Classic Imperfect Happiness: Mining Meaning

Lately I’ve been thinking even more than usual about what it is I’m passionate about. I’ve been thinking about writing a blog post about this, but it turns out I already did, way back in December 2010.

I’ve changed a bit since then; for example, with the help of one particularly understanding friend, I’ve made great progress sloughing off judgmental thoughts about other people’s birth choices. She helped me discover that, although we made essentially opposite choices about birth, we made our choices from a very similar emotional place. I thank her for opening up that empathy in me.

I also think I’ve gotten a little better at crafting a non-wandering blog post, and I no longer obsess about blog stats. But aside from these changes, I think I could have written this post today and had it turn out pretty much the same. (Note: I couldn’t resist editing the original post slightly, just for style, though, not content.)

Just last night, I sat on the sofa wondering what it is I’m passionate about. I don’t have cable, so while this isn’t an uncommon pastime for me, I usually distract myself with a novel before I get too involved in an ultimately frustrating thought process. Then this morning I read Tucker’s post, “Who Am I?” which, aside from the references to sailing, I think I could have written. Read More

Friday Free-for-All

Just a quickie post for this Friday evening with a few things I found interesting this week:

1) To the Best of Our Knowledge, my favorite radio show (well, one of my three favorite radio shows along with This American Life and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me), had a couple of great shows recently.

One is called “Forgiving” and includes some thought-provoking discussion about the nature and difficulties of the practice of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a thorny issue for me, and this show came at it from a direction that I found interesting, insightful, and non-preachy. Interviews include a Canadian woman who was taken hostage by Somali kidnappers, an author who interviewed Japanese war criminals, and the spiritual leader of Lab/Shul in New York who talks about reinterpreting Yom Kippur as a Day of Forgiveness.

The second TTBOOK show I really enjoyed was “Albert Camus,” a show discussing Camus’ writing in celebration of his 100th birthday. It’s all great, but I particularly liked hearing from Jennifer Hecht who uses the works of Camus and others to offer a philosophical argument against suicide.

2) For my birth-loving friends: “The Impact of Birth on Lifelong Wellbeing,” the keynote presentation of the 2013 GOLD  Perinatal Care Online Conference, is available to the general public until November 18. In this presentation, Sarah Buckley—researcher, former GP, and author of the book Gentle Birth, Gentle Parenting—talks about the long-term positive hormonal, psychological, and microbiological effects of the normal process of childbirth on both mothers and babies. She includes a review of existing literature and shares some of the results of her own research.

I like that it focuses on the positive effects of physiologic birth rather than the negative effects of birth interventions. Also, Sarah Buckley is from Brisbane, so if you like hearing Australian accents AND birth, then you’re in luck with this presentation.

It’s intended for health professionals, but I find it quite accessible, and anyone interested in human birth is likely to find the presentation interesting. (Two notes: the handout mentioned in the presentation does not appear to be available with the publicly available presentation, and RCT = Randomized Controlled Trial.)


Now I’m going to pop some popcorn and read the last chapter of David Hume’s 18th-century classic, The History of England, Volume V. Because it’s Friday night and I am a party animal.

Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying

Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying
Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying by Maggie Callanan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Back when I was a doula, I had this thought that working with women through the birthing process must be similar to working in hospice with people who were dying. I didn’t share this thought with many people. In general, I would try not to mention death to pregnant women, and I worried that anyone not involved in doula work might think I was just weird. But to me—next to being born, which for most of us is stored only in our implicit memory and therefore inaccessible with our conscious methods of “remembering”—giving birth was the closest one could get to the process of dying without actually dying. I kept this notion largely to myself and quietly kept my eyes out for people who’d worked with both laboring women and dying people to either confirm or disprove this idea, all the while wondering if I dared try doula-ing to the dying and finding out for myself.

And then I started this book and read in the third chapter:

“As nurses who care for the dying, we see ourselves as the counterparts of birthing coaches or midwives, who assist in bringing life from the womb into the world. At the other end of life, we help to ease the transition from life through death to whatever exists beyond.”

