Five months into our family’s yearlong adventure living abroad in Sweden, I'm wondering where all the light went. It sure is dim and dark outside. Yeah yeah, I knew it would be like this. But living in it is always different than knowing, in your head, it is coming.
In my life I’ve had many, many experiences of choosing to “lean into light” — to recover from fear and pain to love and joy — yet this is the first time I’m actually facing this kind of dark.
Long seasons of cold, rain, wind and dark have been known to knock people off-center, and I am committed to utilizing all the tools I’ve got for self care, as the season rolls on. Buy a UV light? Maybe. Get outside, walk up stairs and hike up hills? Oh yes.
How would you make it — without too many grumpy days — through a long dark winter?
Letter writing has always been a therapeutic art for me, so I’ll write through the winter. Last week I wrote this letter for parents to use as they wish, since there is a growing number of parents who want their holidays to be less about presents, or “stuff” — and more about connection and quality time.
Whether you are a parent or not, chances are you want less stress and debt this holiday season. Consider this. How much more rewarding would it be to spend less time, money and attention on presents and more quality time with people you’ll miss indescribably when you die? Yep, when you leave your body. Because we all will, right?
In western cultures, we tend to avoid talking about our inevitable physical death. What purpose does this serve? If anything, I've seen people enjoy life more when they stop pretending to be immortal.
There’s no good reason to wait until we’re taking our last breaths. Ask the big questions now. Express your big feelings now. To your friends, to your mom or cousin or favorite co-workers…
What would you do if you knew you had two weeks to live?
What art is living inside of you, that you are denying and want to step-up?
What makes you feel alive, and are you doing that enough?
They'll feel your love.
From one perspective, living in a human body is rivetingly blissful and filled with pleasure. From another perspective, our bodies are limited and the real "light" is on the "other side," after we leave our bodies. Wherever you stand in the range of these beliefs, I will assert that we are here on this Earth to become really good at leaning into light. During long dark winters, or divorce or destructive wildfire, or adolescent growing pains or while we're looking for a new job that actually feels worth our time...
Asking the big questions and expressing the big feelings can help us feel alive.
Last night it was our old next door neighbor. The one back home in Petaluma. In my dream she was sorting through things in her car. And she was pregnant.
Each night before, for the past two weeks since we left our home in Northern California, it was another dear one. Somebody who’s tucked way deep into the caves of my heart, whose love I must feel as I sleep, to be here, to be brave, to wake up optimistic about all the new sounds, words, sights and choices each day brings.
Two weeks ago we came to Sweden. It’s lovely. Waterways and ferries, charming schools, clean streets, lots of bicyclists, people walking with their families, often with a scoop of summertime sunshine in hand — ice cream. We’re staying for a year, through the dark and cold of winter, so my daughter can absorb her father’s native culture into her bones — its language, her grandparents and cousins, a whole new map of humanity to add to the one she’s known all her life in America. And I am here to see my life and homeland from a distance — to gain some perspective.
It is a mystery, what exactly this year will bring. As always in life, we do not know. Yet adventure seems to make life more unstable… usually in a positive way.
Daily I begin writing blog posts in my head...
How to Support a Child During a Big Move
The Mama Bond and How It Impacts Parenting
Social Solidarity and Unschooling
What if Everyone on Earth Had Their Own Dream-Space for Art?
The Art of Knowing Nothing
And then, all that lands on paper is letters. To friends back home. To my mom. Letters write themselves so easily through me, because they are an expression of love in relationship. No thinking required.
So here, I’m doing a little of that in a blog post. Highlights “on the surface” of my intercontinental family move, in the form of five Notes to Self. Under the surface, in the subconscious and unconscious mind — in that place of dreaming-asleep — all the musings inside that place are way outside of words even between me and myself, so I don't dare try to make any sense of them on paper. Here are the ones I can make some sense of — those personal bits I’ve dug up from my own life that might be of value to you.
