Birthing blessingways

When I was an expecting mother, a friend threw a birthing blessingway for me and it was one of the most treasured ceremonies ever thrown for me.  This friend is quite gifted in leading rituals and blessings and she taught me (possibly without knowing it) the incredible beauty of honoring time, honoring seasons of life, and bringing a community together to bless an individual facing a transition.  The space she created for me, with women who knew me intimately and loved me well, was indeed a blessing. 

My friend left Uganda a couple of years ago, and I have tried to fill the gap she left in our community by hosting birthing blessingways for other expecting mothers. Now, this ceremony has become absolutely sacred to me and is always a time I feel a great sense of Connection.  In no other ceremony do I feel as many goosebumps trickle up and down my arms as I do when I am with a group of women who surround a creator of life and honor her coming transition, honor her body, honor her excitements and her anxieties.  The spirit created in these circles of women is beyond expression and it has truly become the most sacred ritual I take part in.

Below, I share some suggestions for hosting a birthing blessingway for an expecting mother in your life.  When done with a spirit of reverence and community, I know it will bless all who attend.

A birthing blessingway is quite different from a baby shower.  Gifts are not necessary, although they can be incorporated if the host or the mother wishes.  Rather, this gathering has an emphasis on emotional and spiritual support for the expecting mother by those women who are closest to her.  It is not a gathering for the whole family and all of her friends, but rather a gathering of the women in her life from whom she feels the greatest love and support.  It is important that the mother make the guest list herself.  Preferably, it should be a rather short list to make for a more intimate gathering. 

It is also best not to incorporate time for guests to dole out advice for the mother.  Chances are, she's already overwhelmed by the unsolicited advice she has received from everyone else.  Encourage this to be a time of simply listening to and validating the mother.  It can be hard to hold our tongues with advice we want to give because we want to "help" our friends, but encourage guests to notice if the advice will truly serve the mother or if it might be coming from a place of making the advice-giver feel better about their own motherhood knowledge.  This can be a tricky line to draw, but it is one that encourages mindfulness in our interactions with women bearing life and facing many emotions.

Here are suggested elements to incorporate into the blessingway ceremony:

  • Ask guests to write a blessing to the mother before the ceremony, which they will read aloud.  In this blessing, they can include characteristics they see in her that will make her a great mother, what they will pray for, and what they wish for her, etc!  If you would like, you can ask the guests to arrive earlier than the expecting mother and when the mother arrives, the host can blindfold her and lead her through a line of women, who will each hold her hand and read their blessing to her one-by-one.  Collect the cards and papers these blessings were written on and give them to the mother.
  • Invite guests to bring a bead with them to the ceremony that reminds them of the expecting mother or represents a blessing they would like to give to her.  For example: "This is a red bead and red is a strong, bold color.  You are one of the strongest women I know and your boldness will serve you well in motherhood."  Each woman will give their bead and their explanation of it to the mother.  String these beads together for the mother to have with her during labor to remind her of all the women standing with her and to squeeze in her hands during a contraction!
  • When guests have been seated, go around the circle and have them introduce themselves through their maternal heritage as far back as they remember.  (You may want to give them a heads up on this so they can look it up before coming!) For example: My name is Dani and I am the mother of Leo, the daughter of Ruby, the granddaughter of Ruby, and the great-granddaughter of Blanche.
  • While each women introduces herself, pass around flowers and a piece of ribbon.  Each woman should wrap the flowers in the ribbon during her introduction, adding to each other with each woman to eventually make a flower crown.  At the end of the introductions, crown the expecting mother!
  • If the guests did not read their blessings to the mother as she entered the gathering, you can go around the circle again and do this.  Perhaps you can provide a ribbon that each woman wraps around her wrist after reading her blessing.  When all the guests have finished, note how the ribbon literally ties all the women together and remind the mother that all these women are here for her during this season of life.  You can then pass around a pair of scissors to cut the ribbon so that each woman can tie it around her wrist as a reminder to pray for the mother.
  • Provide a time for the mother to share about anything on her heart and mind regarding the coming baby and birth.  Invite her to share her excitements, fears, and emotions about anything from the changing relationship with her partner and other children to finances or the birth itself.  Encourage the guests to listen well to the mother without interjecting pieces of advice.  Don't rush this time - the mother may find herself processing emotions she has not had the time or space to acknowledge.
  • While the mother is speaking, one woman (or multiple women!) could draw a henna mandala tattoo on the mother's belly!
  • Say a final blessing or prayer over the mother.  This can be done by "anointing" her belly with oil - perhaps a special essential oil.

