I know I already wrote Rio’s birth story and shared it here. I wrote it as clearly and honestly as I could, with all of the relevant factual details, the small collection of photos that my globally-published photojournalist friend Ash was able to get me right away, and an attempt to be even-handed in its telling even though I felt heartbroken.
This is a different telling of it.
I am telling it differently now because I now have all of Ash’s photos from which to choose, and I also now have license to share that the reason for my heartbreak was Oscar and the end of our marriage. We are going through a dissolution of marriage currently (in as collaborative and child-development-focused a way as possible). Though our relationship had been troubled for a long time, the night before the birth was particularly difficult. This was why I birthed through an ocean of grief.
In this version, then, I am visually telling the story (thanks to the gift of Ash’s photo-documentation) with a focus on what really matters to me from the birth. I am telling it with a focus on the narrative that strengthens me, the memory of it that reminds of me of my own fierce will. Most of all, I am telling it with a focus on what provided me the resilience I needed to cross that ocean of grief to meet my baby: the women in my life, the women in that room. They are the fountain from which I drew my resilience. When I had no tranquility and peace inside myself, I absorbed theirs. When I felt defeated, I concentrated on their love and belief. The faces and hands and voices of my mom and Jen are the way I want to remember this birth. Suki hugging me, Deb pressing the hot pack to my back, the quiet presence of Ash and of my sister, the sunlight from the window, the calm female voice singing “Ra Ma Da Sa” from Jen’s phone, the colors of my robe, the blue and purple of Jen’s hair, the tickly feeling of my mom’s gentle fingers, the love I spoke to Rio as I pushed him out, the way I reached down to feel him crown and to pull him to my chest, the sweet way Ida greeted her baby brother with a kiss. These are the things I want to remember. These are the elements that I am choosing to carry with me from this birth, to sustain me in this hard road ahead.
What I have learned in the last six months is that resilience is an active process. It requires choices in every moment to draw on the strengths around us, and it requires that there is something good around us and inside us that we can draw on. These women were my pillars and my lifeboats, and I wanted to tell the birth story again, with a dedication to them.
The collection of photos does begin and end with Oscar, though, because this pregnancy did begin with him, and because the birth ended with him. That is, we will be co-parenting together for the rest of our lives. The kids are ours. The moment of birth is brief; the process of parenting is life-long, and he will always be there, dedicated to our children alongside me, even as we craft separate lives.
But the birth, the birth I want to remember, is not about him at all. This is the story I want to tell.
All photos by Ash Adams
I wrote this yesterday, as the world learned of Fidel Castro’s death, on my phone as a Facebook post. Today, with both kids napping, I finally have a moment to make it into a blog post.
Fidel Castro’s death comes at a time when the US American left-of-center is asking a lot of the questions about unity vs. diversity of cause that my friends Clare and Sandra and I were asking when we spent 3 weeks in Cuba in the summer of 2005. (This was Clare’s return to Cuba after having studied abroad there 2002 – 2003, the first trip there for me and Sandra).
We wrestled with many questions that trip, as we talked politics and history with our friends and hosts throughout the island (including La Sierra Maestra, where the revolution was fought and where I took the photos above) and as we poured through essays on the Bautista dictatorship and US Imperialism, La Revolución, the literacy brigades (a host family even taught us the song of the brigades — “alfabetizar, alfabetizar, venceremos!”), the healthcare system, public transportation, and more. We were so impressed by the egalitarianism and base level of health: everyone had food, shelter, potable water, healthcare, mental healthcare, education, and jobs. No children died of vaccine-preventable diseases or diahrrea. There was not much crime. Women and men were camaradas. The only people with a whole lot of extra stuff were those with family in the US sending them Playstations and dollars they could use to get “Divisa,” the tourist money. We were very impressed by the government support for artists and the arts, the celebration of cultural diversity, and the revolution’s efforts to increase gender equality.
And yet, from what we could gather, all of these reforms were done because of a “unity” that required repression of diverse viewpoints and a repression of the voices of those who were still not enjoying full equality. Race equity was better there than in the US, but most top government posts were filled by light-skinned Cubans, and the largest houses seemed to be all occupied by lighter-skinned Cubans as well. The government’s support for the rise of women in the professional world was not accompanied by as strong of a push for men to take up an equivalent share of the housework and childcare duties, or significantly reform sexist treatment of women. (Related to this, we experienced sexual harassment in the big cities, but never in the small towns.) Universal healthcare was great, but the standard approach to childbirth left much to be desired, from my perspective as a proponent of the empowering midwifery model of care. With few opportunities for advancement in certain kinds of jobs, the quality of effort and innovation seemed to be compromised. The limits on seafood for Cubans, which in effect meant that most of the time only tourists could eat the amazing lobsters and shrimp that were abundant in their oceans, grated on us (so we bought some lobsters from a fisherman we literally met while in the ocean, and cooked them with our friends in La Habana). In fact, there were a lot of systems that favored tourists at the expense of Cubans, and in one experience we had, used race informally as a marker of who to exclude. And of course, the imprisonment of gays and political dissidents, the government control of press, and the fact that Fidel still hadn’t ceded power was super messed up.
We had rich political conversations with many Cubans of all racial backgrounds and different professions and ages. Their perspectives were often a complicated mixture of admiration for and disappointment with their system and their leadership. Clare and Sandra and I asked ourselves a lot of questions about whether the US American Left would be more successful if we could concentrate on fewer issues and all gather behind a charismatic leader and an economic and egalitarian vision like Cuba had done. We wondered if each person concentrating on separate causes divided us too much to be able to compete with the hyper-organized and controlled Right. But we couldn’t reconcile the Cuban “unity” approach with the intersectional, anti-racist, feminist, pro-LGBTQ, freedom-loving vision we had for our future. We really couldn’t.
I have been thinking about those questions a lot in the last few weeks as I hear Dems saying we lost for lack of focus on a singular economic vision that Blue Collar whites in the middle of America could get behind, that we lost because our voices and causes were too diverse. I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but I would hope that we could learn from Cuba how to gather behind a bright and beautiful idea, but avoid the repression of voices that Fidel propagated, which left them a more hollow version of that vision.
Ciao, Fidel. A complicated legacy you left.
(All photos by Ash Adams)
I’ve been struggling with how to tell my birth story because it contains some personal emotional details that I don’t feel like broadcasting. But I find myself feeling blocked up from not having written it, not having cast it into narrative form, externalized it and made sense of it in writing. So this is my best attempt to tell the emotional truth of it and share it with all of you.
Ida had come 3 days early, and my friends and my husband, Oscar, thought I was going to deliver even earlier this time, a prediction which I didn’t totally agree with, but his positon so low on my cervix made seem plausible. I was not expecting Rio to come so late. His due date was Friday, July 22nd, and my labor didn’t begin until the morning of Tuesday, July 26th. Although I had told myself that I would go back to work on Monday the 25th if I were still pregnant, I sensed that I just needed to take some time to myself and he would come, so I spent Monday getting a massage and a pedicure and meeting with my doula to work on pressure points in my foot and talk through things that were weighing on my heart. That seems to have worked.
Early on Tuesday morning, after a poor night of sleep, I went to snuggle with my two and a half-year-old, Ida Luna, in her room, and fell asleep on her crib mattress on the floor. I then awoke around 7:00 with my first contraction. They came every 15 minutes after that, so I figured this was early labor, and I was hoping it would continue and advance. Oscar and I got Ida ready and after he left to take her to school, I slept for another hour and a half, waking every 15 minutes with pain in my pelvis and back. I recognized the contractions, but this felt markedly different than last time, mainly in that they were not accelerating and I was not diving into that deep, private, mental space of Laborland as I had in early labor with Ida.
