My friend Tracy somehow talked me into buying a Groupon for a month’s worth of workout classes at a place called Pure Barre. Pure Barre utilizes the ballet barre to perform small isometric movements to work problem areas of the body. The class is taught by professional dancers with perky boobs, teeny tiny wastes, and glutes that defy gravity. Tracy was a few months past having her second c-section and it had been a little over two years since I had mine. After our first class we decided that we needed to make t-shirts that read, “Leave me alone. I had a baby pulled out of here.” with an arrow pointing to our abdominal muscles.
Nobody talks much about women that have c-sections. These days, approximately one out of three babies is born through a cesarean section. I know there are women who electively choose to have this surgery. I know there are women who are vehemently against this type of birth. And I know there are women like me who desperately want to have a vaginal delivery but for some reason can’t. The purpose of this entry is to not point fingers or to cast judgement on anyone; rather, it’s my humble attempt to explain the thought process that I went through during this time in my life in the hopes of helping others who may be feeling the same way that I did.
During my pregnancy, I read all of the typical “What to Expect” type of books. I joined chat rooms, I attended every class the hospital had to offer, I watched video after video. The one thing I didn’t do was research much about c-sections. All of the pregnancy sites make it seem like it’s no big deal. Most of them call it a “procedure” verses a surgery. They tell you that you’ll have a very small, thin scar above your bikini line. They explain that you’ll be in the hospital at least 3 days and that you won’t be able to climb stairs or lift anything heavier than your baby for two weeks. Not one of them prepared me for the emotional recovery that I would have to face post surgery.
As happy and as joyous as I was upon the arrival of my beautiful, healthy baby girl, there was a big part of me that was angry at my own body for not being able to deliver her naturally. A woman’s body is designed for the birthing process and I felt like mine had let me down. I also felt guilty because my daughter was forced to enter the world by literally being ripped out of my body. I felt inadequate, that I was somehow less of a woman than my friends who were actually able to deliver a baby the “right” way. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be a mother to this perfect little soul. I knew about postpartum depression and had read much on the subject, but in all of my reading, I never once saw anything written about Caesarean Depression, nor did my doctor mention anything about it. On top of all of the lovely feelings of postpartum depression, c-section depression includes feeling like a failure, feeling inadequate, feeling guilty, regretful, and resentful. One report I found claims that some therapists compare the depth of depression after a c-section to that of soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. It’s a big deal.
The feeling that I was unworthy of being a mother lasted a few months for me. Once the thoughts entered my head they would not leave me alone. Every cry, every mistake, every whimper served as proof that I was an unfit mother. Finally, one day, my head cleared and I was able to release the destructive thoughts. One of the biggest things that helped me to do this was to research exactly what was done to my body during this “30 minute procedure”.
First, the lower half of my body was numbed. Although I couldn’t feel anything from the waste down, I was completely awake. Next, a catheter was inserted and my stomach was draped. After the screen was put in place to prevent me from watching, the cutting began. A scalpel was used to make an incision in my lower abdomen which exposed a layer of yellow fat. The doctor continued cutting through this fat until she was able to see the fascia underneath. (The fascia serves as a floor to the fatty layer.) The fascia was cut horizontally on each side to expose my rectus abdominal muscles. These muscles were not cut but were pulled apart to expose the next layer, which is the peritoneum. (The peritoneum is the actual lining of the abdominal cavity.) The roof of the peritoneum was opened with scissors until the doctor could see my bowel and lower abdomen underneath. Another layer of the peritoneum, this time on the floor of the abdomen, was cut on both sides so that the doctor could move my bladder out of the way in order to expose my uterus. An incision was cut in the lower portion of my uterus, exposing my daughter’s head. I can remember my doctor telling me that my daughter was very alert and starring at everyone at this point in the procedure. My daughter was removed from my uterus and whisked away to be suctioned and cleaned while my placenta was removed by being separated from my uterine wall. My uterus was then tilted and moved through all of my incisions and laid on my belly to be closed back together by the doctor. The doctor next allowed my uterus to fall back into my pelvis, hopefully exactly as it was positioned before. My peritoneum was left opened to close on its own, as was the roof and floor of my abdominal muscles. The fascia was put back together with thick sutures- this was the most important repair as the fascia is the supporting layer of my abdomen. My skin was then brought back together and closed with glue. Piece of cake. Ha. Thirty minute procedure, my ass. A 30 minute procedure is having a wart removed or an ingrown toenail fixed. This is SO much more. According to doctors, this constitutes as MAJOR ABDOMINAL SURGERY. If you don’t believe me, please watch a live c-section birth on youtube. I watched it for the first time last night and I am forever changed. I had no idea that a c-section IS such a big deal. I had no idea that my stomach cavity was opened like it was. I had no idea just how deeply I was cut into. Just because this has become a common surgery does not make it any less of a big deal. Just because I was unable to push my child out does not make me a failure or less of a woman. Having a c-section is not the “easy way out”.