#1: Way to land it, Mama! Six and a half months of deciding, planning, envisioning, orchestrating, and you have landed this family plane! Now rest. If that pressure behind your eyes has anything to do with the long daylight hours, you can rest assured knowing fall and winter will bring plenty of relief from light. But let’s just say that you’ve worked your tail off, with bucket-loads of help from friends and family, to get here and now… You. Are. Here. Note to Self: Stop. Slow down. Give yourself time to recover not just from the jet lag but from all the project management energy you exerted to make this shift. Rest is so, so important. Stay true in knowing that, even when the ‘outside’ world tells you to go, go, push on, go.
#2: Our shipping crates are somewhere off at sea. Estimated delivery was five days after our arrival, now changed to seven weeks. We’ve got clothes and a few toys and books for our daughter, but there is no doubt those carefully chosen material things we packed into crates bring enormous value — joy, familiarity, a foundation. Things that are helpful on big adventures. Note to Self: Continue on your journey of finding true balance and joy — sufficiency as Lynne Twist calls it in her famed book The Soul of Money — with material things in life. And when you have what you perceive as “too much” in life — clutter, excess, gluttony — aim to be grateful that at least you have enough. And when you don’t have quite all the things you’d like to have, like now, be grateful they are coming, and that you can find happy days as a family even with only the things you packed into a duffel bag.
#3: I’ve never stuck with gyms for long. I join, the going feels great and then I fall out of love. Only those movements that bring me real joy — like frisbee, dancing and bicycling — tend to last. So I’ve noted for a good life, this body needs those playful things. And meanwhile, here I am living my dream of not owning a car for a year! It’s been a decade in waiting. I’ve wondered how much America’s obesity epidemic has to do with how people move — or don’t. Here we’ve been walking a lot every day and it feels so good to know this won’t end in two weeks when my vacation is over. This isn’t a vacation; this is our life on a different continent. And… Note to Self: Though you might feel lighter — and better — with all this walking, do not forget that it is playful movement that truly lights up your body from the inside. You will find that capoeira class. Its berimbau song sings you awake like nothing else. Fall in, girl.
#4: As ten of your dearest lady friends told you two weeks ago, seated on colorful blankets circled up in a farewell ritual, they are holding you. Your web of women is something fierce, in a landscape of loneliness. You will never be lonely for long because of the way you revere your relations. Note to Self: Even when your letter writing and other ways of feeding friendships seem to be devalued — as they’re not compensated financially and the bonds aren’t always tangible or visible — they hold you up. Keep them strong. This you know. Without your tribe, you fall and it hurts. With your tribe, you fall and look around to hear familiar songs singing you right back up.
#5: Despite the temptation to ask, “Now that I’m in a new place, who am I here?” you are who you are, in essence — everywhere. Joy is joy wherever you are. You don’t need to search for a new joy, though many might find you. Note to Self: Music lifts your soul; Sing loud every day. (Presently overhearing my daughter leading her father through Bob Marley’s song One Love in the kitchen… She knows.) Art keeps you grounded, so you know that your place on Earth is a beautiful one, no less useful than the sun as it shines on moss green fields of rice. You were born a “profound romantic” — a lover of humanity — and expressing this through writing is your gift and your art. Keep giving. Find your paper people, those who know the art of letter writing is not dead. Dance in the joy of that knowing, together. An art is not dead if it is being lived.
My dream is to write like crazy while we’re here in Scandinavia. I know this can happen, and it likely will. Being in a culture that truly values art is indescribably refreshing — but I can’t say just how, at the moment. Receptors are inward, picking up, not yet forming the full articulations of what I am noticing.
Thank you for being with me, anyone who’s reading this, as we journey on. May our little family's adventure light up your own desires to move upon this great, glorious small planet we call Home, our precious Mother Earth.
In March 2013 our daughter Helena Beam was born in our Chico, California bedroom. We were very pleased with how our homebirth midwife, Dena Moes RN, showed up both during my pregnancy and our 7-hour labor. She also responded exquisitely when, two hours after our daughter was born, Dena noticed she wasn’t breathing right and called 911 without hesitation.