The authors go on to draw parallels between the medicalization of birth and the medicalization of death, in which both natural processes were moved out of the sphere of home and family and into the closed-off corridors of medical facilities. Birth and death became events cloaked in secrecy and silence rather than transitions to be experienced surrounded by those who love us. Thankfully, this trend seems to be shifting.

Mostly the book is made up of brief accounts of the last moments of dozens of individuals. I read these with the emotion and enthusiasm with which I used to read birth stories in the days before I’d ever attended a birth or given birth myself. I read them hungrily, with the sense that there is a hidden truth in them and that I need only see these stories from the proper angle for this truth to be revealed.

The authors point out the similarities between different stories, and encourage the reader to find significance in these similarities. They give suggestions for maintaining the awareness and open-mindedness necessary to receive the often cryptic or confusing messages that dying people sometimes try to convey. They encourage the reader to remember that the dying person is still a person—an individual going through a momentous transition and experiencing a wide range of emotions and sensations that we can only guess at. The authors encourage compassion and connection, and they talk with reverence about the honor of being a part of these families’ lives, if only for a short time.

This is all so very similar to how I feel about being with a woman in labor. Probably in part because it was so familiar, the insights from these stories helped ease some of my fears about my own inevitable death. They helped me to see the beauty in the transition and the many gifts that the dying have to offer us, and it reminded me that emotional pain isn’t always bad, isn’t always something to avoid. The message I got from this book is that there is tremendous power and grace in opening ourselves to the emotional pain that accompanies death. It is a beautiful, powerful book, and I would recommend it to everyone. (My only caveat: I would caution against reading it sitting in the back of the library story room while your children are in Story Time. People seem to feel a little uncomfortable when a woman is choking back sobs while children sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”.)

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Empathetic Medicine

My daughter turned seven this past weekend. I wanted to post about her birthday, but I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say. Thinking about my children’s birthdays is equivalent, for me, to thinking about their birth days. And my feelings about my daughter’s birth are still so complicated, it’s difficult to know what to say.

Then yesterday I was driving around without the kids in the car, a rare and precious thing in and of itself, and I heard a story on NPR about the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University. In this optional program, medical residents read literature and write narratives from their patients’ perspectives to help them better understand where their patients are coming from. I really like the idea of fostering empathy in doctors, especially given the by-and-large un-empathetic treatment I’ve received from doctors.

One of the residents interviewed for the show talked about how she becomes so frustrated when a patient won’t accept her advice. She said that she was hoping that the class would help her to understand her patients better so she could better convince them that the advice she’s giving is the right advice for them.

That statement led me to thoughts about the interactions I had with doctors during my pregnancy and birth with my daughter and why it’s so difficult for me to feel heard by physicians.

My experiences with doctors during my first pregnancy and birth were rushed and filled with coercion and scare tactics, out-and-out misinformation and power struggles. I was experiencing a miracle, but they were experiencing a day at the office. I felt like an individual engaged in the incredible task of growing and nurturing a living human being, but the doctors saw me as a bundle of problems and potential problems that each had a clear-cut solution. I saw myself as the necessary part of a natural process, but the doctors saw me as an inconvenient interloper between them and the fetus in my belly.

My midwife, on the other hand, recognized and celebrated the miracle. When I went in to interview her, before I’d even decided for sure I wanted her to be my midwife, she offered to let me listen to my baby’s heartbeat on the doppler. With excitement and wonder in her voice and her eyes, she led me on an auditory tour of my belly. At the end of the visit, she hugged me and we celebrated this momentous occasion together. Contrast this with my first belly-listening session with my doctor, in which I got about ten seconds of the baby’s heartbeat before the doctor said she couldn’t stand the sound of that doppler and shut it off.

I had planned to have a home birth, but on the advice of my midwife, I had tandem care between my midwife and an OB, just in case we ended up at the hospital. I hated my OB. I hated the whole practice. As soon as I got my GBS test results back, I quit going. Even though it cost more, I preferred to go to my midwife for the last month of my prenatal care.

