Thursday, January 28, 2010

Turn, Baby, Turn

Almost every day, I lie in bed and feel my belly, trying to recognize body parts, trying to guess how my baby now lies.

For, during the last couple visits to my midwife, my baby has been in the breech position (head at the top). She showed me how you could tell it was the head—it is hard, and when you push at it with two fingers held a few inches apart, it bobbles back and forth but does not move the rest of the body. Whereas, when you push at other body parts, this often moves the whole body, or else the baby pushes back, so you know you must be prodding a leg or an arm or something.

It seemed easy enough to locate, but now, left for weeks on my own, I can never be sure what I am feeling. There are so many body parts, so many hard surfaces—is this the back, the bottom, or what? I feel movements in so many places, and I try to imagine what kind of contorted position my baby might be in that elicits these jabs and rolls from all sides. I palpate my fingers along the sides, bottom, and top of my uterus to try and distinguish a rough shape, and sometimes I think I’m on to something. But ultimately, I have to give up and let go. It’s too hard for me to tell for sure, and it’s too early to really start worrying.

They say that there is still plenty of time for him to turn, and I know this is true. Something like 50% of babies lie in the breech presentation at some point during pregnancy, but only 5% stay in that position for delivery—which these days usually means a c-section. OBs aren’t even trained in vaginal breech deliveries anymore. Some midwives still do breech deliveries, but fewer and fewer have the experience—and in turn, fewer will pass on this knowledge to their students. It is a dieing skill. Breech vaginal deliveries used to be common, until sometime in the 1970s when a study was released that found c-sections to be the safer alternative, although some might contest this. Today, a very small percentage of breech babies are delivered vaginally.

To my surprise, I learned that my midwife actually does breech vaginal deliveries. She speaks of her experience with a calm confidence, and says that they do not scare her. This news filled me with both gratitude and trepidation. I’d simply assumed that if my baby was breech I’d have a c-section like all the other women I’d talked to. (And I seem to know quite a few women who have had breech babies, considering that they supposedly only occur in 5% of births.)

But I haven’t wanted to go here yet. I haven’t wanted to start weighing the pros and cons, tapping into my intuition, and discussing in detail with my husband and midwife what we would do. For everyone tells me we still have plenty of time… I’m at 32 weeks, and it’s usually around 35 weeks or so that babies assume the position that they will stay in. Yet even then, plenty of babies turn at a late date. My friend’s baby, in fact, flipped into the breech position in her last week of pregnancy. Babies know best, some say, how they want to be born.

So, with the exception of a few quickly scanned articles, I have resisted the onslaught of Internet research and statistics for now that would no doubt make me feel stressed out and worried. And I have resisted talking to too many people about this, for fear that talking and thinking about it too much will make me more anxious. Instead, I have tried to concentrate my energy on encouraging my baby to turn.

There are many things one can do, with varying reports of success. For example, talking to the baby or playing music down low is supposed to help, as babies will gravitate towards the sounds. Or doing flips or handstands in a pool. Or lying with your pelvis elevated and feet up against the wall at an angle. Or taking pulsatilla, a homeopathic flower. Or acupuncture and moxibustion. Or visualizations. Or putting an ice pack up high, and something warm down low. Or shining a flashlight down low. Or later, a more invasive procedure where the doctor manually tries to push your baby into a new position.

I’ve tried a few things from the list above, and later on, if my baby still hasn’t turned, I will no doubt try more. But for now I am trying not to obsess over the process; and trying every single strategy on the list would, for me, constitute obsessing. You don’t want to worry about it, my midwife said, for stress itself can keep your baby from turning.

Easier said than done of course. Not worrying about something for me usually means not thinking about it at all. But it’s hard not to carry some worry, however far back it lies in your consciousness, when you are suddenly given this new list of things that you should be doing, in addition to all the things you are already supposed to be doing—like getting 70-80 grams of protein a day, plus all the necessary nutrients, omega-3s, vitamins, and vegetables; like drinking enough water, exercising five times a week, doing Kegels, and prenatal yoga; like buying infant car seats and figuring out where he will sleep, choosing a pediatrician, reading up on childbirth, taking classes, identifying support systems, and a million other little things that one could possibly do to prepare for childbirth and parenthood.

