Thursday, December 29, 2011

Birth: a Rite of Passage

Once, on the beach, I met a woman who had a little daughter. I was not a mother yet. She spoke to me about the fact that when she gave birth she didn’t know anything about birth. She didn’t know she would bleed afterwards. She didn’t know the doctors would cut her perineum. She didn’t know many things and she was blaming her mother because she didn’t tell her, she didn’t prepare her for birth.

For what I knew, and my mother told me, the doctors cut women’s perineum at birth. For me that was a statement, a truth. That is how it was supposed to be, that is how my mother put it. I though every woman knew that. I felt pity for the woman on the beach. I could feel her disappointment, and almost her anger. She felt betrayed, by her mother and by the medical system. She felt alone.

When I became pregnant I felt ignorant. I realized I didn’t know anything about birth, just bits and pieces. I felt unprepared. I started buying books, as this was the only way I knew to gain knowledge quickly and thoroughly. The other way I knew was enlightenment, however you can’t count on that. It might happen but also not. I did hear a few brief yet encouraging birth stories from my sister-in-law and my friend. They were positive and nice: easy birth, no problems, meditation through pain on one side and 8 hours pre-partum shopping that made things smoother on the other. Those two stories made their way though many more unpleasant ones that I just discarded at some point.

I was attracted by natural birth. I started peeping at Youtube and discovered a whole world of natural birth video diaries. I stumbled upon the documentary “The Business of Being Born” and I cried. It was the first time I saw what the birth looked like, or how it was supposed to look in a normal situation. Here, the normality switched its meaning for me. Before, I thought giving birth in a hospital was normal and the way it was supposed to be. Now, I realized giving birth was an intimate event, so intimate that it should be practiced at home, or at least in a nice place with nice and caring people who would help without invading.

I realized the episiotomy was not necessary. No, women were not supposed to be routinely cut at the perineum. The perineum might tear and few stitches might occur afterwards, but, no, that is not a norm. My mother was wrong. They told her so when she gave birth just because it was a practice the ob-gyns were applying by routine on birthing women. She accepted the explanation without questioning. She didn’t have much choice. But, I had a choice. I had all the choices of this world, because I was looking for them. I realized birth was not just a mechanical procedure of extracting a child from a woman’s womb, it was a sacred act. It was a passage to life for a new creature. It was a rite of passage for a new mother. I perceived the birth of my child as a rite; archetypal, radical, mind-shifting, body changing, inner and external metamorphoses that would make me a different person. I would be reborn with the birth of my child. It was a rite that I had to go through with the total presence of my body and soul.

I needed a shaman to guide me as I was not wise enough in that practice. I found it in Ibu Robin Lim, my midwife. She was my guide. She was there to show me the way but she made me do the job. She believed in me. That was all that I needed. I felt I could trust her. I knew she understood my need for ritual. She was the prophet of birth poetry. She was my angel and my Mother, my Grandmother and my Great-grandmother. She was the connection to the holy feminine. She knew that I knew that she knew. We sang my daughter through together. The rite was accomplished, the transformation occurred and it was acknowledged. I was consciously new and ready for a major challenge of my life: Motherhood.

In some ways, the intensity of birth makes everything else look easy. It is the scary black forest, the unknown beast, the demon to face at the moment of passage to another stage of life. Yet, I am slowly realizing birth was only the beginning, a noisy and colorful inauguration of a life full of challenges, a celebration of intensity of parenthood. I am extremely glad it went as it went, so I could move forward without regret knowing I am on my arduous path towards wisdom.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ibu Robin Lim CNN Hero of 2011!

Thank you all of you who voted for her! Ibu Robin Lim truly is a hero and an angel of life. This is a big day for mothers and babies.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Monday, October 24, 2011

Vote for Ibu Robin Lim - CNN Hero 2011

Vote for Indonesian midwife Robin Lim, CNN Hero 2011, to support the woman-to-woman midwifery model of care, and help build a new birthing and health center to help marginalized women. A vote for Robin Lim is a vote for Safe Motherhood and Infant Survival.

You can vote every day for ten times until the 7th of December. It's the unique opportunity for Bumi Sehat Clinic in Bali to win 250.000 US$, so to raise funds for such an important mission.

I gave birth with the help of Ibu Robin Lim in Bumi Sehat. I consider myself so lucky, I couldn't have wished for a better birth. Ibu Robin was my angel and she became my dear friend. She thought me how to trust in my own body. Her approach brings back the spirituality and the sacrality in the act of birth. She made my passage to motherhood smooth and soothed in flowers and lovely chants. My daughter was welcomed to our world in the most gentle way. I wish more and more women and their children could experience that.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Breastfeeding Mermaids of Bologna

The mermaid of the Fountain of Neptune in Bologna (photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto) is the image I recall when I’m concerned about my milk supply. I visualize it vividly, my breasts start to tickle and I feel the flow reaching my nipples. I breathe a sigh of relief: everything’s fine, my baby, you’ll have enough food, as much as you need, whenever you wish.

