Monday, October 30, 2006

“I know the heart of life is good…”

"Pain throws your heart to the ground
Love turns the whole thing around
Fear is a friend who's misunderstood
but I know the heart of life is good..."

I don't think John Mayer was thinking about birth when he wrote this song. But I played it over and over again on my drive home from a beautiful birth last night.

Why was this the song I needed to hear after such a joyous and swift birth? I just knew that this was going to be a powerful week. There was going to be sadness to balance the joy. I could feel the phone call coming...

“Is it normal if you don't feel the baby move at 17 weeks?”

And to think I bought the book about Spirit Babies just the other day. I’d been already preparing for this phone call.

Then, this morning, an email came from another wonderful, powerful woman, spilling over with loss and fear…

The Spirit Babies book was at my left hand, waiting for me to pick it up.

Later that morning, my pager vibrated as I sat having tea with another amazing woman, nursing her five-month old baby, finally shaking free of the fog of postpartum. I made a quick phone call.

A quiet voice on the phone confirmed last night’s fears. My memory flashed to images of her first birth, where she was strong, singing mystic songs in labour. She leaned over a bed, holding onto a desert herb, the kaff Maryam, or "Mary's Palm." According to Arab tradition, the Virgin Mary clutched this herb in her hand while "suffering in childbirth", its branches unfolding as her labour progressed.

On some days, when I’m working with clients, we skim the surface of life, talking about the technicalities of birth, what to expect, our biology, logistics…

But on other days, we’re almost forced to delve deep into the spiritual meaning of this thing called “birth.”

Today, I made phone calls, sent emails, and searched for meaning like someone in the desert searches for water. I need the kaff Maryam in my hand…so I can help these women through the challenges of this week.

Just as I had read the book on Spirit Babies only yesterday, then attended a joy-filled birth, before the new week began to unfold… we are all given the tools to deal with these challenges in advance – miraculously. Our hearts just need to be open enough to hear the lessons as they arrive, to make sense of it all, and to remember that “the heart of life is good.”

Oh, Maggie!

The wind blew the clouds and rain away, giving her the sun’s heat upon her back, and showing her the first snowfall on the mountains.

We stood, with the tourists, at the Queen Elizabeth Park viewpoint. She stood, leaning over the bench, pointing out the dried candle wax, the other pregnant woman, the babies, not really looking like a woman in labour.

But she was…

Oh, Maggie! She’d been through so much pain in this pregnancy, and many labour “warm-ups” (let’s not call it false labour any more!) and she was still unconvinced that this was the real thing.

But it was…

At lunch time, she’d been feeling well enough to grab a Subway sandwich, challenging the sandwich artist over the ins and outs of the 2-for-1 deal. Now, on the hill, only an hour later, it felt like we should at least call the hospital and put them on alert.

By two o’clock, we were at the hospital – “doozies in the car.” By 2:30 she was “in the zone.” And just before three o’clock, we were upstairs by the elevators, working through another contraction.

“OOOOOOOOOOOOOO,” she called, head buried into her husband’s chest, as a little boy walked past. She must have seen his feet, because she quickly said, “OOOOOO, I’m a ghost!!” Her need to reassure the boy was stronger than the power of the enormous contraction.

Everyone in the hallway laughed! That’s Maggie – so strong, so great, so quick to lighten the mood for everyone else.

She was only in the birthing room an hour before her beautiful son came into the world.
Smiles! Such joy!

“Jacquie, that wasn’t bad!”

“Whaaa!!” says baby.

Mum and dad talk with baby…
“It’s so bright!”
“I’m glad you decided to join us!”
“Your chin is so cute!”

What a wonderful day to be born, Benjamin!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Duthies goes down a notch

Okay, I've been a Duthie Books fan all my life. It's an independent book seller in Vancouver, with well-read employees, a great book selection, etc. etc. I bought the new Zadie Smith novel, On Beauty, then headed to check out the pregnancy books, as usual. I headed to where they usually are...and stopped, mouth open... There was a massive product placement of the What to Expect When You're Expecting series (good only as doorstops), The Baby Whisperer (don't get me started!,) and The Caveman's Pregnancy Companion (Oh, dear! Do they really think men are happy to be treated like morons?) I had to walk out...

