Our lives are forever changed by the birth of a baby. That event or more accurately, process also signifies the birth of a parent. For every new parent, it’s a completely unique experience. But commonly, that birth can also bring us to the brink of death — whether physical, emotional or both — and can shatter illusions of who we think we are. We leave behind the life of an independent person focused on our own relationships and career success and begin a life of focusing on the relationships and successes of our baby. This fundamental shift in thinking is confirmed in studies that show that new parents undergo a major brain reconstruction at that time.
Telling our birth stories reveals lessons about who we were, are, and continue to become. One of the central gifts of parenting is that in focusing on and advancing our child’s development, we simultaneously have the opportunity to advance our own development. Adults can become adept at masking our developmental urges – pretending that our children are all about learning but we somehow are a finished product. Having a baby can be a wake-up call. It can alert us to the fact that we are not fully self-aware, that we have not deeply reflected on our past to inform our present, and that there’s a lifetime and more of learning and advancing our own social and emotional development if we allow for it.
Earlier this year, I asked readers to submit their own birth stories and was delighted to receive personal, moving accounts. In sharing our stories of how we became parents, we have the chance to reflect on those major shifts that occurred in our lives. When we do, we can shine a light on what we learned and how it made us stronger than we were before we became parents. The first story submitted by Nikkya Hargrave tells of a birth that almost didn’t happen for multiple reasons. Perhaps because of that fact and the struggles she and her partner endured, gratitude and a relinquishing of control are the central themes of her story. The second story submitted by Lana Whiskeyjack is a story which shows a gradual awakening after a series of births, the first of which took place when she was very young. Her story focuses on how she has made sense of her Cree heritage, her experience of abuses that came from being placed in an Indian Residential School, and her discovery of self-worth and cultural pride. She describes how she has worked to understand her own upbringing, her ancestral heritage and generational trauma, and how she is actively working to rewrite the lessons for her children to offer them a new sense of cultural pride, wisdom, and gratitude. I am grateful to these two confident parents for sharing their personal stories.
In this season of Springtime, as we witness new life as plants and flowers emerge, may this post help you reflect on your own birth into parenting. You might ask yourself:
- How did the birth process change me as a person?
- What awakenings have I had about myself in becoming a parent?
- In the telling of my own story, what themes might emerge?
- How do I continue to reflect on and learn from my children’s development to raise my own self-awareness?
- What am I challenged to learn from right now in my role as a parent?
Releasing Expectations: A Parents’ Birth Story by Nikkya Hargrave
My heart had been ready for some time but my body was not. I wanted babies for as long as I could remember, lots of babies. Why? I wanted to mother them the way I never was. I wanted to love them and instill in them many of the values I was raised with. I wanted to give them all the things I wanted in a mother. My own mother couldn’t mother me because she was too crippled by her drug addiction and incarceration. As a young child, I sat and daydreamed about what kind of parent I would be, what my pregnancy would be like, and what my babies would look like.
On our very first date, I talked at ad nauseam about my desire to be pregnant and have a big family. It did not scare my date away and in 2011, I married my wife, Dinushka. In 2013, we embarked on our journey to have a child together. It was not at all easy. I was scared. I was excited. I was eager. And within our marriage, we needed to have the tough conversations: What if this doesn’t work? How many times will we try? What if the insurance does not pay? What kind of parents will we be? We’d already assumed the role of parents to our son whom we adopted through a kinship adoption. We had a sense of how we worked as parents though this trying to conceive journey would be the first for us – coming together in mind, body, and spirit to bring another life into this world, one we planned together from day one.
And in my heart, I knew this was my calling, to be a mother. With every step forward, I kept my goal in sight – to be pregnant. We decided to use my doctor at the time who was also a reproductive endocrinologist and had been my gynecologist for many years prior. She was also the person who performed my fibroid removal surgery a few years before we began the in-vitro fertilization, commonly known as IVF process. In 2012, just after my surgery, our doctor informed us that my fibroids, the unwelcome benign tumors that they were, would grow back and if we wanted to try, we should do it sooner rather than later. In 2014, we tried for the first time to get pregnant. I had so many emotions and the one leading the way was fear. What if it didn’t work? What if my fibroid removal surgery did more harm than good? What if I wasn’t meant to be pregnant?