Do you know a mother you would like to bless, but you live far from her?  Throw her a blessingway from a distance!  Ask her for the contacts of her closest female friends and invite her to write out her thoughts and emotions about the birth and baby.  Share her thoughts with these women and ask them to send the mother a card with a written blessing, as well as a bead, as explained above.  It is sure to encourage her and remind her of the women in her life who will support her through this time.

Here I am at my blessingway, surrounded by very special women and feeling more than blessed.  I do, however, acknowledge that I look more hippie than ever with my flower crown, labor beads around my neck, henna belly tattoo, and rainbow California shirt! Ha!

Here I am at my blessingway, surrounded by very special women and feeling more than blessed.  I do, however, acknowledge that I look more hippie than ever with my flower crown, labor beads around my neck, henna belly tattoo, and rainbow California shirt! Ha!

One year of motherhood

Last year on Mother's Day, I was 2 weeks over-due for my first baby and I desperately wanted to make my motherhood official, but Leo still left me waiting a couple more days.  In my desperation and expectancy, I drafted this letter to my baby that day.

May 10, 2015:
Dear baby,
Today is Mothers' Day and I hoped to hold you in my arms by now, to get to know you a little more beyond your kicks and movements. I am already your mother here on this Earth and in this lifetime and I am beyond excited to begin such a privileged job.
You are currently 15 days past your due date and each morning for the past 3 weeks I have woken up hoping it would be the day you leave my womb and join us in this world. I wonder about who you are and who you will become. As your mother, I see my job as providing you with the opportunities, the space, and the protection to simply become who you are and mostly to give you the best love to affirm that.
Just as I wish I could be in control over the day you arrive, I know I will wish to be in control over many other things in our life together, but I promise to do my best to simply trust The One Who Knows and to relish in the moment, in what is.
I don't even know you yet, but I already love you immeasurably and I know that even 20 years down the road, there will still be so much I don't know about you, but I will always be watching anxiously to see who you become and I will always love you, no matter what, every step of the way.
Your father and I await your arrival with so much hope and excitement.
Love,
Your mother


Two days later, I became Leo's mother.  It has been quite the year of motherhood, with so many emotions and milestones wrapped up in the first 12 months, as any parent will tell you.  In looking over my daily journal, I'm reminded of the lessons, the emotions, the hardships, and the joys from this past year.  Here is a glimpse of it all, through snippets taken from my journal:

May 12, 2015 (the day of Leo's birth):
I am in total awe of this experience and so thankful for this life.

May 14, 2015:
The night was really hard.  My milk has started to come in and nursing is painful.  In the middle of the night, Leo was crying and I went over to pump some milk so we could spoon feed him, but instead I just started sobbing.  Poor Eric had to go in between the two of us criers.  All my emotions of the past few days just came out - emotions about the birth not going as planned, having to deal with the pediatrician and hospital policies, the pain of breastfeeding, and the fear of being on our own.  It has been the hardest 3 days of my life.  I just keep thinking of all the mothers in this world and I now have a much deeper appreciation for all of them, most especially my own mother.  I wanted to go over to her house and hug her.  I also thought of how incredibly strong African women are.  I can't imagine how they do it, giving birth over and over, often in the village and then they are soon on their feet making meals, fetching water or firewood, etc.  I think they are the strongest people in the world.  Here I am, with my breast pump, amazing support around me, and lots of privileges and it's still so hard.