It took me awhile to get to this point. I had to realize that my body did not let me down. In fact, it underwent a pretty traumatic experience and handled it beautifully. There is no other type of surgery where a person is literally cut open and then asked to hold, nurse, and take care of her new baby a few hours later. Yet, one out of three women do just that. So, maybe those of us who have undergone this 30 minute procedure can hold our heads a little bit higher. We are stronger than we think. We are braver than we ever imagined. We are mothers. We have the scar to prove it.
Last year, I took on the job of decorating my 2 year old daughter’s Valentine box for her little preschool party. I emptied a cereal box, wrapped it with some cute hot pink gift wrap, decorated the paper with heart stickers, added a red feather boa around the top and used 3 inch black vinyl letters to spell her name across the top…”HADLEY.” It was adorable and completely predictable, an almost exact replica of the example I was copying on Pinterest. This year I told my husband that it was his turn for the old, already dreaded, Valentine box. He immediately started brainstorming things that my daughter is currently interested in, mainly princesses and Strawberry Shortcake. After a brief discussion together, the two decided that they are going to build a castle. I currently have a shoe box, square kleenex box, toilet paper rolls, cans of spray paint, Mod Podge, Styrofoam triangles, and sequins with sticky backs sitting on my kitchen table. I’m pretty sure Hadley will always remember the castle she created with her father. I’m also pretty sure that my adorable, professional looking box from last year never even had a chance of becoming a memory. (The project starts tomorrow and I’m convinced I really did marry Prince Charming.)
As I see this pile of craft supplies and sketches of an idea in front of me, I am reminded of certain school projects where I was asked to create, to do it my way. I can’t help but recall a poster of a hand-drawn map of the world, a video project after a long unit of study where I am acting out some scene from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to prove that I learned about the Greek philosophers, and a shoebox diorama filled with carefully molded people and all of the moss I could find in my mom’s flowerpots, depicting a scene from The Secret Garden. As much as I hated these assignments, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t end up enjoying the creative process. Instead of being asked to fill in a blank of memorized material, these types of assignments forced me to think outside of the box and to tie a large amount of knowledge into a nice, neat package. I learned so much more during these open-ended assignments than I ever did studying and memorizing facts for a test.
After my 10 years of teaching experience, I am saddened that children are given less and less opportunities to show what they have learned in their own creative manner. Just because children can’t pass a multiple choice test does not mean that they do not know the material. During art, we ask them to create an exact replica of an example, offering them only the materials that they need in order to copy. Instead of asking children to create “this bird,” why not ask them to create their own type of bird using whatever materials they can find? Students are discouraged from doing any type of thinking outside of the box. They are forced to prove their knowledge based on one standardized type of assessment. Our role as educators has shifted from nurturing and guiding each individual life into squeezing each soul into an “ideal student/citizen” based on the requirements of our governments. Right or wrong, our jobs as teachers depend on us doing just that.
