Mothers hold... so much.
I see it, I'm stunned by it, I try to grasp why mothers' work is so undervalued and...
How the heck could it be so hard for us mamas to articulate the "all" of what we do, and hold? and...
I'm left speechless.
But I'll find words soon. Because it's a really, really big important deal.
And if you're a devoted mama? I see you. I see all that you hold. You are doing the great work. Thank you.
A week after Donald Trump was elected. I walked into the café, ready to order my cappuccino, and there you stood.
Rather than sharing café small talk, you asked how I was doing and I knew you didn’t want to hear, “Fine.” You didn’t want to hear an answer that superficially informed you of where I was going next. You wanted to know how I was really doing, and it showed in the warm presence in your eyes and the spaciousness in your heart.
That’s just your way. You actually, really care.
I had been numbing myself. Until that morning when I saw you, hiding in my own escapist ways from the shock of what had just happened on the national stage. Suddenly, in your presence, the tears emerged. Standing there by the espresso machine, I cried out some of my despair. It needed to happen.
Within minutes, thanks to that moment of opening, I made a decision that led to the biggest adventure of my life so far. My family and I would move to Sweden for a year to be near my husband’s family in his native culture. Your open heart, attentive eyes, and deep capacity for listening were the container I needed to really hear what wanted to happen. Looking back now, almost two years after that café conversation, I see that it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I’m not putting you on a pedestal. You wouldn’t accept that from me. I’m not saying you made the decision for me.
I’m saying that in your strikingly beautiful presence, I was able to live my truth in a way I might not have been able to without you. Every mother needs this kind of presence in her life.
Think about it. Right now there is a mother reeling from last night’s drunk abuse, somewhere in America. Right now there is a mother whose child is dying in a hospital bed. Right now there is a mother so lost and lonely she doesn’t know if there is a way out. In fact, there are millions of these.
All these mothers could use a presence as spacious and honest as yours. Thank you for being the way you are. May all these mothers find — now — what you showed me that morning.
And may I be a sliver in life, for others, of what I find in you.
In deep respect,
It was 1996. I was at a college party with the usual dynamics at play. Youngsters flirting and flaunting goofy theatrical dance moves, getting into conversations deeper and looser than those that happen sober. The hotness factor was high, hormones ripe and bodies ready. We were 20-something adults from Marin and Southern California, living in Chico for an education and to party, in good shape with stylish clothes.
My two housemates at the time were San Diego beach-born and -raised, pretty and full of spice. One of them had mentioned her name before. Piper. A girl she didn’t like much for whatever reason.
I had learned in high school not to like or dislike others because of what someone else said. I hadn’t met Piper yet.
And then she came shining.
I didn’t know who I was seeing at the time. What I saw was a young woman whose confidence lit up the room like fire.
Her humor wasn’t the kind used for distraction or avoidance. Her words weren’t used to impress anyone else. Her ways seemed to come from a deeper well. Hers was the kind of confidence that other girls wanted, not the temporary boost gained from mascara or a fresh tan. I was stopped. I fell in love. Her soul captivated me. My respect for her ways and choices led me to aim within myself for more confidence, too. Her name was Piper.
Twenty-two years later, she remains one of my closest friends. Our friendship has ebbed and flowed as great ones do, and through it all she has beamed. She is a shining ray of rooted woman confidence that comes from deep within herself, tapped into the divine.
Through my 13-month postpartum depression, with all its riveting questions and despair, it was Piper who helped me realize that I parent by instinct. Beyond attachment parenting, mothers can honor our instincts — ancient, clear and piercingly beautiful — and this was the way I was meant to mother. Accepting this has given me freedom I couldn’t find anywhere else. I was fortunate to have a lighthouse to look to. In Piper’s confident claiming of her own parenting style, I found mine.
Being witness to this kind of confidence in a woman during my 20s gave me a renewed sense of what is possible for women. Five years ago when I gave birth, a strike of lightning reaffirmed this possibility. When women wake up to our own power, astonishing beauty unfolds. Our power lies in no one else’s hands.