But I ended up at the hospital to give birth—pitocin, epidural, absence of informed consent, and all.

I’ve spent the past seven years trying to figure out how to frame that birth experience. There were so many very positive things about it, not the least of which were the healthy baby I birthed vaginally. There was the incredible L&D nurse who helped me maneuver the baby into a favorable presentation so that labor could finally progress. There was the opportunity to (gently) tell off my OB, who was intent upon performing a surgical delivery even when everything was finally moving along and baby and I were looking great. There was the power I felt as I pushed my baby out. There was the wonderful postpartum nurse who taught me how to co-sleep with my baby.

But there were so many other things that haunt me about my experience in the hospital and have left me with an anxious and pervasive sense of powerlessness and an almost pathological distrust of doctors and hospitals.

Let me be clear: I am not upset with myself for having an epidural or even for going to the hospital in the first place, even though I can think of things I could have done differently that might have kept me at home to birth. I am uncomfortable with the feeling of being funneled into a system in which the only options are the ones that someone else has pre-decided for me and in which I am irrelevant as an individual, thinking human being. It’s the objectification of my Self that I have so much trouble working past.

My primary memories of my daughter’s birth are fear, confusion, powerlessness, and loneliness. There were times when I didn’t know where my husband or any of my three doulas were. There were times I didn’t know where my baby was. I was stranded among strangers and unable to make myself understood.

I wonder if the residents in the Narrative Medicine program would be able to put themselves in my shoes and see why being treated with kindness, empathy, and compassion would have made so much difference. I wonder if they could understand that there is more than one way to reach a “healthy outcome” and that there isn’t one right answer to most of the questions that arise. I wonder if they would be able to recognize and share the miracle rather than taking it as their own.

That resident who wanted to understand her patients better so she could get them to accept her advice? She makes me doubt that any of this is possible.

If a doctor is listening only to try and get me to come around to her point of view, that’s not really empathy. On the contrary, it’s just another form of coercion. If a person—including a doctor—truly understood my perspective, she would accept that the choice she’s trying to make for me really isn’t the best choice for me. She would accept that I can make an informed decision that is contrary to her advice.

I had my second baby in a portable tub of water in my dining room. My primary memories of that birth are the feelings of profound connection between me and my body, my husband, my daughter, my son, and my sister, midwife, and doula who were also there. My midwife steadfastly refuses to take any credit for how well his birth went. She insists, rightly so, that her moms do all the work and she’s just privileged to be invited to a part of that miracle.

I so far haven’t met a doctor willing to step that far back. I know they must exist, but they seem to be a rare breed indeed.

Related Posts:

-My Son’s Birth Story, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

Guest Posting on my own Blog

I wrote this as a guest post on another blog. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say, that fell through. Rather than wasting a perfectly serviceable post, I’m posting it here, even though it’s sort of a non sequitur with my recent posts. Not that that’s ever stopped me before. Enjoy!

When I was expecting my first child, I didn’t think going from “Pre-Kid” Me to “Mommy” Me would be that big of an adjustment. I knew that the lack of sleep thing would take its toll, and breastfeeding, while it was really the only route I’d considered, would take some getting used to, I was sure. But the personal stuff? Not really on my radar.

I was a doula before I was a mom, and I used to tell my first-time-mom clients something about mourning the loss of their pre-mommy selves even as they embraced their mommy role. I’m not sure where I got that; I probably read it somewhere. And although I said it, I’m not sure I entirely believed it. Or if I did believe it, I think I had the idea that it was something a new mom could check off her to-do list in an afternoon. “Mourn the loss of my pre-mom self? Check!”

I wasn’t a career woman before I became a mom. I’d quit my corporate job more than a year before my daughter was born. I’d been attending births as a doula and teaching yoga classes until I got pregnant and morning sickness got too much for me. For months, I’d mainly just been taking walks, visiting friends, and reading the entire Clan of the Cave Bear series. I’d been focusing all of my attention on becoming a mom (and reading fiction). Surely there wasn’t much else I needed to do to complete the transition than just give birth.