Later that morning at home, Oscar pushed on my sacrum as I sat in extended child’s pose, and this felt good, as all of the pain was concentrating in my back. My back, afflicted with spondololysis for the majority of my life, had hurt terribly throughout pregnancy, and I was expecting it to hurt during labor. Around 10-something I threw on a sports bra, a dress, and sneakers while Oscar grabbed the birth bag, and we headed out to go on a walk, to which I invited a few sister-friends. Before the walk, my mom (Geneva Woods Birth Center/Geneva Woods Midwifery owner and Certified Nurse Midwife, Barbara Norton) asked if I’d like to get checked, so I came in. I was 3 cm. dilated, 80% effaced, and my cervix was mostly soft but a little bit firm. She suggested that we not walk so far away at Kincaid Park, as we had been planning, but stay closer by the birth center, so we headed to the trails near Alaska Pacific University, texting friends to update them. In retrospect, all this texting and coordinating was not helping my labor at all, but I really wanted some sister-friend presence. Oscar and I walked for close to a mile, with me leaning on his shoulders and moving my hips and him swatting mosquitoes away from my legs during contractions, and then circled back to the car for a snack and water. I found it odd that I could eat during early labor, since last time I was vomiting at this point. When my friend Suki and my friend and birth photographer Ash arrived, we walked a few more loops with them, me laboring through contractions with the support of Suki or Oscar’s shoulders, Ash snapping photos, and some talking and laughing as we made our way over dirt trails through the beautiful birch forest. My contractions were about 3 – 4 minutes apart at this point, and closer on uphills, so, thinking I had progressed, we headed to the birth center. Oscar had turned the seat heaters on high, which felt amazing on my low back. I had a particularly uncomfortable contraction as we arrived at the birth center, which I got through in the parking lot, leaning against the car.
My mom had mentioned earlier that if my pain is concentrated in my back, it may be that baby is in a funny position, and I needed to lay on my side with my knee close to my chest in order to get him to turn. By the time I arrived at the birth center again, however, the pain radiated from my pelvis out and into my back and hips, so we were less concerned about position. We settled into the birthing room I had chosen – the bright “Hummingbid Room” lit by sunlight from the large windows and my doula Jen Allison arrived. I got my dose of antibiotics (I had tested positive for GBS) and had a few contractions on the bed in extended child’s pose, with Oscar pressing on my back. Then I tried putting on my calming birth mix on my phone, and getting in the shower, but nothing was quite clicking, and my contractions slowed down significantly. I got out and Jen rubbed my feet and pushed on my labor pressure points, and asked me about the morning and the previous night, I believe trying to tease out from me what might be getting in the way of progressing.
My mom came in with Deb Schneider, who is a certified direct-entry midwife (CDM), as well as a nurse and paramedic, who works in their office as a nurse and birth assistant. Geneva Woods is a CNM-only practice (that is, all births are attended and managed by CNMs), but Deb is able to offer her insight from her own CDM practice, which she maintains outside of her hours at Geneva Woods. For that reason, my mom wanted her help with my birth because she did not want to be the only midwife for her daughter’s labor/grandson’s birth, and the other CNM, Dana, was seeing patients all day. Deb checked me and I was still only 3 cm. dilated, 80% effaced, and a little bit firm. No progress at all. All that walking, all those contractions, some of them increasingly hard, and nothing. This felt defeating. I knew that there was emotional stuff getting in the way. It had been a hard few weeks before the birth, and a hard night, and there was a lot of heavy stuff floating around in my head and heart.
This was about 2:30 pm. My mom and Deb suggested I could go home, or I could try sleeping here since I had not slept well the night before, and see if that helps. They also said if I like, in a little while they could try breaking my water to speed things up. I didn’t want to be stuck forever, so I considered the idea, but I was hopeful I could get into active labor without it — and it turned out that way. A change of environment and focus was all I needed. Jen, Ash, my mom, and Deb, all left the room as I lay down with one of Jen’s rice-filled hot pads on my eyes, the rain sound from the white noise app on my phone, pillows between my knees, and Oscar next to me. I may have slept a few minutes before the first contraction hit. They then started to speed up and intensify some as I lay with my eyes covered and just the (artificial) sound of rain. In fact, they intensified so much that I vomited, just as I had at the beginning of active labor with Ida.
This certainly felt like progress, but it was also so hard, because I found I could not land on the right coping mechanism, could not decide on visualization or non-focused awareness or concentrating on the parts of my body that did not hurt, or thinking of sweet sleeping Ida that morning, or repeating “open” or thinking of a flower blooming. None of it quite clicked, and I was frustrated. Sadness seemed to be getting in the way of the peaceful, accepting space I wanted to create for me and my son, and sadness made the contractions really hurt. (Obviously, labor hurts, but it hurt more because of the sadness.) In fact, this pain and this sense that I was meandering around trying to cope with it (which was so different than last labor, when my coping strategies had fallen perfectly into place) and the lack of progress at my last check had me think, “Geez, I see why people get epidurals…maybe I should just…no, I know that epidurals increase the risk of c-sections and I do not want to recover from major abdominal surgery, and baby needs my flora. Plus, I know I wouldn’t feel as good and powerful about my birth if I did it that way and what if baby didn’t latch well, and ug, then I’d have to hang out afterwards in the hospital. Plus, I birthed without meds before and I can do it again, just as all of our ancestors have done.” Clearly I won the little argument in my head, but it was there, this little internal struggle.
After a little while, Jen came in and asked Oscar to go to the store to get Natural Calm to help soothe my back muscles, and candles to light for the grief and pain and sadness that was getting in the way (this was, in part, an idea proposed by a fellow Mount Holyoke College alum and mama, Maya, who suggested I could invite in whatever is hard but set good boundaries with those feelings and relegate them to an appropriate place in the room). After Oscar left, Jen laid with me a while, and provided gentle reassurance and presence the way she always does. She also, upon my request, put “Ra Ma Da Sa” on repeat on her phone, and I let the song’s loving kindness pour over me. Then my mom laid down to talk with me briefly and I asked her to stay, and keep scratching my back as she had begun to do.
When I was a child, I was energetic and always wired, so it was hard to get me to fall asleep. My mom would gently trace her fingertips along my back until I fell asleep. This is what she did now, and it brought me such a beautiful calm – because, physiologically, that’s what gentle touches do, but also because it was my mom, and she was so loving and kind and tranquil and calm herself. At this point, my contractions really picked up and intensified. Jen (and sometimes Deb) made sure I had cool rags on my forehead and over my eyes and hot packs pressed against my back. I switched positions from my right to my left side, and got up to pee once, but otherwise just lay on my side with no visual input the entire time. I just let labor happen. I squeezed Jen’s hand during contractions and moaned, her soft voice reminding me to moan low, my mom’s calm voice assuring me through the hardest pains.
I have synesthesia, a cognitive condition in which all graphemes (letters and numbers and words) and many sounds and touches have a color – an absolute color assigned to them, not something I consciously decide. I don’t recall what color my pain was, but I do recall the color of the peace that my mom and Jen and the song brought to me – the red and yellow of the song’s words, the light pink and light blue of my mom’s back scratches, the brown and purple of squeezing Jen’s hand, all this bathed with the gentle window light from the overcast day. At every contraction, I concentrated on the peace and love and calm and colors I was being gifted by these women in my life, and that peace helped override the pain. That peace helped Rio know he was welcome in the world outside, helped me know that I could bring him here.
From the time I had laid down to “sleep,” it had been just over an hour and a half before my contractions got incredibly intense and were more difficult to breathe through. Listening to and reading my labor, my mom asked, “Laura, do you feel like pushing?” I answered, “Uhm, I don’t know” for two more contractions because I wanted to be sure, and on the third, I said, “Yes, I do.” So she said, “Okay, we don’t need to check you; I can tell you’re ready.” And indeed I was. My sister, Claire Norton-Cruz, had been called in as the birth assistant to take over the job of listening to baby heart tones and other vitals, and to prepare things for the midwives. I still had a cold washcloth over my eyes, so I didn’t see her, but I was grateful she was there. Oscar also had come back from his errand and was able to video some of the pushing and birth, which is such a gift.
With both births, pushing felt strange and difficult in the beginning because I wasn’t sure if I was making any progress. But this time, after a few contractions, I gave a push and my water broke suddenly and with great force, splashing all over Deb. We all laughed, even me. It felt like a giant water balloon popping! A few more pushes — this time pulling my own leg up during contractions — and it was clear the head was coming down — I could feel it. From that point on, all I could think was, “I love you, baby Rio. I love you so much, baby Rio.” This was what I concentrated on as he crowned, as he pushed through the “ring of fire,” and as he sat there while my mom told me to wait before pushing him out so my perineum could stretch (this was very hard to do but I was very grateful for the instruction, as it kept me from tearing). I thought of how I loved him and how excited I was to meet him as I then pushed out his head and pushed out his shoulders (which were difficult to get out!) and then pushed out his big chest and his long long body. I was expecting his body to just slide right out after his head, so I recall being confused and yelling, “Get him out!” (my one rude behavior of birth, as far as I can recall). In total, pushing took about 15 minutes. He was born at 4:34 pm.