I put so much trust, energy and carried so much faith in this very process, in my body and in my calling. I knew this first time had to work. But it did not. I cried in my wife’s arms. I cried hard when my at home pregnancy test came back negative. This was the test I’d dreamed about as a child, coming back positive, the pink plus sign indicating a baby had begun to grow inside of me. Why had this dream not come true? After reeling from the news of the negative at home test, I needed to go in for a blood test with my doctor to confirm what I secretly already knew. The nurse called:
“Nikkya, the results of your test are in,” she told me. And I took a deep breath.
“Your number is twelve and to be a viable pregnancy we need your number to be over 25 or 30,” she said.
“I know that is not the news you were hoping for. I am sorry,” and with that, we hung up the phone.
It took me a few months to dust myself off from the news. It took me six months to be exact before I felt like I had the courage to try again. I asked friends who they’d used to conceive their children, which local clinics had worked for them. I did my research before attempting another round of IVF. I tried as hard as I could to tell myself that it is indeed a process and there wasn’t much I could control and what I could, I would. With that, I went to a new doctor, at a new clinic, and transferred our donor sperm with us. We had one vial of donor sperm left, the second attempt would be our last. From the start, we’d chosen a Sri Lankan donor which was important to me given that my wife is Sri Lankan. The same emotions followed me as we embarked on our second attempt: fear, excitement, nervousness, and this time, a sense of patience.
I needed to be patient with the process, with my body, and with our doctors. With each consult, a wrench is thrown in our way, I needed to find patience. It wasn’t easy. I kept my goal in sight, to be pregnant and to have a baby. With each check up, I waited. I tried to will into existence the phone call I’d been waiting for.
The first week of December of 2014, I got the phone call I’d been waiting for. I saw the number I’d recognized so many times before appeared on my Caller ID. It was my assigned nurse from my new clinic with my new doctors. I hesitated and thought for a brief second that I should let it go to voicemail, my contemplation felt like an eternity. If it were bad news, I could process it later. If it were good news, I could share in it with my wife just after the call. It rang. I waited. And then I decided to pick it up.
“Hello,” I said, in a dry, almost muted tone.
“Hello, Nikkya,” she said, with a tone too rehearsed to surmise if any positive news would follow.
I held my breath. It hung between my lungs, like a newly hung painting.
“You’re pregnant!” she said. I release my breath, a smile eased onto my face.
She continued, “you’ll need to come in in two days for another blood test. Come in any time after 6 am. Congratulations again and see you soon!
I sat in the hard wooden chair of my barren office. I took this moment in, confident in the fact that this was the last time I’d know this feeling: excitement, nervousness, and jubilation. I felt like a triumphant warrior, never forgetting why I set out on this journey. I called my wife, told her the news and she said, “WOW…YAY” and let out a muffled scream to not distract her focused coworkers. With that, we hung up. A few seconds later, she called back.
“Babe, I think you’re pregnant with twins,” she says. I could hear the fear in her voice. “Don’t be silly. You’re just feeling anxious,” I wrote off her.
Later that evening, before going home, I stopped to pick up another home pregnancy test. I already had the blood test to confirm what I knew – I was pregnant! A tiny part of me needed the validation in my hand, proof of what the doctors already knew and tested me for. I took four at-home pregnancy tests that night and an extra photo of myself to remind me of this moment.
In 2015, I gave birth to twin daughters through a scheduled c-section. At 31 weeks, I was put on bedrest due to preeclampsia. Upon the diagnosis, I spent five days in the hospital while they tried to get my blood pressure and liver levels within the normal range to allow me to be discharged with the promise I’d stay on bedrest. In the company of a visiting nurse, I spent the next five weeks leading up to their birth, at home watching old episodes of Criminal Minds. Watching this show, in particular, gave me permission to be scared about this fictitious world and detach from my own pregnant reality.
What if something goes wrong?
What if I have a heart attack?
What if the babies decide they want to come today?
What if my water breaks?
The show gave me something else to focus on other than the voices in my head and the questions I couldn’t know the answers to. Would my babies have all of their fingers and toes? Would the anesthesia in my spine work? Could I breastfeed two babies? Would I want to breastfeed two babies? In my heart, I thought I knew the answers simply because I yearned for these babies.
I have no memory of the birth of my babies. I did not get to do skin to skin. I did not get to hear their first cries. I did not experience the same fear my wife did as they whisked one of our daughters away because of her labored breathing just after her birth. I did not know any of this until 24 hours after their birth. I felt the pain of the c-section during surgery. I started screaming (which I do not remember) as they tugged and stretched my uterus. The louder I screamed, the more medication I was given until I was completely knocked out.