Since then, I’ve become aware of some intense and unfortunate challenges facing Dena and other homebirth midwives. I interviewed her to learn about what’s transpired and what it may mean for homebirths – and holistic parenting – into the future. -- Jessica Rios
Jessica Rios: In your profession, have you always been a "homebirth midwife?" How did you get into midwifery?
Dena Moes: No, I haven’t always been. I didn’t even know what a midwife was until I was 23. I have a degree in Literature from Yale, and I was living in New York City when a friend gave me the book Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin. I read it and thought, ‘Oh my God, I am supposed to be a midwife.’
So I left the city for a week to go to a yoga ashram in upstate New York. I had been writing a lot about the midwife possibility, and on my last day at the ashram it happened to be Mother’s Day.
Some moms came up from the city to do a special Mother’s Day sweat lodge, and I helped carry rocks. Some women were walking toward me huffing and puffing as they carried rocks.
At one point I said to one of them, “You’re almost there!” and she turned to me and said, “Wow, you sounded just like my midwife when you said that!” It turns out she was the President of the International Cesarean Awareness Network. She turned me on to Certified Nurse Midwives and got me a gig volunteering at a big public hospital. Later I returned to North Central Bronx Hospital as a student midwife, and got to work with birthing families who were immigrants from all over the world.
There are two routes to becoming a midwife. One is as a nurse midwife, and one is as a non-nurse midwife, known as a licensed or lay midwife. A Nurse Midwife is a Registered Nurse (RN) and also holds a Masters degree in Midwifery.
I really enjoyed training in a hospital because I got to see a lot of situations in a very short period of time. I worked both as a Labor and Delivery Nurse and as a hospital midwife, and before that, as a student, I lived in an Amish farm house for a summer and attended 25 Amish homebirths while interning with a midwife who took care of Amish families.
When my husband and I moved to Chico, the community needed another homebirth midwife. It felt like just the right time to put down roots and open the practice I had dreamed of. So I did. That was 2005.
JR: How has it benefited your clients to be a RN too?
DM: For my clients it’s been really valuable to have both the education and the work experience I brought to homebirth. A lot of them have been comforted not just by the fact that I’m a RN but that my degree is from Yale, an Ivy League college. By the time I started my homebirth practice, I had worked in several large Medi-Cal clinics providing gynecologic care and family planning. I had worked as a Labor and Delivery Nurse, some nights getting to assist with as many as four births in one shift.
When you work in a hospital, you take care of everyone who comes through the door. Having seen complications in the hospital, I genuinely knew when things were progressing normally and when they weren’t. I feel this is an asset – the education and training of certified nurse midwives – to have a wider breadth of experience. There’s a certain clinical competency there.
JR: What started happening in 2010 when your license was being threatened for revoking?
DM: I’ll share some background first. When I opened my practice in 2005, I approached several OB-GYN doctors in my community who I’d heard were the most open minded or progressive, and asked if they would provide support to my homebirth practice in the form of consultations and collaborations, which is always the ideal... that midwives work in collaboration with other health care providers. That way, if there is a transport [from home to hospital], it’s smooth.
I received a very negative response. No one agreed to work with me and I was told by the medical community that homebirth was not welcome here. I had a choice. Should I say “forget it” and go get a job as a gynecologist, or do what I always wanted to do?
So I asked homebirth midwives all over the state, and what I found was that nobody had a collaborative doctor in their community except in the case of Los Angeles midwives working with a MD named Dr. Stuart Fishbein.
I called the Board of Nursing and asked about the legal requirement for supervision of nurse midwives, which by the way is only required in six U.S. states now. The other 44 have dispensed with that requirement because it just doesn’t make sense. If midwives are required to have a supervising physician but no physicians are willing because they see us as a threat to their sense of authority, and as competition... they’re not necessarily going to jump at the opportunity to work with us!