May 16, 2015:
I had another good cry today as I talked with Eric and told him that I felt overlooked by him and even a little jealous of his love for Leo.  I feel like I have gone through a lot of work and hardship to produce this baby and he just gets to be enthralled by him.  I love that Eric is so in love with Leo and that he's bonded so much with him.  There is nothing more attractive than my husband being a loving father.  But I told him that I need to know that he still loves me, too, because I feel so vulnerable right now and I don't want to be overlooked.  I badly need to hear that I'm strong and beautiful and that he's proud of me and loves me.

May 17, 2015:
Breastfeeding went smoother throughout the day today, although I hate that I have to leave company when it's time to feed.  It's so sad to ostracize myself to feed my child, but I know it is awkward to nurse in front of some people.

May 18, 2015:
Today I felt so many fears arising, but also hopes that go along with those fears: What will Eric and my relationship be like now with Leo here?  Will he still see me as ME, apart from being a mother?

I also have so much hope for the man Leo will become.  I've thought of how great a responsibility it is to raise an American middle-class white male, one of the most privileged people in the world according to demographics.  However, my biggest two wishes for him is that he will simply be a compassionate man and that he will follow his heart which I know will lead him to his true purpose and identity.  I have so much hope that Leo will be an incredible man.

 
 

May 21, 2015:
The good news is, breastfeeding is going quite smoothly now.  However, it seems I have a hemorrhoid.  Also, Leo has also developed some baby acne and a worsening diaper rash.

May 26, 2015:
I really don't feel ready to go back to Uganda so soon. The thought of it really scares me because it just seems like one obstacle after another keeps coming up.  I don't feel like I've established a rhythm and I'm so nervous about the long trip back home and all the adjustments waiting for us.  It was another night of crying - for me, not Leo!

May 27, 2015:
The rest of the day was pretty much filled with pumping, nursing, and resting to deal with this mastitis.  I feel pretty useless right now.

May 28, 2015:
I still don't feel very on-track.  My right breast is producing next to nothing while my left is so large and full, it's like a fire hose when Leo drinks from it.  He can only suck for a few seconds at a time before he becomes so overwhelmed and he has to unlatch and swallow.  We have to take several breaks when he's on that side to burp.  So my breasts have completely opposite issues and neither one of them is really satisfying my baby right now.  It's such an emotional thing.  I fed him and pumped while we watched episodes of Parks and Rec tonight and afterward I had another good cry.  It just seems like it's one thing after another. 

In these past couple of weeks, there has been so much pain and hardship all wrapped up with an incredible amount of joy and love.  There have been many moments so beautiful it breaks my hearts and I want to stop time to take it all in.  He's already growing so fast and I just want him to stay this tiny and perfect!  But there are other moments that are just hard and frustrating, mostly in relation to my body and to nursing.  It's incredible how closely the physical is tied with the emotional.

Sometimes I feel so weak when I think of all the billions of other women who have had a baby and who did just fine.  What is my problem?  But then other times I feel very strong because I think of how much I have persisted in the past couple of weeks through the problems that have arisen.  I persisted in having a natural birth and to keep breastfeeding, something that is increasingly rare in my own culture.

May 29, 2015:
Every day, I fall a bit more in love with Leo and here are some of my favorite things that he does:
-He reaches back with one hand behind his head when he's nursing and holds my finger
-When he's wide awake and looking around, it's almost as if he has something to tell me.
-He makes me laugh with the smallest things.  Yesterday he burped so hard he almost gave himself whiplash!
-He gets his arms waving around and bonks himself in the head
-When he's on my chest, he crosses his arms and rests his cheek on them
-He nuzzles up under my chin
-He places his tiny little hand on my breast when he nurses

May 31, 2015:
In our culture, it seems that a mother can't be as close to her son, that we cannot be buddies after a certain age without Leo being labeled a "momma's boy."  Boys who are close with their mothers are seen as weak, but boys and girls can have close relationships with their fathers without a social stigma attached to it.  So I worry that I will somehow be left out, that we won't be close after he gets to a certain age.  I know it's silly to worry about this now, but I just do.

 
 

June 1, 2015:
Mastitis is back.  The rest of the day I did the mastitis care.  I nursed, rested, pumped, yada yada yada.  I accomplished nothing else and I still feel useless when this happens.