One day, while I was living in Bologna, my friend Vlatko came to visit me. We went for a nice walk across the city ending up in Piazza del Nettuno. The city of Bologna is in shape of a star and Piazza del Nettuno is right in the middle, next to the main square. The little square is named after a fountain dominated by a massive statue of ancient god of all seas. Neptune is standing on top of a pedestal that is held by four magnificent mermaids. These mermaids are sitting on waves with their split fish tail spread. Their hands are offering abundant breasts sprinkling water from their nipples.

I tried to tell my friend a story about the statue of Neptune that, only if you look from a certain angle, sports an imposing sex. Optical illusion and sassy joke of the artist. But, Vlatko was mesmerized by the mermaids: “They look so pornographic! What are they doing? How is it possible that they do that in the middle of the city?!!” I was so used by the naked bodies in the Italian art and by the everyday sight of that same fountain, that I couldn’t understand what was so shocking. Then I tried to see with his eyes. In fact, the mermaids were generously offering their big breasts to everybody, from all four cardinal directions. Their split tail was proudly showing the lovely shell in the middle. Their tapered hands were adorably squeezing their full breasts so that the water could spray in several fine streams – exactly like a boob full of milk. However, there were no infants with the mermaids; the “milk” was there for everybody. It was spilling perpetually, day and night, never ending copiousness of a precious fluid. Those breasts and those thighs were the celebration of wealth and life, even lavishness. The fountain was undoubtedly erotic. Yet, the gesture of the mermaids was more maternal then erotic to me. I guess it appealed in a different manner to a man.

The author of the statues (photo by Patrick Clenet) is Giambologna, a Flemish Renaissance sculptor that finished the fountain around 1567. In those days, it was not uncommon to see on paintings and sculptures a breastfeeding Madonna, or simply a woman with her breast exposed and offered to a child, sometimes with her milk spilling out. Supposedly, it was equally not uncommon to see a mother breastfeeding her child in everyday life. My friend was not familiar with that kind of scenes, as probably most of young man today. He could hardly see breastfeeding in public, except for occasional gypsy baggers at the traffic lights. He could equally hardly see breastfeeding scenes in contemporary art or popular mass culture.

The client who commissioned the Fountain of Neptune was Cardinal Carlo Borromeo. The aim of the Church was to “symbolize the fortunate recent election of Borromeo's uncle as Pope Pius IV” (quote from Wikipedia). In the Christian iconography, breastfeeding was associated with Christian charity, the Church was represented by the mother. Her breasts were offering Christian love to infants and adults. There could be a digression about adult breastfeeding and its representations inside or outside religious context, but we can skip this subject for now. Instead, we can point out how the mermaids hold their breasts in the same manner as Flemish Virgin with Child from the XV century (visit a beautiful on line resource on breastfeeding in art). The mermaids of the Neptune’s Fountain are not carrying a child though, but they are gleefully spouting their breast fluids in our direction. It could be a kind of a playful act, or maybe another gag of the artist mad about the controversy concerning the dimension of “The Giant”’s male attributes. The fountain has also four cheeky water bearing cherubs purring water from a pot right above the mermaids’ heads.

This scene reminds me of a teenage mother who came to visit me in Bologna with my sister on their graduation trip. She was seventeen and already a mother of a toddler. Her graduation trip was one of the few occasions she could still enjoy as a simple teenager. I was so moved by seeing her spending her week of freedom lying on the couch in front of our big TV. She had all my sympathy. During one of her few escapades outside the idle zone, she went with my sister and my sister’s boyfriend on a public bus. There was an old grumpy couple somewhere in front of them. “Bet I can sprinkle them with my milk right in the face!”, the teenage mother challenged playfully. She pulled out her breast, squeezed it and centered the old man right on the spot in a few meters distance without the victim noticing where it came from. I found the gesture hilarious. The mermaids of the Fountain of Neptune reminded me of her ever since.

