Nobody told me. Or maybe they did, and I didn’t understand. How it’s not just a baby that’s born when you give birth. A mother is born too. The change might be sudden, or it might happen gradually. For me, it was a little of both.
It all began with an encounter in our Brooklyn apartment, shortly after bringing our son home from the hospital. It had not been the birth we’d imagined. Our planned home birth had ended in a hospital transfer with an emergency cesarian followed by a NICU stay. My own recovery from surgery was rough. My whole body ached, and I was so stooped that I could hardly stand without holding onto something. I couldn’t lift my child unassisted. And my hungry baby wasn’t able to latch.
Now, I’d never really thought much about nursing. In all our focus on manifesting our ideal birth scenario, I’m amused to notice that we hadn’t devoted too much concern to what came after– the actual baby. I was disheartened enough that I probably would have thrown in the towel on nursing altogether, but my partner took the reins and hired a lactation consultant.
This radiant human, Andrea Syms Brown, who happened to be not just a lactation consultant, but also a wise woman and healer, is where my current life, and self, began.
I remember the moment she walked in the door. We were ragged from sleeplessness and the stress of the hospital. These first weeks at home blurred together into a twilight zone of round the clock catnaps and bouncing on the yoga ball, which seemed the only sure fire way to get our son to sleep.
Andrea came in, unassuming. Noticing our cat, she knelt down in front of him. “It’s nice to meet you, Rainer,” she said. “Don’t forget to take care of Rainer. He’s important too.”
When I took off my shirt, she sucked in her breath. “Well, first thing,” she said, “take off that underwire bra right away. From now on you’re not going to wear one for a while. Your new uniform is an old tee-shirt.”
I took off the bra, and felt the weight of my strange, unfamiliar body. I looked in the mirror. I felt monstrous, sick and strange. I felt like crying.
“Just let them sink down to the floor,” she said. “From now on, I want you to embrace your inner cave woman.”
I don’t know what happened to me when she spoke those words, but I liken it to a transmission. Imagine that there was a body of ancestral wisdom you’d forgotten. In that space lay your knowledge of your own belonging. In that space, you felt your connection, not only to your own deep self, and your human family, but also to the whole of life on earth. In that place, life sang in and through you. You might as well be a lioness. Or a whale. In that space, they both sang the same song.
Imagine meeting a person who, with a mere look and a kind word, could awaken that whole slumbering body of knowledge within you, so you could experience living in a new way– knowing the absolute reality of the interdependence of life on earth. This was what Andrea did for me.
And yes, after her visit, my baby learned to latch, and we got back on track with breastfeeding, and I went on to nurse through my second pregnancy.
But nursing was only the beginning. From that point on, the realizations followed after one another like a series of gently opening parachutes, helping me learn to meet my babies needs, and also my own– needs I hadn’t remembered I had. Here are five things motherhood helped me remember.
When I became a mother, I went from spending most of my waking hours indoors to spending most of my time outside. With my son, this was the path of least resistance. Inside, he never wanted to be put down. So I would put him in the carrier and just start to walk. Outside, his eyes opened wide. His body relaxed. Always, he calmed. I calmed too.
Every day, we walked. At first, it felt like we were the only two people in the world. It was winter, and there weren’t many mothers outside with babies. It was a little lonely, but we soon came to feel at home in our surroundings, the rambling fields and woods of Prospect Park. I began to recognize bird calls, dog walkers, a particular turtle in the pond.
Being outside helped me relax in my parenting. Outside, I stopped entertaining my child. There was no need for toys or other distractions. Outside, mother nature held us and invited us to simply be. Our birth experience had not been easy. But steadily, with nature as our midwife, we began to heal.
Having a child landed me in my body in a new way. And what felt monstrous to me in those early days has since come to feel wondrous. Now I feel the way I imagine Maya Angelou might have, when she wrote her poem, “Phenomenal Woman.” Phenomenal woman, that’s me!
Who knew my body could produce milk at a child’s cry?
Who knew a child would fit so comfortably on my back, my chest, or my hip?
Who knew how much weight this body could carry, for hours upon hours of walking?
Who knew my body’s resilience– that after two cesarians, it could not only recover, but thrive? I didn’t get my hoped for natural birth, but my life afterwards has been no less natural.
We weren’t meant to go this alone. In previous generations, parents often enjoyed the caregiving support of grandparents, aunts, cousins, and older siblings. This degree of extended family involvement may not be feasible for many of us today. But there are other ways to establish the village we so need as parents.