So, my husband and I have made a tape of our voices talking that I can play each night at the bottom of my belly when my husband is away; I’ve been taking pulsatilla; and I bought a maternity bathing suit and have started going to the pool (something I haven’t done since I was a child). Floating, stretching, and moving through the water has felt wonderful, and I am grateful for the way this ‘turn’ in my pregnancy has gotten me to do something so therapeutic that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. I am also thankful for the way this process has forced me and my husband to talk more to our baby, and to think about all the ways in which he is listening.


Faith, acceptance, and hope are tricky mind-heart states to balance. I’m trying to trust that my baby will turn (and I know the statistics are in my favor), at the same time that I’m trying to hold the awareness that whatever happens will be okay. That in the end, he either will or he won’t turn, and there won’t be anything I can do about it. All I can do is make the most informed and most intuitive decisions possible, each step of the way.

Next week, I have a prenatal appointment, one I’ve anxiously been awaiting. My midwife will be able to tell me again what position my baby now lies in. He is definitely an active one, moving all the time, but I don’t think he’s turned head down yet, because I have yet to feel his kicks up real high. But then again, I’m really not sure—for, by now, his legs might be wrapped up around his body, and surely there must be plenty of positions he could be in that I can’t visualize.

For now, I try to remember to breathe and send my baby love. To feel calm, rested, and at peace as I lay in bed with my hands on my belly. To let go of the fears and what-ifs, at the same time that I pray for a gentle birth-- for both me, and my child.

I pray that whatever decisions I may still have to make about this pregnancy and delivery will come clearly and easily.

I pray that I can carry an open acceptance about whatever needs to happen.

And I pray that my baby hears my voice whispering, now, turn, baby, turn.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Philosopher and the Sailor

(Note: this post will make more sense if you've read prior posts- Love Letters, and The Gift.)

I’ve finally finished reading the letters. How many? Well, Els and Frank were apart roughly six months out of the year, for four decades. Els wrote maybe three times a week, Frank probably once a week on average. So, that equals 3,840 letters, give or take a few.

Back when I first discovered them and spent a week or so reading as many as I could from random years (before I had yet to order them by date), I wondered, “When will I ever have time to read these?” Now, being pregnant, unemployed, and especially motivated to work on this project thanks to a small grant, not to mention an impending due date, I have been provided with the perfect window to settle in.

People ask me if I’ve been writing lately, and I tell them, with a slight sense of guilt, that mostly I’ve been reading letters. It’s easy to do. I take out a stack of them after I’ve done my morning journaling, and this often leads to the “just one more” mentality. I make it through a year, let’s say 1975, and then I notice how the next year—1976—is so much thinner than the previous, so maybe I’ll read one more year. Then, by the time I make it to 1977, I’ve practically made it through the whole decade, so maybe I should just finish the 70s off. But when I get to the 80s, I figure, this is the final decade to go, why not just finish them all? And in this way, I have plowed through, and saved much of the writing for this project for “later.”

Although I feel like I should be writing more than I have, reading all of the letters does actually feel necessary, as opposed to other procrastination methods like, say, Facebook. And there is something to be said for reading all the letters in one continuous swoop and absorbing the big picture of their correspondence, marriage, and life.

The big picture reveals some amazing, yet sad, tedious, and often painful reoccurring themes.

Let’s start with the ways in which we repeat ourselves. The ways in which we stay in situations for years or decades that we have so many misgivings about. The ways in which our minds feed on loops, and we constantly talk about the same things. The ways in which our lives and our dreams disappoint us. The ways in which, the older we get, the more our ideas of what is possible for ourselves and our paths seem to shrink.

Els started complaining about her marriage sometime in the mid-sixties when she was in her early forties -- about how lonely she was with him away at sea for so much of the year, and about Frank’s poor communication and his lack of support of her ideas and her writing. Her discontent continued to grow stronger, as did her accusations of his selfishness, verbal abuse, and controlling ways. I’d always known that they’d had problems in their marriage, but to read the steady progression of complaints, depression, and despair, letter after letter, has been sad and surprising to me. Could Frank, this man that I’d grown to respect and revere as an adult as one of the most generous and mellow of souls, really have been so selfish and demanding of his wife? How much of Els’s point of view am I to believe, especially when Frank’s letters offer little to deny nor support her claims? It is hard to not to sympathize more with Els. Since she wrote the most often and with the most detail, it has been easiest to see their story and marriage primarily through her lens.