So, I popped into Chapters today to see how they were doing...and didn't find ONE What to Expect book, found a few Sheila Kitzinger books, and purchased two very obscure and interesting-looking pregnancy books (I'll let you know...) Here was a chain store with a selection that was certainly better than Duthies.

For a consistently good selection of pregnancy books, grab a chair and sit at Banyen Books on 4th Avenue. Now, if we could just get Tanglewood Books, with those wonderful creaking wooden floorboards, to stock amazing pregnancy books...then I'd be happy.

Friday, October 27, 2006

And then there were Ten

There have been 10 babies born since we returned from our summer holidays, only one of them a girl! Welcome, and congratulations to all!


Kate’s birth - Nurse: “This little one is going to give us all grey hairs!” (Said on the twentieth fetal heartrate dip before gorgeous, bright-eyed Kate arrived)

Connor’s birth - Mum: “Sorry to get you guys out of bed.” (Said to Grandma and Sister, Dad and Doula, Doctor and Nurse near the end of her 3 1/2 hour labour)

Emmet’s birth - Mum: “That wasn’t bad.” (Boy, did she motor! Moved from standing, to sitting, to squatting, to shower. So, so fast!)

Lochlan’s birth - Doctor, smiling: “What is she on?” (Mum chatters away happily in shower, then stands for birth)

Liam’s birth - Nurse: “She couldn’t possibly be pushing. I just checked her and she was a fingertip dilated.” (Baby born 45 minutes later)

Cameron’s birth - Mum: “It’s just like a marathon - some good bits, some bad bits.” (Said half-way through the 7 hour labour)

Oliver’s birth - Friend, calling from downstairs: “Dinner’s ready!” (She hadn’t noticed that the baby was just about the stairs)

Klein’s birth - Head Nurse: “Has your nurse done her rural Africa trick with the sheet?” (Baby eventually waved all red flags and asked for immediate exit - leading to a joyful, laughter-filled OR)

Adam’s birth - Mum: “I think today might be the day.” (Baby born 43 minutes later, unexpectedly at home)

Oscar’s birth - Mum: “I enjoyed the day. It was a good day.” (Said while nursing baby for the first time, triumphant)

We wrestle angels

On my way to see a client the other day, I drove past the beach, and watched the sailboarders fly through the October waves. Last night, the image returned as I listened to Michael Symmons Roberts on the radio, reading from his own poem about observing sailboarders:
"These men wrestle angels. Each now sits on / an enormous wing waiting for the winds to rise"

For me, it always comes back to labour. For, in labour, we wrestle angels. We struggle to blend reality with expectation. We skim the ecstatic knife edge between pleasure and pain. We emerge, changed utterly.

Thanks to Deb, Elaine, Sheena and Betty - the four midwives who helped me wrestle the angels

Monday, October 23, 2006

Searching the past for ritual

Over the years, I have been a witness to many birth rituals. Often, these are rituals drawn from different cultures. Those that spring to mind...

A Tibetan woman had a long labour, followed by a cesarean birth. Outside the operating room waited two beaming monks, their robes a bright contrast to the hospital walls. After the baby was born, the father asked that the first piece of cloth to touch the baby was a silk fuschia prayer shawl that had been blessed by the Dalai Lama. There, in the operating room, was one spark of colour. The birth shifted from medical to spiritual.

A Sikh woman laboured, standing by the bed in the hospital. While the nurse was ritually laying out the delivery cart, gloved and masked, the husband ritually laid out a prayer table. The altar of medicine looked out of place.

A Japanese woman reached down for her baby, pulled him up to her breast, and named him. "She must tell him his name as he comes to her breast," whispered her husband.

But there are also historical rituals to be considered...

At the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, a current exhibition titled, "At Home in Renaissance Italy," highlights the rhythms and rituals of Renaissance living. One highlight is a portrait of a noblewoman, wearing a marten's pelt with a jewelled head. This fashion accesory was believed to act as a guardian to women during pregnancy and childbirth. The marten was thought to conceive through the ear and give birth through the mouth. Much easier!