If I could show every teenage or 10-year-old girl what it’s like to feel deep inner confidence like I’ve seen in Piper, I’d wave my wand and do it fast. No soap opera Kavanaugh courtrooms could live in that universe.
On this day, her birthday, I bow to the willingness in my friend Piper. And I bow to the willingness in a woman, every woman, when she chooses to lead from the power within her.
If you have a woman friend like this, call her now! She is actively creating a world in which women are valued.
Happy Birthday, friend. Your willingness to open to the divine and let it lead your life makes my head and my hips shake with wonder. I love you past the soft rolling hills of Denmark and into the furthest peppery galaxies!
Originally published in Natural Parent magazine July 12, 2018
Recently in a greeting card mailed to me by a wise and long-time friend, she wrote that I “more singularly identify with being a mother” than any other mama friend she has. My initial inner response was, Oh great, am I weird in yet one more way in life? Does that mean she thinks I’m boring now? Have I gotten lost in the dance of mothering, and given up on my other passions?
Within moments, my little self-doubt voices dissipated. Her words then struck me as a powerful invoking of reflection about the last five years of my life.
Let me call myself out, to begin. Curiosity is powerful in relationships and I have not yet asked this dear friend what she meant by “singularly identified”. Letter writing is a slow exchange, more spacious than talking or texts, and my next letter to her will include a question seeking to understand what she expressed from her bold, loving heart.
According to standard definitions, I could interpret what she said as this: I am more remarkably, extraordinarily, and exceptionally identify as a mother than any other mama friend she has. Sounds like a big, kind compliment, right?
My friend’s bold way of showing me love in her letter left me with a feeling of pride about how I mother. Her words felt like a spotlight on a stage where I am dancing the awkward, passionate, indescribably rewarding dance of being a mama. So that is what I will respond to here, as I know many of you reading this have your own way of shining in your very own mothering stage.
On the surface being a mother is all about playgrounds, naps, tantrums, cuddling and a giving-up of self.
Right beneath it, there appears a mountaintop presenting to a mother some of the richest and most fertile personal expansion terrain available in life.
It has been said our children are our greatest teachers. To actually experience this in life can be fascinating, blissful and grueling at times. We can pay money for meditation retreats and gurus, yet our children offer astounding spiritual lessons for free on a daily basis. Children are the original gurus.
And I’m up for that. My religion is Love. In this life I want to shed all my layers of fear and bloom open to what Spirit, what Love, has to offer. Bring it on, little guru.
So it isn’t surprising that life hasn’t let me detract substantial attention from this opportunity in order to “make” other things happen, since my child was born. While I’ve tried to create a stable income flow, I’ve instead seen a path dotted with seemingly random creative output, unstable income and no clear sign of what’s to come. When we are trying to force something to happen, it is a pretty clear sign that it’s not meant to happen right now. It’s just not time.
In a way, motherhood has swallowed me whole. I have allowed it, though, feeling the briefness of this sacred encounter. Years fly. My guru won’t live with me forever.
My top priority is being the mother I am meant to be. It appears the priority is my child, but equally the priority is me giving her the all she deserves… Me welcoming the extraordinary and unmatched opportunity of being spiritually stretched and widened, that she presents to me. It is about me being the fullest version of myself that I can be, expanded by the presence of a being who I love as much as, dare I say, God. Or so it feels that way.
To the friend whose handwritten words led me to this helpful self-reflection, I extend my deep thanks. You see me from a perspective I value. However clumsy and grumpy I may sometimes be, I like who I am as a mother and as silly ol’, perfectly imperfect me.
It was mid-July and we were preparing to celebrate Sweden’s biggest holiday: Midsummer.
Days were full, with sunrise around 4:00 in the morning, and sunset around 10:00 at night. Children gathered flowers for crown making, and in the kitchen sat mounds of strawberries and a big metal bowl of fresh whipped cream. A cool breeze whirled in the bright sky, the sounds of my daughter squealing in glee with her new friends who lived on this land. We erected a giant Midsummer pole and decorated it with branches, vines and stems of white, purple and yellow flowers.