In my own story, after months of spending most of my time alone with my son, I started to find my people. Mornings, we would all wind up sitting under the great cherry tree at the Prospect Park nature exploration area, swapping stories, laughing. Those early days seem in my memory like felt like a single, ongoing picnic, continuing in daily installments. As I came to know and cherish these people, I often held the image of a village. I fantasized about what it might be like if our homes were all right in that spot, all set up in a circle. Would we share cooking? Childcare? We might gather around a fire in the evening… I began to dream of living more communally, a line of thinking that continues for my partner and I to this day.
As our children reach toddlerhood, we start to see how important consistency is to their wellbeing. A predictable daily and weekly routine, (or rhythm, as it’s called in Waldorf circles) makes life easier on children, and easier on us.
“First we take our bath, then we put on our pajamas, then we brush our teeth…” When children know what’s coming next in a sequence of events, when they know it in their bodies, without the need for verbal explanation, watch how much easier it is to move them through it. Consistency helps us move from experiencing the things we do as discrete activities, to experiencing them in a state of flow.
I’ve learned another thing too– just as my children need rhythm, I need ritual. I need to build spaces into my day where I can experience moments of quiet presence. These moments strengthen our connection to important things beyond our children. To our own intuition. To others. To spirit, God, universal love, or whatever name one chooses to call it by.
Whether it’s ten minutes of meditation while lying in bed, or the lighting of a candle to say grace before a meal, these moments open a space for reflection. It’s not always quiet, or tidy. Frequently, I’m interrupted by my daughter wanting to nurse, or my son needing a pair of scissors. When I’m interrupted, I check in with them, and then, when I can, get right back to it. I find that even if it’s just ten seconds I manage to find mid-stream, these moments help me practice self-care, which gives me the internal resources to parent for a more mindful place.
5. The Real Purpose of Song
All through my twenties and most of my thirties, I was a touring singer-songwriter, and a lot of the songs I wrote were ones I released on albums or performed for audience. This is still a part of my life, though these days I devote less time to recording my own music. But mothering my children has helped me discover a new aspect to music, and this one is accessible to everyone, regardless of whether or not you consider yourself a strong singer.
I first discovered it as mother of a new baby. While I was in labor… During those first days in the NICU… All those nights, trying to get my babies back to sleep, I noticed I always seemed to be singing. These songs weren’t anything I planned to share with anyone. Just singing a verse here, a chorus there, a little melody without words, even. Just humming a tune from who knows where.
The casual practice of singing whatever tune or melody came into my head has turned out to be one of the most nourishing practices for me in parenting. Whatever challenges we face, there’s some song out there that speaks to just that feeling. Sometimes, just humming that song can be just what we need to help us get back in touch with our strength, resilience, and compassion.
Now four years into my parenting journey, I’ve made it my mission to more deeply explore this nourishing potential in song, and to create spaces for people to also experience it collectively– what happens when we sing and make music together. Music, and singing in particular, is a wellspring we can draw on. And when we draw on this wellspring, we can deepen our experience of all the things I’ve talked about above. We build a sense of community. Through singing seasonal songs, we partake in ritual that helps us become attuned to nature’s larger rhythms. And of course, we come into a greater sense of embodiment as, along with the music, we play instruments, move our bodies, and sing.
Those are a few of the ways that motherhood has brought me home. Home to myself. Home to womanhood. Home to sisterhood. Home on sacred ground. Home, dear sisters. That is where I write from. And this is why I call you dear. Not to assume a familiarity we may not have yet… Not to suggest that we are friends, if we don’t know each other yet. We might not be friends yet. But if not, we are still connected.
“We are sisters on a journey,” goes the song. This journey will unravel and remake us. Your realizations may not be the same as mine, but between us, there exists such a well of wisdom, such a storehouse of power, that I truly believe it can transform the world.
So I’d love to hear from you! What is mothering helping you to remember?
Meadowlark Music Class starts next week in San Francisco! For a limited time only, enjoy 25% off the cost of the full session, and an accompanying discount on drop-in classes when you register now. Meadowlark is a weekday music class designed to nurture caregivers as much as it does children. We meet Wednesday at Natural Resources, Thursday at Charlie’s Corner, and Friday at the Botanical Garden.
You can also attend our Family Sing-alongs, which happen on weekends. These events are free. The next one is April 2nd, in Noe Valley.
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We look forward to connecting with you!