The women were also pampered after the birth, their food being carried to them on ritual birth trays, lavishly painted with protective images.

Pregnancy is a wonderful time to explore these cultural and historical rituals, and perhaps foster a stronger connection between peoples and times.

Groaning Cake

In our last book club meeting, we discussed The Birth House, by Ami McKay. We ate groaning cake, talked about birth, the medicalization of women's bodies at this most natural time, history, social change, and our own lives. We were strengthened by the stories of these women at the turn of the century in Canada, their sisterhood, and the quiet yet bold way in which they kept their commmunity together. I hope you read this book.

The tradition of the groaning cake at a birth is an ancient one. Wives' tales say that the scent of a groaning cake being baked in the birth house helps to ease the mother's pain. Some say if a mother breaks the eggs while she's aching, her labour won't last as long. Others say that if a family wants prosperity and fertility, the father must pass pieces of the cake to friends and family the first time the mother and baby goes to a public gathering.

2 1/2 cups flour
3 eggs
2 t. baking powder
1/2 cup oil
1 t. baking soda
1/2 cup orange juice
2 t. cinnamon
1/4 cup molasses
1/2 t. ground cloves
1 1/3 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups grated apple
1 t. almond extract

Sift dry ingredients together. Add apple. Beat eggs. Add oil, orange juice, molasses and sugar. Add to dry ingredients. Mix well. Add almond extract. Bake at 350F. for 35-40 minutes. Makes two 9x5 loaves or 18 muffins.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Boundary Bay Baby!

Perhaps the fastest baby of the year...a little boy has made his way into the world in 43 minutes!
No time for a car ride to the hospital...
No time for the doula to get there...
Just a mother and a father to receive this shining spirit...

(Well, I flew up the stairs one minute after the baby arrived, just a step behind the paramedic)

I think everyone smiled so much yesterday that we all had sore faces!

Congratulations to Sarah and Mark!
Thanks to all the paramedics and the Infant Transport Team, especially for listening to my client and giving her privacy.

That was a day filled with joy!

(2009 Update: This mum has since had another baby...this time planned at home with a midwife. Phew! An altogether more relaxed outcome.)

- Jacquie Munro, Vancouver Doula

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


I completely missed it. I passed the six hundred and fifty baby mark a while ago, but didn't stop to think about how many babies that REALLY is... Well, they're not all babies now. Many are heading off to high school or university, but close to 70 wee ones are still waiting for their first birthday.

Photos arrive as each baby reaches his or her birthdays. Christmas cards arrive showing long-limbed children I hardly recognise. But I never forget a labour. Those flashbulb moments remain strong in my memory.

I can see the woman cry out, "I can't do it any longer!" I rubbed her back, and said, "You ARE doing it!" And she replied, "No, I mean, he's passed out and I can't hold him any longer!" Her dear husband had fainted while we'd been in the middle of an earthquake, and she had been holding him and pushing at the same time.

I can see another woman roaming Queen Elizabeth Park, squatting by trees, waiting for her husband to return from his final immigration hearing. I can see him running across the park towards us, calling, "I will be Canadian!"

I see myself in the backseat of a mini, holding a labouring woman, on the hottest day of the year. Her partner is driving us through the blistering streets. We pull up alongside a throbbing car. The man calls out, "Are you all weird or are you in labour?" We all laugh.

I see another woman hold open her oven door to check on the roast beef. In between contractions, she prepares Sunday dinner. We are told we can't leave for the hospital until we have all eaten. Yorkshire pudding and gravy included. The baby arrives 15 minutes after we step into the birthing room.

I see another woman, deep in labour, smiling as her contraction ends. "I love the breaks - they're just like the best cup of tea!" Her husband flies through the door, stripping off his clothes. "I fell through the ice!" he exclaims. (Long story)

These are only five moments out of the thousands of moments remembered in six hundred and fifty amazing births. Thank you for letting me be a witness to these births, and one of the guardians of these memories.

Oliver is 22 hours old

after a powerful labour
flowed through a powerful woman -

and dinner was just ready,
a little boy in Richmond
was born in the hallway
by the stairs,
greeted by his awestruck parents

and five smiling women.

now, did everyone get their pasta?