This year there’s a bill in the CA Legislature (AB 1306) trying to remove the physician supervision requirement. This law would help fix some of the brokenness around midwifery in the state of California. Basically during the years I was in practice as a homebirth midwife, the requirement was that I have a physician available to call by phone and consult with, if I had a client with a medical concern or question I couldn’t address.
It was Dr. Stuart Fishbein in L.A. who agreed to do that for me. Over the years I would call him when I needed help from a MD.
Meanwhile some obstetricians in my local community wrote a letter of complaint about me to the Board of Nursing, their main concern being that I wasn’t working with a local physician. A six-year investigation began at that time. I got a letter from the Board of Nursing, and this all finally ended in February 2016.
Once a year during that period, I heard from them about the investigation. Really I thought the concern would be dismissed without merit. The letter complained about four women who had been transported -- all with healthy babies and good outcomes -- and two of them weren’t even my clients! I’d never even met them. It seemed capricious. I thought, ‘This is just harassment. It’s not even accurate.’ I thought for sure it would all be fine.
For a couple years, I really wasn’t concerned. I actually thought the Board of Nursing would somehow be on my side and see this inaccuracy that they would see through this misunderstanding. Then in 2012 a nurse midwife friend told me, “You’ve got to get a lawyer. This is serious.” I hired a lawyer. The Board of Nursing called me to Sacramento for an interview and my lawyer was Skyped in. The woman investigator grilled me about the two actual clients. The clients in question were VBACs [vaginal birth after cesarean].
Prior to 2005, VBACs had been happening regularly in local hospitals. In 2005 when I opened my practice there was a sudden ban on VBACs in all the hospitals in my county. A group of obstetricians got together and recommended banning VBACs in any hospital without 24-hour in-house anesthesia...
I won’t get into the shenanigans, but it happened. What that meant was that all the women using these hospitals, who’d already had a cesarean labor, had no choice but to birth via cesarean. VBAC wasn’t an option. Many women were forced to have unnecessary, repeat C-sections.
Midwives tend to assist VBACs when the hospitals won’t. This is what ended up being seen as a breach of my practice, even though there were no Board of Nursing regulations specifically about VBACs. So I followed the guidelines of the licensed/lay midwives, who are regulated by the California Medical Board instead of the Board of Nursing. I thought if I followed their guidelines, I would be covered.
Already though, there was a major red flag on my mind.
The medical investigator who interviewed me for three hours and was going to have to make a nuanced analysis, had not known what labor was. During my interview she asked me, “What do you mean, labor?” She said she had never had an obstetrics case, and that specific medical background was not necessary for her job description. That’s when I knew the scales of justice were not going to be very well balanced.
Since around 2010, nine of the 30 certified nurse midwives practicing homebirth in California are or have been under investigation. I’m in great company! (Laughs.)
After my interview with the investigator, I didn’t hear from them for two years. During that time, I took a 9-month trip backpacking around India with my husband and daughters. Toward the end of our trip, I heard that I was formally charged by the Board of Nursing. A year later, I settled for my RN license to have a 3-year probation period, and that has meant closing my homebirth practice. For now.
JR: That sounds devastating.
DM: I’ve definitely had to grieve. This is how I’ve been supporting my family for the past 12 years. My oldest daughter is about to apply for colleges. It’s been a big transition.
JR: Is there a silver lining?
DM: Yes. When we came back from our yearlong trip in India and Nepal, I knew I wanted to write a book about our family adventures, and a memoir about being a midwife. In the last few months since I closed my practice, I have been able to finish my 350 page memoir. I'm currently shopping it to agents with a vision of having it published in the next few years. Now I have a midwife website and an author’s website!
JR: What does this say for women in general?
DM: Here in the U.S., there is still a witch hunt against midwives. We threaten the paradigm. And, homebirth is not going away. Homebirth is a consumer driven movement. It’s not like I put up billboards: “Come try a homebirth!” Women came and found me because it’s what they wanted.