My daughter disabused me of this notion rather quickly.

The first challenge of motherhood was my daughter’s birth itself. Rather than being a home birth surrounded by women who cared for me and trusted my body and the birthing process, it was rather the opposite of that. I experienced one of the more objectifying births I’ve attended. It wasn’t the worst, but it was mine, and it was difficult to get back into myself after being acted upon as I was in the hospital. I’m certain this didn’t help with my transition to motherhood.

The two other sticking points:

First, I did not bank on the fact that I would belong to my daughter more than she belonged to me. I was helpless in her presence. I had to respond to her needs even before I responded to my own. If she wanted to nurse for an hour and a half and there was nothing on television (as there often wasn’t since we didn’t have cable), I sat and, for lack of a better term, meditated for an hour and a half. I was her mother more than she was my child. This was a surprise to me, but one that I’ve gradually learned to accept. I still belong to her more than she belongs to me, and she’s six years old now. And it’s still exhausting, although less so now that I fight it less.

And second, it took me longer than I expected to feel empowered in my mother role. I always marveled at the mother lion way my own mother and my mother-in-law responded when one of their children were threatened, even in a very minor way. While I felt this instinct strongly, I often second-guessed myself. I didn’t trust my own opinions or instincts when it came to my child. It took me eight weeks to figure out that this was not a child who could be left in her car seat bucket and toted from car to stroller to car to home, no matter what the other moms seemed to be doing. She needed to be close to me, or she would cry. She needed to nurse more often than every three hours. I had to learn that I wasn’t ruining her by meeting her needs. I worried I was “giving in”. I was simply surrendering to the role.

Several months after my daughter was born, I was given the best parenting advice I’ve ever heard. I pass this advice along to every new mother I come across. It’s this:

As your child’s mother, you are the expert on your child. No one knows your child like you do. Not her father, not her doctor, not her grandma.

This is a scary thought, but it’s also incredibly empowering.

The biggest thing that I had to realize was that my intellect, which had so far served me well in my life, would not support me as I expected it to during birth and motherhood. I couldn’t reason through labor, and I couldn’t reason through the tumultuous emotions that accompanied my first year or so with my daughter. These were visceral experiences that could not be controlled by or filtered through the actions of my mind. This doesn’t mean I don’t read and research and attempt to change our situation, if necessary. It just means I relinquish direct control of anything involving my children. I can influence their environment, but I can’t control my children’s actions.

I don’t remotely believe that being a parent is necessary for personal growth. But for me, it has been a profound education. I have grown in ways that I couldn’t imagine before having children, and I’m much happier with the person I am now than I was with who I was before I became a mother.

It’s been a challenge and a trial—and it continues to be—but it’s one that I embrace.

Mining Meaning: Digging for Hidden Passion

My husband offering me support and connection as I birth our son.

Just last night, I sat on the sofa wondering what it is I’m passionate about. I don’t have cable, so while this isn’t an uncommon pastime for me, I usually distract myself with a novel before I get too involved in an ultimately frustrating thought process. Then this morning I read Tucker’s post, “Who Am I?” which, aside from the references to sailing, I think I could have written.

For me, there’s a sense of danger around searching for my passions. Before my first child was born, I was a doula. First I attended births as a volunteer. I would take an 8pm to 8am shift on the weekends while working full time during the week, and I would take the occasional paying client, although I never charged what I considered “full price,” which at that time in that location was about $350. Then we moved to California and I started attending births as part of a doula circle, a group of doulas who shared the on-call schedule and the clients. For a variety of reasons, the circle gradually became a triangle then a line and then a point (me). I then became pregnant myself. I attended one birth during my early pregnancy and that was the last of my doula work.

