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.
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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).
The first few days of breast-feeding, I kept asking myself, “Why is it that the female of the human species has not evolved to have more arms?” The conclusion I came up with is that we haven’t needed them because humans are a cooperative and inventive species. Sarah Stevens, the lactation consultant at Geneva Woods Birth Center, said she thinks it’s because we have traditionally lived in tribes and had aunties and grandmas and sisters to help.
I think often of this help, of what it looks like today and what it may have looked like over our time on this planet. We have survived as a species because women have breastfed. For most of our existence, there was no alternative. And yes, there were wetnurses, but this was not available or affordable to most women. We have survived because women have breastfed successfully.
This fact might not seem remarkable at all, but the more I muddle through and learn in this process and the more I talk with other mamas and with those who work in the field of supporting mamas, the more evident it is that to survive, women have had to teach and support one another a considerable amount. Breastfeeding is not as easy as I thought, and struggling with breast-feeding related challenges is far more emotionally charged than I thought.
Breast is Best
I should preface anything else I write about the difficulties by saying that I don’t mean to scare anyone away from breastfeeding. It is absolutely the best choice for babies and mamas and families. It is free, it is convenient, it helps prevent postpartum depression, and it helps mom and baby bond deeply and form secure attachments, which will affect baby’s lifelong mental and physical health. It gives the child mom’s immunity to diseases and provides specific and responsive immunity to germs that baby encounters in the world. It protects against allergies, helps prevent obesity in the future, and populates the child’s gut with healthy microbiota. It also helps the child’s brains develop and contributes to higher IQs. Also, it’s just awesome—we can create the most nutritious food in the world from our bodies in whatever quantity our babies need! What a superpower!
But It’s Not Always Easy…
Knowledge & Support
We are meant to do this, but that does not mean that it all just falls into place naturally. There are baby issues, such as tongue-ties and high pallets. There are nipple issues. There are milk supply issues. There are all sorts of difficulties with latching. Some women experience considerable pain because of some of these issues, and some babies are slow to gain weight until these issues are resolved. The very good thing is that with only some rare exceptions, they can be resolved and successful breast-feeding can be initiated and sustained. However, this requires skilled lactation support.
When my mom was breast-feeding me and my sister, Claire, in the late 70s and early 80s, she had no real support. There were no nurses or lactation consultants to advise her on proper latch. She and my dad thought that bleeding nipples were just part of the deal. The “medical knowledge” about breast-feeding at the time, which my parents had access to as medical professionals, was often erroneous, such as the guidance to nurse only for eight minutes on each side. Fortunately, her milk supply was fine, and we plumped right up.
How is it that by the mid century in the United States of America, so much of our ancient breast-feeding knowledge was lost? Given that women have breastfed over the history of our species, I assume that there were always women in every community or tribe or family who were particularly skilled and were able to teach the younger women about latch issues, how to get their supply up, etc. In the US, I imagine there were people, probably outside of more urban areas, who retained their traditional knowledge of how to breastfeed even as it was lost in medicine. But boy oh boy the formula industry and medicine’s adoption of it really did some significant damage to our capacities as a whole.
We’ve come along way in medical and mainstream US American culture since I was a baby and my mom was a baby. We now have far more research on the science of breast-feeding. We have International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs), who go through extensive schooling, practice requirements, and examinations. We have personal breast pumps—which are finally covered by most insurance plans, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Also thanks to Obamacare, employers have to offer breast pumping space and reasonable milk expression breaks to employees. Far more people have begun to understand the benefits of breast milk and question the sneaky tactics of the formula industry. WIC now encourages breastfeeding and gives out pumps. And there are more spaces now (especially online) for dialogue about changing the culture to accept public breast-feeding. As a result, far more women breast-feed now and do so for longer. (And yes, we have a long long ways to go yet.)
Fear, Inadequacy, and Shame
I have been involved in discussions of the cultural, medical, and economic issues around breastfeeding for a long time. I entered motherhood prepared to ask the IBCLC at Geneva Woods for help and prepared for the haters who were going to give me a hard time for nursing Ida in public. But I was not prepared for the feelings of fear, inadequacy, and shame I would experience when issues arose—feelings which, I have since learned from friends, are quite common among women who struggle with breastfeeding or whose babies have any kind of weight gain or other issues.
