Speak Truth to Bullshit

This isn’t the post I was intending on writing this morning. I had something more nebulous and reflective in mind, but as often happens, a Facebook post got me thinking.

Those of you in the UK will know that this is the time for flu vaccine being given in primary schools. The vast majority of parents will take this up without discussion. Some are asking questions, and, as always, some will refuse.

Not all the refusers are vaccine refusers across the board. There are some who feel that school is not the place for medicines to be given, others who take issue with the flu vaccine specifically (even if they are up to date with other vaccinations). This post isn’t about the pros or cons of vaccination in general or the flu vaccine in particular, however. What it is about is the dangerous trend of polarising and shutting down discussion.

The post that caught my eye this morning was one criticising parents for asking other parents about the flu vaccine in schools, saying parents need to be asking their GPs not other parents. Fair enough, as far as it goes, right? Other parents may or may not have access to good information, and whatever your parenting question—particularly with regards to health—FB really isn’t the ideal end all and be all for finding solutions. Except, I’m really not at peace with the idea of ‘ask your doctor, do what s/he says, and it will all be okay.’ Or shut up and follow the crowd.

Who likes to be right? Me! Me! I do!  I’m sure I’m not alone in that. But here’s the thing: parenting is tough, and there’s a lot that challenges us, a lot that is specific to our kids, our families, or even our geographical region. In the dizzying array of choices and possibilities, certainty gives comfort. ‘I am right’ may give us a sense of righteous superiority, but the flip side of that is the shame and guilt of where we’ve been ‘wrong’. Is surrounding ourselves with people who feel the same way as we do…or holding our tongues to avoid the quasi-inevitable criticism the best answer to this dilemma? It may be the functional reality for many of us, but I believe we can do better.

As parents, we have primary responsibility for the health and wellbeing of our children. It is a tremendous responsibility with lasting consequences, and one many of us at times feel ill-equipped for. As a parent, I have genuinely experienced the extremes of excellent and poor medical care—my eldest would not be alive today had I deferred to one A&E doctor’s judgment of her illness at age two, when her intussusception was misdiagnosed as excessive maternal anxiety over a tummy bug. She did nearly die. Her life was very fortunately saved by a just in time second opinion, a GP who could admit that he wasn’t sure about what was happening with her but he wasn’t happy about how she looked, and so sent her on for further investigation, and some excellent surgeons at the RVI. After her surgery, I was told my one of the doctors to always listen to my maternal instinct—that it was one of the greatest tools for identifying trouble.

good mother

What has this got to do with the way we talk about flu vaccines in schools (and by extension other issues relating to our children’s health)? Nothing and everything. I don’t believe that deferring responsibility onto an authority figure for any decision we make for our kids will make us feel better if something goes wrong. I do believe in parental engagement, choice, and responsibility for our kids.

In her new book, Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown talks about how polarised we’ve become in our communities, how we are increasingly living in echo chambers and failing to engage in real, civil discussion with people who hold different points of view than we do. She argues that we loose something vital when we don’t engage in these discussions, and when we don’t value civility and the humanity of those who hold opposing views to us. One of the most dangerous positions of all is “You’re either with us or against us.” It reduces what’s real to a rhetorical polarity that shapes how we see what’s real in ways that are overly simplistic and ultimately inaccurate. People who disagree with us on health and parenting issues are not less than we are. They are not ‘with us or against us’. Most are thoughtful individuals who are trying to do the best they can for their children and their families. Dare I say many have thought long and hard, possibly researched and anguished over their decisions before making the choice that seems most right for them and their children in that moment.

Here’s what I believe:

*If you care about children, and the health and well-being of children, you need to care about parents, and that includes creating community spaces where it is safe for parents to ask questions and reflect on their choices without being deflected, shamed, or ostracised because they want to know more.

*If you value the capacity to make your own choices for your children (whether this be about how your child is born, how they are fed, how they are educated or something else), you need to equally respect that capacity for choice in other parents—even when they make choices that you consider to be NOT right (ie they make choices that are different to your own).

*Expert opinion and information gathered can only inform decisions—as parents we have the responsibility to choose based on our own circumstances.

*We all need access to good, unbiased information and support with interpreting that data if it is complicated or specialist. Accessing this info isn’t always easy. It may involve the risky act of asking questions and stepping out of our comfort zone (not to mention possibly disagreeing with what our friends believe or what other people tell us to do). It’s still totally worth it.

*It’s okay to ask questions, always. We lose something when we fail to ask or to question our assumptions.

*It’s not okay to shame or humiliate or dehumanise people for asking questions or making choices that are different from our own.

*It is okay to accept that our own positions may be different to that of our friends or extended family, and we can *still* love and accept each other as human.

*We have an obligation to respect one another even when we disagree.

*When it comes to things like infant formula, vaccinations, birth interventions, schooling, what benefits our children (and our society most) is challenging the status quo—this is how we guard against abuses of power and put things right when they do go wrong.

*Science is not static. Good science involves asking questions, challenging what we think we know, seeking more accurate and more complex understanding.

*Science (ie, what we know according to research) is not always in alignment with what’s put into practice in every day life. We are learning more every day, and we have the capacity to do better for our children. When we discuss and question, we keep everyone accountable.