My family had been in Sweden for more than 12 months and we were heading home to California in two weeks. Though I knew we’d back in my familiar native land soon, I still stood on Swedish soil 5,200 miles away. Winter’s long, dark days had not been easy.
Then the bus pulled up across the rural road. In the farmland quiet, I heard the front door open and began to watch feet step down onto the roadside gravel. Her black clogs emerged, and with them her gait, which I knew, having walked many miles with her in life. When she reached the back of the bus and turned toward the house where I stood, her face beamed in its born-smiling way and she began to cross the road.
Emptiness filled my body. I felt as if all the strain of winter’s icy grit and gravel suddenly blew out of me with the cool summer wind.
Was this really happening? Was one of my soul sisters from the past 15 years actually walking towards me? My eyes could see her, yet it was almost hard to believe this was actually happening. Weeks from home, and yet… right here, Serra.
We hugged. There were tears. I didn’t want to let go. Touch is essential for healthy newborns and though we pretend it’s not, it is also essential for healthy adults.
We talked, we ate, we watched our children play together with the usual sense of awe and fortune we feel when it comes to our children. Into the night, we talked more.
Sleep had its restorative way with me, and in the morning I awoke ready to release some of the big feelings that had built up over winter.
Tea mug in hand, I sat on a bar stool at the kitchen counter and Serra sat next to me. Could I really touch her? Was one of my best friends really right next to me, like, in hugging distance? I reached out to hug her, and then the sobbing began. On her shoulder, sobbing, tears all being emptied from many 18-hour days of darkness and more than enough slips on the icy sidewalk. Sobbing out my longing for home. Home had come to get me.
In all my years of looking toward the light we’re made of — which is Love — it has been clear that along a way, I’ve often devalued the body. The physical part, the form. Eh, that’s not who we are, so… Not consciously devaluing the body, but using this lofty spiritual lens to escape from the fact that I am having a human experience, an embodied one — when the truth is, the body matters.
On this day it wasn’t the conversation or the companionship that moved me to sob on her shoulder. It wasn’t her friendship; that was always mine. Through winter I hadn’t felt abandoned by Spirit, as if my friends didn’t love me anymore. None of that intangible stuff was lost.
It was the touch piece. The physical being-with. Her skin, her teeth, her warmth of presence. Her hands brought me home, though we still stood far from our California shores. Her strong, open arms welcomed me back to the feeling of being held — which we all need.
And so, for being the Home that came to get me, Serra, thank you. You wrote to me in Sweden. We talked when time zone coordination made it happen. You showed up for me. Yet in person, something else showed up that mattered. After every big adventure there awaits a set of arms that offers release and return. After the biggest adventure of my life so far, these arms were yours.
This is #7 in The Motherhood Letters, a monthly feature in the Mothering Arts community by Leaning into Light founder Jessica Rios. Rooted in universal themes of motherhood, Jess shares the essence of her unique art of mothering through letter writing.
It’s only been two days since we said goodbye. Our little family of three is jet lagged as expected. Sweden to San Francisco, for us, meant a 26 hour trip. And after every plane I’m in that lands, my heart is wide open. I know I could have died. Life is more lucid than it was the day before.
I’m writing to you because my heart is filled with a bewildered sort of thanks.
It's the kind of thanks that questions why we can’t all be as good at showing up for others, as you are. It is the kind of bewilderment that wonders how I got so blessed to live a life with people like you in it.
Moving to a different continent and culture 5,200 miles away from my California home took a lot of courage. Even though I knew it was the thing to do, the experience presented multiple stretches way outside my comfort zone.
For our entire year there, you lived close by. So close that you saw my first bout with anxiety, when physical circumstances stood my hairs on end because I feared for my daughter Helena’s life. So close that, as her grandfather’s long time wife, you spoke up about it. You felt it, too. You voiced your Mama Bear concern, assuring me that I had a right to be scared. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that. You were that mama for me.
Through your empathy I stood stronger in my own mothering skin.