Baby is born!
My mom said, “Take your baby, Laura,” and she put his slippery body on my chest as he cried loudly. In fact, he started crying before he was fully born. Hearing his cry, knowing his lungs worked and he could breathe, feeling his hefty little body on my chest, seeing his beautiful face, and knowing I was done – done giving birth to him, done giving birth forever — I felt such a rush of both relief and love. My sister and mom and Deb all toweled him off and got a warm blanket to cover him as he laid on my chest. Oscar came over to look at him and cried and cried. I just kissed Rio’s messy little head and asked Oscar over and over, “Isn’t he beautiful?”
Meanwhile, the hemorrhage prevention plan we had put in place got implemented – Pitocin in the leg before the placenta is delivered, and once I pushed that out (which was easy, thank goodness), IV Pitocin and plenty of bi-manual compression. I am small and very sensitive to blood loss, so after bleeding last birth and feeling very faint afterwards, I wanted to prevent it this time. Plus, there is new evidence supporting this Pitocin-before-placenta approach. It was nice to feel like myself this time, and not weak or faint.
Rio latched on quickly and with great positioning, and began to feed vigorously. This came as a great relief, as Ida had dithered at the breast for a long time when I had really hoped for her help getting my uterus to clamp down, and she was not the most vigorous nurser as a newborn, which contributed to low(ish) supply issues. It looked from this first feed like things with Rio would be different, as indeed they have turned out to be – he has remained a voracious eater, and has grown so much since birth.
Rio and I cuddled and nursed on the bed for a while as I inspected the burst capillaries all over my face and chest (oh well, I still haven’t perfected my pushing technique) and Oscar went to go pick up Ida from my dad’s house. When he carried her into the room, her face lit up so brightly to finally see “baby Zio” on the outside. She cautiously crawled across the bed to see him and touch him, and gently kissed his head. I had prepared her thoroughly to understand pregnancy and birth and babies, but still wasn’t sure how much she would understand that this baby is the same one who was inside, who she kissed and talked to through my belly each day. But she clearly did, and was quite in love.
Ida was also fiercely protective, such that she cried intensly and was very difficult to comfort when my mom gave Rio his Vitamin K shot. After that, she mistrusted my mom and whimpered on my shoulder as my mom measured Rio’s head and chest and length, and weighed him. Ash had proposed we all wager bets on Rio’s weight, and her bet turned out to be right: 8 lbs., 3 oz. He was 21 in. long, his head measured 13.25 in., and his chest measured 14 in. People joked, “Where do you hide these big babies?” because even at 40 weeks I was measuring something like 35 or 36 cm., and looked small. (I think I hide them on my organs, because I sure felt squished at the end.) Oscar then dressed baby and Ash went and picked up pho for us, which we ate in the kitchen area before heading home to manage that awkward first night of sleep with a newborn and a toddler.
This story ends well, with a natural birth, healthy mama, and healthy baby. However, it is a much harder story to tell than that of my first birth. Even though the active labor was so quick (about an hour and forty minutes) and pushing was surprisingly quick (15 minutes), and even though I am proud of having given birth powerfully and naturally, and even though I am so intensely grateful for the support I received, I do still remember this birth as hard.
Whereas my memories of Ida’s birth are hazy and suffused with peace and joy, the story of this birth is more one of struggle, of overcoming adversity, of pushing through sadness and grief towards peace and power. I did experience peace and tranquility, and I did give birth with determination and power and a great welling of love for my son and belief in my body. I did it, and as I look back on it with more distance, it will serve as a story of my own resilience that will help me get through hard times; I know that. It will remind me of how I can push through any kind of despair that comes upon me because of the love I have for my family. I will remember being a warrior, and I will keep going. It’s just that those stories that strengthen us in the long run aren’t quite so heart-warming to remember and tell in the period afterwards. In fact, even if they have happy endings, as this one does, we tell these stories with some grief too. We wish we could tell simpler stories.
The story of this birth will serve as a reminder that resilience is a quality not just generated by an individual, but is something that is made possible with the support of others. Sure, I was resilient, and, as my doula said, I “crossed an ocean” by myself in the process. But my resilience was the determination to find what was good around me and concentrate on that – and I was surrounded by good. I was surrounded by love and peace and strong, caring women and all I had to do was to visualize that, to focus on it and let it fall over me — and then, with great effort and great joy and loving encouragement, to push my baby out.
And although I don’t believe in gender essentialism, and I know that not all people with uteruses who labor and birth or who assist labors and births identify as women, I did feel in this birth the particular comfort of women. I was reminded of why labor and delivery has been, for most of human existence (and even primate existence) supported primarily by other women/females. Whether by design or by socialization, there was a particular ambiance created by these women – all but one of whom had pushed their own babies out in the same way, all of whom had overcome adversities particular to being female in a patriarchal world, an ambiance that I needed to feel at peace.
I also knew that I was safe and that baby was safe. I felt absolutely no fear because I had confronted my fears while pregnant with the help of the midwives at Geneva Woods and my friends and Jen and my Blessingway Ceremony, and had let go of them. I felt no fear because I knew from her record of outcomes that my midwife mama, Barbara Norton, was safe and the staff she had helping her were safe and competent (that Deb was a paramedic for decades and that my doula was a nurse were both extra bonus sources of reassurance). It is easier to practice resilience and to find peace amid turmoil when you can be confident in the physical safety of you and your children.
There is sadness in telling this story, as well as a sense of pride and power, and most of all a sense of gratitude. I am so grateful for the support I had from my birth team and the care I received from Geneva Woods Birth Center. I wish for everyone the kind of preparation for birth that Jen Allison provided for both me and Oscar, and the kind of loving, empowering, and evidence-based care I got from the staff.
Rio Esteban – this long, heavy child of ours; our sweet, sleepy, strong son, is waking up from his resting spot on my belly now, so I best change his diaper and engage with him. I am so grateful that this beautiful little soul has joined our family, and so grateful for the experience of labor and birth, however hard it was, that brought him out into the world.
Our daughter, Ida Luna, is now two and a half, and our son, Rio Esteban, should be joining us on the outside any day now. Ever since I was pregnant with my daughter in 2013 (or really, ever since I was a third grade teacher in 2004), I have been searching out and attempting to curate a collection of children’s books that are visually beautiful, cognitively appropriate and engaging; that help children to become compassionate, respectful, confident, global in their worldview; and that start them on their journey to make the world a more just and peaceful place.
In the case of our personal home book collection for our daughter, now for our children, I have looked for books to empower them both as allies to those who experience forms of oppression that they do not, and that empower them as proud, bilingual, multi-racial Latinxs — as Alasqueño-Colombianos — to be confident about who they are in all of their complexity of culture and race and gender. Some of these books we will read to them later, when they are more cognitively ready, such as the biography of Ida B. Wells, the African American crusading journalist who is the namesake for our daughter, or “Rad American Women A-Z” or empowering stories like “Drum, Chavi, Drum!” These books and many others I have found from fantastic lists other people have compiled for teaching socio-emotional skills or empowering children of color or combatting gender stereotypes or eliminating prejudice against LGBTQ people, etc. These lists are wonderful resources, but they usually tend to be aimed at older children. In some cases, this is because the messages are more overt in how they deal with injustices, which I have found to be a more high-level cognitive skill than infants and toddlers can grasp.
In the last few years, I have had the chance to buy and borrow books, and go through with my daughter to see which ones resonate with and engage her and which ones don’t. To some degree, I have been able to observe the effects that the books have had on her language, thinking, and behavior. With a few of these books, I have gotten to read them with the babies and toddlers of my friends and observe the effects on them as well. I am sure that I have many blind spots based on my various positions of privilege as a white, able-bodied, middle class, cis-gendered woman married to a man, but as someone committed to social justice, these are some of the books that I have fallen in love with.