One abbreviated version goes like this: Here was a man who chose to be away half the year at sea (working as a merchant marine), wandering through exotic ports and living a bachelor’s life, then coming back to home base for a few months to be nurtured and fed, before taking off to travel for a few months with his wife, who cooked and baked profusely each day inside the hull of their sailboat or out the back of their station wagon. He loved to read old classics and history, especially Joseph Conrad, and claimed to be content with his lot in the world. Determined to live the way he wanted to live, and not worry about the things he couldn’t save or change.

And here was a woman who stayed at home alone half the year alone, tending to the house on a frugal budget, writing to her husband about things she wanted to repair or stocks she wanted to invest in, given permission to do as she saw best, but always first seeking his approval. Wanting to prove that she was a good saver and wife, that she could be entrusted with his hard-earned money. At the same time, trying to forge a creative path for herself, to find a sense of purpose in her existence outside of the household duties. Becoming involved in various causes, but ultimately seeking something more. Increasingly bitter that she never birthed a child—a decision that seems to have been made by Frank. Becoming obsessed with various philosophies, but disillusioned by imperfections she found in each of them, none quite reflecting her precise worldview. Wanting to write her own book to solve this problem, and also starting to write more poetry. Yet her husband didn’t like her poetry, nor did he like her analytical mind that grasped at theories. So these were pleasures that she clung to and could not share with her spouse, passions in life that she felt she needed to defend.

More and more, it was as if they lived separate lives. “We don’t really communicate,” Els complained, “it takes two.” “I have to admit to myself that I am dissatisfied, that I have been a long time. Our way of life was your choice, not mine…” And, “I realize you like to always be on the move. Since we bought this house it has been home base to you but not home, you really don’t live with me except on the Hoko,” (their boat).

In the early seventies, Els got serious and wrote to Frank about getting a divorce. She was embarking on a new phase of her life, empowered and psychologically freed by her discovery of Transcendental Meditation and the several weeks she spent meditating in Northern California. Then, a year or so later, her talk shifted to getting a legal separation. Then, who knows what happened, almost all talk of separating disappeared. In most letters, you would not even know there is any discontent. They still call each other by names like ‘Lover’ and ‘Darling Wife. In fact, even in the letters where Els complains about their marriage, oftentimes in the very next paragraph she will go on to write in a chatty tone about the plants in the yard, her daily outings, or financial business, and sign off with love and affection. It’s almost as if this dialogue of discontent went on for so long that it grew to be one of many ongoing conversations, perhaps mostly carried out in her head.

Most of the time, it is hard to tell what was actually communicated because Frank would barely respond to her words directly. Els would write long diatribes about his shortcomings in their partnership or about her epiphanies about her life and the universe, which would be answered by Frank’s terse news of when they’d reach this or that port, and an occasionally descriptive travelogue recounting some new port. In all of his letters, all I can find that answers her pleas for a change is a line here or there of token acknowledgment, such as, “Some of the things you’ve said hurt my feelings but there isn’t anything you can’t say to me,” or “All I can say in reply to all you have said is that I love you and hope we can continue to live together the rest of our lives.” What woman wouldn’t go out of her mind if that was the kind of response she got from long letters where she’d poured out her heart?

Indeed, Frank always proclaimed his love and devotion and addressed her with terms of sweet endearment, and I never ran across a cruel word or tone in his letters, which makes me think that he couldn’t have been as verbally abusive as she implied. And yet, who knows what his words (or more likely, his silence) was like in person.

At a certain point, one cannot tell how seriously either of them took her words, especially once she’d backed off of her resolve to take charge with a divorce. And there is no way for me to know what was communicated during the months when Frank was at home. What was said in person. And what bonds of friendship, shared experience and understanding kept them together despite it all. After all, they both loved nature, simple pleasures, living frugally, and authenticity in people and art. They both were kind, curious, and compassionate people, even if these traits were manifested in different ways. Perhaps they were able to reach some resolutions, however temporary, before Els’s next wave of discontent arose. (Although I suspect that their in-person communication was not a whole lot better than their letter writing, for Els also complained of this.)

I know that from the beginning of their marriage, Frank warned Els that he was not much of a letter writer. And one can also forgive him a tad for belonging to a generation (or some might say species) of males who do not readily speak of their feelings. His letters are the most vivid and interesting when he is visiting a new port, describing his forays into the back streets and markets, and his encounters with locals in cities like Bombay, Valpairosa, Singapore, and Belawan.