June 13, 2015:
I just can't believe how much I love Leo!  It is such an incredible thing that I had heard about, but I couldn't have imagined feeling so much in love with my baby.  I have come to love breastfeeding and our moments with just the two of us.  I find that I miss him after not holding him for a little while.  I could stare at him and watching all his little movements and expressions all day long.

I feel like there is so much to do and I'm not sure when I'll be able to catch up, but I also feel like Leo is the most important thing for me right now.  I just know deep inside that being there to admire him and to talk to him is often the best thing I can do with my time.

 
 

June 14, 2015:
Last night was a really rough one.  I only got 1 hour of sleep until 7am when Eric woke up and took Leo.  I was about to lose my mind and I cried myself to sleep after Eric took him.  Then I slept until 1:30pm.

June 16, 2015:
I thought today about the spirituality of motherhood and how much has changed for me in this area since being a mother.  Suddenly, words mean so little to me and the typical "spiritual" things that I would try to incorporate into my life like meditation and yoga aren't as important.  I have so much else to do, but I also don't end up doing much during my days except nursing, eating, and sleeping.  There is also a bit of time for cleaning around the house.  I'm finding that motherhood is this intersection between being and doing, which really has a lot of depth.  I think this has always been something women have offered the world, but has been so under appreciated and under valued.  Many women are left out of religious conversation, the formation of theology, and spiritual practices, often because we are considered lower, dirty, or that we have nothing to offer.  In these first few weeks as a mother, I found an opposite truth - that mothers have much to teach us in these areas should we decide to listen (or maybe just watch), but the words and the theories are often unimportant to us.  Ours is a spirituality of the moment, of doing and being all at once, of serving.  It is not one formed in the mind and argued, but one given from our very bodies and lived out in the most simple, yet moving, way.

June 18, 2015:
It was a long night last night.  I didn't get much sleep and the whole night was up to me because Eric had to leave early in the morning for his guys' group.  Leo was wide awake in the morning and I was exhausted, so we just lay in bed talking and cuddling while a rain storm went on outside.

June 20, 2015:
Tonight Leo gave me his first real smile!  It was so wonderful!  He wouldn't fall asleep, so I was patiently nursing him.  I got up to go to the bathroom between nursings and when I came back, he gave me a big smile!  I just knew it was a real one and that he was happy to see me again.  It made my day!

 
 

June 23, 2015:
Here are some more things I love about Leo:
-His crazy huge farts and adult-sized burps
-How he plays with my shirt when nursing or just moves his fingers on my breast
-How he comes up for air sometimes when he drinks too much too fast and then gulps down what is in his mouth that he hasn't yet swallowed
-How he kicks his legs when he gets excited or impatient to feed
-How he pumps his left arm when he's really working hard on a burp or fart, as if he's "tapping out"

July 12, 2015:
Leo didn't want to go to sleep tonight, so it took a little more work.  I sung a couple of lullabys to him and slowly his eyes started to shut while his mouth gave little smiles.  It was one of those tiny, beautiful momma moments.

July 16, 2015:
I was home all day today with Leo.  I'm starting to figure out how to get things done when I'm with him.  When he's awake, I'll do things around the house like clean or cook or garden.  Then when he's sleeping, that's my chance to do work on the computer.

July 20, 2015:
I'm afraid I may have scheduled too many things for myself this week.  I have this habit of wanting to please everyone and of wanting to prove that I can do it all.  I want to be the woman who can have a kid and a job and take an online class and start a small business on the side.  I've been this way for as long as I can remember - taking on all I can, especially when I feel that others want me to.  It's so deeply engrained in me and I'm just now starting to see how deep it is.  But then when I overdo it, I inevitably have a day where I crash.  This evening was one of those crashes.  I don't know why I do this to myself.  Who am I proving myself to and why?

July 21, 2015:
I'm so thankful for a work environment that is inviting to my baby.  Eric was holding Leo during our meeting until he started crying and I was able to just nurse him and change his diaper during the meeting.  Nobody even blinked an eye!