Vlatko was right about one thing: mermaids are usually not represented breastfeeding. I could not even say that the mermaids from Bologna are mothers (Madonnas) breastfeeding a child, since there is no infant catching the precious fluid in their arms. However, the mermaids are undoubtedly pouring water from their breasts, therefore I assume they are breastfeeding, since I could not imagine any other function symbolized by the liquid coming from the nipples. The commonplace wants the mermaids erotic, enchanting, elusive, even menacing, and here they are maternal, generous, firmly grounded and open. On this fountain, their traditionally seductive nature is enriched by their propensity to feed. They might also look as a kind lover, promising joy and delight together with complete fulfillment. Their gestures are both sensually aggressive as well as maternally gentle. It could be that we are not used today to the complexity and subtleness of old fashioned personification of female seductiveness. Our modern female stereotypes are confined to the mare physical readiness to perform sexual gymnastics, if they are not totally deprived of flesh and force. None of the modern icons representing the feminine in popular culture features maternity as stimulus for desire. Only the contemporary fixation on big breasts remains an open question that calls for more in-depth research.

There are several interesting articles on line about the nature and the iconography of mermaids (see the explanation of the Starbucks logo). Digging into the history of mermaids we find out they are more then just male sexual fantasies. Apparently, “the mermaid is the surviving aspect of the old goddesses” (quote from Scarlett deMason, Shadows of the Goddess - The Mermaid). Her origins in Western culture lead us to Aphrodite, ancient Greek “fertility goddess, and goddess of fair sailing”, whose attributes descend from the earlier great Goddess. From the Babilonian sea-god Oannes and his sister Tethys, an entire sea population is generated creating, among others, Tritons, gods of the sea, and Nereids, sea-nymphs.

“Nereids had become synonymous with mermaids by the time of Pliny (80 CE) and the Tritons the originators of the mermen. The original sea-gods were Wise Old Men of the Sea in keeping with the tradition begun by Oannes, but the Tritons were a lustful and rapacious lot, fond of assaulting unwary sea-nymphs and human women alike, doubtless as a result of their association with Venus.
The Nereids on the other hand were protective of sailors, and reserved their beautiful singing voices to entertain their father, unlike the dangerous Sirens who ensnared sailors with their enchanting voices and lured them to watery deaths. The Sirens were originally bird-women related to the Egyptian Ra, or soul birds, demons of death sent to catch souls. But the Sirens eventually became synonymous with mermaids; thus the mermaids acquired their unpleasant reputation for drowning sailors. This evil aspect can also be traced to a certain degree as stemming from Greek sea-monster propaganda, promoting a fearful image of the sea to discourage commercial rivals in shipping and colonization.” Scarlett de Mason, “Shadows of the Goddess - The Mermaid”.

I confess I used the terms sirens and mermaids as synonyms without knowing the difference. Accordingly, the ones represented on our fountain should be more correctly called Nereids (photo by Patrick Clenet). Yet, both generous then rapacious nature of respectively Nereids and sirens belong to the complex nature of the great Goddess who was represented both as inviting maternal woman, as well as rapacious unkind creature. So the mermaids of our fountain are not that incongruent after all, the artist must have chosen the maternal side of these mythological creatures on purpose. I would like to venture a comparison between Nereids of Bologna and previously mentioned Sheela-Na-Gig, following the suggestion of Heinz Insu Fenkl. The spread thighs, namely the split fish tail of the mermaids, offer a clear view of the “shell”, positioned in such way that leaves no doubt on its availability and accessibility. It is a vulva. The association of a shell with the female mammal’s genitals is a commonplace in Western art. In the Manieristic artwork of the Flemish sculptor, the sexually suggestive nature of the mermaids is not at all condemned, but emphasized. The sensual feature is enforced by the maternal attitude of the Nereids without compromising their feminine appeal. In this case, the Church did not use the mermaid as representation of the evil and temptation, as it happened in the past, but as a symbol of prosperity and generosity of the Church herself.

Those who have spent some time in Bologna could easily recall some commonplaces the natives are proud of, namely the big breasts and the generous sexual skills of their women. The opulence of the city was known lengthwise and crosswise, that is why it was called “Bologna the Fat” and “Bologna the Rich”. Being home for the first Medieval University, this city is also famous for its goliard students who would spend their days as scholars between study and the practice of outrageous rites of passage. The Fountain of Neptune fits perfectly into Bologna’s own personality and it reflects the proverbial joyful character of its inhabitants. It is also a spit in the face to the others who forgot the joys of life.

At some point of my breastfeeding journey, when my little baby was growing up into a toddler, I started to doubt of my ability to feed my daughter. She became more demanding and I wasn’t sure I would have enough milk for her hungry strives that paid no attention to the fact that solid food was being introduced into the belly. Koko would avidly suck on my nipple, while I was praying to have enough milk for her. Then one day, I recalled the mermaids from Bologna, and the milk would promptly flow down in the right amount. The image of those mermaids’ perpetual abundance of breast fluids would stimulate my brain and my body as by association. I was happy to discover the power of representation and our ability to connect to our inner nature through symbolic identification.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sugar Sweet Meltin'

When I was in labor, I sang a song that Bluebird and I wrote while I was pregnant. Bluebird sang it with me while our daughter Koko was crowning. We sing this song to Koko every now and then. We sing it when we are out of any other resources to cope with her tantrums. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Still, she likes it. I think she knows it's her song.

