My mother was a philosopher. My sister and I grew up with philosophy books all over the house and grad students stopping by. We had a tiny little television that sat on our kitchen table, and we watched the evening news together and turned the sound down on the tiny little round button during the ads so we could discuss the day’s events. She is an intelligent, smart woman who admires the life of the mind.
I am a poet. As a child, I spent a lot of time outside, alone, writing in my journal, or reading, or listening to the trees and the pond near our house. I felt more emotional than my mother. I felt different — less rational, more mystical, more natural.
And so when I became a mother, I desired to be the kind of natural mother I would have wanted. I wanted a natural birth, for example, so my husband and I went to visit a midwife. As we sat in her remote rural home and discussed whether I would be a good candidate for home birth, my husband asked about pain.
“There are all kinds of pain,” the midwife said. “Some pain isn’t really pain. Some people can handle pain. Some can’t handle pain. Pain is not just one thing. You have to ask yourself how you feel about pain.”
Each time she said the word “pain,” I felt further and further from my body. I felt like I was becoming a floating, puffy marshmallow — the kind of out-of-body experience that I associated with my history of childhood sexual abuse. I left that day. I knew I wouldn’t be having a home birth.
So I found a midwifery practice in a hospital. Twenty weeks into the pregnancy, I was told that the baby was breech, and that since I had a heart-shaped uterus, she would most likely not turn, and so I should prepare myself for a C-section.
I drove home that day, crying. I had so desired a natural birth, and as it turned out, I couldn’t have a home birth, and now I couldn’t even have a vaginal birth. I felt like a failure. I felt like my body was my enemy. It wasn’t a rational thought, I knew. But I wasn’t my mother.
I didn’t give up. I tried acupuncture and moxibustion. I did handstands in a pool. I lay with my pelvis on pillows and my legs against a wall. I even considered having the baby turned by hand, which I decided against because it could cause me to go into early labor — with a breech baby whose head was poetically wedged up against my heart in my heart-shaped uterus.
So I had the C-section. In a hospital. With morphine. And scars that caused me to feel abdominal pain for almost ten years whenever I tried to do a sit-up or a crunch.
But what I also had was the realization that the desire for natural mothering is just as much a social construction as our mothers’ reliance on bottles and schedules was a generation ago.
When my daughter was ten months old, she communicated to me that she was ready to wean by biting my nipple and throwing her head back and laughing during breastfeeding.
Babies don’t have words but they do have wishes, and I heard (and felt!) hers loud and clear. She was ready to be more separate from me.
So I weaned her and then we had a beautiful ceremony introducing her to the world of the five senses, through drumming, berry jam, a rose, and by burying her umbilical cord in the ground near a Rose of Sharon we’d planted at her birth. You can’t get much more granola crunchy natural than that.
Later, I wrote about the ceremony in a magazine, and the magazine received a letter from a member of the La Leche League, chastising me for weaning so early without contacting them.
I was angry at having been chastised. But the anger subsided and I realized, in a deeper way, that nature thrives in diversity. There is no one way to be a mother naturally.
Just as there are many landscapes over the earth, many weather patterns, and many climates, we mothers can learn to accept each other in our many ways of “being natural.”
As mothers living in a world dominated by corporations and global financial institutions, and bombarded by media paid for by these international interests — we can be duped by a system that tells us what is “natural.” Is it the sling or the boppie? Is the bouncy seat or the swing better? Do we swaddle or do tummy time? What is the latest book on the subject? What products are they peddling? And if we buy those products, will there be a recall or a new study to tell us that we have been harming our children in using them?
So what does it mean to be a “natural mother?” To answer that, I want to turn back to my original focus in this essay — the difference between my mother and me. For I have come to see, from the perspective of a mother myself, that my original impulse to be “different” from my mother was really a reaction born out of a desire to be myself and to be recognized for who I was — in my difference.
But it was this desire itself that was the cause of much of my pain and suffering.
Let’s look at the birth story as an example. What was it that caused me such pain when I learned I could not have a natural birth? It was my desire to have what I wanted. It was my conception, in my mind, that was clashing with the lived reality of what was happening.
And what hurt me when the magazine printed that letter criticizing the way we weaned our daughter? It was the desire to be recognized and affirmed for who I was and what I had decided.
I realize that I am not so different from my mother after all. I have come to incorporate and claim the philosophical parts of myself, as well — the parts of me that can balance emotion and reason and feeling and thinking. And I have come to a new place of balance about the concept of desire.
I no longer think that there is a formula to being a natural mother. I do not think the essence of natural mothering lies in home schooling or military schooling, breastfeeding or bottlefeeding, tummy time or quality time.
I see, now, that what I desired when I desired to be a natural mother was a whole and healed me. I was searching for ways I could be who I was, who I had been as a girl, who I was becoming as a woman, and who I would be as a mother.
And the essential ingredient in achieving this was not to be found in desire but in acceptance.
I no longer want X, Y, Z for myself or my family. Instead, I try daily to be truthful with myself about what is happening internally for me, and I try daily to see with clarity what is happening in my family. From this place of truth and clarity, I respond with acceptance, and with acceptance comes healing, wholeness, and transformation.
I recently had the opportunity to put this into practice. I was out of town to give a poetry reading, and as I checked my phone before going to bed at 11:40 PM, I noticed that my twelve-year-old daughter had just posted on Instagram. She was supposed to have given her digital devices to my husband at 8:15 PM. So I called him, woke him up, and told him what was happening. He got up, took her device away, and the next morning, he put her on a digital restriction for 24 hours.
Within that 24-hour period, I got home and discovered that she was not following the restriction but was texting friends while we thought she was doing homework. So we took away all electronics for a week, realizing that we all, as a family, needed a reboot in order to get back into truth, clarity, and balance.
Was it my desire to make my kid frustrated and angry? No. Was it my desire to make family life more intense? No. Was it my desire to give up the TV and Internet in order to teach a lesson? No. But desire had nothing to do with it.
Teens don’t always use words but they do have wishes, and I heard hers loud and clear. She needed to be separated from her devices in order to be closer to herself and to the family.
My conception of what parenting would ask of me no longer comes from a Platonic ideal, from my preconception of what should be and what I want, but instead deals with and surrenders to what is. This is what natural motherhood means to me now — moving not from a place of desire, but from a place of acceptance. And from this deep acceptance of the situation as it is in the present, we open the way to motion, action, discipline and flow.
I will continue this theme in my December column on Being a Natural Mother, but in the meantime, I invite you to submit your writing (3 poems or an essay or short story of 800-1200 words) on the theme of Desiring Natural Motherhood. Please email your submission to birthingmotherwriter[AT]gmail[dot]com by November 4th. Be sure to put “Birthing the Mother Writer: 6” in the subject line, include a brief bio, and place the text of your poem in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your writing, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within two weeks.