I hesitate to write about our experience because I am afraid of judgment, afraid of that societal chorus that hangs women out to dry for every outcome associated with their children, even afraid of a whole lot of well-intentioned (and often contradictory) advice about what I should have done differently. But I am writing about it anyway because so many of us go through these things and feel isolated and alone in the process.
I did everything I could to get Ida as much colostrum as possible and encourage my milk to come in. I wasn’t too too worried when her weight had dropped a good bit at her first Pediatrician visit, especially when I discovered at the end of the visit that my milk was coming in. She started to gain back her weight as my breasts became heavy and hard with milk. But then, about a week later, she stopped pooping regularly and she started nursing all the time, almost without break. She was acting hungry. (Though, as my mom and a few others said, she didn’t look like a worried, hungry baby and she was still strong and relatively content and alert and peeing a lot, so no one except me was exceedingly worried).
We didn’t have an opportunity to weigh her until she was 13 days old. When I saw the scale and saw that she was still 3 oz. below birth weight (you want babies to be back to birth weight by 2 weeks), I started to cry. I cried off and on through my 2 week visit and the lactation consultation. We had quite a few visits over the next few days and figured out that I needed to get my milk supply up and that Oscar and I needed to keep her awake and eating more actively. (She has this very slow approach to eating and can tend to fall asleep at the breast and just quiver her mouth instead of suck.) We also wanted to reduce anything that might be causing her to burn more calories than needed, so we turned up the heater in the house and took a hiatus from walks and even tummy time for a while until she was able to retain enough calories to poop.
By feeding her every two hours around the clock, trying different sleeping arrangements—including co-sleeping on the floor, which I said I wouldn’t do but baby girl was fussier and I had to feed her all the time so we did this for a few nights—, pumping after almost every daytime feeding, taking herbal tincture, upping my intake of fat, tickling and changing her to get her to stay awake and eat more actively, my milk supply increased significantly. By week 3, she weighed 6 oz. above her birthweight, she started pooping again, and I had (and still have) huge, heavy breasts.
But until we got that reassurance that she was alright, I was so scared. So worried, so embarrassed, so…ashamed. And I know better than to give in to shame! I know that shame is a toxic product of our culture and belief systems. I know that it’s useless. I know the importance of critical thinking, shame resilience, and connection with others. I tried to absorb the empathy offered to me to combat it. But I also didn’t want to be around people other than my mom and Oscar most of the time because I was embarrassed and scared. I didn’t want to talk about it publicly until it was over and resolved… until I could prove that I was a good mom, I think.
I think I experienced something shared by many mamas—we want nothing more than for our babies to gain weight and be healthy and happy. So when they aren’t doing this adequately, and it has something to do with us, we feel like we are failing our children, like our bodies are failing them, like our bodies can’t just do their jobs. I felt this same way about my body when it took us a while to get pregnant and everyone else I knew was getting pregnant all around me, many of them on accident. I am a critical-thinking feminist woman, and yet I had lodged somewhere in my psyche this old biblical, patriarchal (not to mention super gender essentialist) judgment system that came out to taunt me, to tell me I wasn’t a real woman.
Overcoming Shame and Secrecy
What the hell? How does this patriarchal stuff survive, even in the minds of feminists? One thing I know is that it survives much better in silence than it does when we share these feelings and experiences with one another. The women who shared their miscarriage stories after we miscarried (and the men who shared the miscarriage stories of their moms and sisters and such), the couples who talked about their efforts to get pregnant, and now, the mamas who have confessed to me similar feelings of inadequacy as they struggled with latch issues or the like—all this weakens the power of these woman-blaming discourses. Y’know, this old axiom:
Jamás será vencido!
(The people/united/will never be defeated)
I love how Anne Lamott describes both the fear and the triumph of this process when her son, Sam, is just a little older than Ida is now:
Sam is so much bigger every day, so much more alert. It’s mind-boggling that my body knows how to churn out this milk that he is growing on. The thought of what my body would produce if my mind had anything to do with it gives me the chill. It’s just too horrible to think about. It might be something frogs could spawn in, but it wouldn’t be good for anything else. I’ve had the secret fear of all mothers that my milk is not good enough, that it is nothing more than sock water, water that socks have been soaking in, but Sam seems to be thriving even though he’s a pretty skinny little guy.
I’m going to have an awards banquet for my body when all of this is over.