Why is it so uncomfortable to hear parents asking questions about things we are sure we are right about? I think in part because it lifts the lid on the uncertainty and messiness of choices in the real world. In life, and in parenting, rarely is anything perfect. It also touches that uncomfortable thread of where there’s right, there’s wrong—and the guilt and shame most of us carry for those times when our choices or actions weren’t what we’d consider to be the ‘right’ ones.

I feel we can do so much better than ‘I’m right’ when it comes to talking about difficult parts of parenting. To me, better means that making a concerted effort to listen with respect even where we don’t agree, to share what we know with kindness, and, as Brene says, speak truth—with civility!!—to bullshit.

Good mother welcome

Good Mother, Welcome

I came across this title in one of Leonie Dawson’s workbooks in January.

The title caught my attention, as at the time I was feeling quite at the bottom of my aspirations toward ‘good’ or even ‘adequate’ on the motherhood front.  I thought some wry, sarcastic wit could be just the antidote to my troubled sense of my own imperfection.

When the book came, it was something quite different. It was a book of poetry, tender, heartfelt, real. The first words took my breath away, and brought me to tears. “Good mother, welcome. We are glad you are among us.”

How many of us truly believe we are ‘good’ on the motherhood front? Maybe some of us, some of the time. On a good day. Many more of us struggle to believe we are ‘good’ or even ‘good enough’ in the face of life’s (and our own) imperfections.

“Good mother, welcome.” What makes it so hard? Why do so many of us feel ‘not good enough’?

(And I mean beyond the help of those irritating Facebook memes that assure us, ‘you are enough’. I applaud the sentiment. I’d love for all of us to genuinely feel that all of the time. But if that meme is enough to touch your heart’s sorrow and reverse it, you probably don’t need me or what I have to share here, and I wish you well in your happiness.)

Do you know what it feels like to wake up every day and know that actually things in your life are really not right, that you and your children are suffering from this, and that massive change is going to be needed to bring them closer to right, but feel too exhausted even to begin because the little energy you have is consumed by caring for children? 

I do. I know I’m not alone in this. And it’s not about perfectionism. It’s also not about being inadequate or unskilled or pathologically unwell…and it’s not about being ‘not good enough.’ What I see time and time again is that it is about being in a situation that is hard, and beyond what we feel we can cope with easily or well on our own – and where we nonetheless must carry on.

The details of that situation will vary. It may be abuse or relationship breakdown. It may be a bad birth or breastfeeding experience that leaves us with pain, regret, or on-going trauma. It may be illness or accident. It may be stuff from the past rising up for attention. It may be sheer depletion and exhaustion from the impossible expectations that life (motherhood) can throw at us.

Whatever the cause, so many women, so many mothers are struggling daily with deep heart pain and troubling isolation. And we do our best to keep going, often deflecting and minimising our stories, most of us until we can’t any longer.

Given the experience of motherhood as many of us are living it, I don’t think there is anything abnormal about how we feel. By that I don’t mean that the problems are not real – they are all too real, and all too in need of attention – and change! But what I do mean is this: if you feel crappy in a crap situation, that’s overall a healthy thing – and a good sign that your mind and body are still capable of functioning as they should. And there is a possibility for change.

When there is something out of order in the body or in the mind, there is a natural impulse to keep the body functioning as best as can be. In other words, we compensate. If we have an injured foot, we might walk on the side of it, or hop along, right? 

It’s no different with the emotional stuff. We protect ourselves and our children as best we can. And when we compensate our bodies (and minds) may use convoluted pathways to accomplish what needs to be accomplished so that we can keep going. But over time that stuff builds up. It starts shouting for attention. We are, on a heart and soul level, calling out for what we need most – connection, love, freedom – we want to be whole.

Motherhood makes it tough to process this stuff. Approximately a 1000x harder, in my experience. Because there is nearly no (if any) downtime. How often do you get solitude? A space to process? My guess, if you have small children, is hardly ever. I personally still feel ‘on’ to some degree even when my little one is sleeping. And there is a general devaluing and invisibility to the work that goes on. That work can feel pretty relentless at times.

I had an image of what this feels like to me the other day. I am a bucket, with water flowing in. The rate varies, sometimes more, sometimes less depending on what’s happening in my life. But there are four largish child-shaped holes requiring a constant flow from me. Three of these holes empty into smaller buckets that have some degree of inflow from another parent (in our case this is restricted). One of these is fed almost exclusively by me as he has no other parent. All receive some inflow from social connections, school, other carers – and I’m very grateful for this – but we live far from family, and the bottom line is, most of this comes down to me.

The water (the energy, the intentions, the nourishing of self) that pours into the bucket is always also pouring out to protect and to nurture and to nourish these little people. When the level in the bucket gets so low, and the inflow is weak, or God forbid, the bucket itself becomes damaged, well, I’ll let that image speak for itself. It takes a constant higher level of effort on my part to remain in place than it does for someone who has an undamaged bucket with no holes in it.

We live in a world where most of us have damaged buckets. And even for those of us that stepped onto the path toward motherhood relatively intact, we many of us have had further knocks and blows along that trajectory of ‘motherhood’ in the modern world.

