window of time where my body would surely kick in and do its thing, while I dreaded the idea of bringing home a newborn who would need constant care around the clock because I didn’t trust my instincts to deal well with sleep deprivation. Turns out I am thoroughly enjoying my Little Man at all hours of the day and night, but there was nothing enjoyable, or even instinctual, about labor.

In preparation for the big day, I read a couple books and took a crash course at the hospital and thought I was good to go. I’d had such an uncomplicated pregnancy, I naively assumed my l & d would go as smoothly and even thought I might try for a drug-free childbirth. Both Ina May and the Mongan method assured me natural childbirth could be pain free and even orgasmic. I don’t know what kind of natural crack they smoke, or if S & M is their thing, but for me birth and pain were inextricably linked. Another friend who attempted to drink their Kool-Aid and failed pointed out later that most of the births described in the books were the women’s second or consequent times, which are usually quicker and easier. If the memory of this birth doesn’t fade like people say it will, there may not be an opportunity for me to test that theory since Little Man will most likely be an only child.

During the last month of pregnancy, I dutifully did my Kegels and practiced my visualizations of a beautiful rainbow-filled relaxed birth. I didn’t go as far as perineal massage, but I repeated affirmations like “I welcome my baby with happiness and joy”, “My body is not a lemon; I trust my body, and I follow its lead”, “I feel a natural tranquility flowing through my body”, and best of all, “My baby’s birth will be easy because I am so relaxed.” According to the gurus, avoiding pain was just a mind game of conquering fear. I wasn’t afraid, so I was ready, right?

Nothing prepared me, however, for prodromal labor.

(Little Man stirs. Hopefully I’ll get further in the next installment. To be continued…)