Being a doula necessitates having a passion for birth. I certainly had that, as anyone who conversed with me during this time period can attest. I also had a passion for empowering women, which was more difficult to realize than my passion for birth. Birth in a hospital is most often not empowering for the woman giving birth. She becomes an object ancillary to the process. More often than I care to admit, I found myself complicit in this objectification. I went into doula work with a desire to help women find their own voices. I’ve only recently recognized that what I really wanted was to get these women to adopt my voice. It’s uncomfortable to admit, but I wanted to show them where they were wrong, where they were being misled by their care providers. I subtly sought to undermine their faith in their physicians and in themselves and replace that with the truth as I saw it. I didn’t want them to find their own voice; I wanted them to find mine.

After my own harrowing birth experience in the hospital with my daughter, I became even more judgmental and polarized in my thinking about birth. Birth was still a passion for me, but it had begun to morph into an obsession. I felt a need to protect other women from the experience I had giving birth. Soon, I began to feel a need to protect women from myself and my negative view of birth.

When it comes to birth and mothering, I’m not very empathetic. I don’t make connections; I make judgments.

If you’ve known me while pregnant or as a mother, I’ve judged you. I’m not proud of it, and I’m working to change it. It’s not you, it’s me.

Yesterday I was helping my daughter get dressed after gymnastics, and I overheard the pregnant mother of another girl in the class telling another mom that she was scheduled for a cesarean that afternoon.

At the mention of the scheduled cesarean, I got very anxious. I felt jittery and tight, like a wire had been pulled taut inside my chest. My brain went into overdrive making all manner of assumptions about the woman. I breathed. I wondered how many weeks pregnant she was. I breathed. I wondered why it is her doctor said she couldn’t birth vaginally. I breathed. I decided to say nothing and just try to get out of there without judging this mother. I looked up and smiled at her. She spoke to me.

“Are you the person who gave me the coupon for the prenatal massage?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Thank you so much! I’ve been going. She’s great! I’m scheduled to go next week after my c-section.”

“Oh?” I said, trying to sound merely curious. “How many weeks are you?”

“I’m 39 and a half,” she answered. I looked her in the eye. Can she tell I’m judging her? I’m trying so hard not to.

“I was just wondering when they schedule them now,” I said.

“Any time after 39 weeks is safe,” she said, almost cutting off the end of my comment. “I wanted a Friday because my husband would be off work for the other kids.”

“If you need to have a cesarean, that’s the nice thing about scheduling it. You can make it work with the other things you have going on.”

“I’d rather not have one, but since I need to, I’m making the most of it,” she said.

“I had a friend who was having her third cesarean. She really didn’t want one and talked with her doctor about it. He arranged to have the music she wanted playing during the surgery, and the anesthesiologist caressed her face with warm towels. She said it was very pleasant, like a spa treatment, almost.” The woman raised her eyebrows, interested.

“Oh? Wow. They did all that?” she asked.

“Well,” I conceded, “my friend was a doctor, too. I wonder if they get special treatment.”

We both smiled. My daughter pulled on my arm, anxious to leave.

“Well, congratulations, almost!” I said.

“Thanks!” And she was gone.

On the one hand, I’m grateful and proud that I was able to get a handle on my assumptions and judgments and talk with this woman in a gentle, mother-to-mother way. On the other hand, I wish I didn’t have those judgments to start with. I want to banish them from my mind and just…love.

Many of the things I think are passions of mine are because they’re hot issues for me, fraught with judgments as I try to craft a narrative that works for me around my own experiences. They’re the things I want or need to work through and so I fixate on them. It’s not fair to me or to the people I work with if I focus on these issues as part of a vocation or avocation.

When I finished my training at the rape crisis center to be a community educator, the director of the program met with me and said she wasn’t going to let me become an educator. She said I was too emotionally involved, and she had to think of the clients who come to the center for help. I was livid.