I don’t want to sound too pessimistic here. I do not in anyway believe the situation is hopeless, for any of us. The past years of working with women and working on myself have shown me nothing if not that healing – living really fully, with feeling, with joy and whole self – is possible even when we have experienced some truly terrible things. I believe women (and humans) have incredible capacity for resilience. But for those of us who are mothers, who have ongoing responsibility for little people, the path to that needs to be something that encompasses and includes motherhood, not something that ignores it.

I’ve been working really hard over the past months to raise the level in that personal bucket. I let it get too low, for too long, because I kept expecting help or change to come from the wrong places. I’m getting there, now, with although I will be the first to admit that it’s not a linear process, but one where the levels can fluctuate and where often extra care needs to be taken.

For women like me, the quick fixes will never be enough because we are constantly giving in a way that quite probably is invisible to those who have not experienced it. It is difficult to truly value that. I catch myself minimising it, erasing it, hiding it, as much as the next person. There’s something unseemly about motherhood requiring real effort.

And we end up hiding so much, and denying ourselves the credit of what we are actually accomplishing every day (if you personally are feeling unsure of what this is exactly, I recommend to you Naomi Stadlen’s wonderful book What Mothers Do). In doing so, we also often deny ourselves access to the tools and communities that would nourish and support us.

Motherhood is not a place where we should be left  on our own.

I sometimes wonder if the call to ‘self-care’ for mothers I see on Facebook is a bit like the call to train babies to ‘self-soothe’. Are we (in some cases) looking to cut off and shut down the pathways of communication so we don’t have to see what is happening?

Self-care is essential. But it shouldn’t be about shutting us up or shutting us down.

Human beings are social animals. We are tribal creatures. We need connection and acceptance and love in order to thrive. Mothers who are constantly giving so much need this even more – we need holding (not taking away, or reducing our competence, simply holding) so that we can do what is required of us.

It’s really hard for most of us to open to that truth. Self-sufficiency is valued. Vulnerability can feel like (and be interpreted as) weakness. In the worst cases, that vulnerability can be (and is daily) taken advantage of, leading to greater suffering and trauma. And so many of us carry on suffering in pockets of isolation, feeling like there is something profoundly wrong with us because our hearts are heavy and our bodies are strained, and we do whatever we need to do to suppress it and cope and keep on keeping on…until we really can’t.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Our society – in relation to motherhood and childrearing – is broken. It’s the impact of this brokenness that most of us are feeling when we feel isolated, alienated, traumatised, depressed. These feelings are in essence a healthy response to an unhealthy situation.

We need to address this by acknowledging what parts of this brokenness we are holding within ourselves, allowing ourselves to see and acknowledge what we are actually feeling and experiencing. We need to feel free to access support that doesn’t take our agency and our competence away from us, but that holds a space of safety and resourcefulness where our strength can be restored and our resilience grow. We need to feel loved, valued, held and witnessed – and to be part of things as women as well as mothers.

If what I’m saying here makes sense to you, I’d like to invite you to join me on Thursday, 15 June 2017 at 11am for a free webinar ‘The Wounds of Motherhood’. This isn’t your ordinary webinar! There won’t be lots of slides or teaching. Instead we’ll be holding space for a personal process to reconnect with the (often untold) stories we are holding in a way that makes room for our personal agency in bringing healing, insight, and positive change. This is a process I’ve used many times with my 1:1 clients, and in the “Untold Stories of Motherhood” sessions, but it is the first time I’ll be sharing it live online. At the end, I’ll also be sharing details of the Heart Healing For Mothers programme that’s begining 22 June 2017.

 

Access the free replay The Wounds of Motherhood here.

Actually, people say he’s gorgeous

It’s May 2016. I get a call from the Health Visitor out of the blue, asking to meet us. She’s a new one (to us). She texted me a few months back, but never followed up or came out to see us. The last HV we’ve seen was back in the newborn days, who signed us off once it was clear that breastfeeding was going well.

I’ve had some concerns about B. He rolled over early, but now at 10m+ he’s not able to do many of the things I’d expect him to (he’s not able to sit without support, not able to crawl, needs to be spoon-fed, and the food needs to be puree…I’m a baby-led weaning inclined, so I don’t say ‘need’ without cause, he needs that help), so when the new HV asks if she can come now, today, unusually (for me) I say yes.

She comes in a bit breathless. In retrospect, I suspect she’s trying to catch up from mistakenly *not* coming to see us previously. He’s sleeping, but her coming in wakes him. I pick him up to introduce them, and the first words from her are: “Do people often tell you he looks like he has Down’s Syndrome?”

I just look at her, because the answer, of course, is no, no one has ever said any such thing to me. Not the midwife who saw him postnatally. Not our previous Health Visitor. Not the GP who saw him for his 8 week check. Certainly not random people off the street, or people we know.

Mostly what they say to me is, “Isn’t he gorgeous?”

And it’s true. This child is called ‘gorgeous’ so often it’s like another name for him. None of my other children have had this.  There’s a light in him, and such beauty in his eyes. In the days that follow, as I start to process this encounter, it’s something I’ll watch for and hold to – the people who keep coming up to us and calling him ‘gorgeous’.

I can’t say, however, that some wondering hasn’t crossed my mind, with the developmental delays and sometimes a particular look about him. He was quite floppy as a newborn, for longer than I might have expected, but he breastfed successfully, even with a noticeable tongue-tie. He rolled over early. It’s only been after that things started to not match up with expectation.  But life is hectic here, nursery isn’t concerned, and I’m aware that every child is different.