From the moment we landed, you were abundant in the attention you shared with me and Helena. You gave generously with your curious, attentive spirit, becoming her gardening partner and playful companion. I knew I could trust you to be honest with me, and that made me feel more at home even though I was so far from it.
When I accepted that I didn't feel a genuine desire to learn to speak Swedish while there, simply because my "plate" felt too full already as a mother and writer living abroad, you accepted me. I didn't feel judged by you.
That kind of love is really, really helpful to a mother of a young child, who is navigating life in a whole new land.
At dinnertime during one of my horrible multi-day migraines, you asked if I wanted the overhead lamp turned off. I could barely answer; I could barely think. You didn’t wait for me to reply. You stood up and turned the light off. And that wasn’t the first time you noticed something on my behalf, or Helena’s, and took action because…
Village. We had a village together for that one precious year.
In a world so far away from what I knew, your outrageously radiant smile shone through your eyes at me, reminding me that mamas always have each other’s backs.
And I also saw you honor your own limits. When you were tired, you told me you were tired and you told Helena, too. You didn’t force yourself to be something you were not. Through this you showed me and my daughter how women can take care of ourselves. It helped me to give myself full permission to be my true self, too. When I was grumpy about the long winter or my marriage, you were fine with me where I was. Not taking sides, not feeding my complaints, just letting me be me.
When I birthed this child and married her father I had no idea you were coming along with the deal. I had no idea I would gain in my life, a woman who I’d lean on intensively, and who would show up with a spirit of sheer generosity as I lived out one of my life’s greatest adventures.
Mamas need each other. Women need each other. Life depends on other life. You aren’t my mother, and you sure showed me and Helena love that felt as deep as a mother’s love, while we were there.
We miss you with every jet lagged, bewildered tear our eyes shed. OK, she’s not shedding tears. I am. I really love you.
Endlessly, endlessly, thanks.
It's usually when I walk around in my underwear. On occasion my daughter, who just turned five, chases me squealing, "Mama your legs are so biiiiiiig!" She giggles and wants to touch me and play with me.
The first time she said it was about six months ago and it caught me off guard.
Did she really just say that?
It was one of those semi-shocking moments, when a child blurts something you just wouldn't say as an adult. Women don't want to hear that. But plain truth be told, my legs are bigger than hers. She has a slender build and I am almost twice as tall as her. Plus her body is lean and I spent my early childhood snacking on Oreo cookies and ice cream. Mine's not so lean.
So once I got over the reaction I would have had 20 years ago: Whaaaaaat? Ohhhh this hurts, ouch, she's right, I really need to get more exercise or stop eating sugar or... which took about three seconds to move through me, I simply said what seemed true and loving: "My legs are just the right size for me."
Frankly I almost couldn't believe what I'd said. Was that really me talking, saying words of self-acceptance about my body? Who was this matter-of-fact-I'm-fine woman that I'd become?
Let me answer that question. This woman is a woman who has experienced so much culturally and self-inflicted criticism, yes mostly self inflicted, about my body that I refused to ever, no I have not ever, said one negative word about my body around my daughter. I don't talk about women's bodies as if they are to be criticized. Spending 30-something years in the pain of that world was enough.
This is a woman who birthed a girl child, for whom I want as little of that kind of pain as humanly possible. Magazine ads and peer chatter will be enough for her to pick up on society's sick perspectives about the female body. I will not be contributing to that.
We all get to choose our parenting style. We all get to choose what we say to our children. So many of us want our children to be free of the wounds we lived through in our own childhood.
Will we teach our daughters to focus on their bodies' strength, on how they feel?
Will we teach our sons to respect girls' bodies, by respecting our own in front of them?
As for me, the best I can do is let the outrageously big love I feel for my daughter escalate my own process of accepting that I am fine.
I am just fine, just the way I am, whether it's summertime and my skin is glowing, or a long dark winter where I'm pale as a pigeon plucking snow from the curb. At age 14 I had magazine covers plastered on my walls because I thought supermodels were it, and I wanted to be like them. Now, things are different. Age has freed me up. Something like that.