In the video, we are singing Sweet Sugar Meltin' in our temporary home in New York, May 2011.

Friday, August 26, 2011

“Due Date”, 2010. Few Random Thoughts.

Due Date”, 2010. Directed by Todd Phillips. Co-written by Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland, and Adam Sztykiel.

A guy has to be on time for the birth of his first child. It's a planned c-section. He's having lots of troubles and adventures on the way. The ex-boyfriend of his wife asks him doesn't it bothers him to have a c-section "on that flawless body" of his wife. He is not so close to home, the wife's waters brake. She's having a spontaneous birth. He manages somehow to come in the hospital just in time to see her sitting on the birthing chair all covered up with male obstetrician in front of her about to catch the baby. Our guy passes out and misses the birth. His friend, a prick, cuts the cord and keeps a piece of it. The two boys are watching the newborn baby, who's a girl instead of being a boy they expected, laying quietly in her cradle among other babies in the nursery.

So, it's official. It is perfectly normal to have a planned c-section, even movies bring it up casually. It's kind of cool. For no apparent reason. Just because. It's the way it is, and even movie script writers don't find it necessary to give it a cause.

The only thing that might interfere is the "imperfection" afterwards. Yeah, right, like if the post-partum woman is going to be exactly the same as she was in her twenties, with or without scars. Well, she might get close; sure it takes a considerable effort and some time. Is it so important to have a “flawless” body? What is perfect? An adolescent? A woman that doesn't show any sign of fertility? Before and after. As if nothing happened. She became a mother, but she's not supposed to show it. And about the scar - hey dude, in that fancy clinic they make such masterpieces that you won't be able to find any trace of scalpel even if you have a sexual intercourse under a neon light. But then, you might see all the cellulites, the stretch marks (the ones from puberty if not from birth), the fact that one nipple is not quite the same as the other, but also the eyes look somehow asymmetric, and that hair that was left behind in the otherwise perfectly hairless pubic zone (we are talking pre-puberty now), and lots of other disturbing views. What kind of sex do you have anyway, if you're there looking for "imperfections" instead of enjoying your time? If you get laid when you're completely wasted (that was suggested in the movie), are you telling me you're able to see the flawlessness of any kind? Was this the only argument screenplay writers could find against (planned) c-section?

In the movie, we are prepared for a c-section, we accept it even if we find disturbing the fact that nobody is giving us any justification. But, then, coup de scene, the woman is having a normal birth. There must be something wrong - she's having a normal birth! OMG, is she going to be OK?

Then you see the woman sitting on that chair that is not at all a lay down position, it's almost squatting, it's, you know, almost alternative birth techniques. Well, why shouldn't she prepare to that kind of birth before? Was she afraid of pain? Was she concerned about her flawless body as well? The interruption of the flawlessness is mentioned only on the man side, nobody asked the female character if she was concerned about it. Maybe the couple made that decision because of their working agendas? We can only guess. The baby actually decides to come exactly on the planned date. I suppose the script writers didn’t bother anymore, there was no more mental space for other divergences – the movie is packed with surprises that changing the due date would be too much. Besides, the title of the movie speaks by itself. There is one certainty: the hero will succeed in getting on time for the due date no matter what. Even the baby knows that, so she comes when expected though not quite as expected.

The baby decides to come out old school. The overly mannish father faints due to his heroic mishaps. In that way he misses not only the birth of his child, but also the natural birth of his child. Nothing has changed in years. Modern fathers are not supposed to be present at birth. They might be around, but they will not watch and have the disturbing experience of their woman losing control, being similar to a wild animal. They will miss the view of her (his?) vagina being obnoxiously deformed and their child getting out from the same hole of delight they are getting in. Our hero is saved by his own bravery. His friend, an effeminate-but-not-gay boneless wanker (clearly shown in the movie), took his place. There is no competitive threat. Even though the obstetrician is a male, he is obviously not a man man, he’s on duty, he’s in a sterile shapeless uniform that leaves no room for doubt. Nonetheless, if there was still any doubt, the woman in labor is so covered up that not an inch of her (flawless?) body can be seen, she’s sealed and formless. We are not stepping out of our comfort zone, here. Are we? Would the sensuality of birth put us out of our comfort zone, instead?