And for whatever reason, his letters got more descriptive in the 1970s and 1980s, whereas they were much shorter in the 50s and 60s. Maybe he was finally warming up to this “letter-writing business,” or maybe he grew lonelier and more sentimental as he crept into middle age. “I tend to lose my identity when I’m out of touch with you for too long,” he wrote. Perhaps he’d already reached the peak of his wanderlust, and yet could not bear the thought of staying in one place and settling down at a 9-5 job.

As I read these letters, I go back and forth as far as who I sympathize with, or who I identify with more. Mostly, I find myself sympathizing with Els, even though her mind, her depression, and her obsession with philosophy and figuring out the universe, would surely have driven me crazy if I had to live with her. Yet from real life, I know that it is Frank that I identify with more closely as an adult, however closed off his emotional world was, or at least his ability to express it.

Probably I would have connected more to Els in my twenties, when I too was a tad obsessed with trying to name and define my spiritual path and system of beliefs. But once I found a certain level of trust in what I knew what was important to me in life, and could start to separate the difference in what I believed versus what I knew for myself, I eventually let go of the intense sense of struggle that had once surrounded so many of my finer spiritual questions. Perhaps I’ve simply have entered a phase where this focus doesn’t interest me so much, and maybe later down the road I will I return to those questions with a renewed sense of gravity. Maybe this is a common phase for those like me who are in a home-, family-, and career-building stage of their thirties; or maybe it is simply because I feel at peace with my life right now, and am supported by a wonderful partnership, and so I don’t feel as great of a need to cultivate meditation practices (besides writing, walking, and occasional yoga), to join spiritual groups, or to pray and connect with the greater source of life that feeds me—and that ultimately, behind my daily list of to-dos, I still am humbled and amazed by. Perhaps some day I’ll be struck by some great heartache or opening again that will reorient me in this direction, but for now, my spiritual life feels less heavy and esoteric, and more of a mellow and laid back constant, an ongoing intuitive response to what each day brings, from my heart.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. All these generalizations feel somewhat glib and too simple in light of having just read almost 4,000 letters. There is so much more I could say, so much to digest and absorb, so many tangents to reflect on, and so much to take care not to summarize or surmise too quickly, as if these letters could ever tell the whole story.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Pregnancy Tripping: In Between Goodbye and Hello

I’ve heard it said that once you enter the role of a parent you cannot quite imagine not being one, and that so much comes intuitively, that you learn as you go, adapt, and rise to the challenge. I can imagine how, for many people, this is true. You’re fully committed now, in the thick of it, and your baby is a visible, breathing entity, crying and screaming for his needs. There’s no turning back, no one-layer-removed. This is your new reality staring you in the eye. You may not know exactly what to do in any given situation, but you know you must do something. There’s no more daydreaming, wondering, anticipating…

Whereas pregnancy, for me anyway, has been one continuous mind-heart trip of reading, researching, dreaming, preparation and anticipation. First I spent a good amount of time researching home births and choosing the ideal midwife. Then I spent hours online comparing birthing classes, doulas, infant car seats, and slings. And on the streets, I cannot help but study the babies and parents I pass. I try not to stare too intrusively at the same time that I take note of what kind of baby carrier, sling, or stroller they are using, how young their child is, how warmly they are wrapped up against the cold, and what expression the new parents wear on their face, how comfortable they seem in their role. I think about how just a few months ago this mama was still like me, in the throes of anticipation and the unknown, perhaps never having cared for an infant. And now, within months, she is officially a mother; she has collected all the infant gear she will need to get her through this first stage of exhaustion, she has settled into a tentative rhythm of feeding, sleeping, and changing, and she is beginning to feel a bit more grounded in her new reality. Perhaps she already cannot imagine not being a mother, and in particular, the mother of this child. Or perhaps her sleep deprivation prevents her from even attempting to be self-reflective. Maybe she’s just hanging on, trying to meet basic needs and get by.

Recently I've started learning more about labor, comfort measures, stages of birth, and parenting so that I have some sense of what lies before me. Although I don’t want to start obsessing about pain nor parenting too early, there are certain choices that seem wise to consider ahead of time. And I have always been one who enjoys making lists, crossing things off, and planning ahead, rather than waiting till the last minute. I don’t want to wait until the last month of pregnancy (when I will no doubt be more uncomfortable and huge) to run around buying stuff, and I want to make sure that I take the time to compare products to make sure I don’t buy junk, but I don’t want to buy into the whole idea that you need TONS of stuff for your new baby, or that you need to get it all right away, top-notch, or brand new.