Yes I know full self acceptance is a tall order. Yet I know it is worth wanting.
Thank you, child, for calling forth my wiser self. May you always know your legs are just the right size for you, too. May you have no idea how many thousands of hours I've spent criticizing my own body, and especially my legs, until someday by the fire while we're camping, it feels like time to tell you that story. Dear child, may your life show you a way that is glorious galaxies beyond the wisdom of mine.
As I laid in bed yesterday, the left side of my head ripping apart from the inside with constant pressing pain, it felt like the end of a burning softball bat was pressing against my blood vessels. Migraine #8 has been an acutely painful dance. Life from here on out must look different. I cannot live with this kind of pain. I must hear the message it is meant to bring. I surrender.
Have you been in pain like this? Are you among the 19% of women with migraines or chronic back pain, or some other bodily agony? What about your child – are you a mother whose child lives with Crohn’s Disease, another autoimmune disorder, a vaccine related injury or some other kind of pain?
Pain is, above all things, a messenger. Suffering does not need to happen as long as we listen to the message that pain brings and tune in to what is being asked of us – we are, in pain, always being asked… something.
On the very bright side, there is unlimited love right at our very own fingertips. We can speak sweet words to ourselves in our own minds. This nurtures our hearts. We can tend to our physical pain with massage, acupuncture, plant medicine. This nurtures our body. We can take time for ourselves to be spacious, rather than planning too much. This tends to our soul. We can tend to our own body, heart, and soul in many ways and this is always available to us at no cost, with no delay, and with no limits.
How rich we are, that we can love ourselves like this! That we can model for our children what it means to care for the self. That we can create a reality, by “being the change we wish to see in the world” as Gandhi said – a world that is more gentle, more kind, more delightful than before we found it.
Beyond the riches of our own capacity for self-love, there lies an oceanic swell of love felt for us by others. Whether or not we see it, it is absolutely there.
As my most painful migraine thus far carried on, the option of caring for it “all by myself” disappeared. There was no way I could function; I had to call for help. At 6:30am one morning, a neighbor went out into the world to buy medicine and bring it to my doorstep, while my brain felt as if it were about to explode. What was going on in my head? I didn’t know. But I did know I needed help, and he rose to the occasion before the sun came up.
That was when it became clear this was no time to pretend I was independent. We need each other.
A chorus of compassion started singing in my head. I thought of all the other women in the world who experience painful migraines. I thought of the men who do, too. Many of those women and men don’t have friendly neighbors who’ll run errands at the crack of dawn – or worse yet, they don’t have the inner self worth to ask for the help in the first place. My heart swelled with compassion for the emptiness, the hole, the sad state of being so many people live in while living with pain. My life is full of soulfully rich relationships. Many people’s lives are not. And even with rich relationships, life presents significant, sometimes lengthy and seemingly insurmountable challenges. How tough must it be for those people who don’t have this kind of relationship wealth in their lives?
Sidled up to my compassion for others who experience migraines is a batch of compassion for mothers who wanted to give birth vaginally and ended up with a C-section. Some mothers truly mourn the loss of the labor they dreamed of; others are fine with whatever turned out. I feel for the ones who felt a loss, as I too experienced labor-related trauma, even though it was after a vaginal home birth.
Sidled up next to these compassion wells is a deep bay of feeling for those who struggle with emotional eating, overindulging in sugary foods, and deep loneliness. I have faced these dark valleys, and they are not sweetened by the breath of spring lilacs. There is charcoal lining the way. What I would give – I’d give a lot – to soothe the aches and sorrows of anyone suffering along these painful trails.
That’s a lot of compassion. And it’s only my own.
I thought of all the friends and family who offered – from the abundant goodness in their hearts – acupuncture and massage and magnesium in the mail and child care, care packages at my doorstep and fiercely empowering text messages to my very soul. The mountain of compassion embodied in these hearts astounded me.