Now that I am a parent, I am fighting the urge to squeeze my daughter into my own standardized assessment of the benchmarks I have made of her life: must walk by the age of one, must meet each baby milestone a month in advance, must get into THE preschool, must be in THIS play group, must go to Disney World by the age of 6, must be popular, must be pretty, must go to college, must get good grades, must go to a certain type of church, must marry handsome wealthy boy at the age of 30, and on and on. I can see myself going down this road and it isn’t pretty. If my daughter is a people pleaser, she will spend her whole life trying to pass my tests to make me proud of her. She will forever feel as if she has to earn my love. Even if I never verbalize my wishes, my words and my body language will make it apparently clear if I am pleased or not, if she has passed my assessment. This means she will never feel free to build her own life and to chase her own dreams. If she wakes up and realizes that it is her life to live and she stops trying to please me, does that mean I judge her life a failure? Does that mean I judge MYSELF as a FAILURE?
Instead, what if I look at this precious little soul that I am responsible for and nurture her to be the best version of herself that she can be? After all, she is made in the image of the Creator, with her own personality, talents, and ideas. Who am I to try to change her, to squeeze and force her soul into this mold of what society dictates as the perfect woman? What if I look at my daughter and instead focus on teaching her love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness? It is up to her to prove that she has learned these life lessons. Her life can be any rainbow of colors, sequins or dull, fuzzy or smooth, bumpy or flat. If her life diorama shows me that she understands these fruits of the spirit, then I have passed the ultimate test. Her life. Her open-ended assignment. My job is teacher, mentor, mother; never the director. I don’t want her to copy my example of a bird. I want her to create her own bird and I want her to fly.
I am breathless as I push open the doors to Kripalu Yoga Center in the heart of the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. Not only is it freezing, but I seriously had just snagged the very last parking space and had lugged my suitcase, backpack and purse down from what can only be called a parking lot mountain. Feeling completely proud of flying this far by myself and for driving 1.5 hours in my rental car without getting lost, I push open the front doors of the retreat.
After dumping my belonging in the luggage room, I continue forward to the check-in line. A lady behind the counter hands me the weekend program agenda and begins listing the Kripalu rules for me:
- Breakfast each morning is silent so that I can begin my day in “quiet meditation”. I immediately have flashbacks of silent lunch in elementary school when we were being punished.
- I am only allowed to use my cell phone in the luggage room or any of the “phone booths” conveniently located in the middle of each floor. (Think of a tiny hall closet with a window.)
- I am given 2 name tags. I am to wear one at all times and the second is to mark my bunk bed. (I absolutely abhor name tags. Makes me feel like I am a branded cow.)
- If I am a coffee drinker (duh), I must purchase the coffee in the little cafe. Coffee is not served in the dining room and is not included in the price of my meals. (Seriously?!?)
Taking a deep breath, I fake smile and head to my room. The place looks nothing like it did in the advertisements or as I’d pictured in my mind. When I think of a retreat, I think of fluffy white robes and slippers, clean white walls with accents of sage green and of course soft music and rock fountains to complete the ambiance. Instead, this place reminds me of my old college dorm. As I reach Room 305 and push open the door, I notice two sets of bunk beds with a single bed between them. The beds are each equipped with a fitted sheet and pillow with pillow case. The covers and top sheet are neatly folded at the foot of each bed. ( I have to finish making my own bed? What kind of retreat is this?!?) I claim the middle single bed by sliding one of my name tags into the proper place and am happy to see that each bed has its own safe and dresser drawers. I immediately begin to unpack because, let’s face it, I’m anal this way and ALWAYS unpack. (It does make it much easier to find your things, those of you who are judging and laughing at me.) My eyes scan over to the corner of the room where I notice a small sink and mirror. There is no toilet or shower. These are conveniently found at the end of the hallway. As I start to finish making my bed, I glance up and notice the windows for the first time. Outside, the most spectacular view of the lake and mountains await me. I had been so busy judging my new living quarters that I had completely missed the beauty just outside. I feel humbled realizing how many times I miss the beauty of life because I am too busy being critical.