I’m not sure how I reply. I think I mention the developmental delays.  She then takes an opposite tack, minimising. She tells me that maybe my child will suddenly ‘catch up’ developmentally, and that we’ll meet again in a few weeks, and maybe there’s nothing to be concerned about. I’m not sure why this seems an adequate way forward to her; later she tells me it had to do with ‘gaining my trust’. (Not the right approach with me, that’s for certain. I’d far more appreciate a referral for a blood test and some support for my child’s apparent developmental delay.)

She leaves, and it’s only then that I really start processing what’s she’s said, and that B and I can’t wait a few weeks, we need help now. I start browsing the internet. I finally see what babies with DS look like. They look like my baby. I try calling her a few times, but no answer, no call back.

So I end up having to book a regular appointment with the GP. We wait a week before we can get an appointment to see someone. I’m not sure why this is, as usually they are much quicker. When we do get to see someone, he’s quite sympathetic and matter-of-fact, stating that you can’t really tell by looking, but yes, given the developmental delays B should be referred on to the paediatrician.

We end up getting an appointment for mid-July. That’s about 5 weeks in the future, but what can we do? I don’t know if there’s anyway to get genetic testing privately, but what difference would it make? There’s not a whole lot to do but wait. (In the end, the timing is perfect as I’m fortunate enough to pull off getting to Orlando for the first MuTu Pro training (thanks, Mom!), and sadly as soon as I’m back, I’m off again to California following my father’s death.)

In the time when we’re at home, the Health Visitor does pop round and refer us for a visit with a physiotherapist. Unfortunately, the physio who visits us prior to diagnosis is simply insulting. She looks at my little one and manipulates him a bit – including making him stand without adequate support in a way that clearly alarms him, but too quick for me to intervene –  then declares that while he may have some ‘mild’ issues, possibly a touch of hypermobility (he’s actually massively hypermobile), the children that she deals with are far worse and there’s nothing really she can do for him. I mention the suspicion of DS and she says she doesn’t think he has it. “Well maybe mosaic DS?” Her face twists and she tells me ‘Absolutely not. That’s the one where they have exaggerated mongloid features and real problems.’ I’m so shocked by this that I don’t say anything, even to correct her. I just feel sick at her response and see her out quickly. I am thankful we’re not likely to see her again.

In the run up to the appointment with the paediatrician, we see the HV again. I try to stay friendly as I know she intends to be an advocate for us. She asks me to come to clinic to have him weighed. It turns out he’s off the bottom of the charts for a ‘normal’ baby. She’s clearly panicking a bit at this, and tries to pin it on me not feeding my child adequately.

I’m not so happy myself (though I know he’s eating well and it’s not that), but I have a niggling suspicion that Down’s Syndrome growth patterns may be different.

When I get home and Google I see that there is indeed a separate chart for babies with DS. My little one is just under the 50th centile on it (pretty much where he is today). I leave her a phone message about this. I’m not sure it makes any difference. We don’t see or hear from her again after this point, but I’m not particularly bothered as it’s clear we are a bit beyond her normal scope of practice.

We (B, my 13yo daughter and I) go into the appointment with the paediatrician unsure what to expect. Thankfully, we need not have worried. He’s incredibly courteous, well-informed, and takes the time to talk through the situation with us. He explains that you really can’t tell about DS just by looking, the tests that will be done, and how long it will take to get the results (several weeks). Bloods are taken and sent off. Again we wait.

I manage to catch up with him by phone in August. He confirms B has DS, not mosaic DS but the full version. We make an appointment for September to discuss further. We’re referred for a heart check, but are pretty certain there won’t be any problems.

It turns out we’re wrong about that, (he has Atrial Septal Defect), but by this point I can say that every professional we deal with going forward is kind, reassuring, and genuinely helpful. It takes a little time for referrals to come through, and November to January in particular were intense averaging 3 appointments weekly as we caught up.

Now, in March 2017, things are settling into a new normal. He’s got great support from Portage, as well as from the NHS (including a physio who sees him weekly, not the one from before!).  The Down’s Syndrome Association and Down’s Syndrome Northeast have been great points of reference for us.

I’m not sure I’ve fully processed what it means yet to have a child with Down’s Syndrome – quite frankly I’m too busy looking after ordinary life to give space to letting this settle fully in the way that I’d like to – but what I do know is that we all of us here love him so incredibly deeply, and we would be lost without him. He’s not ‘less’ to me than my other children in any respect. He is beautiful and whole, and exactly who he is meant to be. He enriches our lives, and has transformed me and helped me to grow as a parent in ways I never could have predicted. I am definitely a much better person and a much better mother thanks to him.

So, do many people tell me he looks like he’s got Down’s Syndrome? No. Not one person has ever said this to me, apart from that Health Visitor. Often I wonder if they have any idea, or if I should mention it, when people remark on how tiny he is (he’s only 20lbs now and sometimes the DS is obvious, sometimes it’s not), but mostly what I still hear is just the same as before.

People look at him, they see his smile, and they say, “He’s gorgeous!”

In search of: a new map of motherhood

There are not many (any?) maps of motherhood that trace out the way I want to be living it.

