By Rachel Douglas
The following is a recollection of my pregnancy and the birth of my second child and the crucial role that mindfulness played throughout. Just to prepare you, it includes some details that may be upsetting to read.
In Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn shares seven pillars of a mindfulness practice: Non-judging, Patience, Beginners Mind, Trust, Non-striving, Acceptance, and Letting Go. Each of these pillars supported me throughout pregnancy and prepared me for the unexpected traumas of childbirth.
Month 1: Around my 40th birthday, my wife and I decided to have another baby. We had done something called reciprocal IVF to get pregnant with Bobbie, our 4-year-old daughter, and still had 7 blastocysts frozen. The eggs were age 35, so even though my body was 40, I felt confident about the potential for a healthy baby. We went to our beloved Reproductive Endocrinologist (yes, we really do love him), an Acupuncturist who specializes in fertility, and got the most expensive fertility supplements. I rested for a whole week after the procedure then went to Seattle to celebrate my 40th birthday with my family and distract myself from the “two-week wait.” Somewhere between the farmers market and the ferris wheel, I knew I was pregnant. In IVF, the “two-week wait” before testing for pregnancy can be an excruciating, chaotic period of hope and confusion and hormones.
To be able to bring your mind back to the breath and back to the body requires tremendous patience, but I felt prepared. We got home and found out we were pregnant! I immediately became nauseous, and remained that way for 6 weeks. Although I wanted to leave my body, my mindfulness practice reminded me to go inward and focus on my body. Chrysalis faculty member and friend Kay Davidson advised me to focus on the places that didn’t hurt. Sometimes that was my knees. Sometimes it was just my earlobes.
Month 2: At 6 weeks of pregnancy, the (very expensive) IVF doc lets you go, and your pregnancy becomes no more special than anyone else’s. This is a gift (who doesn’t want a normal pregnancy?) and also a bummer (you’re pregnant? Take a number.). I decided to work with my midwife from my first pregnancy. A couple things didn’t feel normal to me. I was so nauseous I couldn’t even go in the kitchen, but rather ironically, felt hungry and thirsty ALL THE TIME. My hormones were going nuts. Also, I looked like I was 6 months pregnant. “The body remembers,” everyone said!
Kabat-Zinn writes, “judgments of mind tend to dominate our minds and make it hard for us ever to find any peace” (op. cit. p. 33) Being with whatever arises requires gentleness, kindness and often the encouragement of others. Luckily I had that encouragement from my wife, my midwife, my family, and my Chrysalis community. Chrysalis faculty member Carol Jacobs helped me realize the feeling I was experiencing was agony. Naming it something as extreme as agony allowed me to soften my body and give myself compassion. Jon Kabat-Zinn also says, “You have to accept yourself as you are before you can really change.” (op.cit. p. 38) This attitude helped me attend to my experience with clarity and kindness. While I didn’t stop working towards experiencing a healthy pregnancy, I accepted the agony and stopped criticizing myself for being unable to cook dinner, get my daughter’s vitamins from the kitchen, or help with household chores.
Month 3: The gods flipped the switch from trimester 1 to trimester 2 and my nausea magically disappeared! Relief!
Month 4: I finally felt great and set an intention to be truly present and enjoy this pregnancy, which I knew to be my last. I savored preparing the nursery, gathering baby supplies from their hiding spots, and sorting through endless lists of baby names to honor our ancestors. My midwife announced she was leaving Chippenham to go to VCU, so I embraced the unknown and made an appointment to see a new midwife.
Month 5: I was humongous. Don’t get me wrong - I loved my big pregnant belly - but something seemed out of the norm. I was carrying so much water that I measured about 10 weeks bigger than I actually was - something called polyhydramnios. I really wanted to hold on to the content, appreciative feeling I had when everything was going well, but things were changing again. My mindfulness practice helped me to let go and accept the uncertainty of what was to come.
Month 6: I did yoga every Tuesday despite my morning sickness. Before class one Tuesday, I got a phone call informing me that I had Gestational Diabetes. I needed to start injecting myself with insulin, and was considered too high risk for midwifery care. This was a pivotal moment for me. I felt disappointed and shocked that I needed such radical treatment. There was a lot of ego stuff and resistance wrapped up in these feelings.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about mindfulness, it’s that you get better at what you practice, so I practiced self compassion. I allowed for WHAT IS (not what I wish it was) and practiced a lot of gratitude. I worked on choosing joy whenever I could. And, more often than not, it worked. I was slowing down at work, but still needed to find a new location for Chrysalis. I decided to focus on two work tasks: searching for a new space and planning an upcoming Mindful Parenting Conference, which I wouldn’t end up being able to attend.