Having settled in, I head down to the second floor to the dining hall for dinner. Rows of long tables fill up both sides of the cafeteria with two long buffet tables occupying the middle section. I notice immediately that the food is local, organic and uber-healthy. After filling my plate, I leave the buffet and face the cramped, crowded family style tables. Sighing, I head towards an available seat. Seriously, is there anything more torturous than being forced to eat with strangers and make small talk? Maybe silent breakfast isn’t such a bad thing. I am reminded of Junior High when I used to eat my lunch in the upstairs bathroom because I never knew where to sit in the cafeteria. After introducing myself to the table and asking and answering the typical questions (So, where are you from? Do you have kids? How old are they?), I quickly began to realize that I am in the presence of some amazing people and that each has an incredible life story. Every person I had the privilege of talking to or meeting touched me in some way.
After dinner, I head back upstairs to my room and to meet my roommates. There are just 3 of us which is nice. We discover that we are all here for the same reason, to see Claire Dederer, author of Poser: My LIfe in 23 Yoga Poses and to do yoga with Anne Phyfe Palmer, founder of 8 Limbs Yoga. It’s time for the first session so my roomies and I head down to the basement (aka annex) for our first class session.
The purpose of these sessions is to learn how to write a memoir. When I signed up to come, I seriously had no interest in writing a memoir. Who in their right mind would be interested in my life? I truly signed up because I related so much to Claire’s Poser book, couldn’t find Claire’s email address, and wanted to thank her for the book. This book was one of the first things to inspire and motivate me to be real and to be vulnerable. By telling the truth about being a woman and about being a mother, Claire helped me realize that other women felt the way that I was feeling, that I wasn’t alone. She helped me to be brave enough to be vulnerable and to reach out to others.
As we enter the room, Claire immediately walks over to us and introduces herself. I want to grab her, squeeze her, and throw her into the air. Instead, I smile, introduce myself and sit down. Claire and Anne Phyfe do the intro and then tell us to introduce ourselves. We are asked to tell about our writing and yoga experience. Our small group of 9 is filled with 8 women and 1 man. We vary in ages and writing abilities. Most live close enough to drive to the center; I am the furtherest from home. My intro went something like this: “My name is Amy. I started doing yoga about 1.5 years ago and my life completely changed. I found that as my body started opening up, so did my mind. I am now a certified yoga teacher and although I don’t consider myself a writer, my husband and I do have a little blog and I write about the lessons life is teaching me.” Everyone’s story in the group is unique and brave.
Throughout the course of the weekend, vulnerability is the thread of our writing. Great memoir writing comes from the author’s vulnerability as Claire so brilliantly demonstrates. The weekend is emotionally raw as we are asked to again and again write with vulnerability. Our yoga practices with Anne Phyfe help us all to unlock many of the emotions buried deep inside. Claire tasks us to describe ourselves in 2 different times in our lives, a point A and a point B, to show the growth and change in ourselves. For me, Point A is an uptight, close minded perfectionist, a master chameleon that tries to please everyone else but has no idea how to please herself. Point B is the me you are reading about now- a more open minded, yoga “hippie” who is still a bit scared and unsure but who has never more been secure, peaceful, or happy.
As I am currently sitting on the plane flying back home to Houston, I am excited that there is a Point A and a Point B in my life. I shudder to think of my life if I hadn’t made that shift, if I was still living in fear afraid to step on toes or to make changes. By allowing myself the freedom to question and grow, I am discovering my true authentic self. I can’t help but wonder how many people out there only have a Point A? What is life without growth and change? Even though many of the vulnerable times in my life were difficult, each helped shed a layer of myself that was no longer serving me. There is beauty and bravery in the release of the old self.
Kripalu, although vastly different than my imagination, turned out to be the perfect retreat for me. It taught me that I am braver than I thought and that sometimes being uncomfortable and feeling vulnerable are just what we need to shed that last bit of restraint. As yoga teaches, the beauty is in the surrender.
*Dedicated to our little Kripalu writing group. You taught me the excitement of living life abundantly and the beauty of being vulnerable. For that, I will always be grateful.