Interestingly, I heard through the mom community that the same doctor who spearheaded the letter to the Board about me has started attending VBACs in the hospital again in the last couple years, and has actually told one pregnant woman that they had to start attending VBACs again because of the pressure put on them by the homebirth midwives. Meaning, women were saying to them, “Well if you won’t give me a VBAC, I’ll just go and have a homebirth.” Women will ask for what they want. It’s not up to the medical profession to tell them no. Pregnant women have rights.
If people want to help the situation, get involved in passing the California bill and fixing the broken laws, making it easier to practice homebirth in California. A step for midwives anywhere is a step for midwives everywhere.
JR: What would you say to women in the United States who want to give birth at home?
DM: Women are perfectly designed to give birth. Just like you get the baby in, you can get the baby out. Look at all the people in the world! Everyone came from a mother. It works. Definitely find a midwife. There are probably more midwives now than ever.
The most important thing is to find a midwife you feel comfortable with, who you can trust, you feel heard, you feel empathy. And also does she have training and experience? How long has she been doing it? Talk with other moms in your community. Most everyone has found my practice from other mothers. Homebirth in the United States is on the rise. It has been steadily increasing for the last decade.
JR: Thank you for your work, and your time.
Dena’s Recommended Reading
• Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin
• Birthing from Within by Pam England
• Breastfeeding Made Simple by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett & Nancy Mohrbacher
• The Attachment Parenting Book: A Commonsense Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Baby by Dr. Sears
• You Are Your Child’s First Teacher by Rahima Baldwin Dancy
Today the California Senate passed one of the strictest school vaccination laws in the nation, SB277, removing the personal belief exemption for childhood vaccinations. Starting in July 2016, all children entering public or private school will be required to show proof of vaccinations.
If this legislation had passed four months ago, I would have been livid. At that time, I had just learned about the proposed law and I was very angry that my knowing, based on an informed process of observation and study over the course of a lifetime, would be "denied" and a law would force me to go against that knowing. I felt severely violated, and frankly, having heard 1,000s of mothers whose children were harmed, paralyzed or even eventually killed by vaccinations, I was freaked out. (No, I don't need "scientific" proof of what happened to these children; their mothers' knowing is proof enough for me.)
No one was going to force me to "care for" my child's body in a way that I felt would actually cause harm. Would we move to Sweden, my husband's native country, since its government is less influenced by corrupt industry? Where could we go where our choice would be honored?
I knew we could continue to empower extraordinary well being in our daughter. So why was I so angry? Major ego check here: because I felt I was right. And I wanted to "show" the world that my perspective about the pharmaceutical industry's influence on the media, medical profession and U.S. government, was right. And that felt yucky. Still I persevered, because something about it felt worthwhile. And it was. Until the day I decided not to. One day, after feeling defensive and "charged" about the issue for weeks, I accepted that my state of mind played a significant role in the situation. This whole conversation was about creating resilience in our children's immune systems. Was I creating resilience in my own immune system, in my own well being, when I was carrying around such irritability and distaste? Quite the opposite.
On that day I let go of being right, and I chose instead to be happy. We knew our decisions were based in love, moral goodness and well-being. There was no reason to be upset.
Today I can feel the anger rippling through my social webs as the news gets out about this law. Parents who planned to send their children to school, some with immunocompromised children whose bodies can't tolerate vaccinations, are really pissed off. I can relate; I felt that way too. (And if I ever tell you how to feel, please pinch me gently. Feelings are a high form of intelligence. They all have value.)
The beauty of the human experience is that we get to choose. Do we want to be right or do we want to be happy?
Happiness doesn't come from feeling right. Peace of mind stems from being aligned with our values in life, and this does not mean we need to convince other people that our way is the right way. In this human experience, there isn't one right way.
At least two gay couples I know and deeply respect, one male and one female couple, had illuminatingly inspiring, committed partnerships for many years before gay marriage become legal last week. Though they celebrated the equal rights vote and all it symbolized, they refused to let political laws have power over the one law that's real: the law of love. They loved each other, they enjoyed their lives, they lived together, they shared fun and fulfilling experiences.