August 5, 2015:
Tonight, I nursed Leo to sleep and stayed with him for a while to just cuddle.  I’ve been trying to be mindful about the time when I nurse him.  I try, when I can, to let it be a time to meditate and be entirely present.  It is such a gift.  He brings me so much joy and peace.

August 31, 2015:
I stayed up late tonight, although I didn’t intend to.  I need to get out of the habit of using my night hours when Leo is sleeping to get everything done.  I found myself pumping milk and hanging out cloth diapers all at the same time.  I had a moment when I laughed to myself and thought, “So this is motherhood.”

September 2, 2015:
I stayed home today with Leo and got little accomplished. 

September 23, 2015:
Today, in the midst of the rush to prepare for the dinner, I had a big motherhood fail moment.  Leo fell off the couch after I set him beside me and looked away for just one second!  He banged his head and I felt absolutely terrible.

November 4, 2015:
I stayed at home today with Leo.  For a while, I sat him in a basin on the porch where he could look at the dogs while I took some product photos for the Baby Lionheart website.  He was entertained for at least an hour there, happy as could be.

November 13, 2015:
Today, I took Leo's clothes off and lay him naked on a mat on the floor, letting him play in the buff for a while.  He was satisfied on his tummy, looking at the dogs, so I stepped into the kitchen to warm up my lunch.  When I came out a minute later, he had moved off the mat and pooped all over for floor.  Of course, he had scooted around in it, too.  I plopped him right in the wash basin.

November 16, 2015:
I took Leo in for his 6-month check-up and vaccinations this morning.  The doctor said that all is well and said I was “doing everything perfectly,” which definitely felt nice to hear. 

January 12, 2016:
Each night during this training, when Leo falls asleep, I still have to go over the lessons for the next day, not to mention try to keep up with my other emails and responsibilities.  It’s a lot to juggle.

February 19, 2016:
Leo has been taking so much food lately and it’s making me SO hungry.  My body is hardly able to keep up in producing milk.  Then I’m trying to watch what I eat, so I get stressed over what I can and cannot eat.  Then I get hangry.  This morning I ate an entire pack of bacon along with a couple of eggs and a grilled tomato.

April 3, 2016:
There is nothing quite like the smile he gives me when we are apart and then he spots me.  There is no question that we are head over heels for each other, so I guess I’ll soak that in because maybe there will come a time in his teenage years when I don’t get this look!

April 5, 2016:
This morning, as Eric and I were pulling out of the house, I reached back and gave Leo a cassava chip.  Eric jokingly said, “Thanks Mom!” and Leo imitated him!  I’m not sure if he knows what he said, but I would say it was his first word!  Then, after ladies’ fellowship, Lindsey and I were playing with Leo in the basement of the office and when I put him down, he stepped toward Lindsey without hesitation.  It was only a step or two, with a lunge toward her, but it was his first steps!  Two firsts in one day!

April 11, 2016:
Leo hangs out all day with Justine and many other women who fawn over him constantly in the office basement.  He has quite the life down there and I’m incredibly thankful for it.  Justine is great with him and it’s a huge blessing to have him at the office where I can go down and nurse him or play with him in the middle of the day.

April 25, 2016:
I haven’t been back to the states in nearly a year, which may be the longest time I’ve been away.  I’m actually a bit nervous to go back.  I have only been a mother in America for a few weeks and during that time, I was mostly holed up at home.  I worry about breastfeeding a 1-year old in public and the reactions I will get, but I’m more worried about breastfeeding in front of those who I know and making them feel uncomfortable.  I worry about judgment on how I’m raising Leo and I worry that I can’t even predict what I will be judged about.  But I guess if there is one thing I have learned about being a mother, it is that you must choose what to do and stick to it with confidence – that it doesn’t matter what others think, as long as I know I’m doing what is best for me and my child.

Motherland

My body
Your first home,
first nation
first residence.

My breasts
Your first dinner table.
Your first bed and pillow
with my arms, your first blankets.

