The Messiness (and Wisdom) of the Birthing, Lactating Body

A female figure in birthing position - perhaps used by women in some ancient society to aid them through birth.

A female figure in birthing position – perhaps used by women in some ancient society to aid them through birth.

Being a pregnant, birthing, and eventually lactating, body is a wonder, but also complicated. While I marvel at my body’s innate abilities to bring forth and nurture life, sometimes the experience feels too physical. Too sticky, smelly, bloody, gooey.

As I prepare to birth, breastfeed, and take care of a newborn, I am coming to terms with this overwhelming physicality. Childbirth books describe labor as this time when the body completely takes over. Birthing women need to surrender to the primal force of the body in labor, which one woman says is like being plastered to the front of a train going 150 miles per hour, scared you’ll fall off any second, but learning that surrender is what keeps you on board. In birth, the logical mind retreats, and laboring women’s consciousness descends into the uterus. Every ounce of energy is focused on what’s going on there.

If childbirth demands our 110% bodily presence, childcare is no different. This is where part of me throws back  its head and wails objections. The fact that men’s and women’s bodies are designed such that childbearing, breastfeeding, and some of the most intensive aspects of caring for a newborn fall to women seems unfair, in some ways. Why is it that this little life that we created together demands more from me, more out of my body, than from my husband’s? Why must I be the one to wake up in the middle of the night to nurse, to lose sleep? (I really like my sleep, and all those warnings about never getting to sleep again after the baby is born are probably what scare me the most!) While the intricate connection between my body and my child’s is something I cherish, on another level it feels like too much. Too attached, intertwined, enmeshed.

There are ways to reduce and balance out the weighty childcare burden that mothers carry. My recent Her.meneutics post on attachment parenting addresses this. At the same time, this does not mean that we can escape the truth and wisdom of our bodies. For some reason, God designed women to have a kind of intimate, physical connection to their children that men don’t have. I think it will take me a lifetime of being a woman and a mother to figure out what that means.

In the meantime, I am still learning to trust my body. I believe that the way our bodies are created, the ways we experience connection to others through our bodies, is something to embrace, not resist. Being a woman’s body, being a mothering body, especially in an age when the role of women and mothers is constantly contested, is indeed complex. But I will try to take the advice of a dear friend and fellow mother who urged me to put aside the intellectual objections when Baby comes. “Just be present in the physicality,” she said – in the gooey, sticky mess of having a child. I am sure this will teach me more than any abstract wonderings ever could.

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Creativity and the Let Down Reflex

If you haven’t been able to tell already, I like to think in metaphor. My pregnant body is a gold-mine of metaphors these days. Here’s the latest.

While I haven’t experienced it myself yet, I’ve been doing a bit of reading on breast feeding. I came across this phenomenon called the “let down reflex,” which is basically what happens when a nursing woman’s body senses her baby is hungry and ready to eat. In an amazing loop of intuitive, embodied communication, a woman’s breasts “let down” milk as the baby is sucking.

The interesting thing is, while this action is reflexive and natural, it can also be inhibited if a woman has anxieties about breast feeding.

Breastfeeding2If a woman is so worried that she cannot produce milk or enough of it for her child, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Her baby may suck, but the milk doesn’t come. Another interesting aspect of breast-milk production is that it is not continuous. Milk is made as the baby is eating. There may be some leftover from a previous feeding, but mostly it is made at the same time it is being consumed. Demand dictates supply.

As I think about trusting my body and trusting that I have the inner resources to bear, deliver, and nourish a child, it strikes me that the let down reflex is an apt illustration of all creative processes.

When we create, we are in a sense “giving birth” to something within us, something that we hope and trust will nourish and give life to the world. We were made to create, because we were made in the image of a creative, life-giving God. Yet, our creative flow can be inhibited by fear – fear that we are not capable, fear that we don’t have what it takes, fear that if we use up this round of creative juices there will be nothing left.

But, like the let down reflex, it’s is only when we are giving of ourselves and releasing our gifts into the world that we have more to give. If we try to “store up” our creativity, it gets blocked, and we run dry. Our fear and anxieties short-circuit something that is part of our very nature. As a writer, sometimes I get writers’ block just thinking about the enormous amount of commitment and grit it takes to write a book. A musician may stop composing after releasing a ground-breaking album, for fear that what comes after will never be as good again.

Also, like the let down reflex, creativity does not reside in the mind. A new mother can’t just will her breasts to give milk, just as an artist can’t just will herself to paint a masterpiece. Creativity (and mothering) resides somewhere in between trusting and being, in a place of embodied understanding that this is who you are and what you are meant for. Both require a simple trust that what you have to give (even if you don’t quite know what it is) will come, when the time is ripe.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love gave an excellent TED talk on relating to your creative genius. Listen here

Learning to Trust the Body

The Christian subculture I come from often teaches us a deep distrust of the body. As a young Christian, I would read passages such those in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh,” (7:18) and interpret this to mean that every bodily impulse I have is bad.

Unfortunately, most messages I heard in the church confirmed this interpretation. The body is the realm of unruly appetites, for sex, for food, for pleasure. Deny your body, and gain spiritual control. When I read accounts of Christian mystics through this kind of interpretive lens, my distrust of the body was only further affirmed. Here were holy women and men of God living in caves, sleeping on boards, and eating the barest minimum to stay alive, in essence distancing themselves as far as possible from the body and its demands. Is this the kind of life we also are called to lead, in order to be holy?

Besides our perception that listening to the body leads only to sin (and its counterpart: denying the body leads to holiness), we learn to distrust the body for other reasons. If you don’t deny your body, you’ll get fat, was another frightening message I internalized. As a young woman wanting to be beautiful and fearing that her body might be unattractive if a few pounds heavier, there were times when I took ridiculous pride in ignoring hunger pangs and feeding slivers of grapefruit to a growling, empty stomach.

When I went through a period of chronic ankle pain, I began to distrust my body for another reason – it was betraying me. Why the inexplicable pain? Why wasn’t my body healing, as it was supposed to? I tried so many treatments and watched so desperately for signs of improvement, but mostly got (what I thought was) an unresponsive and obstinate body that refused to comply with my attempts to make it better. For me, it was pain that strained my already broken relationship to my body. For others, it is disability, disease, or aging. It is hard to trust the body when it is the source of dissatisfaction and suffering.

In the midst of pain, I had moments where I wanted to escape my body completely. I would tell my husband, half-jokingly, half-seriously, “My body is broken, can I get a new one?” Matt would reply, “But I like your body.” This was one of many instances where my relationship with others reoriented how I saw my own body. When I knew that someone loved and appreciated my body, I began to inhabit it in a different way. I realized my body could be a conduit for joy, connection, and relationship, as much as it was a source of frustration and disappointment. The same happened at times in church, when, with hugs and kisses, others communicated their care for me through my body.

Now that I am pregnant, I am learning that my body can also be a source of life, where once I could only see it as a bog of pain and decay. It’s still unbelievable at times to think that my body is capable of creating a whole new life within itself, after having distrusted it for so many years. Just a few days ago, I experienced some unusual pangs in the womb, which I feared were the pains of miscarriage. After a call with the midwife, I was relieved to hear they were just the growing pains of the uterus expanding out of the pelvic cavity. I am also gaining weight, which is only normal. Yet, after years of being super aware and careful about my weight, it’s disconcerting to watch the numbers rise on the scale.

I have to keep telling myself, “God made my body to nourish life and to connect me to others. This is natural, and holy, and good.  I can stop being on edge that there’s always something wrong with it. I can trust my body.” It is a lesson I am learning slowly.