Social justice with babies and toddlers? Aren’t they a little young for that?
As I mentioned above, I have found that explicitly addressing concepts of fairness and unfairness is a bit higher-level (probably something to approach by three or three and a half?). Therefore, most of these books for babies and toddlers aim at building the opposite of implicit bias. That is, these books build implicit, deeply-felt respect and, for children who are from marginalized groups represented positively in these books, they build a sense of positive identity (whichhas been found to be protective against a number of health and social problems throughout life). These books move a child towards being a socially-just person by building, in conscious minds but primarily in their unconscious minds, a sense that people of color, people from non-dominant cultures in the US or Europe, people with disabilities, children who don’t fit gender stereotypes, and people who are LGBTQ, are just normal people because they simply are the characters in the stories.
This may seem like something that just about any children’s book would do, but sadly, the children’s book publishing industry is still overwhelmingly white, and this is reflected in the types of books most often available in classrooms, libraries, and bookstores. In fact, flipping through most children’s books, I can’t help but notice that the children of color, if they appear at all, are vastly outnumbered by the white children, which is quite unlike most public schools in the US and quite unlike the globe. Likewise, many children’s books reflect gender stereotypes that box children in, and only reflect heterosexual, two-parent families and suburban, middle-class lifestyles. As a result, a literary diet of only those kinds of books can help to create implicit bias in children – particularly when paired with the bias to which children are exposed elsewhere in society. Therefore, in order to do the opposite – in order to prevent or intervene in the implicit bias that shows up in children as early as the toddler years— we must expose children to books and other experiences (photos, oral stories, friendships, cultural events, etc.) that create a foundation of implicit love, respect, and understanding.
Here are some of the books I have found that help do that. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and could most certainly benefit from more bilingual books in other languages. Also, the age categories are just approximations for when to introduce these books based on my (imperfect) memory of my experiences. See what your baby or toddler responds to and go with that. Sometimes their interest in a book will be be sustained, sometimes it will come and go. Sometimes, as with a new food, a new book has to be offered a few times before they become interested.
For young infants:
Young infants like contrast, movement, and faces, so these book choices reflect those neurological and developmental preferences. Their brains are wired to connect to people’s faces, and so the faces you show are going to shape who babies consider normal, connection-worthy people. With this in mind, some recommendations:
The Global Baby series of books, produced by the non-profit Global Fund for Children:
These are beautiful and engaging board books with photos of babies, pictured both with and without adult caregivers, from around the world. These were among the first books that Ida paid attention to as an infant, smiling and cooing at the other babies on each page. The text is also endearing and positive, but I found it even more engaging to just talk with Ida about each baby featured and what they were doing, how they were feeling, etc. These books are still interesting to her at two and a half, and they can be used to spark many conversations, including geography lessons with a globe (which is a new interest of Ida’s).
ABC, Look at Me! (and all of Roberta Intrater’s books):
Complex ranges of baby and toddler emotion are captured in simple photographs set before a black background. The babies and toddlers featured are of most major racial groups in the US. Unlike many children’s books, the children of color in Intrater’s books are not thrown in as tokens in an otherwise overwhelmingly white cast; they are evenly distributed, and all of the children in the book are irrepressibly cute and engaging. This book in particular has been able to grow with Ida and her ever-expanding emotional vocabulary. It is a true joy to read.
First 100 words/primeras cien palabras by Roger Priddy/Bright Baby Books:
I am drawn to this and all of the Bright Baby/Bebé Listo books because of the crisp photographs laid over bright simple colors, which appeal not only to babies with developing eyesight but also to artists like me. I am particularly fond of this book, as was Ida, because the range of babies and toddlers photographed is diverse, and all are portrayed in the same way: doing normal baby and toddler things. I know this doesn’t sound revolutionary, but believe me, it is far from the norm for children’s books.
Welcome Song for Baby: A Lullaby for Newborns by Richard Van Camp:
I found this book on a list of children’s books by Native American and Alaska Native authors. I’ve been showing it to my toddler, and will soon be able to share it/sing it for my newborn. I am anticipating that when I do, as I will be coursing with postpartum hormones, it will make me cry my eyes out, because the song (and the gorgeous, diverse photos of infants and their adult caregivers) reflects the sacredness and importance of this period of life.
For Older Infants & Young Toddlers:
Peekaboo Morning by Rachel Isadora:
Actually, absolutely everything by Rachel Isadora. She has a remarkably wide range of illustration media and styles, book subjects, and locations of her books. We own this book for babies as well as two more that are more toddler-appropriate, but I want them all. All of her books center, normalize, and celebrate the beauty of children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and often in other countries. This book, Peekaboo Morning, is an endearing walk through a young toddler’s daily life in her multi-generational home, and is illustrated joyously with delicious, thick pastels. Because of the repetitive use of “Peekaboo!” and because of the simplicity and focus on relationships, Ida could easily identify with the main character, a Black child whose gender is left to the reader to interpret (or not interpret).
Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara Joosse & Barbara Lavallee:
This book tells the universal story of a child seeking comfort and safety in the unconditional love of a parent. It is a theme any child can relate to. And even if it is a little over the head of an infant, the repetition of the “I love you” provides an opportunity for the adult reading it to connect to the child and teach them these most important of words. The book takes place in Northern/Northwestern Alaska, with Iñupiaq words, objects, experiences, garments, foods, and practices providing the context by which the child asks her mother again and again to explain and assure her of her unconditional love. There are many board books that emphasize a parent’s love for their child, and all are heartwarming. But what I love about this one, in addition to its gorgeous style of illustration and its humor, is that it decenters the center – a universal story takes place not in the white suburbia of most children’s books in the US, but in the far North, among a people who are typically excluded from what most US Americans think of “America,” but who have been here for over 10,000 years, loving and raising their children.
Mommy, Mama, and Me and Daddy, Papa, and Me by Lesléa Newman and Carol Thompson
Fun little accounts of a day’s activities, told from the perspective of a toddler about his or her two parents of the same gender identity. Kids can relate to the fun times and loving care received, so it’s a great way to normalize the concept that families with two daddies or two mommies are perfectly normal. Since my daughter has a mom and dad, she naturally universalizes this to all families, so these books have been helpful for explaining different concepts of family structure. She liked them as an infant, and still likes them as a toddler.
Joshua’s Night Whispers (and the other board books written by Angela Johnson and illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell):
I will admit I don’t own this book; I actually have a different Angela Johnson and Rhonda Mitchell book called “Rain Feet,” which is a quietly beautiful and affirming board book about an African American boy enjoying the rain. But this one, in the same series, looks even more moving, as it is about a child needing reassurance at night and his papa providing it for him with love. I love stories that show fathers in nurturing roles because, amazingly, this still only occurs in a small minority of children’s books.
A for Activist/ A de Activista by Innosanto Nagara (Spanish version also with Martha Gonzales):
We own this book only in Spanish, but I imagine it would be just as engaging in English. This selection is an exception to all the others, in that it does explicitly address just about every social justice issue you can think of – but it does so with rhymes, the alphabet, alliteration, fun pictures, and a cat on each page. So while the social justice stuff probably goes over their heads for a few years, maybe it seeps in slowly, and in the meanwhile it’s a fun book with a great diversity of people portrayed in its images.
For older toddlers:
This is the age where my daughter’s intellectual growth and the evolution of which books she relates to are most apparent, so her taste in books changes every few weeks. She has a much longer attention span and can sit through much longer stories at two years and six months than she could at two years and three months. So figure out which books resonate with your kid as you go and then try again a few months later if now is not the time.
A Mother for Choco by Keiko Kasza:
I believe this book is actually intended for infants, but I received it as a baby shower gift for Rio at a time when Ida, at almost two and a half years, is particularly interested in concepts of parental presence and attachment, and really FEELS any story about someone not having a parent or being separated from a parent. So, this book really resonates with her now, but perhaps it would also work with an infant.