It’s just after 9pm on a Sunday. It’s been a good night. My kitchen is clean and well-stocked for the week to come (a loaf of spelt bread made for my daughter who can’t tolerate wheat, porridge oats soaking overnight for the baby, a grocery delivery has left us with full cupboards and fridge, and overflowing fruit bowl). The children’s clothes are washed and ready for morning. Toys are tidied away. I *think* homework has been done. And most importantly all four are asleep in bed.

On a bad or even average night, none of this would happen…and just so you know there’s no superiority here and I’m savouring every moment of this and feeling infinitely blessed. (AND my baby woke up about ten minutes after I wrote this bit so I’ve been comforting him back to sleep…but he nursed down again quickly, so it’s still a good night sleep-wise thus far).

When people talk about hitting rock bottom and rising, it’s a narrative that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.  It’s too simple, too linear, too unreal for me in terms of lived experience. My experience of the bottom, and yes, bottom it is, is that I’ve been skating along it for a number of years now…that bottom for me could be summed up as the underside of motherhood in so many ways. The shape of the landscape changes. My head is mostly facing up. But how do you know, really know, it’s ‘rock bottom’ when there are blind drops and hidden edges waiting.

It’s taken me about a year and more, of betrayals, disappointments, and failures, to accept and really deeply understand that in this most recent manifestation I’m not just a separated or single mother, (after many years on the cusp of legal divorce), but a sole parent which is an entirely different thing.  (I do have some shared support from my older children’s father, my soon to be ex-husband, but with the father of my youngest we have at present no contact, through his choice and action.)

I’ve had to accept that the shape of what *is* is not and never will be one of equal partnership in parenting. That’s okay, in the sense that the current arrangements are what is healthiest and happiest for the children under the circumstances – but it has also meant the very real re-writing of my understanding and expectations about what it means to be a mother outside of this model.

And it means that the past months and year really have been hitting up against every cliche of divorced / single motherhood:

*changes in visitation that have left me stranded for work (and ultimately requiring me to change my work patterns entirely)

*late and then unpaid child maintenance, that leaves us in real danger of not eating (thankfully resolved a few times over with help in various ways)

*the irony of being told condescendingly by my husband’s solicitor that ‘now I can learn to stand on my own two feet’ financially, even as previous arrangements for sharing responsibilities for our children were eroded

*the sheer exhaustion of what’s required in terms of looking after a home and four children, one still a breastfeeding baby, the stress of not being physically able to meet their needs and my own.

What this means for me now is that there are pieces of my life which will not make sense to many – and that places which once would have provided me solace simply don’t as my experience is too different now from what it once was. It probably also means that my mere existance is hard for some who don’t want to see this side of motherhood. I never expected to be here either.

I could easily eat up every moment of every day ‘just’ being a mother, that I could drive myself mad trying to ‘earn a living’ in the old school way alongside that, it means that in recent months I’ve spent a fair number of days of utter despair at the impossibility of what is needed from me and the lack of freedom inherent in my current existence.

It also means for me right now that I’m feeling a call to reinvent what motherhood looks like for me and how I live it. I know what I want it to feel like, at least the rough sketch of what I’d like to to feel like – free, powerful, sacred, loving, creative, nurturing, protective, honest, restful, kind. Something that makes me more, not less. I know the old maps for my situation won’t give me that (though I am certain many women have quietly walked that way and successfully before me, some visibly so). I’m willing to wait in the space of visioning until I can start to trace the path that will.

I know my allies as I begin are in the presence I bring to my own life, in the things that strengthen that presence, physically, emotionally, spiritually. I know they are in the connection with others – other women, other mothers, other men and families – but only where these connections are grounded in respect and kindness.

I have no tolerance left for meanness, hypocrisy, gossip, dishonesty. I don’t take those things personally anymore because I know now so clearly that when people approach relationship in these ways that a) they are not for me and b) it’s not about me. I also will not hesitate to protect myself from these things in whatever ways I must because these things are pernicious and cause harm far beyond what is commonly acknowledged.

I have every space in my heart and my life for the connections that are vital, full of integrity and shared purpose, and most of all truth, compassion, respect, and genuine love and kindness. These things too have the capacity to ripple outwards and deserve to be nurtured in every way.

There are a lot of things I haven’t figured out yet, like how the time for looking after all the things that require looking after will happen. I trust that there are ways that will start to open when I take time to sit in stillness and listen. I trust that following the heart of my own work and renewal and the pace it comes at will in all cases bring me to a better place of resolution than denying the very real work and responsibilities I carry day to day would do – and by that I mean, I hold responsibility to my children, myself and my home, as much as I do to ‘earning a living’ or fulfilling a calling.

These last two are not separate for me, and the calling is as essential to me as eating and breathing…but what I’m coming to in a round about manner is that I’m looking to live these things in ways that are no longer at odds with my self-sustaining, child-nurturing, home-creating which are equally and even more important, and which take REAL WORK, real time, real energy to keep going.

I don’t know how to get there yet. But I’m burning the old maps, the ones that won’t work. I’m giving myself permission to take the time I need to vision and to heal. I want this to come with ease, with joy, with freedom. I feel it can be done, though I don’t yet know how. But that feeling, that conviction, and sitting down to write it, is my starting point.