Month 7: I could no longer do yoga. Testing my blood and conforming to a new diet was so time consuming that I couldn’t figure out how to balance my schedule. I started looking for a traditional doctor for high-risk patients but couldn’t find anyone I trusted who could start seeing me immediately.
Month 8: Our moms threw us a lovely baby shower in our backyard on Saturday. On Sunday, I couldn’t stop crying. On Monday, Erin, Bobbie and I sat outside watching two storms in the distance, catching fireflies and laughing together. As Erin put Bobbie to bed, I set about satisfying an intense craving for ice cream. On the way to the kitchen, my water broke...two months before my due date. I called a neighbor to watch Bobbie, then Erin and I headed to MCV even though we had no doctor. I was not in pain. Somehow, I was in a space of allowing. While part of me was scared, part of me was calm and excited to meet my baby. In the midst of feeling fear, I embraced being a mom preparing to experience one of the most magical things a human can do.
We checked in and made a plan of action with the doctor: I would stay on bed rest until 34 weeks when the baby’s lungs would be developed enough for him to breathe on his own. But my fluid continued to leak and without his big swimming pool, Shaia was flopping around on his cord. Each time he would block his cord, a team of doctors and nurses would come running in, shine bright lights on me, and get to work. A couple of times, they rushed me down to the operating room. Those were the scariest times because I couldn’t make a plan...I had to stay in the moment and simply accept it. They would prepare to operate, then Shaia would move and we’d go back to waiting. After 48 hours and multiple scares, my doctor decided we weren’t going to make it to 34 weeks. The new plan was to add more “water” to keep Shaia comfortable and do a c-section later in the day. But during that procedure, I lost a lot of blood and they decided to do emergency surgery. A mass of people surrounded my bed and rushed me down the hall. The surgeon put her face against mine and said, “the baby is coming now - do you understand?” Although I had been prepped with an epidural, it hadn’t kicked in and I felt the knife as it ripped across my belly. I was going to have to go under, which meant Erin had to leave. I remember feeling ok with the plan and accepting that no matter how this baby arrived, he would know love and peace. So I breathed in love, and breathed out peace. Breathed in love, and breathed out peace...and then I went under.
When I awoke, Erin stood by my side and showed me pictures of our gorgeous baby, Shaia Dov. He scored a 9 out of 10 on the APGAR test and was resting safely in the NICU with compassionate nurses tending to his care. I couldn’t yet meet him as I was still vomiting from the anesthesia and struggling to breathe. Some of my inner stitches came out. As the nurse chastised me for forgetting to breathe, I asked “what happened after I went under?” and she said “you hemorrhaged out.” Out. Hemorrhaged out. The words echoed in my head. “Out” as in almost died? “Out” as in lost most of my blood? Almost lost my baby? Feelings of guilt and shame flooded over me. I questioned my selfishness in wanting another baby while putting my wife and daughter at risk of losing a partner and parent.
Being with whatever arises - especially difficult feelings like guilt and shame - requires gentleness, kindness and often the encouragement of others. I’m so lucky to have the most supportive, loving community. Meals, visitors, blessings, and childcare arrived, and someone even cared for our garden at home. This support and love helped me to focus on what mattered most in each unfolding moment.
Month 9: I thought Shaia was in the NICU waiting for me to get better and breathe on my own. It turns out we would be waiting for him...for 35 days. Words defy the feeling of leaving the hospital without our baby, yet we knew he was well cared for. Every morning after dropping Bobbie off at camp, I drove to the hospital to spend the day with Shaia. He mostly slept as I sang to him. Kay Davidson once told me about setting loving-kindness meditations to a tune, and I remembered those wise words and starting singing:
May we be happy
May we be well
May we feel loved
And grow from the ground
We did this every day until Erin came each evening. As I held Shaia against my chest, I spent hours sending loving-kindness to everyone in the hospital, from the parking attendant to the doctors to the kids next door. Then I moved on to some of the more difficult people in my life. Although I sent loving-kindness to other babies in the NICU, I was able to focus on my own baby, not the preemie on my other side hooked up to multiple machines. I could stay focused on what was most important to me: my baby and my own peace.
One Year Later: Reflecting on the difficulties and challenges of Shaia’s birth, I’m also able to embrace its mystery and beauty. It was painful and traumatic and beautiful and meaningful. Even now, it’s hard for me to read my own words and relive it all in my head. I can now see that I endured agony and trauma, but those experiences allowed me to appreciate the value of my mindfulness practice. Against the odds, I was able to stay present, return to my body, and remain in a space of allowing. In the most difficult moments of my life, my mindfulness practice was right there for me...and for that I am ever grateful.
Rachel Douglas is the Executive Director of Chrysalis Institute. Rachel holds AA, BIS, and MSW degrees, as well as multiple certificates, but those are nothing compared to what she has learned through Chrysalis.