Now, if we came to the point where it seems birth is not for men, why then the ob-gyn is not female? I don’t have the statistics handy, but I bet there are more female ob-gyns than male. It would be plausible to see a female obstetrician delivering the hero’s baby. What, men don’t want to see the filthy business, but they can’t either accept to leave it entirely to women? Would it be too feminist to put a woman in sterile suit and catch the baby in the movies? It happens in reality, why wouldn’t it in fiction? It might seem as a meaningless choice, but I haven’t seen a single movie where there is a woman instead of a man catching the baby in the hospital. Is Medical Guild somehow connected to Hollywood? The theory of conspiracy starts tickling my mind.

After all is done, the two guys watch the cradle in the nursery. The hero then discovers it’s a girl. The prick gave her a name, but at that point the hero doesn’t mind. Why, because he was so exhausted that nothing matters anymore but to be safe and with his family, or because it’s a girl? He was so picky for the boy’s name that he obviously had some issues with names and genders. Besides, are babies still kept in the nursery instead of being close to their mothers nowadays? What, are we still there trying to raise ruthless soldiers? No human with a little heart left could do that to a newly born creature, not after all the scientific evidence that all mammal babies need mothers or anyone taking loving care of them, closely, personally, individually, full time, right from the start, possibly breastfeeding.

The friend also cuts the cord of the hero’s child. Well, I’m not quite sure it is an honorable and propitious gesture for the fathers to be physically and symbolically the ones who separate the child from his or her mother at such an early stage. However, our hero was denied this newly acquired right that was taken by his despicable friend (who even took a souvenir). That is an offence but also a relief. When in doubt, leave it out. The cord is part of the messy birth business anyway.

Due Date” is obviously targeting men’s audience, following The Hangover trend. Yet, it deals with parenting and birth that are not usually boys’ stuff. But even the wildest boys are growing up and becoming fathers, you can’t leave them out. They need mirrors where to recognize themselves during sleepless nights without drugs and alcohol. And Hollywood is there ready to fill the void. I just discovered the screenwriters like parenting topics. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out there is an exclusive boys’ club behind all the babies related movies that are churned out at wild hard core parties where all the boys are getting drunk and wasted making fun of their deepest fears. They don’t remember how, but the screenplay was there after they woke up, and the cheesy greasy sleazy producers just loved it. Again me, making up stories behind stories. Can’t help it. However, the movie made me write 1.441 words, it must be worth seeing.

Don't You Worry About a Thing

(A pregnant beauty found in Angelo's garden. Maybe he truly is an "angel"?)

Dedicated to all the expectant mothers. May your soul be reassured by the sight of this peace bearing statue. Every little thing's gonna be alright.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sheela-Na-Gig of Sumba*

Yesterday, I was about to admire the beautiful garden of my neighbor, when I stumbled upon a statue on the ground. It was standing right before the place appointed for home-grown vegetables. After I complimented my neighbor Angelo for his lovely tomatos and aubergines, I almost fell over the erected engraved stone planted into the earth. I looked closely and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The statue I had in front was exactly the same I had in mind for years. It was Sheela-Na-Gig! In the grip of enthusiasm for the unexpected discovery, I asked him where it came from. Without noticing my thrilled state, he said: “Sumba, I think”, and he carried on. Sumba is one of the many mysterious islands of Indonesia*. It is far, very far away from the home of the other statue I recalled.

The first time I heard about Sheela-Na-Gig (also spelled Sheila Na Gig), I was at the University of Bologna following the lectures of prof. Valerio Marchetti. I was so fascinated by his researches, that I took his classes of Modern History for three years in a raw and, at the end, I chose him to be the mentor for my theses on female mystical language. Prof. Marchetti was teaching the history “of the others”: women, deviants, heretics, mystics etc.

He spoke about an ancient cult of fertility in Ireland, the cult of Sheela-Na-Gig. Apparently, Irish women would address their prayers at a certain angle of the church where there was a peculiar statue of a woman showing her vulva wide open straight to the viewer. The statue was hidden, only the ones who knew about it where aware of its existence. My professor assumed they were the remains of female pagan fertility cults that were still alive in the ‘50s in some catholic churches in the Irish countryside. I was fascinated by the statue in first place, and then by the possibility that the ancient worship of mother goddess was still alive in our time.

(picture from The British Museum's website)

The statue’s features actually shocked me. I wasn’t familiar with ancient sculptures or with primitive art at that time. The explicit exposure of the genitals where only supposed to be pornographic in my naïve and ignorant mind. My communist upbringing, which was unsuccessfully trying to deny its Judeo-Christian origins, did not consider sexuality as part of the common discourse. It was something that, alas, existed, and it was sorted as primary needs. End of the story. Now, regarding fertility, women had the option to “take a pill”, and to have an abortion, if they wanted. Once they had babies, they had to quickly recover and go back to work, leaving their offspring to their grandparents, or public nurseries. Up until mid ‘70s they were discouraged to breastfeed. They were invited to use formula instead. The major national movie imagery was packed with sexual scenes depicting rude and often brutal sexual intercourses, where women would undergo the action, instead of enjoying it. If there was a dialog about love making in the movie, it was all about denigrating the beauty of the sexual act, where dry sarcasm would try to destroy any romanticism left in that recently proletarianized mob. I could not understand why in ancient times women would pray to a deity that was proudly showing her big vulva.