I have been a little hard on my body, and I think I owe it an awards banquet too.
For now, I will celebrate with a little image gallery of iPhone photos I’ve made representing how we spend much of our time—breastfeeding and falling asleep at the breast:
I think pregnancy is as long and as challenging as it is to prepare us for birthing our babies. And birthing is as difficult as it is to prepare us for parenting. It’s a good design.
Still, this first week and a half of being mother to little baby Ida has been full of surprises, realizations, and feelings that I had no name for or experience with previously. I am writing these things by dictating my voice to the iPad while nursing or pumping or while Oscar is driving. I am doing so in part because I am so grateful to Anne Lammot for writing her uncensored feelings and experiences of this strange new period of life in her book Operating Instructions: A Journal of my Son’s First Year, and I want to be able to contribute similarly useful. Plus, I think I have to write to keep my sanity.
Some of the surprises of parenthood so far:
It is strange and exciting to have my body back; that is, to be able to hug Oscar with my arms and chest and stomach against him, to move through spaces without worrying about hitting my belly on things, to have a lower back that amazingly does not hurt, to have soft and non-itchy skin, and to be able to eat runny egg yolks and sushi and a bunch of other delicious things. Of course, there are also the discomforts of having birthed a baby and some residual iron loss that I am now making up for, and an inability to regulate my temperature for the first week or so. But mainly my body feels familiar.
And then there are the new sensations – learning to get a good latch so that breast-feeding doesn’t hurt so much (again, I am so grateful for Geneva Woods for having a lactation consultant to problem solve with and for her offering a class during pregnancy so that we were prepared). How hungry and thirsty I am from breast-feeding. What it feels like to sleep an inadequate amount for some many days in a row. (I never even did this in college, so this is brand-new to me.) What it feels like to have my baby’s skin against my skin as she feeds and how soft her hair is under my fingers and how smooth her little cheeks are when I kiss them and how much this fills me with love.
The most startling thing about my body, however, is the way that I have felt fear for Ida grip my chest and stomach many times, and how on two occasions in the first week, I experienced fear, stress, worry, and anger in my body like an earthquake, like an explosion. It is both a physiological and an emotional reaction that is some combination of mama bear and sleep deprivation and post birth hormones, I suppose. It frightened me.
The Cognitive and Emotional
Shame versus useful self reflection and critical learning
It is hard to write about the things I have been experiencing cognitively and especially emotionally. For some reason, during pregnancy I felt so comfortable being vulnerable and exposing whatever truths for happening in me. But doing this in motherhood feels different, feels like I am opening myself and Oscar up to endless torrents of judgment. This realm of parenthood and especially motherhood feels like a coliseum in which shame and judgment are released onto parents—especially moms—with their teeth and claws bared, while others spectate. And I am among those judging parenting decisions; as a social worker and epidemiologist who works in child maltreatment, domestic violence, and maternal child health, I do learn and think and try to do a lot about what is best for children in their raising, and that means critiquing and improving. And of course, I hold our decisions up for the same judgment. But how fraught with shame this can be! My goal is to stay out of the realm of shame, to learn about parenting for us and Oscar so we can do the best job we can, to share that journey here in a nonjudgmental way, and to engage in open conversations with other people who raise or care about children. And it is to walk that line between acceptance and self reflection and critique in a healthy way.
But I can’t say that it has all been done in a healthy way so far. I mostly feel better now than I did the first week, especially after getting a few nights of slightly longer sleep and after experiencing some of the things that scared me and them going just fine. But I am sure that the fear and guilt will resurface in many ways throughout Ida’s life, and it resurfaces every time that I realize we have made some mistake. I feel like such a terrible person for any mistake made at her expense. (I know, this isn’t sustainable. We will do our best and we will make mistakes. I’m working on having more acceptance and levity about this.)
Paralyzing fear versus useful caution
Throughout pregnancy, I remained cautious at every moment, watching where I put my feet on the ice, making sure that I had my spikes on my shoes, being careful not to slip on rugs or things under my feet, making sure my animal-based food was fully cooked, avoiding second-hand smoke and environmental toxins, trying my best to breathe deeply through stressful situations, etc. It took attention but I didn’t experience an inordinate amount of fear.