 

‘Fed is best’: the band-aid covering the gaping wound of women’s trauma

I woke up this morning to a pro-woman’s choice post from a FB friend, supporting a woman’s right to choose how she feeds her baby, and if she chooses to breastfeed, how long she does so, stating that this is a question of bodily integrity and sovereignty.

I absolutely agree.

But what I see, and what so many of us who have supported new mothers through pregnancy, birth and early parenthood can see, is that this ‘choice’ comes at the cross-roads of conflicting and contested lines of power: power over women at a juncture where power is very much at issue, power over babies and a primary care-giver’s connection to them.

Motherhood is one of the places where our female bodies are most subject to outside control – whether this is through the direct policing of the medical establishment, the seductive images of the advertising industry, or the cohersion to comply with the choices that are socially acceptable as ‘right’ and ‘safe’.

The default for women in pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood is NOT one of sovereignty but one of deep control exerted over us, our bodies, and our choices…one that is so engrained in us we for the most part don’t even notice it. Too many of us fall into motherhood unsuspecting and unprepared for what awaits us.

This is evident nowhere more than in the phrase ‘fed is best’.

“Fed is best.” On the surface of it, who can argue with that? Of course, ‘fed is best’ – our babies rely on us to feed them, they need to be fed to survive. No guilt, mamas! Get the job done!  

So how is it possible that ‘fed is best’ is swiftly becoming the anti-breastfeeding slogan that no one can argue with? Breastfeeding is after all the biological and physiological norm for humans, but ‘fed is best’ – it’s just about ditching the guilt, right?

“Best” is a slogan that touches the cords of guilt and shame and powerlessness that run deep through women’s experiences of motherhood. It shouts, “you’re not enough (and you never will be), because you are far too imperfectly human.”

Fed is not ‘best’. Fed is what we do to keep our babies alive.

All babies must be fed in order to survive, there is no ‘best’ about it. Babies not being fed adquately – babies suffering from hunger and dehydration – these are serious points of shame and trauma to us all and flat out should not be happening in wealthy western countries, let alone the rest of the world. “Fed is best”, the heart-rending stories and thin, malnourished babies, shows us this is happening, now, today. We cannot look away from that. We must not look away. 


We need to know that skilled infant feeding support will never involve shaming or pressuring mothers, forcing babies to feed in a particular way, waiting until baby is hungry enough to be ‘broken’, or any other such harmful and cohersive nonsense. Skilled infant feeding support involves: listening, assessing the real needs of mother and baby, responding with gentleness, compassion and skill to the situation at hand.

How we feed our babies will come at the cross-roads of many factors: our own family histories, our experience of pregnancy and birth, what happens in the early hours and days after birth, our expectations of motherhood, who we have around us in the early hours, days and weeks of motherhood, our personal resources, the pressures of our lives, and how we personally respond to these.

“Fed is best” is a phrase I’ve seen used in a few specific situations:

*To reassure a breastfeeding mother who’s baby genuinely needs supplementation that it is okay to offer this supplement (whether this comes in the form of the mother’s own expressed milk, donor milk, or infant formula) either short-term or longer-term for the health and well-being of mother and/or baby.

*To pressure a mother who wants to breastfeed into supplementing regardless of whether this was a genuine need for the baby, but because the medical professional was under-informed about breastfeeding science, normal infant patterns and growth, or to conform with the protocol and/or expectations of a specific individual (not the mother) or institutional environment.

*To express deep anger, disappointment and trauma around the mismanaged pressure to breastfeed at all costs combined with inadequate or non-existent support, where mother and baby are both traumatised (and their health, safety, and lives put at risk) due to the lack of information, experience and skill of those ‘supporting’ them. Often this is seen as breastfeeding advocates putting lives at risk over an ideal. The guilt / blame / shame  that is heaped on women who bear this trauma turns (rightfully) to anger and the ‘fed is best’ movement takes form.

But ‘fed is best’ isn’t sovereignty and it isn’t powerful. It’s a band-aid covering over the very real traumas of mothers and babies. The wound beneath remains. As long was we hold up that slogan as a shield we’re missing the point.

We need to reclaim ‘best’ when it comes to motherhood. Best is:

*Best is respect for women’s intelligence, resources, capacity to choose. 



*Best is listening first as helpers (and honouring our own experiences as mothers by speaking the truth of these to those helping us).

*Best is asking what a mother needs right now, what her struggles are, and her goals and wishes over the longer term – and considering how the ways we respond to her will impact all of these things.

*Best is providing every mother and baby with the optimal choices and support for pregnancy and childbirth (suited to her circumstances), knowing that how we give birth impacts our experience of infant feeding and parenthood.



*Best is making sure that all health care professionals have adequate training in breastfeeding establishment and support, in both normal and more challenging situations – and where they do not have this, ensuring mothers and babies can a) know the limits of those supporting them, b) access other knowledgeable support.

*Best is communicating with mothers that formula is not the only alternative to breastfeeding, and that there is a spectrum of infant feeding choices and practices available to them – that what they choose or need to access can change over time.

*Best is offering women accurate and up to date information about the full range of choice and the impact of each choice in the shorter and longer term for herself and her child, without pressuring her into a particular course

*Best is listening to what a woman herself is saying about her personal needs, wishes, and experience and responding to these with compassion and respect.