My body
Your first jungle gym,
roller coaster,
mountain to climb.

My face
Your first love,
first toy,
first discovery you ever explored.

My body
Your first mode of transport.
Your very first safety net.

I was your beginning.
The notch in your belly
demands you never forget
your Motherland.

Discernment and cross-cultural parenting

I count myself lucky to mother between two cultures.  While my heritage is from the West, I live in Uganda and this affords me the opportunity to take a step back and have a look at parenting from a couple different perspectives. Parents in my own country value "experts" and efficiency; we devour books and choose our individual "parenting style" -  a term that can bring nearly as much division as religion and politics.  Ugandans, on the other hand, have a common way to parent and they count on wisdom that has been passed down.  Everyone helps because everyone does it the same.  I can't count the number of times I've lost track of my baby as he was passed from one set of hands to the next, quite often to someone I have never met, a practice we Americans would never dream of (I'm still working on my comfort level with this). 

I have been privileged to compare these two ways, helping me see what is universal and what is simply cultural and I've identified goodness and the weaknesses in both cultures' approaches to parenting.  While I believe there is something beautiful in trusting the time-honored ways of mothering, I'm also grateful for scientific research to quell the many myths floating about.  And while I love the scientific evidence, I try to stick with books and other resources that don't instill fear or undermine mothers' wisdom, but instead encourage me to trust my instincts and love for my child.

Through it all, each mother and father must choose their own ways to discern what is best for their child and their family.  Over the last several months, somewhat subconsciously at first, I developed a few questions to help guide me in the many decisions parents must make on a daily basis.  In the end, people from both Uganda and America have questioned my ways.  I glean from both cultures, but tend not to fit well into either one.  But then, all a mother can do is march on doing her best, with confidence, boldness, and most of all, love.

My questions for discernment in parenthood:

Have mothers/parents throughout the millennia counted on this product/method?  Or has this product/method just come into existence in the last couple of generations and is it unique to my culture?

Does this product/method encourage closeness or distance between me and my child?  Does it build trust in our relationship?

Does this product/method place my comfort and needs over that of my child?

Is there good scientific evidence supporting the use of this product/method?

What is my motivation for using this product/method?  Is it to have control?  To be accepted by others?  Do I really have my baby's best interest in mind?

My favorite books:

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by La Leche League International
Attached at the Heart by Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker
Sweet Sleep by La Leche League International
The Tao of Motherhood by Vimala McClure

What would you add?
 

My time: the rituals and margins

Time flies.  When I was 2 weeks overdue with Leo, I sat around twiddling my thumbs all day and badly wanted him to arrive just so I would have something to do.  Now, that's hilarious.  Since he came into our lives, I have a whole new relationship with time, one that is now defined by my personal rituals and the margins of time I have here and there.  Rituals stop the doing and let me simply be in time and the other requires the maximum use of time.  Both are important in their own ways.

Those first few days and weeks of Leo's life completely blurred together and I wouldn't have been able to tell one from another if it weren't for a couple of rituals I've implemented into my life.  Rituals provide us a way to mark time and allow for a special observance of events.  In a way, they give us our time back by simply honoring it. 

Each day, I take one photo and I write just a bit about my day.  Then, before going to bed, I write 3 things I'm grateful for and one thing I love about myself.  These are my rituals.  They have given me a chance to stop and observe what has happened, to appreciate what has passed, and to internalize it all before moving forward with the time that flies.  They put little markers in the timeline of my forward-moving life and give me something to look back upon in appreciation.

And now that I've made an attempt to get back into my previous life, with all its responsibilities and demands, I find myself using the margins of my time more than ever.  I've become an expert at creatively using the tiny slots of time within my day to accomplish something.  Thank God for smart phones.  Suddenly a traffic jam is an opportunity to send an email and waiting for something on the stove to boil is a chance to clean up around the house.

In the midst of it all, I've tried to land on a daily practice for solitude and silence.  Some days, that seems out of the question and other days I snag those moments when Leo is napping or late at night.  I try to remind myself that balance does not mean doing it all and I hold onto the small rituals that give it all meaning.