I talked with one of the support group facilitators there, and she told me how she’d ended up at the crisis center. Her mother had died of cancer. After going through that process with her mother, she felt driven to help cancer  patients and their families. She was really angry when the director of the program that had helped her told her she couldn’t participate as a volunteer because of her closeness to the issue. Once she got over her anger, though, she saw the wisdom of not staying in that particular sphere. At the rape crisis center, she was able to use the strength she’d acquired through her personal experiences to help people through issues that didn’t hold such personal significance for her. Her passion, it seems, wasn’t for the issue of cancer. It was for helping people through connection and giving them that same positive feeling she’d has as a participant in the program for families of cancer patients. Once she discovered this subtle but significant difference, she was able to apply her passion in a way that was healthy for her and more helpful for those she sought to help.

So, maybe birth and mothering aren’t my passions. Maybe it’s the connection underneath that’s my passion. Or maybe it’s something else I’ve not identified yet. It’s fairly clear to me that writing is one of my passions. And blogging, which is writing, but it’s kind of an instant-feedback sort of writing. There’s that connection piece again, buffered by a computer screen and the invisible network out there that has enveloped us all. Maybe this is why I’m so obsessed with my blog stats. This isn’t a journal. I have one of those (and I don’t share it with anyone). If my stats are high, I know I’ve connected with someone (or a lot of someones), at least to the point that what I’ve said has interested them enough to click on my blog. If they comment or share my posts: boy howdy.

Going Soft

I’ve decided I don’t do well without a focus, and that apparently “fun” isn’t focus enough for me. I like fun, I just think I do better getting to it from a less direct path than pursuing it outright. More of a Benjamin Franklin approach than a John Adams approach (yes, I’m still watching the John Adams miniseries).

I’ve mentioned it before, but I think there are a lot of unhappinesses in my life that stem from too great a reliance on the “masculine” side of things. Not that intellect and a direct approach and a reliance on the mind is bad. It’s served me well for as long as I can remember. But it’s not balanced. And I think I’m missing out on a fullness in life by having the balance tilted too far over to that one side.

As a result, I’ve decided to focus on softness. I want to practice allowing myself to trust my intuition and my emotions. I want to practice forgiveness and love. I want to connect physically with others—especially my husband and children. I want to touch, to hug, to dance with my kids. Not that I don’t do those things already, I just do them more as an afterthought. I want those things to be part of the entree, not the dessert. I want to bring awareness to my body and how it’s feeling, rather than automatically pushing aside the sensations. I want to allow my body the freedom to move without being judged and controlled by my mind. This will make it necessary to Risk Looking Silly like a sonofagun. So I hope to take baby steps so as not to cause myself too much discomfort and perhaps cause me to scrap the whole plan.

I’m going to make time and space in my budget for body therapies (e.g., massage, facials, pedicures). I tend to view these as indulgent, and maybe they are. But I also think that I need those kinds of things right now to bring me into my body gently.

Yin yoga is another element I’d like to incorporate into my routine. I’ve done one yin yoga class (about three years ago) and two practices on a Paul Grilley DVD I checked out from the library (this past week). It’s a meditative practice that focuses on very gently deepening a pose and inviting openness in one’s body without aggressive movement. I tend to view yin yoga as a waste of time, but this is because I look at it as a type of exercise. If I look at it as exercise, it does fall a little short of other practices. But if I liberate it from the “fitness” label, I can see its value. I’ll stick with my DVDs for a while, the one I have from the library already and the one I’m going to pick up this weekend. Then I might try some of the yin classes at local yoga studios.

And then the same thing I’ve been doing: just breathing and bringing awareness to the moment.

There are other things I’ve considered adding, like music (singing or playing an instrument, especially) and dance, things that allow me to feel music throughout my body. But those things require a little more emotional effort and bravery on my part. I’ll save those for after I’m comfortable with my less scary pursuits.

And I recognize that this list-making and written planning is “masculine.” I’m not scrapping all of that kind of thing. I’m not sure I could function in society if I scrapped it all. I’m just trying to tip the balance a tad more towards the feminine.