Does empowerment come from the "outside" world or from within us? This vaccination law does not have power over anyone. Whether that leads families to choose homeschooling (or unschooling, which I like to call customized education) as a way to honor their values about medical choice and parental rights, or something else, there is a way. We may not see it now, but we have to believe it and then we will see it.
For those up for a rigorous spiritual shift, like the shifts my daughter consistently invites me to undertake, I challenge parents who feel imprisoned by this law to take a curious stance. What is possible now? How do I want to direct my energy? How does this not have power over me and my family? If I am afraid home schooling isn't an option for me, am I willing to see that differently, to open my mind to new possibilities appearing on my path?
As I wrote on Facebook earlier today--> The "mandatory" vaccination bill passes, and once again the world pretends to have power over us and our choices. Not! More home/un-schooling playmates for us! While I have great compassion for those who feel devastated by this news, I know that it is possible to transmute anger and related emotions, as I have done it myself in the past 4 months regarding this issue. Our state of mind is not determined by what happens in life, it is determined by how we are with it."
The world out there" does NOT have power over us. Our inner wisdom and our values, joy and knowing can and will light the way to a far more fascinating "reality" when we allow them to. We allow this when we listen, when we tune out the "noise" and tune in to the deepest, clearest voice inside ourselves -- our inner wisdom.
Rest assured, dear friends, there is a movement of mothers growing, a movement about honoring ourselves as women and guardians of our children's well being. (Yes fathers, you too.) And this movement won't thrive because we are right, or because something needs to be fixed. It will thrive because we are willing to honor our intuition, our findings (whether "proven" scientifically or not), and our tremendous sense of love for our children.
May this movement of mothers who listen within, and honor our voices, rise up and be heard. May we refuse to suppress what we know. May we celebrate and revere the deep, primal wisdom we offer our children. May all children thrive!
Since our daughter was born in the spring of 2013, I have experienced thousands of moments of feeling profoundly in love. It isn't just when she beams light through her eyes. It isn't just because I feel like the best me I can be, in my role as her mama. It is all sorts of moments. When a tantrum bubbles-up from her passionate emotions, I feel in love with her honesty and full permission to express her needs. When she resists leaving the playground I feel in love with her invitation to be a more effective communicator and guide. I even feel that deep in-love-ness when I change her poo diaper. Her digestion is working; how miraculous is that!?
I am in love with her more consistently than I have ever felt in love with anything. And I am completely not unique here. So, so many parents relate to this almost bewildering sense of love.
Glancing back at my entire life, this feeling of love for children most universally captures the sense of joy, and innocence, freedom and delight, purity and raw, perfect beauty we are capable of feeling as humans. Effortlessly evoked within us by the presence of a child.
So it is evoked. We feel bliss. We feel completely enchanted. Our eyes get dewy. Then what?
What if... the impact of children settled in within us a bit deeper than we currently let it?
What if... we allowed that feeling of love evoked by children, to guide our lives more fully?
Nothing in my life has ever set "the bar" higher than Helena's existence. The love I feel for her means I do not swallow my bold words; I honor my feelings and intuition despite a culture that may see differently. I take better care of my body. I am more committed to my spiritual practice than before she was conceived. Her impact sends me on a deep-whale-dive to express more joy in this life. It means all that and so much more. The love I feel for her has raised the bar for everything.
So what? What does a "raised bar" mean? Given that our lives play out in as many different ways as there are people, I imagine the answer will be different for everyone. And I am also curious if some patterns emerge. This is one of the biggest questions ever to surface within me; it gets at the deepest existential questions and roots of our being.
If you relate to this feeling of being profoundly in love with the presence of children -- if you feel called forth to devote yourself more fully to "goodness" in whatever form that takes for you -- then what does that look like? Will you share?
If the astounding beauty we can so easily see in children were to have its greatest impact on us as adults, then what..? What would that look like in your life?
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a lifelong letter writer, a mother, coach, and freelance consultant, and eternally a fan of Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street. This deeply personal blog and our FREE recorded talks and workshops are devoted to one of her great passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.