I came from the world that believed in the superiority of a New Man. We were the progress, the rotting capitalism was the hideous past, and the prehistory was not even worth mentioning. All those “primitive” peoples that still existed somewhere far away were isolated debris of the human evolution. Of course, I was critical upon communism at that stage of my life, but it’s hard to rewrite your whole early programming. The fact that some women in Ireland kept their ancient believes despite centuries of harsh Catholic methods of persuasion, was empowering me. No communist, no catholic woman was allowed to be proud of her genitals. Her extraordinary ability to create was downgraded to mare duty at the service of society. No beauty was seen in the act of procreating, only pain and misery. Only the Holy Mary, a virgin, was allowed to be blessed because of her child. But, I guess not even she could escape the pain of the delivery that all women earned as a response to the misbehavior of their first ancestor. Mary remained a virgin, though. Her vulva was intact (according to The Bible, of course), yet alone wide open and bulgy. If she lived today, every hospital could make that happen with a routine c-section. This makes me wonder if our modern society was actually trying to keep our genitals intact for the sake of a certain historical role model - a perfect ideal of woman, made of thin air and eternally adolescent, unprofaned.

At the time when I was at the university, I could vaguely think of any possible mother goddess that existed in the minds of my ancestors. The ancient Slavic populations had the Mother Earth, but it was somehow different, more patriotic. Yet, I could imagine it had its roots somewhere deeper, in the muddy waters of our past that left very little traces of its existence nowadays. During my pregnancy, I made a beautiful find, Marija Gimbutas“The Language of the Goddess”. This well respected archeologist spent her lifetime exploring the material rests of the prehistorical cults of the great Goddess in all her aspects, especially in Baltic and Balkan areas, where they seemed to be abundant. Many of the iconographic expressions we use today (in art and design) are the avatars of a very old believes, fears and worships that had the Goddess as their central point. The Goddess was everything. The woman was the epitome of the Goddess for her ability to create and generate. Therefore, she was worshipped as well. The creation was a mystery, not only because of the supposed unawareness of the “primitives” regarding the physiology of procreation and birth, but because of the respect for the complex and fascinating world they were part of. A pregnant woman is a sacred creature, she glows, and even the biggest skeptic can hardly pretend not to see it. Her womb is the origin of human being, try to deny it. Her vulva is the passage from darkness to light, in any sense you want to put it. How did we find ourselves in the position to ignore the mightiness of all that?

Despite scholars’ sterile discussions, Sheela-Na-Gig is there to point out to us where our strength is, what makes us similar to the divine, in case we forgot about it while running after a moody toddler or while figuring out how to match our rights with our duties. And it is not somewhere else, but right in between our legs. Isn’t that funny? In the mythology of ancient Greeks, Demeter, the goddess of the Earth, was comforted for the loss of her daughter by a funny lady called Baubo who showed her genitals to the goddess and made her laugh. The statue from Sumba found out in my neighbor’s garden was there to remind me that the Goddess has not disappeared, she’s hidden, but still there and she manifests herself in unexpected ways to the ones who are open to embrace her, as she is open to embrace us. I am not talking about religion of any kind, I’m talking about the power of symbolism that can reach our deepest archetypal self making us feel well with ourselves.

I want to go to Sumba* and ask the Sumba people* what they think about it.

* EDIT (7 November 2012): Actually, the statue appears to be from Sulawesi island in Indonesia, as I was to discover by receiving one in my own garden after long search. I am now a happy owned on one of the few left Sheela-na-gigs of Sulawesi, about 70 years old.
EDIT (8 jULY 2014) I still don't know if the statue is from Sumba or Sulawesi... Sorry, folks!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What is the Right Time for Motherhood?