*Best is respecting mother’s and babies needs and wishes, even when they deviate from our own choices or from what we think is ‘best’.

The anger we need to be feeling is not at breastfeeding endangering our children.  The anger we need to be feeling is about the ways that women are pressured and let down by those we most trust at the time of our deepest vulnerability, and how our babies are being harmed every day by these betrayals.

Because to my mind, this isn’t really about feeding – it’s about control, guilt, shame, and the damage that’s still being done to women (women’s sovereignty, women’s capacity to choose) in birth and early motherhood. 

After many years of mothering and working with mothers and babies, I am convinced that the ONLY was through to change is through mothers taking back our own power and choices. It requires stark truth telling. It requires tears and rage against what is being taken from us so that we can claim back what is rightfully ours – sovereignty and power in motherhood.

And this means for those of us who have been there and passed through, owning full spectrum of our experiences, including the wounds and the pain of of these: seeing these things for what they actually are, accepting the choices we have made, where we bear responsibility for these choices and where we have hit up against forces that have taken away our capacity to choose.

 We don’t have to be ‘best’. We have to be real. We have to tell the truth about what’s happening out there and inside ourselves.

When we do so, we can use our experiences as a bridge to greater compassion and greater capacity for connection with and in support for those who are struggling. We can share the truths that are the ground for genuine choice. We can share the acceptance – that motherhood is hard, and the odds are stacked against us, but even so, we are doing it, and doing it better with the support of other mothers.

“Fed is best” as an inadequate cover for women’s very real pain and struggle. It’s time to pull the plaster off, and tend to the wound. Motherhood isn’t about breast or bottle, it’s about human love and connection.

Start from the centre

When I returned from California following my father’s memorial, the words I heard echoing, the one thread placed down, ‘Begin from the centre.’

But coming to that centre – even glimpsing it – requires unlayering. I’ve spent so much time being things to others (mother, wife, friend, lover, student,teacher, mentor, guide, doula, counsellor), and the obligations and the failures in particular add up and fill the space with a weight and a clutter if one isn’t careful, and I’ve not been careful.

And so the unlayering, the cutting old ties, the calling back of power and self, the gradual glimpsing of that centre.

Begin from the centre. As everything is falling to pieces, it’s surfacing. It’s a start.

Non-negotiable practice

It’s summer now, and being at home with 4 children, including a 13 month old who’s breastfeeding in that way only a 13 month old can, my days could easily be (and often are) consumed by the needs of others. There’s been a lot of upheaval lately that results in an intensifying of their need-level, and an unfortunate corresponding reduction in my capacity to meet those needs as my own space and time is so easily eroded.

There’s always a reason for not having the time – the floors need cleaning, the dishes need washing, the baby needs feeding or changing…even when we skip the floors as much as possible, the rest really needs addressing fairly regularly.

I’ve really noticed the impact of the erosion of the small spaces and routines I’d carved out for myself, kind of like the avalanche of small but utterly necessary tasks has gotten to a tipping point. There’s no room for mama, and that’s not healthy or good. (If you are some awesome super-organised and super-fit mama, please don’t judge us ordinary mortals! But I’m pretty sure I’m not totally alone on this one.)

Walking – real walking (sometimes interspersed with a bit of running) that makes me sweat – is a key non-negotiable practice for me and I’ve let that slide more than I’d like.

I walk every day anyway, but I walk with children, with a dog, with a baby tied to my back or my front. That means I’m outside (yay!), but I’m not sweating (boo!).

This week I’ve taken time to notice what that does to me:

*My stress and anxiety levels increase.
*My patience levels decrease.
*I end up angry and frustrated more often.
*I feel my body chemistry is off.
*I don’t sleep as well.
*I spend more time hiding out on the world of social media.
*I eat more crap to compensate for the crappy feelings in my body.

I’ve been in this space before, many times. I know, however much I’d love it, no ‘giving mama time’ fairy is going to swoop in and make things easier for me. I know that the more my energy erodes, the harder it gets, the more things fall apart. So I’m returning to non-negotiable practice.

What this looks like for me, to start, is that I get out there with the baby in the buggy, on my own so I can walk fast, no matter what. Even if I don’t have enough time. Even if my house is dirty or the bigger kids have to wait.  Luckily for me my baby loves getting out there too. Luckily my baby generally loves my non-negotiable practice too

These are my anchor points, the foundation for the kind of life I want to be living, the choice to be living now as the kind of woman and mother I want to be. And I know from experience what feeds me, will feeds the rest as I become more patient, more present, more in control of the choices I’m making (vs. making reactive ones).

There’s so much that doesn’t get done on a daily basis. Even more the case when there are children about. What’s important to me is living each day as I want to be living, even in the midst of chaos around me.  At the end of the day, whether I’ve been out for my walk or not, those things will still be there…or not.

I’m committing now to 40 days to start. I’m keeping it simple. It’s part of my personal MuTu® System reboot (I’ll share more about that very soon) – but it is regardless my commitment to my family and myself, my non-negotiable practice.

What’s your non-negotiable practice? Please share in the comments below so we can inspire each other to keep going…and if you’d like to join me for the next 40 days, please do!