It’s a sad, and then ultimately happy story about a funny-looking bird searching for a mother. Various animals say “no” because they don’t look alike, leading the bird to weep. That is, until a kind Grizzly Bear who looks nothing like him meets his emotional needs and adopts him, and then brings him home to her warm home full of other adopted animals. I suppose one could argue that this happy cross-species adoption story is problematic given that there is not enough effort made in the child welfare system to recruit families of color to foster and adopt children of color, or enough adherence to the Indian Child Welfare Act to make sure Native children stay in Native homes…I don’t know if the author intended any metaphors here. But I guess I choose to look at it for my toddler as a story about how love and family is necessary and can be created from generosity, how caring can occur across difference. I see it as a way to help prepare my toddler to understand that not all of her friends at daycare and school will be able to live with their biological parents, and for her to be able to understand and empathize with their experiences of foster care and/or adoption.
Happy in Our Skin by Fran Manushkin and Lauren Tobia:
This is a fun, easy-to-follow book about all the qualities and characteristics of skin (its color, of course, but also its ability to self-heal and grow and itch, its variety in terms of birth marks and dimples, etc.). And it just so happens that the main characters are a multi-racial lesbian family with three adorable children who live in a joyous and diverse large city – one in which people of all religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, disability statuses, and ages are represented. Like “Mama, Do you Love Me?”, it is a universal story told with people who are not typically represented in children’s literature – and it is one of a handful of books we have that names and celebrates the beautiful diversity of skin color. Ida loves to recite parts of the page where all the different colors of baby skin are named – “Bouquets of babies sweet to hold: Cocoa brown, cinnamon, and honey gold. Ginger-colored babies, peaches and cream, too – splendid skin for me, splendid skin for you.”
Two other books along this theme are All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka and The Colors of Us by Karen Katz.
Hello World: Greetings in 42 Languages Around the Globe by Manya Stojic
This is and has been one of Ida’s favorite books for a long time. The book features the word for “hello,” along with a pronunciation guide using English phonetics, in a handful of languages from each continent, along with cheery little paintings of children in various forms of greetings. Given that we are raising Ida bilingually, I think she already has some grasp of the concept of multiple languages from which to understand this book, but I think with some help, any kid could come to appreciate the idea in this book that kids who look different and come from different places say the same nice thing in different ways. I ask Ida to repeat each word after me while we read, which she does enthusiastically. And sometimes she will just greet me, “Jambo!” or “Dada Namona!” or “I ni bara!” or “Bonjour!” because these words have stuck for her. Given the importance of language for identity, political and cultural sovereignty, and for retaining and respecting the diverse worldviews contained within languages, I think that nurturing an early respect for language diversity is a good way to prepare a child to be a thoughtful human being, and this is a fun book for encouraging that.
What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth:
We have a collection of books for preparing a toddler for life as an older sibling and helping a child understand pregnancy and birth. This book is special and unique, though, in its easy-to-understand, scientifically-accurate description of reproduction in a way that applies to couples of any sex, gender, and gender identity and any form of conception. That is, it talks about some bodies having sperm and some bodies having eggs, and how the egg and sperm need a place to grow called a uterus, and so on, without limiting this conversation to the “a man and a woman love each other very much…” narrative. I know it sounds abstract, but Ida LOVES it, and while we read it we talk about the fact that she has a uterus and eggs, as do I, and how papi doesn’t, but he has sperm. The extra advantage of this book is that while it was written to be LGBTQ-friendly and inclusive, it also may appeal to people who may not think about LGBTQ couples, but want to explain reproduction without talking about sex – and will end up explaining it in a gender-neutral way!
Mama Midwife by Christy Tyner
While on the subject of preparing a toddler to have a sibling, here’s another. I was disappointed that there was no simple book about “going to the midwife’s office” like there are about going to see the doctor. My friend Mystie Spargo and I intend to write and illustrate one someday. But for now, I did find this fabulous book about a mouse midwife and her daughter, and Ida sure loves this book. It is narrated by a girl mouse named Miso whose mom is a homebirth midwife for all the other animals nearby. In the course of the story, the mama midwife takes Miso with her to a grizzly bear’s birth. The book realistically portrays the normal, healthy process of pregnancy and non-medicated, natural birth in a way that is empowering and very moving. Given that access to supportive, compassionate, evidence-based birth care is a crucial part of reproductive justice, that alone would be enough for this to be a recommendation. But I also couldn’t help but notice other cool things about this book that make me recommend it, like how Miso has both male and female friends, all of whom become interested in midwifery. Also, Miso wears blue “boyish” outfits sometimes, and pink other times.
Who’s in a Family? By Robert Skutch and Laura Nienhaus
This book shares examples of families from many different cultural backgrounds, single mom and single dad households, children with two mamas and children with two papas, children being cared for by their grandma, children with divorced parents and step-parents, and more. It also shares how animals of different species have different kinds of family configurations, I suppose to help reinforce the idea that there is not only one “natural” way to have a family – and because kids like animals, of course. It’s not the #1 most captivating book on our shelves, but it is a toddler-appropriate way of explaining concepts like families, and that not all families are just like one’s own.
I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien:
When I bought this book about immigrant and refugee children starting school in a new, English-speaking country, I thought it would be way over Ida’s head. I was pleasantly surprised when she fell in love with it and asked for us to read it over and over again. Three children – Spanish-speaking Maria from Central or South America, Jin from Korea, and Fatimah, who wears a hijab and is a refugee from a war-torn country in Africa – all speak firsthand about their fears and the difficulties of adjusting to the new school culture. With support and the kindness of classmates, all find their way slowly in this new home of theirs. This clearly teaches children from the destination countries how to empathize with and support their immigrant and refugee classmates, and also affirms for immigrant and refugee children that they are not alone in their experience. The author offers, in the back of the book, the following website to find more books for and about immigrant and refugee children: www.imyourneighborbooks.org
How Raven Stole the Sun by Maria Williams and Felix Vigil
There could be many other books in this category of indigenous legends and creation stories from around the world, but as an Alaskan this Tlingit story is a particular favorite of mine – one I have read and told to children since for the past decade and a half, and one that Ida now enjoys. Like many other books on this list, this story centers the lives, images, and worldviews of Tlingit people, and it does so in a fun, magical, colorful, and engaging way. I have a number of books retelling legends from indigenous peoples in México, Hawai’i, and elsewhere, and they are wonderful books, but for now, they seem to be a little too complex for my 2.5-year-old. I will add them to the list for slightly older kids that I’ll make sometime in the future.
Hug Machine by Scott Campbell:
This is a very simple story about a little white boy who hugs every person, animal, and object he comes across, and who calls himself the “hug machine” for his ability to make others feel good with his hugs. It is rare to see boys portrayed in affectionate, loving, gentle, caretaking roles in books, so this book very simply and subtly challenges gender roles. Plus, it’s funny and easy to understand for young children.
The next three books are examples of books that affirm the everyday lives and values and families of Latinxs. I think books like these are incredibly important for: 1.) affirming for Latinx children that their lives and language are valuable (when they are barely visible in television or movies or the majority of children’s literature, and when they are as under attack by politicians as they are right now in the United States) and 2.) helping non-Latinx children relate to and value the lives of their Latinx classmates, friends, and neighbors. This is just as important for Pacific Islander, Asian, Middle Eastern, Alaska Native and American Indian, African, and African American children, but in our family we have more of a collection of Spanish-English books.
¡Qué cosas dice mi abuela! Dichos y refranes sobre los buenos modales by Ana Galán and Pablo Pino
I love this book for its celebration of a way in which wisdom is so often manifested and passed on by women in Latin America – through dichos y refranes (sayings and refrains) that often rhyme and that teach important life lessons. The book is narrated by the children who are being raised by their abuela (grandmother) in what seems like suburban United States or Canada. The children appreciate the life lessons their abuela tries to teach them about being polite, studious, well-groomed, kind, honest, respectful, healthy, generous, and compassionate, and they recount all of the (often rhyming) words she uses to instill these life lessons. For example, “A quien mucho miente le huye la gente” (“Whoever lies a lot makes people run away”) or “Quien comparte su comida no pasa sola la vida” (“Whoever shares food will not spend their life alone.”). What a rare gem of a book that honors the wisdom of women and Latin American idioms, and the intelligence and strength of a grandmother lovingly raising her grandchildren.