When I was 25-27, I couldn`t stand the pressure of my relatives concerned about me being a single and not considering having children. My cousin even accused me of being selfish. I never understood why, though I spent some time thinking about it. When I got married, me and my husband didn`t want children, only fun. My mom stopped asking me about my intentions to become a mother after she realized the more she would speak about it, the more I would get irritated and hate the idea. Only from time to time, she`d mention the happiness of being a mother regretting that I "will never feel it". Now, I never said I would never become a mother. Though I must confess I said that children were monsters.
When I went over 30, I still didn`t feel it was my time. However, I did start thinking that some day I might want to have children, though I didn`t have any plans yet. At one party a cousin of a friend (what`s the matter with cousins?!!) was telling me that if I didn`t have children I would become "dry". I hardly understood what she had in mind, it was something about being selfish (again), egoistic, uncompassionate, sad, bitter, grumpy and so on. I answered that I didn`t want children now but when I`d want them, I would have them. I adopted this answer for years that followed. Of course I encountered many people telling me I might not be able to have children when I wanted them, but I considered them being only unconsciously malevolent. Some books and some authors made me think about conscious conceivment in an uncommon way. I thought the idea of starting a new life with a "cosmic orgasm", that Jodorowsky was talking about, was a good thing and much fun too.
My marriage did`t last all life long, as I though it would. We parted in piece and mutual agreement. Then, I met another man. It was like a blast. We both felt close to what might be a "cosmic orgasm", it was more than just having sex, it was having more sex. We both agreed it was exceptional and not only physical. And for some alchemical reason we have both felt like being chosen by a certain soul to guide it through this world. I am deeply convinced that children choose their parents before being born. It`s not a simple chromosomes exchange. So, the desire to have a child appeared to me loud and clear. It was my time. I made myself available. I opened my heart and let the love flow freely. I felt humble and receptive. I gained weight. I had visions. I didn`t have plans, I was simply enjoying it.
I got pregnant at the age of 35. I didn`t feel old or late. I felt right, blissfully right. I had no fear any more. I wanted my little monster to love her beyond all reason.

Mom made baby clothes

One month before giving birth I realised there were almost no children clothes that I liked. I must say I’m not a frantic shopping fan, but as I’d enter some specialized shops I’d immediately feel boredom. Maybe too much choice was making me yawn or was it too much of the same stuff? Anyway, as I can’t easily find clothes for myself, the same way I couldn’t find them for my kiddo. I did as I do for myself (a part from heading to H&M when I’m desperate): I made the little clothes myself. In Bali, where I’ve been living, the wet season was particularly hot at the time when I gave birth. I needed something thin and cool for my daughter. Thin, so it could dry fast even if she sweats or spits on her self. Cool, because cool mama gotta have cool kid, and because the heat rush is really annoying. I convinced my partner to drive me to our favourite fabrics retailer and bought bags full of cotton voile and 50s jersey. I had some stock at home as well. I purchased new threads and sew-on push buttons and started to make patterns.

First of all I needed special clothes for my newborn as we didn’t cut the umbilical chord (lotus birth). They had to be light and short with enough space for the chord to peek. I made a little sleeveless jersey hoodie with hand sewn push buttons. The hood to protect the head from masuk angin. The Indonesians are firmly convinced that the wind enters the body, especially through the infant’s head. Their children never leave the room without a hat, often made of wool, even on the 40° C. The little red hoodie made the deal.

The following necessity was an item that would protect the baby’s face from tiny but long nails on the uncontrollable mini hand finally wondering freely in the air. So I made a striped cotton jersey kimono with looong sleeves. I didn’t have the heart to put on my daughter’s hands those funny round gloves that make babies look like a looney boxer. I wasn’t convinced that all babies inevitably scratch themselves, but I couldn’t bet mine wouldn’t do so. I made this top just in case. In fact Koko had long well manicured nails when she was born, but she didn’t use them against her cheeks or nose, yet. I bite them out as soon as possible – following the instructions from my maternity manual. She wore the item for two months.

I also made a baby sling. When we were shopping for the newborn in Rome we were wondering about the price for simple jersey slings. They were around 50 and 75€, it sounded a little bit too much for the fashion industry insiders. After all it was a piece of fabrics cut and sewn on the edges, ok a very long piece. We new the price of fabrics, so we went and bought some that we liked. I chose the pink-grey combination and daddy chose the blue-grey one. We bought one kilo of the pink and got one sling long 5 and another 2,70m, plus the leftovers for many other items to make in the future. We got less of the blue one and made a short 2,70m wrap and also had reusable leftovers. It all cost us 15€. The long one was perfect for Rome and the short one, due to less fabric, to the hot weather in Bali.

I made some other sleeveless and hoodless tops and also had enough fabrics for six pillows. In Bali they sell pillows without the option to buy the cover of the same size. Again, I had to sew them myself, in three different shapes and sizes.

For more then a month, Koko had a severe heat rush and the heat outside and inside the house was exhausting. She lived and slept naked with only her cloth diaper on. I made her pure transparent cotton cover sheets to keep her cool and dry without irritating her skin. It was easier for me to make the sheets then to go around and buy them. I was respecting the holy 40 days post-partum rest, so didn’t move far from bed. I cut the fabrics and gave to the neighbour tailor to sew the edges. We tried to get rid of the rush in oh so many ways. No product would help until we discovered maizena – the corn starch - bough in the local street market. They don’t sell sophisticated European baby products in Bali. We got some later, but the maizena seemed to do the work, for our great joy.