In the end, I got exactly what I was meant to get from the birth of our daughters – two healthy babies. During my pregnancy and leading up to their birth, I had so many expectations of what I wanted for them, for me, for my recovery, for our family bonding. It wasn’t until the day of their birth that I realized (a hard lesson for me to learn) that I could not control much.
Recognizing the Sacred and Powerful Medicine: A Parents’ Birth Story by Lana Whiskeyjack
I was seventeen when my first child grew within my womb. I didn’t tell my parents until I was eight months pregnant. Isn’t that weird that we lived under the same roof but they didn’t recognize how much my young body was changing. Mind you, I hid my pregnancy well within the 1990s fashion of baggy pants and sweatshirts, thanks TLC and Salt-N-Pepper. Like most young mothers with no father-to-be in the picture, I felt utterly alone and scared when I should of felt supported and sacred.
I came from a family that endured intergenerational soul wounding from Indian Residential schools; meaning there was some unhealthy parenting and family cycles passed down from one generation to the next. Nikawiy (my mother) and Nohkom (my grandmother) both attended an Indian Residential school not far from our Cree Nation community. Each of them had their own good, bad, and very ugly, experiences that deeply affected their connection with their own bodies, kinship relations, and the outside (reserve) world. I may not know the truth of their experiences, but I most definitely learned from their behaviors of their paradoxical autonomy over their own bodies. In one teaching, I was told to turn the other cheek; and the other, I was to go back and hit twice as hard. There were no in-between balanced ways of socializing when historical educational policies that governed every aspect of their bodies, minds and spirits would not allow them to be Cree. They were forbidden to speak Cree and in many cases, children were taught to hate themselves.
I am grateful Nohkom reminded me repeatedly that I was a Nêhiyaw (Cree), even though being Nêhiyaw contributed to feeling unwanted and unworthy, a tragic legacy from those schools. Nohkom worked hard to undo those unworthy thoughts by telling me repeatedly that I am powerful, and I am loved. When she found out I was pregnant, she reminded me that I carried the most sacred medicine – life in my womb. My first born, my beautiful son reminded me that he was worthy of being loved, adored and respected, therefore I was also worthy.
It took my third and last child to finally realize that my sacred center – my beautiful womb – carried intergenerational trauma. Those generations of colonizing oppressive self-harming words that carried fear, rage, and hatred, manifested in three-week long menstrual bleeding every single month for six years. I tried all kinds of healing modalities but ultimately I felt betrayed by my body to the point of hating my womb. My hate for my sacred centre was a reflection of the hate of my body and self — that unworthiness rooted in unresolved childhood trauma and historical soul wounding — so connected to my cellular being.
When the blood transfusions could no longer keep up with the monthly bleedings, I screamed, yelled, cried all I could into the woods not knowing the grandmother spirits heard. I had a hysterectomy. As my body slowly recovered, my blood levels rebalanced to normal. I had no choice but to look within for the medicine I needed to restore balance in my life. As I explored where I came from, the wombs I came from endured, I found the seed of woundedness within the traumatic stories of Indian Residential Schools, from the removal of our grandmother’s power within the traditional governance structures by the forceful patriarchal domination over our bodies severely affecting the holy sanctity of the family.
I see now that my medicine (my womb) carries historical trauma. My bleeding taught me that I no longer had to carry the burden of colonization in my womb. The more I returned to my Cree language, land connection, and ceremonies, the more the empty space where my womb was began to fill with self-acceptance.
With the support of my three beautiful children, husband, and loved ones, I reconciled with having the hard conversations with myself and those grandmother spirits. Nikawiysis (my little mother/aunty) sang while we buried my womb wrapped in grandmother print (flowered fabric) in the river valley of my reserve. No longer do I have to be silent about the sacredness of my/our womb(s), what Nohkom called the most powerful medicine. The trauma our wombs, our ancestors wombs, no longer define us when we remember where we come from, honor the teachings of the past in order to carry good medicine into the future. When we remember and sing to the wombs we come from we break the colonial patriarchal cycles so our future generations no longer have to carry soul woundedness in their medicine.
* Thank you also to Alejandro Magallanes for sharing his book with his parents’ birth story, “The Legendary Daddy.”