We Are Cousins/Somos Primos by Diane Gonzales Bertrand and Christina E. Rodriguez
This is a very simple book with few words on each page, meaning it would likely fit well in the infant section as well. I just find that Ida is more interested in and able to describe family relationships now, so she can now relate the cousins in the book to her two real-life cousins. This book goes through the ordinary life of mestizo Latino kids spending time with their cousins, sharing their abuela and abuelo with one another, and getting together with their tíos and tías. Basic stuff, but toddlers love simple, comprehensible, repetitive stories that they can relate to.
Sip, Slurp, Soup, Soup/ Caldo, Caldo, Caldo by Diane Gonzales Bertrand and Alex Pardo DeLange
This is a story about a rainy Sunday in which mamá prepares her special caldo (long-boiling bones, grinding garlic in the molcajete, slicing potatoes…) while the children eagerly await it. They then take a trip to the tortillería and slurp up their soup with hot tortillas. I know, it sounds very simple. I think because Ida can understand and relate to it (caldo is a mainstay of the diet of Colombians from altitude like Oscar’s family, and important here in cold Alaska too) and because of its sing-songy use of repetition, she wants to read this book just about every day. This book especially appeals to Oscar because it affirms the everyday lives, health practices, and values of Latinx families like the one he grew up in. Particularly before his family acculturated to the US, he and his siblings ate caldo and eggs for breakfast regularly. To have books that reflect your own family and its practices was not something Oscar had growing up, and I’m grateful that it’s something Ida and Rio can have.
I know this is in no way an exhaustive list; indeed, I have many more books I’d love to add to it, but I haven’t borrowed or bought them yet: these can be found at Ida Luna’s Amazon list here:
Which books for ages 0 – 3 would you add to this list?
1.) Today is my due date, and I am still pregnant! This is a first for me. In a way, it’s satisfying to get to that nice even number of 40 weeks, and to be able to make the last page in the pregnancy section of Rio’s baby book. So, as an update to this post on the “pre-baby book”, here are the two most recent pages:
2.) Also, Geneva Woods Birth Center, where I am fortunate to receive care and at which I will soon give birth, has a blog on their webpage, and they let me guest blog for them! It’s an abbreviated version of my blog entry “Birth is Painful for a Reason. I am grateful for it.” You can see and read my guest blog entry here, and look at their other great entries written by CNMs Dana Deane and Barbara Norton:
This is the conclusion I came to after giving birth for the first time in January of 2014, and have been thinking often about as I prepare for the birth of my second child this July:
Birth is painful for a reason, and for that same reason is a process that takes some time. When we embrace this, we can go into a deep and peaceful place inside ourselves, a place that shows us what we are capable of, and that shapes us as people and as parents.
This reason has nothing to do with divine punishment, nor with masochism (as is often the accusation against those who choose or advocate for natural childbirth). Of course, there is a wide range of how much time birth takes and how much pain the woman/birthing person experiences, but in all cases, birth is a process, an inherently challenging and revelatory and opening process.
I am not someone for whom mindfulness and a peaceful, non-worrying presence comes naturally. Nor has patience always been my strongest, most natural attribute. I am someone who moves through the world to make the world better. I am fiery. I am critical. I am eager and energetic to make change. And, like many other flawed human beings, I do not do this work with the perfect balance of compassionate curiosity and self-reflection and humility. My traits usually serve me well in my work to prevent violence, child trauma, and injustice and to improve systems and create cultural change. However, they also carry with them sometimes painful self-reflection and self-critique, excessive worry, and anxiety. Those things are not particularly helpful in labor – both because they can cause unnecessary suffering, and because they can interfere with the oxytocin and prolactin needed to open the cervix, pelvis, and vagina.
Two and a half years ago as I prepared for my first birth, aware that I have some traits and mental patterns that could get in the way during labor, I invested wholeheartedly into childbirth classes, books, and pain coping meditation practices, and I was gifted a blessingway ceremony. I did this because I knew I wanted a natural birth to avoid the effects of pain relief drugs on babies and on maternal oxytocin production for early bonding, and because of the increased risk of a c-section (that is, a major abdominal surgery) resulting from epidurals. I also knew I wanted a natural birth because I didn’t see how I could improve on what my ancestors have done since time immemorial, and because my mom, Barbara Norton, is a Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) from whom I have heard my whole life about the beauty and transformative power of birth. Plus, as a bonus, non-medicated and particularly out-of-hospital births are a lot less expensive. What I did not know then is how grateful I would be for the kind of challenge that the pain and length of birth presented to me, the way it forced me into the deepest place inside of myself and the way that it brought me and my husband, Oscar, together and formed us as parents.
I should note, as a caveat, that I did not have what many would consider a particularly long or difficult birth: about 3 hours of early labor and 5.5 hours of active labor, including 70 minutes of pushing. However, ~8.5 hours of labor and 70 minutes of pushing out my giant-headed baby (her head really is big; it was then and still is in the 80-somethingth percentile) was painful and challenging, to say the least. And I am grateful for this.
In order to cope with the pain—which I felt in my uterus, hips, and low back, and which was exacerbated by a pre-existing back condition I have called spondololysis—and in order to encourage my cervix to open, I had to go inside myself, deep inside myself. I had to turn off my reactionary self, silence the parts of my brain that worry and experience fear, turn off my evaluator self and critical self and activist self, and just ride along with full faith and trust that my body and baby would do what they needed to do, and my midwives at Geneva Woods Birth Center would do what they needed to do (which I why I chose them—they are trustworthy). As it turned out, each of us did do precisely what we needed to do.
In early labor, I used a Kundalini breath technique I had learned in prenatal yoga. Then I vomited some, but returned to my breath. As I moved into active labor, I used non-focused awareness, a technique I had learned from the book Birthing From Within and Jen Allison’s class, and later, I used visualization. I also breathed at a natural pace and exhaled with low moaning sounds. Meanwhile, Oscar soothed my body with the shower nozzle and hot water. As I danced my way into transition (the hardest part of labor, when the cervix moves towards complete dilation), I listened to the joyful Brazilian and Malian and Puerto Rican music on the playlist I had made, moaned, and held Oscar’s elbows and arms as he smiled at me calmly. As I pushed, I concentrated on baby’s head moving and my vagina opening, and I relaxed deeply between contractions and pushes as though I were lounging in a hot spring. As baby’s head burned my perineum, I focused on the elation of touching her head while it moved out (per my midwife mama’s advice) and knowing she would soon be in my arms. And then she was! I had gone into a deep, peaceful place inside myself so that I could minimize and get through the pain and so I could do my part in bringing forth her joyous entrance to life in the outside world, and my body responded by opening up and moving my daughter down.
In the months following, as my baby Ida Luna cried her newborn cries and Oscar and I had to navigate the unknown terrain of new parenthood, it became clear how this experience of having to go inside myself to cope and to find peace for labor had prepared me for parenthood. Having done it already while enduring the most intense pain I had ever felt, I knew I could return to peace and self-soothing while experiencing anxiety about my baby’s cries. This is not to say that I always did find peace in those trying moments, no no, but I did have my own example to follow. I soon learned that singing to baby Ida was the most effective way I could calm both her and myself. As she got older and more emotionally and intellectually complex, Oscar taught her to ask for hugs when she would begin to have a tantrum, and this turned out to be the most effective way for Ida and us to calm down. We have multiple options now that we can offer her when she gets upset, but they all require us, as her parents, to calm ourselves.
Our ability to prevent Ida from escalating and our ability to self-regulate (calm ourselves down) and help Ida Luna self-regulate comes both from knowledge of child development and parenting, and from our confidence and practice in self-regulation and attuned, compassionate responses. Speaking for myself, it is not always easy and I do not always do it. I have never yelled at or threatened or hurt Ida, but I have reacted to her behaviors and cries with anxiety, confusion, and impatience, and I have snapped at Oscar in moments of anxiety over her. Unlike the one-day-only, high-stakes process of labor, when I was fully prepared and committed to self-soothing and focus and had the support to do so, parenting is a constant process—sometimes a slog—, and I am not always well enough prepared (or well-rested, well-fed, or well-supported enough) to check in and self-regulate. I am even less skilled at doing this when it comes to marriage, which I find is much more challenging than parenting. However, again, I do have my own example to follow, and I know that I can do it, and this does help me more often than not.