How sad it is that anyone on Earth ever feels alone in their pain. How unnecessary and inappropriate this is, when every woman, man and child on this planet has access to this riveting chorus of kindness, love, compassion.
There is only the space of one single thought in between any single person – you, your partner, your child, your mother, your neighbor or best friend, or the homeless person on the city sidewalk – and this chorus of compassion that can soothe all the pain in the world. Sit with this. If your child lives with pain, if you live with pain, stop pretending this is not available to you.
All the love in the world belongs to all of us; it is no one’s alone and could never be.
Let us teach our children, first by modeling ourselves, the importance of self-care for a life well lived. That their mother and father are worth all the asking for help, all the affirming mantras, all the pauses and song that are needed to fill up one precious human soul in the busyness of life lived these days.
When our child is in pain, let us show them how to treat it like a friend – to listen to it, to love it like it has something important to say. It does. And our children, energetic masters of feeling and presence, will be glad to step up into seeing their pain as the messenger it is. Let us remind them of the compassion-filled universe awaiting their requests, their calling, their ask. Let us help them lead the way.
These days a gigantic contrast stares me down, every single day.
On one hand there’s my 3.5-year-old daughter who, almost entirely unexposed to violence and other unpleasant aspects of the world, still simmers with innocence and purity. This summer when she saw a pinata being hit with a bat, she shuddered. (Whacking a creature with a bat!?) She expects utmost respect and kindness. She leads our daily gratitude ritual at dinnertime. She talks about how her heart is full of love. She sings about her two grandmothers, and how much she likes them both. Every week as I head out the door for acupuncture, she runs to me squealing, “Another kiss Mama! Another kiss!”
On the other hand is the pain of the world. Several states east of us in North Dakota there’s a militarized squad of armed men in black standing on the sacred soil of Native American ancestral burial grounds, spraying tear gas at non-violent people trying to protect the water. Signing the paychecks for the squad of violent men are corporations "too big to fail" like Marathon Petroleum, Wells Fargo and Bank of America. And our own government — in this case not “by the people and for the people” — is supporting this violence.
Welcome to the human experience, Mama Jess. In the words of our friend Nina in Sweden, the world is “sad and beautiful.”
Yet as a mother, this is big stuff. What does this mean for my daughter? How do I help her to face all this? It’s bewildering.
And there’s no escaping it, because there’s as much pain inside the human soul as there is in the world that appears to be outside of us. As her mother I must show her how to be with what shows up, not how to avoid it, deny it, pretend it’s not there.
Contrast. What a teacher.
So where did I turn? To women.
Women. The most natural place for me to turn to. Women’s wisdom — from intuition, from instinct, from the heart — is ancient, instantly accessible and generously offered.
I asked some of my dearest girlfriends to write a letter to their inner-6-year-old. Looking back, what would they tell themselves at six years old, knowing what they know now? What do they see? What wants to be said or seen or soothed?
They dove in, and here’s what came through. Some used their real names, some not. Some signed it as themselves, one as Auntie.
What they wrote is already helpful to me, and will continue being helpful for the sometimes-dreaded, inevitable, bubble-busting moments ahead in my mothering path.
A few of them said this exercise was deeply therapeutic, healing, they really enjoyed it. My hope is that other women and mothers living on this beautiful Planet Earth might write their own letters to their inner-6-year-old girl. As we unwind the wounds of our own past, weaving in the wisdom of ourselves in our 30s and 40s and beyond, we create a brighter and more gentle future for all.
Dear Six-Year-Old Shirley Marie,
I look back and see how alone and afraid you were.
You needed a wise, grounded, sober adult to take care of you. You needed someone to NOTICE what was happening, and essentially rescue you. A mentor. A bold and strong auntie. Your sister. You needed someone to sit down, to look into your eyes, to smile a full and sincere smile, to hold you and rub your back and say: “Your experience matters."
You were given no guidance, no example. You needed safety.
With all of my love,
Dearest sweet Pamela:
You are smart, intuitive and kind. This kind of intelligence requires you to stay wildly connected to your body, my sweet, so dance, play, sing… my darling.