You can find me and others doing this over on Facebook – not a big formal thing, just a bunch of women supporting each other in carving out space – just pop on and let us know your personal non-negotiable practice, and you can use the hashtags #rebalancingwoman #40days and to keep us posted out you’re getting on.

Giving time and space to death

My father died recently. He was 90 years old, and I’m certain it was utterly the right way and time for him, but it still came suddenly, and the waves of rippling change are just beginning to be felt.

I find that I want to give this space. Space for honouring him and his life. Space for acknowledging the changes in me that result from this shift in what I think of as a generational barrier between me and what’s beyond. That’s half-gone. And it changes things.

There’s not a lot I want to say right now. I’m going to be taking most of the summer to focus on my children and this transition, to give space to thinking and feeling and to my own body and soul weaving and healing.

But the things I do want to share now are these – these things that stand out for me on this cusp of change.

*Death, like birth, requires a sacred container for holding experience. This is true for the person passing, but also for those close, and it’s not just about the moment of passing, but about the moments around it, extending into time, before and after. It’s important that we give this to ourselves and our families.

*It’s good to acknowledge death. Even if you’re uncomfortable with it, say something to the family. We notice. We see who shows up. We appreciate the effort at connection and the expressions of love and sympathy.

*I wish I had gone to see my Dad in California before he died – I wish I had found a way to get there, no matter what, for any one of those moments of quiet life and celebration that I missed. That’s the only thing I regret, that I didn’t find a way to do that, and it changes my priorities significantly.

*Family photos are always a gift and a great thing to be taking time for, regularly, formally and in formally. I’ll be doing a lot more of that.

Family

My father gifted me with so many things, he was a primary care-giver for me throughout my childhood and into adulthood, in a way that few fathers are. He made certain that I had every advantage he could give me – thanks to him, I made my way to Smith College (I was one of the rare students to have a father who was a graduate – he had attended the School for Social Work), and then onward to New York University. He taught me a lot about spirituality and religion, and about living in harmony with the land. From my childhood, I remember his organic gardens, his morning yoga, his Saturday morning blueberry pancakes, his photography and his gifting me my first camera when I was about 4 or 5, chopping and hauling in wood for winter, tapping the trees to make Maple syrup in early spring, and so many other things.  His life and death have been a gift to me as his daughter.  For anyone who would like to read more about him and his life, there is a beautiful collection of words and photos here.

 


 

I’ll be writing and sharing here on the blog over summer, and back to normal in September in terms of classes and clients and such. There will be some great new things coming as in June I was so fortunate to be part of the very first MuTu Pro training in Orlando – I’m looking forward to sharing locally the core healing that this system brings for pre- and post-natal mamas.  We’ll be starting up some FREE walks locally (walking daily is a key part of the MuTu system), so if you’re interested in joining best way is to contact me on Facebook on the Rebalancing Woman page.

(Current clients and students not to worry as we’ll still be carrying on as usual and I will be in touch very soon, just landing from my time away and little people settling too).

Massive love and thanks to all those who have been so supportive in this time, and who have expressed their love and connection in various ways.

Why I don’t give unsolicited advice on FB (or anywhere)

Has it happened to you? Recently, a few times over, I’ve posted on social media – not a question, mind you, not asking for help – and the wisdom poured in, “This is the way to do it.”

Of course, if you’re a pregnant woman, or a mother with a new baby, even better, all you need to do is step outside your door…so as a mother of four I’m already an expert in the nod and smile technique.

But truth? I’m fed up. There are few things more irritating to me than unsolicited advice, on social media or IRL. You know why it really bugs me, and why I never, never, never give my opinion unless asked (and even then, I may hesitate)?  Because it presumes the person on the receiving end is less. Because it is an attempt at control over something that quite frankly has nothing to do the kind advisor.

Now I know people mean well, they really do. (If you’ve done this to me, I love you, and I don’t hold a grudge. But equally, please stop.) I know you’re wanting to be helpful, to share your experiences. This is a great thing. If you’re a friend of mine, you very likely have a wealth of experience and knowledge to share. I really welcome that sharing when you frame it as your own experience, not as unsolicited advice.

Because seriously, we need to knock this nonsense on its head. If you are in the helping professions, please understand, no one is going to listen to unsolicited advice (least of all me). Giving advice where it’s not been asked for will be, at best, an irritation. At worst can be devastating to someone in a tough place who is already doing the best they can.

Please, please, please if you are knowledgeable and want to share that knowledge, offer it up in the right way, as the gift it is, where it’s welcome – when someone has asked you for it.

In all cases, let’s start by acknowledging the people we meet as whole human beings, with stories and complex life experiences of their own, and with full responsibility for their own lives and well being. Whether or not we understand them, or whether or not we know what these are.

One of the most powerful teachings I’ve been given as a healer is that we’re not here to make people better. We’re here to see from the beginning the wholeness that is already there. (What this means for you if you come to work with me is, I’ll never look down on you. I’ll never pretend I know more than you about your life, your struggles, or your path. I will honour what you bring, and be your number one ally and supporter. And *if* you ask my opinion, I’ll offer it so that *you* can decide what’s right for you.)

When we begin from a place of wholeness and respect, giving space to the experiences of others and their capacity to handle them, we can create much more genuine interactions with powerful positive impact.

But telling me what to do when I’ve not asked you? It’s disrespectful, and a turn off. Please knock it off.