Part of what pushed me over to wanting to add more feminine elements to my life was the recognition of how I use my birth experience with my son as a kind of emotional talisman. I instinctively reject the ra-ra, “I birthed a 9-pound baby in a tub in my living room; I rock!” kind of things around the experience, which is a more masculine reaction.

Birthing my son was an exercise in letting go and trusting my body and allowing myself to feel the love those around me were offering. The fact that I think of it when I feel a need to protect myself leads me to believe that I have a craving for more of that kind of vulnerability, scary as that might be. Upon reflection, his birth was a totally feminine experience. (This would seem to be a given when talking about birth, but birth in the US is often much more masculine than it is feminine. Giving birth to my daughter in a highly-managed hospital situation, it was anything but “feminine.”) Birthing my son involved bringing my awareness to my body and bringing myself out of my brain. It involved relinquishing conscious control and trusting myself, the process, and those around me. It involved vocalization and the physical sensation of the water in the birth tub. And it involved physical touch, both from my doula and from my husband, especially when he climbed in the tub with me and supported me while my body pushed our son out.

My husband sometimes jokes with me that I can relate anything back to birth. But really, isn’t that where everything starts? I’m just incredibly grateful to have this kind of experience to use as a model for embracing feminine energy.

Book Review: Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride

Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride : A Psychological Study (Studies in Jungian Psychology, 12.)Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride : A Psychological Study by Marion Woodman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It probably isn’t quite fair to give a book four stars rather than five simply because I couldn’t understand all of it, but that’s what I’m doing. I think if I read it again, I would absorb more of it, partly because there’s so much there and it takes a while to percolate and make sense to me, and partly because I had very little exposure to Jungian psychology before reading this book, so the language was a little inaccessible to me at first.

Some of the take-home messages I got from Addiction to Perfection:

-We are each, man and woman, made up of masculine and feminine sides of our psyche. The masculine side is the intellectual side, and it’s also the side that strives for order and control. The feminine side is based in the body and the earth, and it’s more intuitive. Neither is better or worse than the other, but if they get out of balance in our selves and/or in society, weird, off-kilter things happen (neuroses, if I’m understanding the vocabulary correctly).

-The impulse toward perfection is the result of an imbalance toward the masculine side. The “cure” is to awaken the feminine side, build trust with it, and bring it out to help integrate the psyche.

-Perfection is static, unlike life which is constantly changing and moving. Therefore, perfection is more closely related to death than it is to life, and the pursuit of perfection can be seen as the unconscious pursuit of death.

-When we begin the transition from an overly masculine psyche to a more integrated and balanced psyche, we can expect to pass through turmoil and fear before we attain the balance and peace on the other side.

This book was very well-timed for me. The practice of shifting my focus from my mind and the intellectual, with which I am most comfortable, to my body and my intuition dovetails nicely with the mindfulness practices I’ve already begun.

One passage in particular resonated with me, as it echoes an impression I got about modern birth practices as I compared the hospital birth of my first child with the home birth of my second. It’s actually a quote from R.D Laing’s The Voices of Experience in which Laing describes the reaction of an obstetrician to a woman’s description of her home birth. The obstetrician didn’t understand why the woman would want to go through all of that when she could have experienced no pain at all in the hospital. The birthing woman explained that she wanted to have a home birth because she wanted to have the full birth experience.

“He [the obstetrician] could not see how such a sentiment could have any value. He evidently sniffed some hysterical-masochistic heresy. Birth: abolished as an active personal experience. Experience: dissolved into oblivion. She is translated from feeling subject to anaesthetic object.

The physiological process is taken over by a chemico-surgical programme. End result: the act, the event and the coherent experience of birth has disappeared.

Instead of the birth of a baby, we have surgical extraction.

This domination and obliteration of the feminine by the masculine in modern obstetrics could go some ways to explaining why women who receive pain medication during labor report lower satisfaction with their birth experiences than women who receive no pain medication. The problem isn’t one of location (home birth vs hospital birth) or whether a woman receives pain medication or not. Rather, it’s based in the marginalization of the experience and the removal of a woman’s participation in her own birth process. For many women, this marginalization is decreased or eliminated with unmedicated and/or home births. That certainly was my experience.