But oh, safe sleep and the floppiness of newborn necks and suffocation risk and the dangers of falling and the risks of being too hot and the risks of being too cold! This all feels so much scarier than when she was safely contained in the environment of my uterus. I am scared for her but also know that Oscar and I and our friends and family who have visited are careful and caring. And this fact, that we are doing things (mostly) right but still I worry because it takes vigilance, makes me so scared for all the babies out there in worse situations. I have this pain in my chest for the babies who are being born right now to women in abusive relationships, to parents who drink and smoke and use drugs, to parents who because of their own trauma histories lack emotional self-regulation skills, as well as those born to women who are malnourished or otherwise can’t or don’t make adequate milk. I also find myself worrying for women who have very little leave time from work and/or chores, women who do not have supportive partners or family members, and for those many many many families who cannot afford or find quality daycare. As it did during pregnancy, the ill-informed policies and funding priority of the United States and the conditions of poverty and sexism around the world upset me on a political and deeply personal level.
I also find myself wondering that more babies don’t die. I find myself thinking about Alaska’s infant mortality data: Sudden Unexplained Infant Death (SUID) in unsafe sleep environments is the #1 cause for our higher-than-the-U.S.-average rate of post-neonatal death. Neglect, especially by an impaired caregiver and inadequate follow-up by child protection both play major roles in these deaths. Abusive head trauma is one of the leading causes for post-neonatal deaths as well. We have so much work to do to prevent these deaths. I also find myself thinking about the neurobiological effects of babies left to cry for long periods without their needs met, of inadequate nutrition, of depressed or angry caregivers, etc. Of course, I work in this field so I think about this stuff all the time anyway, but now it is with the awareness of how I feel about protecting and nurturing Ida’s little growing brain.
I know that all of this stuff is important to think about and work to change. I also know that I need to be happy and not sick with fear for my daughter or other people’s sons and daughters. And given that this has already gotten way easier in the past week, I suspect that this balance is something that I will go developing with time and that many other parents, probably especially breast-feeding moms filled with mama bear hormones, struggle to achieve. Because the simple fact is, when you have a child that is in your care, you do walk around “with your heart outside of your body,” as they say. This means that you can look upon the child and love them and find immense joy and happiness and fulfillment in them. It also means that there is always this sort of terror—whether well-subdued or hyper present–that they could be hurt. This just is. Probably especially so during infancy, childhood, and adolescence, which strike me as the most dangerous times.
They are also—and primarily—all joyous times. Oscar and I experience so much joy playing with Ida, reading to her, singing to her, doing tummy time with her and watching her strong little neck develop its muscles, wearing her on our chests, dancing with her, watching her silly sleep faces. We love her so immensely and she is so fun and beautiful. If I am going to experience worry, I can’t imagine a better reason for it than this.
Baby has joined us on the outside.
She is the most beautiful, amazing little blessing I could’ve ever imagined. Oscar and I love her so much and are having fun figuring out this parenting thing—despite a lot less sleep than normal.
Here’s the story of how little Ida Luna came to be born. I’ll spare you much of the graphic detail, but if you are squeamish about how our species reproduces, you might want to stop reading here.
Her due date was Monday, January’s 27th. My last scheduled day of work was Friday the 24th. However, I had a feeling she might come early, and that Tuesday morning, the 21st, I had requested a cervical check, which showed that I was 1 cm dilated and 70% effaced, but with a firm cervix, meaning that I could go into labor in the next few days or maybe in over a week. I went to prenatal yoga on Thursday night, the 23rd, where I received a beautiful sendoff from our instructor and all of the other women there. I was ready for whatever was going to happen.
That night before bed, my mom texted me to tell me that she had two women in labor. So when I woke up at one in the morning with what I thought was broken water, I figured I could call her cell phone because she would be awake. Luckily by then, one of the women had already given birth at the hospital and another midwife was with the second one at the birth center, so my mom headed over to my house with test strips. It appeared that it was amniotic fluid, but the findings weren’t super definite because apparently mucus plugs can change test strips too and the color wasn’t super dark. She advised me that we both needed sleep if I was going to be in labor soon, so I managed to sleep a few hours and we agreed to meet at the office in the morning. The second, more accurate (slide under a microscope) test at around 9 a.m. did not show clear signs of fluid, but by then I was having contractions every 10 minutes. So I spent the morning at home getting through the contractions in the shower with Oscar spraying me and then in bed, trying to sleep.