As I write this, I realize this discussion of self-regulation all sounds so scientific. I work in the field of child trauma and resilience, protective factors, early childhood well-being, etc. and so I think in terms like caregiver self-regulation and infant brain development, and see how my natural labor prepared me well for this most important of roles. But zooming out, I also think it’s bigger than this, more philosophical, more spiritual. I believe that the time that labor and delivery takes is an important process, a ceremony even, to move us from the long process of pregnancy into the much longer process of parenting. It is a liminal space between life stages, a ceremony of transition from one to the other. I also believe that coping with the intensity of natural labor teaches us (and teaches our partners or others who are there to support us) that pain and hardship need not lead to suffering; that freedom from suffering and a sense of wholeness is available to us even in the most difficult of moments.
Applying this specifically to parenting and all forms of caregiving for children, this ability to get through the really hard parts without suffering can help us to get through without blaming and shaming and hurting children, without turning to alcohol or drugs, and without disengaging and ignoring problem behaviors. If we can move through hardship without suffering and having to find an outlet onto which to throw our suffering, we can more easily raise children with dignity, peace, unconditional love, clarity, and consistent teaching and guidance. Given that early life experiences shape people indelibly on behavioral, neurobiological, and epigenetic levels, this is important. It is of the utmost importance.
_ _ _ _ _
In sharing my belief that the pain and process of natural labor can help us learn to cope with and move through hardship without suffering (a belief born from my own experience of birth and parenting and from the experiences of many others), I do not mean to imply in any way that natural birth is the only or best way to come to this kind of peace. Many people who never give birth are able, through many other means, to cultivate the peace within themselves to be fantastic teachers, health care providers, aunties and uncles, foster parents, mentors, etc. And clearly, many people who give birth via cesarean section or using medication are also able to cultivate these qualities by other means.
I also do not mean to imply that natural labor alone can be expected to alleviate all suffering, or to transform neurological programming for anxiety, depression, or reactivity that have resulted from childhood trauma or other risk factors. Even though birth can be deeply healing and transformative, typically other forms of support are needed as well to cultivate peace and healing. I certainly do not mean to imply either that the solution to intergenerational trauma and harmful practices of parenting and caregiving lies in individuals alone – these problems are exacerbated by and therefore must be addressed at the levels of policy, institutional structure and practice, culture, community systems, family systems, etc. Parents should be able to lead lives of dignity that are free from violence, make adequate wages, have maternity and paternity leave, and access social supports that support them in their parenting.
There are so many areas where change needs to happen in order to create healthy, happy childhoods for all human beings, and in my professional work I try to address every level of the social ecology — from individuals to organizations to policy. But I do believe that our personal experience of birth is one of those areas where we can make a difference for parents and children. The reason I am writing about this belief is because we do not, as a culture or as a medical system, value this gift of birth; we do not value the pain and time of birth and what it can do for us as people and as parents. And because our culture and medical systems do not value it, we end up denying women/pregnant people and their families the opportunity to experience these gifts.
Without going into too much detail about it because it has been written about so eloquently in other places, the current US medical system (and those of many other countries as well) tends to push interventions and neglect to provide the compassionate, present, and evidence-based care and birthing environments that increase the likelihood of a natural, vaginal delivery. As a result, the national c-section rate is 32% and the percentage of births that include epidurals nationally was found to be 61%, according to a 2008 study, but can be up to 75% in some hospitals. The problem is not that c-sections or use of medication is inherently wrong or ill-advised in all circumstances; indeed, they can save lives and be the most compassionate approach. The problem is that they are over-used – with negative consequences for both maternal and infant health and even our maternal and infant mortality rates (which are among the worst in the developed world)– and that patients are coerced into them before and during labor. The problem is that patients are too seldom fully informed and empowered to make these choices for themselves and too seldom supported by providers to do so.
Very linked to the factors in the medical system is how our culture has come to approach and talk about childbirth and its pain and, on a broader level, other forms of pain and discomfort, both physical and mental/emotional. At least speaking of US American culture, which is what I am most familiar with, there is a cultural belief that we should be able to live free of pain and discomfort, that we are in fact entitled to do so. Heck, I like comfort and pleasure too, and I cultivate them in my life, so I understand why this is. The problem is when this reliance or over-attachment to comfort leads us to ignore or negate uncomfortable or painful problems (from global climate change and institutional racism to our own health conditions or dysfunction in our families) rather than solving them. The problem also comes when our reliance on comfort leads us to de-value natural – and often challenging – processes such as breastfeeding and birth.
If we do not understand what gifts natural birth can bring us, and specifically, what gifts are inherent in its pain – including the physiological process in which labor pain helps release oxytocin and endorphins that help progress labor and help us cope—, then we may think, as many who are preparing for birth do, “Why torture myself?” Partners and other supporters of a pregnant person may give them a hard time for considering a natural birth and accuse them of being masochistic or dramatic or “woo woo.” Healthcare providers, especially OBs, may talk women/pregnant people into unnecessary interventions, saying things like, “Why torture yourself trying to push out that big baby when it’s not going to work anyway?” The idea that birth pain is torture, the idea that it serves no purpose, the idea that it not only can but should be alleviated by external means, the idea that women/pregnant people are so weak that we cannot manage the pain with our minds and breathing and comfort measures and support people – these societal messages block us from experiencing the gifts of natural birth. These messages are harmful, both because they lead to worse health outcomes and because they reinforce the idea that pain and discomfort are equivalent to suffering.
Since parenting is full of pain and discomfort (and inconvenience, annoyance, sacrifice, fatigue, etc.), sending parents the message that pain and discomfort inherently lead to suffering and therefore are bad and should be avoided is not a healthy one. When people believe that their kids are making them suffer, they are more likely to treat their kids badly or to ignore problem behaviors while they get out of control. They are more likely to make “jokes” about how their kids drive them to drink (I see this all the time on facebook). They are more likely to place the responsibility for their own happiness onto their children, thereby giving their children an impossible job. And they are more likely, in some cases, to abuse their children. Again, I am not saying that if you get an epidural you are more likely to abuse your children. I am saying that the larger societal belief – of which our reliance on medical pain relief in birth is a symptom– that difficulty = suffering and that children make us suffer, that this is a belief we should do more to dismantle.
How about, instead, we as a culture embrace the idea that – to quote a punk song – “the only way through your problems is straight through them?” How about we see birth as ceremony and preparation for the life-long, challenging commitment of parenthood? How about we view and treat women/pregnant people as incredibly strong and capable, and create more opportunities to send them into the difficult work of parenting with this self-perception and a powerful birth experience to back it up?
Having experienced this kind of birth experience with my daughter, having experienced pain without suffering, I believe this equipped me for parenting her. It equipped me for hard nights of viruses, hard days of balancing work and meals and bedtimes, and guiding her to learn hard life lessons like how to share.
I look forward to returning to that deep place inside myself as I give birth to my son this summer. I look forward to the challenge of birth that is forcing me again to practice cultivating peace, and that will make me turn inward in labor and address my pain without suffering. I look forward to applying this lesson as we navigate the new world of parenting two children at once and cultivating healthy sibling relationships. Parenting, which is a mix of the glorious and beautiful with the mundane and the difficult, will certainly require this of me, of us.
I am so grateful to have had a mama-midwife and another midwife, a birth assistant, a partner, childbirth class instructors, and a social support network who believed this about me for my first birth. I am so grateful to have a birth team and others who believe it about me now as I prepare for this birth. I am so grateful to have friends share with me their strong birth stories and the faith and confidence and healing that was born in them as their children were born. I am so grateful that our bodies work the way they do, and that this process is perfectly built to prepare us for parenting. I am grateful that birth takes a while, and grateful that it is hard.
(A shortened version of this will appear on the Geneva Woods Birth Center blog in a week or two.)
Of the many thoughts and essays tumbling around in my head for the last 2 years, most have remained unwritten; some have been spoken to friends or family, a few articulated in facebook posts (because I could do that on my phone), a few incorporated into my job. Since going back to full-time work after Ida was 3 months old (insert angry rant about the United States’ lack of parental leave) I have not found the kind of work-life balance to keep up my blog, nor to make very much art. I know each of us does our best to find a balance and so we prioritize certain things over others; blog and art-making are two of the many things I’ve had to let go in order to work, be a present and loving parent, feed us (relatively) well, maintain social connections that keep us sane, and sometimes have a clean house.