At any rate, I really liked the book.

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(By the way, my NaNoWriMo word count for Day 16 is 28,456)

Week 12 Review: The Dangers of Openness

As I’ve come to expect at this point in the month, I’ve started losing my zest for my resolutions. I’ve not done much decluttering this week since my mom left. I’ve been buying things. I’ve made some headway keeping daily routines and examining why I have trouble keeping the ones I’m not keeping. I did complete another nagging task by re-caulking the bathtub. This was actually a task on my husband’s to-do list (it’s been on there since we moved in in January of 2009), but it was nagging at me, so I just did it.

I’ve found that after two weeks in a row attending Mass, I miss attending church. I’m considering doing some church-hopping starting in November to see if I can’t find something that feels right for me and my family.

Something else I’ve discovered this week is that I’m feeling really emotionally raw. I think this might be a side effect of all of the mindfulness and openness and emotional awareness I’ve been fostering in myself. I just feel really sensitive to rough treatment and rough words, even those not directed at me.

A friend posted a link to a story about a 5-week-old baby who died of pertussis. I felt so much pain for the family who lost their little baby. I don’t even care to imagine what that must be like for that baby’s mother, father, and brother. After reading the article, I scrolled down to the comments, against my better judgment. Some were outpourings of emotion for this family, but for the most part, it was an argument about vaccinations and whether people who don’t vaccinate are evil or not and whether they ought to be imprisoned and/or have their children taken away from them.

I wonder if this is an example of giving over to the “masculine” side and using our intellect at the expense of our emotions. Perhaps it’s more comfortable for people to argue causes and lay blame than it is to simply sit with the pain of realizing that sometimes babies die.

I know a woman who is a labor and delivery nurse in a local hospital. Several months ago, pertussis went through the nursing staff. It took an alarmingly long time for anyone to recognize it for what it was, and the nurses continued working through their illnesses, exposing goodness knows how many postpartum moms and newborn babies before the illness was identified. In my experience, most nurses are caring, educated people who work awful hours and get paid not nearly enough for the intensity of their jobs and the toll it takes on their health and their personal relationships. Also in my experience, nurses are pretty big proponents of vaccination. If an outbreak of pertussis can happen in this group of people, it seems to me you can’t really link it to negligence or poor morals or just not caring about others, which were some of the accusations lobbed in the comments on the article. Sometimes shit just happens, even when we do our best to prevent it. Contrary to what some of the commenters suggest, I believe that no parent “deserves” the death or serious illness of their child as a result of the decisions they’ve made.

From what I can tell, as parents, we’re all doing the best we can. We all have our children’s best interests at heart, even when we disagree about what the best decisions are for our kids. We gather the information, weigh the pros and cons based on that information, and make very difficult decisions, many of which we won’t know the results of for years and years, if ever. Nothing is black and white. But I can see the appeal of trying to make it so when faced with a reality as painful as the death of a baby.

And it really hurts to be open to these things. My inclination is to shut myself off again, bury myself in Facebook or reading or frenetic decluttering, anything to turn up the mental noise and distract me from these feelings. But another part of me doesn’t want to close down. That part of me actually enjoys in a way the feeling of connection I get along with this pain. It kind of reminds me of how it felt to give birth to my son. The sensation was so intense that it was difficult to just surrender to it and let my body birth. Much of me wanted to get away, to run away, or specifically to crawl under the floor to escape the intensity of the sensation. But in the days following his birth, I found I missed the experience. There was a part of me that loved that intensity. I felt alive and connected and powerful even as I surrendered to the power surging through me. I cried and cried in the days following his birth because I wanted so badly to have that experience again, to be in the middle of something so big and all-encompassing.

Perhaps if I’m able to let go and birth myself in this new wholeness, I’ll look back at the pain and intensity of the process wistfully while at the same time reveling in the release of the complete—and joyfully imperfect—person inside me.