During this period of early labor, the technique I used to cope with the pain and to breathe was a Kundalini breath meditation I had learned during prenatal yoga. It is a structured series of four breaths and I was able to get through about two cycles of it per contraction. It really helped me be at peace mentally and physically during this stage. It continued like that, with the contractions coming about five minutes apart, and then four, until I started puking. By that time, which was around 12:30 p.m., my mom had arrived to check me and I was 4 cm dilated and 95% effaced. With this happy news, we headed to the birth center.
After checking vitals and fetal heart tones, texting our friend Ash to come, and having a few contractions in bed and one more good puke, Oscar and I headed to the shower. There I labored sitting on the birthing ball, on hands and knees with my arms on the birthing ball, and laying down with pillows for the next two hours. Oscar had on his knee pads so that he was able to help me in whichever position, spraying my hips, back, and pelvis with the shower nozzle. I was very specific about which parts of my body needed to be sprayed because my hips and back and pelvis hurt a lot with each contraction. Ash took photos and he and Ash took turns giving me water or juice or ginger ale, and ice water rags for my head. My mom and the other midwife, Trina, came in to check baby’s heart tones with the fetal Doppler and suggest position changes.
During this stage of labor, I practiced two basic coping techniques. The Kundalini breath had stopped being useful as the contractions had intensified, so my breath had become vocalized with low sounds accompanying each exhalation. I kept my eyes closed most of the time through contractions in order to visualize. Now, I am not very good at deep, in-depth visualizations like many techniques teach. However, I had discovered during pregnancy that if I had to cope with some sort of pain (usually related to my carpal tunnel syndrome), that a very simple visual of heading up a grassy hill bathed in golden light with an apple tree on top seemed to help. I turned to this hill while laboring in the shower. I discovered I needed to include baby in this visualization because what we were doing was a partnership—me birthing baby and baby cooperating nicely and being born. (And baby was definitely doing her part—heart tones stayed normal and, being who she is, she kept wiggling and kicking). I also wanted to stay focused on the purpose of all this, which was meeting our child, who we loved so dearly. For these reasons, I imagined myself carrying baby up the hill during each contraction. Not yet knowing baby’s name, I thought of baby as baby Riolda, as my cousin Lilia had jokingly called her—a combination of our boy name Rio and our girl named Ida.
Each contraction stood by itself. Each one was a journey uphill and, as far as I was concerned during the contraction, it was the only journey up the hill before I could head downhill. I had to take each one at a time. I did think a few times, “Wow, this could last a lot longer. How will I get through it?” But my answer to myself generally was that this is how the species has reproduced for as long as we have existed, so it will work out fine and I better just concentrate on the contraction at hand and trust that everything will progress as needed.
As the pain intensified, this imagined hill became the tundra-covered last uphill of the Lost Lake race. And as it intensified further, I realized I needed to use a different coping technique, so I turned to what Pam England, the author of Birthing From Within, calls non-focused awareness. It is just non-judgmental attention to the sounds around you, to the things that are touching you, to your breath, and to whatever you see with your eyes in one spot. So I listened to the meditation music on the iPhone, the sounds of murmuring voices, the sound of the water hitting me and draining, and I opened my eyes to stare at the silver and black of the light contraption that Ash had set up in the bathroom. I also then melded the two techniques, telling baby Riolda that for this hill, we are going to play the listening game and we would go uphill playing the listening game together. After Trina or my mom–I can’t remember who–had explained to me that changing positions helps the baby move down and get into the right position, I told baby, “Now we are playing the moving game” or “now we are playing the you-turn-into-my-pelvis game as we go up the hill.”
Eventually, Trina told me that I should get out of the shower and move around to help baby move down into my birth canal and to cool off. I trusted the whole time that my cervix had been opening, but I hadn’t thought about needing to bring baby down with gravity and movement. I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to shift the tone and my coping strategies and to enjoy the labor and delivery dance mix that I had made back in the fall (after realizing that dancing through pain helps during kriyas in prenatal yoga, so it would be of use in labor). When the music started – music that I had carefully chosen because not only can I move to it gently, but because it is filled with beauty and optimism and joy – I felt enlivened. I moved my feet and hips dancing in between contractions. I also ate mango popsicles and even chatted a little in between contractions. During contractions, I held Oscar’s forearms while he held mine and we swayed together, me with my head down, usually moving from my toes on one foot to my toes on the other, stretching my hips out, moaning and breathing deeply. For my mental coping during contractions, I listened to the lyrics (whether I understood them or not—there were quite a few songs in Portuguese, Japanese, and various Malian and Nigerian languages). I listened to the music. I let it infuse me with its joy. While moving through contractions, I also listened to Trina telling me that with each movement I was bringing baby into position, and to Oscar telling me he liked my smile (I had asked him beforehand to kindly remind me to smile) and liked how I was swaying, and all of this felt really affirming. Man I am blessed with who I had there.