But in this balance, I have managed to keep a baby book for Ida this whole time, because it felt impossible to let all of the observations about her growth and development slip by without record. I also know how much it meant to me to have my own baby book to read when I was a teenager and young adult, especially now that I am a parent and can compare. Mostly the book has included monthly entries, all written to her like letters. It is a record of her growth but also a reminder that she is valuable and loved — a reminder that I hope will sustain her through the harder parts of life.
When I became pregnant with our second child, I was at a bit of a loss for how to track and honor this pregnancy, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to do anything quite as ambitious as the art and writing project that Oscar and I undertook for our first pregnancy. It occurred to me that I could make this baby a book, a book to precede the baby book, one that chronicles the pregnancy and also the love and belonging into which he or she would be born. I set the slightly less ambitious goal of making entries every 4 weeks rather than every week, and of using whatever format and medium I felt called to use. Also, because this pregnancy was fraught with worry early on because of a Zika scare, I made the time to co-write an article about this experience with Alaska Dispatch News journalist Jill Burke, and of course to staple the article into the pre-baby book. I am now at week 27 of this pregnancy; here’s what I’ve got so far of the pre-baby book for the little person growing inside me who we now know is baby boy Rio Esteban Avellaneda-Cruz:
Updated 5/31/16, here are the next two pages:
On Friday, March 6th, the International Gallery of Contemporary Art teemed with people. There were four shows up that month, one of which was our show in the South gallery of the series of drawings/paintings/collages + photographs + writing we made during Ida Luna’s gestation.
From left to right, people walked through the exhibition in chronological order, Ida growing from the size of a poppy seed to the 19 1/2″ long baby she was when she emerged, this mama’s body becoming stretched and rotund while my senses and my soul became more sensitive, more aware, turning inward in preparation for baby.
Oscar and I felt so honored that friends and family and colleagues came, some sharing with us what moved them and even made them cry. I know that I also felt so honored by the presence of strangers and acquaintances who took the time to travel through the images and words of this pregnancy. I loved having the opportunity to hear from people as they experienced the exhibition, hear their own stories of a difficult pregnancy or a healing homebirth or parenting a newborn in a dry cabin during the Fairbanks winter or their future hopes to become parents. I love being the recipient of these stories — or the little glimpses of them that I got that night trying to chase around a toddler at an art show. I loved the feeling of convening and being immersed in a community of parenting and birthing and caregiving. This is a community, as I wrote in my Week 15 blog and quoted in the show, that should not be a clan exclusive to those who are biological parents. It includes all who care for children and maternal-child-reproductive health.
I left that night feeling so touched by all the people I had interacted with. We made this series and this exhibit because it offers one honest conversation about pregnancy, birth, bodies, and parenting, with the hope to create space or inspiration for other honest conversations. I hope that it can continue to do this.
The owners of Busy Beans Café in Anchorage asked us to show the exhibit there in May, so if you did not get a chance to see it in March, you can come to the First Friday on May 1st or anytime during that month. Busy Beans is a coffee and sandwich shop with children’s play areas and a children’s menu located on Government Hill. It is a friendly and logical venue for an exhibit about pregnancy.
Also, per the suggestion Oscar received from the director of an arts non-profit for people with disabilities, we may make some sort of audiovisual version of the exhibit, or of the whole series, to share more broadly.
I am so glad I can share this with all of you and so very glad I can share this with Ida as she gets older, and later if/when she begins her journey towards parenthood.
I have been writing a blog post for a very long time that I have not yet completed and posted because, well, it’s hard to finish things like that with a lively 7 1/2-month-old baby and a full-time job. But it is coming. I think.
Recently, however, I was blessed with the time and space and guidance from Margaret David and Stefanie Cromarty to create a digital story about “Healthy Beginnings” (a maternal child health/family health focus) as part of the Alaska Native Center for Digital Storytelling. Here is my digital story — a story about breastfeeding, about how it was much harder that I thought and how scared and ashamed I felt. It’s a story about practicing acceptance in order to move through this fear and shame to get the help I needed. It’s about how acceptance and asking for help allowed me to better know my daughter and love her.
Written April 5th in Princeville, Hawaii. Ida Luna is 10 weeks old.
On Love and Obligation
I have experienced two new realizations about love lately.
One is that I have never felt love anything like this before. This full, this large, this deep. It is not intense in the way that falling into romantic love is intense – like a bonfire, like an explosion. It is, rather, a slow flame that can’t ever be extinguished. It feels as though it comes burbling up from a fuel source deep inside my body and beyond my body (I think people call that the soul) and it fills me up, fills my head and face and chest and gut. I love this baby with my heart splayed open. I love this baby with my hands held open, always ready to pull her to my chest, to respond. Which brings me to the second realization…
I think that love and responsibility come from the same source. They’re intertwined in a way that makes them feel like the same emotion, the same physiological and psychological and spiritual process. My obligation to Ida, to meet her needs and let her know always that she is loved and safe, to stimulate her brain and make sure that she is healthy and strong and smart, my obligation to follow her through all of her growth and protect her and teach her the skills to protect herself, this feeling arises in me just as the feeling of love does.
Although this is my first time feeling this so strongly and certainly my first time being the primary person responsible for any child, I have encountered this nature of responsibility-love before. As a third-grade teacher, I felt a deep debt of responsibility to my students, and I loved them. I suppose I shouldn’t have played favorites in any way, but I couldn’t help but love most those who needed it most, those for whom I felt the most responsibility to offer help with socio-emotional and academic needs. Especially S, who would run to my classroom crying because the children in her classroom bullied her and she would fight with them, S who eventually just joined my class even though she didn’t speak Spanish because I made sure that my students treated her with respect and that she could learn in peace, S whose grandmother beat her and then punished her after I reported it to Child Protective Services. I loved her the most because her soul was radiant and full of kindness and hope despite everything, and I loved her most because I felt the most responsibility to her. (Little 23-year-old me, I wanted to adopt her, but it wasn’t an option.)
This love–responsibility feeling is something born out of our evolution as a species. Empathy, compassion, and protection of the young is a requisite for our survival. As I heard a biologist once say, it is “survival of the kindest.” It is produced by pregnancy, by the prolactin and oxytocin that flow through us as we labor and give birth and breastfeed and hold our babies to our chests, by the hormones present in our partners and family members who surround our children’s birth and early life, by the hormones and impulses that can be produced in anybody—blood kin or not—who cares for a child.
But obviously, that isn’t all. If that were all, everybody would be a responsible parent (well, except that high intervention birth and formula feeding do, on a population level, place some barriers between many parents and these natural processes—nothing impossible to overcome, but a formidable issue). We have to be well enough cared for ourselves and with the resources to offer such care to children. Our brains, if they are too damaged by our own childhood torment or by drug addictions or severe depression, struggle to produce those same impulses. And we have to be equipped to translate those brain/hormone messages into action; that is, we have to be supported in our roles as caregivers, with knowledge of successful and culturally-affirming parenting passed on, with practical and emotional support available, and without an endless torrent of competing demands placed on us by a callous economic system. There are, unfortunately, many things historical, political, economic, familial and intergenerational, that interfere with this love-responsibility feeling for children and being able to put it into action. And of course, even when we do try to put this into action, we will mess up in all sorts of ways. Lord knows I can attest to that —especially as a teacher. Or we will do our best but the messages we receive about how best to raise children places contradictory demands on us (this is what I am going to write about next). We are up against a lot in caring for children, especially in countries with a high degree of inequality.
This means, I think, that part of this love-responsibility feeling for my baby Ida Luna must extend beyond her and add to my motivation to undo the many barriers that stand in the way of good parenting and healthy childhoods.
But for now, for these last two weeks of maternity leave that we are spending here in Kaua’i, my focus will simply be on feeding and connecting to our baby girl as much as possible, filling her body and brain with a sense of connection and security, holding her to my chest as she is right now, asleep, and observing this well of love that keeps burbling up. (Okay, admittedly, I am also reading a book about trauma and addiction, and also working on getting back in shape, but Ida attachment is my main focus).