Pamela, mother of four
You get one life. Live hard. Fear is a bitch.
You are so loved by your friends and family. Love yourself at your worst and best. Always.
I have grown up knowing there is more. Don't regret what you missed or never had.
Nature never disappoints. Fresh air solves most of the noise in your head.
Your biggest strength will be your ability to find good in all people .
Childhood ends at one point but being spontaneous, fun, active, silly, courageous, proud, and optimistic doesn't ever have to end.
You, Sylvie, are a bad ass.
Me at 40
Listen and trust the voice in your heart to make it through the ups and downs of life. There is a light in there that will help you see the way. There is a light in there that will remind you that you are never alone.
Every ounce of you is meant to be here. Enjoy every ounce of you.
Never stop playing...
Auntie, 33 years old
Dear 6-Year-Old Irene,
I want to tell you that… you are good and loved.
I see that you are confused and insecure and this has caused you to suppress who you are, and I want to share something with you… Even though your life circumstances have put you into “flight" mode and caused you to feel you cannot fully trust the world around you, these circumstances that you have lived through in this life, and all others, are leading you down the path that you will walk this lifetime. If you can release the fear and doubt, you will realize that God is everywhere and is offering you guidance in every moment. You don't have to know everything, you don't have to have things figured out. You just need to build trust and depend on God.
I wish for you to believe in yourself and in life and believe in the amazing possibilities that God has in store...
As I've grown older I've seen how quickly things can change and how fast time goes by. This is something many people will tell you, and that you will not understand until you have reached a certain age. But please don't delay in putting everything you are on the line for what you believe in, for what you know to be true. Jump now, and you will see that you can fly!
Dearest little wild one,
I see you. Always climbing to the top of your lemon tree, then squeezing through the hole which leads to a quiet view from your roof top. I see you in your blue Mickey Mouse tee shirt stained from a pomegranate snatched from the neighbor's tree. Adventurous, excitable you.
Even though your mother loved you so deeply, you always wondered what love was meant for. It was meant for you. You deserve all the love which pours forth to you.
I repeat. You are worthy. This is your journey. I'm here, as the 45 year old woman that struggles to believe... to whisper to your soul: Sweet love, you are worthy.
In admiration of you,
Reflections on Little Jenny, from Jenny in her 30s, Mother of Two Boys
Throughout my childhood people asked me what I “wanted to be when I grew up.” I always felt like there was going to be a point where I “was,” or where I had “arrived" and this distant future of “being" was going to stop be in the future.
I wanted to feel important and to feel valued so I set my sights high. I wanted to go to Stanford. I wanted to run a company that made the world a better place. Then, I would be lovable and I would finally “be.”
So, I did. I accomplished big things. And yet, this feeling of “being" never arrived. There was always something more to accomplish. I always thought, Strive more then you will “be," then you will “arrive.”
I wish I could say I came to my senses early. But, it wasn't until I had children of my own and I looked into their eyes and hearts and I saw that they were complete as they were. They didn't need to become anything, because they already were! And, this great burden of accomplishing fell off my shoulders and I realized that I, also, was complete as I was. I didn't need to become anything.
So, to the children out there. When someone asks you what you want to “be" when you grow up. How about you respond with, “I want to be me." Because THAT is enough. You will do so many things in your life. And, I hope you feel fulfilled and joyful. But, don't confuse “doing" with “being.”
Ode to you, beloved ladies...
I invite anyone else who wants to share wisdom, insight or other words for your inner child, to post them in the Comments section here, or email them to us. It’s an act of self love, a nod of self worth, an expression of self-care. It’s good for you. And what’s good for you is good for the world.
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
Our featured free recording for August is a 23-minute talk called Migraines, Pneumonia and 10,000 Coughs: On Befriending Pain, with Leaning into Light Founder Jessica Rios.
You can listen here!
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a mother, coach, lifelong letter writer, and eternal fan of Mr. (Fred) Rogers. This deeply personal blog and our free recorded conversations are devoted to one of her greatest passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.