Interestingly, in this period of labor and all the others except for early labor, I could not stand for Oscar to touch me in any of the ways I had thought I would want, such as acupressure points on my sacrum or hip squeezes to help my back. My back and hips hurt, but I could only stand to be touched on my hands and arms and sometimes neck. The contractions that hurts the most were the ones where I felt panicked about something being wrong, such as when I asked Oscar to squeeze my hips but then realized my mistake, or when I thought that squatting would help my back as it did throughout pregnancy, but it just hurt more. Those brief feelings of needing to control something quickly so that it would get better put me back in a state that was not surrender, that was not peaceful acceptance, and so the pain was sharper. Luckily, I can count these moments on one hand.
After dancing for a while and then pain getting much more intense with each contraction, the midwives asked me if I felt like pushing. I said I didn’t quite, but it did feel very different than before. They told me to reach up and feel my baby’s head. It wasn’t all that far up there and I could feel a sizeable piece of it, which told them that my cervix must be pretty wide-open. My mom checked me and I was complete. I said I was starting to feel like pushing, and I wanted to push wherever it would hurt less, which meant in the tub. As they prepared the water, I had a few contractions on the bed on hands and knees with Oscar’s face only inches away, telling me nice supportive things.
In the tub, to help my back, I tried to remain on hands and knees for as long as possible, but had to shift to my side eventually so that the midwives could watch baby and be able to reach down if there was cord around the neck or anything like that. Pushing at first felt strange and unproductive. But after not too long, I learned to smile and breathe and relax as deeply and pleasurably as possible between contractions, and then start each contraction with deep inhales and strong pushes. A few times, I opened my eyes and smiled at the people gathered around—my mom and Trina, the birth assistant, Victoria, who I was so happy to see had arrived (and who checked baby’s heart tones frequently), Ash with her camera, Oscar in the tub holding my leg and looking at me with such confidence and belief.
The coolest, most amazing thing about the birth experience was when my mom told me to put my hand on baby’s head as I pushed. I did this through a few contractions and got to feel the progress that I was making. After that, pushing became fun and exciting and something that I looked forward to in my rest period between contractions. Feeling all of the hair on her head made her very real too, very much Oscar’s child, which we all sort of laughed about as we saw her thick black hair. I didn’t feel like talking at the time, but I was thinking, “I need to tell them how awesome this is.” I eventually got to feel her crown, and fortunately she stayed there long enough that she could stretch out my perineum so I didn’t have to purposely not push to avoid tears. It worked out beautifully, and my perineum stayed intact.
Of course it hurt when she came through what people call the “ring of fire.” I said, “Ow!” very loudly. But it wasn’t so bad because I knew that she was about to be in my arms. My mom told me, “Probably with this next contraction she will be born,” and I can’t imagine a better inspiration to keep pushing hard. (I pushed very hard, by the way, and my mom says very efficiently. This came at the expense of my throat, which still hurts a little, and I burst capillaries in my face and chest–and yes, I know that pelvic muscles do not require my face muscles, but oh well, I can perfect my technique for next time. But I got her out efficiently and, the midwives observed, with probably a great deal of abdominal muscle help.) Her head was fully born with one push and the rest of her body with the next, and then she was coming up towards me. Oscar helped bring her up to me along with my mom. This was 6:09 p.m., and this might have been the first time since the morning that I knew what time it was.
Meeting our daughter
It was so amazing to meet her on the outside at last. At that time we did still did not know whether she was a boy or a girl. We made sure she could cry and her skin tone was good, and once we know she was well we took a look and saw that she was a girl, and called her by her name, Ida Luna. I remember feeling both incredible excitement and love that we had our daughter right there on my chest, and also immense relief that labor was over. They drained the tub, my mom helped Oscar to cut the cord, and they got their cord blood samples to send off. My mom handed Ida off to Oscar so I could focus on birthing the placenta. It came out easily and was kind of beautiful and gory at the same time. I looked at Oscar holding Ida with tears in his eyes and in that moment, just like at our wedding when I had looked up at Oscar’s wet eyes, I felt it too, the gravity and completeness of what had just happened and what we had now in our lives. Oscar can always ground me in the significance of the experience.