Yet I realize to some degree that no matter how much I plan and research, I cannot control the outcome of my labor, birth, and plunge into parenthood-- the baby will come when he wants to come, the labor will last as long as it needs to last, and I will handle the pain as gracefully or fanatically as my grunting, stretching primal self can. There is only so much I can do to feel confident, at peace, and prepared, and from there on out I just need to surrender and let go.

For me, pregnancy is the ultimate limbo state, poised between the known and unknown. There is a baby growing each day (currently about 16 inches, 2.5 pounds), moving and kicking with increasing oomph in my belly, and listening to and recognizing our voices as we speak. There is my changing form and hindered motions, my belly growing rounder and more taut week by week, staring back at me in the mirror, sometimes striking me as normal and other times making me shake my head, “Holy shit!” And there is my relationship with my husband and the slowly deepening comprehension that soon we will be parents. Creating our own little familial unit. And that along with my final groan and push and the cry of the baby’s first breath, will come a whole new life, re-focused and organized around this being. As the weeks to the due date dwindle, we increasingly will find opportunities to say things like, “This will be the last time we spend this many consecutive days together alone. For a LONG time,” and trip out anew .

We are entering this journey for the long haul, yet we have only started to pack our bags. We won’t know what’s really in store for us until we take those first steps into the vast, yet somehow seemingly familiar, unknown.

I always knew that I’d love to have a child, a family, and yet, before we started preparing for this journey, I didn’t long for it or covet it with a sense of intensity. I watched other friends have babies and raise families, and although I knew on some abstract level that I wanted one too, I didn’t envy the way they had to leave gatherings early or would rarely be able to get out for a night on the town. Parties where kids ran around afoot were great, but not quite as interesting as the ones where things had the potential to get really crazy. Hanging out with a mom and her child could also be fun, but not as satisfying as getting to talk to her with no distractions.

I’ve never wanted to become one of those couples who, once they have children, only hang out with other couples with children and only talk about their children. How boring. And I don’t want to be a mom who spends the rest of her life obsessing about buying her kids the best things, getting them into the right schools, feeding them the right foods, reading them the right books, and in short, making sure that they do everything possible to make them the smartest and most loved (yet hopefully not spoiled nor controlled) kid on the block. And yet, I can see how this is a path that one can easily find themselves on. It's only natural to reach out to others who are going through this same incredible learning process as you are, and to welcome play dates and the relief from parenting isolation they provide. And of course you want to give your child the best that you can, and you do this in the best ways that you know how, however flawed. This is, after all, your child that grew from your own flesh and blood.

We are having a baby. We are creating a family. We are saying goodbye to the days of late night indulgences of wine, music, and hazy reverie, and preparing to welcome in the long nights of crying, breasts, milk, and diapers. We are saying goodbye to the days when we could leave town for a week and just leave our cat an overflowing bowl of kibble, and hello to our new life where we’ll feel like we are getting away with something huge if we get out by ourselves for dinner and a movie. Yes, I know it’s not forever. I know I’ll eventually be able to pump and dump on occasion and enjoy an indulgent night of drinking and youthful nostalgia-- quarters! (Just kidding.) And a ways down the road we may even be able to drop the kiddo off with my parents for a weekend and enjoy several days on end. But beyond this… we’re looking at, oh, 18 years or so of hardcore commitment and responsibility. We’re looking at a brand new phase of our life, where the history we’ve shared as a couple and the history each of us has lived as an individual on our own path, struggling to find our work and our way, will take a back seat to the new history we will build with our child, the new story we will create as a family. No, I will not give up my writing (though I humbly accept that it may be relegated for a while to a few scribbled lines here and there), and no, Matthew will not give up fishing (though he may have to be content with that one salmon he catches versus ten), but on some abstract level we are aware that these central activities in our lives must find a way to live quietly in the background for a while, grateful for whatever morsels of time we can feed them.

The amazing thing is that I’m actually looking forward to this. I’m looking forward to setting aside life as I’ve cultivated it for the last 17 or so years I’ve grown as an adult, and plunging into this free-falling abyss, wherever it brings us. This is what I call trippy. This sense of not knowing what this altered state will be like, at the same time that a part of me intuits. And this sense of waiting for this little life-form to arrive that is part-me, part-Matthew, and part stardust, neither of us, all of us… this being that will come to teach us about ourselves and everything we once thought we knew. On one hand I am so very thankful that I still have three months to process all this and get ready, and on the other hand, I am already crying out, “BRING IT ON!”


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