As I was preparing to get out of the tub, I started losing blood, so they gave me first one shot of Pitocin and then another—as the bleeding continued— in my leg, and they did bimanual compression to make my uterus clamp down. I went to the bed where we hung out as a new family for the next few hours, eating popsicles and animal crackers, drinking juice, being fed pho broth through a straw by Ash after my sister arrived with dinner, trying with very skilled and patient help from Victoria to get Ida to suck on my nipples (it took her a while but eventually she did, which helped my uterus clamp down better). They kept doing bi-manual compression on my uterus and finding it firm, but since I kept passing blood clots in between, they put me on IV Pitocin and fluid. I had gotten pretty dizzy and vaso-vagal and had to lay down for a good while.
While we all cuddled on the bed and tried to get Ida to feed, my dad (who is a pediatric radiologist) and the Geneva Woods staff did Ida’s newborn exam, weighed her, etc. My mom was delighted and surprised to find that Ida weighed the exact same as I did as a baby–7 lbs., 10.5 oz. My sister came and visited, as did Jen Allison with a post-partum gift and a hand-dyed rainbow onesie. It was so great to be in this warm, peaceful place with people I loved and trusted for the four hours after the birth, and then to go home that night with my dad camped out on the couch to help take baby’s and my vitals every few hours.
Labor was not easy. It was painful. But it was beautiful and powerful and peaceful and so worth doing it naturally. What made it that way? Here’s what I believe helped:
- Loving and competent and confident support from Oscar (thanks to who he is and also thanks to wonderful preparation we received through childbirth classes and prenatal visits)
- Conversations over the last few months with Oscar about how we might best communicate during labor
- A friend there to offer quiet help and take awesome photos
- Being able to trust completely in the competence of the midwives. A few times I thought, “Hm, they’re talking to each other—should I be nervous?” or when baby was moving too much in utero to get consistent heart tones, I considered worrying for about a millisecond and then thought, “Nah, being afraid is not my job. Worrying and thinking is not my job. My job is to breathe and release positive birthing hormones so baby can be born.” I knew that me being nervous or even asking a bunch of questions about my progress would serve no one. So I just did my mama job and let them do their midwife job (and later, let Victoria do her birth assistant job). And they all did a damn good job because they are intuitive and evidence-based and safe and compassionate. I want care providers like them for every birthing woman.
- No one trying to make me afraid
- The right music
- Being in a birth center where I could make as much noise as I needed to without being self-conscious and without any nurses giving me the stink eye
- Being in a birth center where they use dopplers for fetal heart tones instead of making me lay in bed on a fetal monitor belt, and where I didn’t have to listen to machines and where, as Oscar said, I didn’t have to look like I was sick or be treated like a potential surgery patient
- Being in shape. I used my core muscles to get baby out! It also helped for maneuverability that I had only gained 22 pounds during pregnancy and didn’t feel burdened by my body’s size in any way.
- An arsenal of available coping techniques that made sense for who I am
- No rigid ideas about the “right” way to birth (e.g. silent and stoic, must do “hee haw” breathing, hypnobirthing breathe-your-baby-down-you-don’t-need-to-push, etc.)
- The understanding going into it that pain serves a purpose for the hormones of birth and that pain is okay, and one need not suffer due to pain (the latter being a particularly useful insight I learned from Vipassana meditation)
For these things, I have to thank the Geneva Woods “Childbirth Basics” class taught by Janie, “Birthing From Within” class taught by Jen Allison, the book Birthing From Within, awesome prenatal care, the birth stories of my friends who have had natural and empowering births, the stories that other dad friends have shared with Oscar, prenatal yoga at Open Space studio, the confidence that my community and all of my people have instilled in me, and of course, my midwife mama for helping me filter out all of the fear and misconceptions about birth and birth intervention that are rife in our society and in U.S. medical practice.
Most of all, I’m grateful to my partner in life and parenthood, to my body and mind, and to our wonderful, healthy little baby.