This is my masterpiece. Searching for inspiration in the internet I discovered a hadagi, a kind of Japanese shirt worn under a kimono. It looked ideal for babies and there are some savvy brands making them (piccolo). It immediately hooked my sense of stylishness and I started cutting my cottons. I liked how it looked on my baby, so mystic and peaceful. It was like she was meditating all the time. It was like she was an angel not yet landed on Earth. Balinese hold their newborns in their arms all the time until they are three months old, then after a ceremony they are allowed to touch the ground. They consider them still floating between the two worlds until that time. We used this hadagi for three whole months.
Once I started with kimono style I kept on going that way exploring numerous variations. The sleeveless one is particularly handy. It fits for longer time, its fresh and it’s easy to put on and take off. Of course, we are talking about summer weather here, since we didn’t see the cold old Europe yet.

I tried to experiment with thin that can’t be thinner rayon jersey. This material is so soft and fresh on touch that it feels almost like water. I made a few variations with or without sleeves and daddy absolutely loved it. I wasn’t very happy about the results since this fabrics stretches in an uncontrollable way, so once you cut and sew you don’t know what’s going to happen when the top is worn. It goes loose in all directions contributing to create a very non-chalant who-cares look. But we use these pieces very much, even if our baby looks like a clochard in it, it’s smooth and chill, perfect for excessive heat.

At the age of three months, Koko started to discover her hands and her motoric skills highly improved. The kimono started to seem a little bit too open and the bows with loose ends started to look suspicious. I turned my head towards something more compact but still breathing. I had some transparent voile. I made a kaftan-body. One of the downside of kimonos is that they roll upward when the baby starts to move a lot. The kaftan body suit was a nice solution for all the new rising needs. The result was a perfect Bali expat shi shi look.

Happy Hormones

There was a moment when I felt I wanted a child. I opened my gates to the universe in an archaic dance invoking the ancient cheeky goddess Baubo. She had a laugh and fulfilled my wish. My consciousness burst into million fragments, my body liquefied into fire. I was forging my new self.

From the moment when I expressed my wish I started gaining weight. It was like my mind was already pregnant and my body followed. Then, it happened. I was grateful, I was ecstatic, I was confused. The perception of my body changed. If before I was worried about every single gram balancing on my scale, focusing on my belly terrified about its bloatness or floppiness, now I was full of joy glorifying my new roundness. I was looking into the mirror with pride. I was adoring myself like never before. Sure, I had ups and downs, I wasn`t in control of anything. My mind was lost in the upper skies singing with cherubs, my body was uselessly trying to regulate the urging tide of hormones. It took a while, but after few months I was riding my wave of blissfulness like a pro. I was enjoying and showing off my new breasts. I was exposing my skin soft and smooth to the eyes of the world. I was swaying my beautiful hair left and right. I was walking straight and proud, but most of the times I was laying in bed for long hours.

I had the urge to document my transformation. It was something beautiful happening to me. This change, that before I was so afraid of, was the most sensual metamorphosis I`ve ever had the chance to witness. I was afraid of my belly becoming big, yet now it was getting humongous right below my chin and this fact was making me happy! I was horrified of outgrowing my jeans for half a size, and now I could only wear the last number of jersey leggings magnifying my big ass triumphantly reigning on the top of my luckily long legs. Yet, I felt like a queen. I disdained maternity apparel and brazenly squeezed in silhouette making tops and fancy dresses. With 14 kilos more I had the feeling of rising from the foam on top of a shell. I had the same mysterious smile glowing on my face. The nature have thought about everything, that humorous bastard. That tricky cheeky funny lady sprinkled a fist full of magical powder right in front of my eyes - they call it happy hormones. She sprinkles them all over and around a pregnant woman making her feel like goddess and making other people surrounding her see the beauty of creation instead of radical disfigurement of a female body.

For nine months I walked in front of the mirror and winked. From time to time I clicked, downloaded and saved.

Elena Skoko, May 2010

Introduction to “Happy Hormones” pregnancy self-portraits exhibition (work in progress).

Friday, August 19, 2011

Our Singing Birth Story

I gave birth in Bali. I had a natural birth in water, assisted by midwife Ibu Robin Lim. My daughter had a lotus birth, we didn’t cut her cord and we left her placenta attached to her until the cord dropped off spontaneously. I also used our placenta as a post-partum remedy. I treated it with salt, I dried it and I ate it in form of grinded powder.

Now, my girlfriends thought all this was very exotic and extremely unusual. They asked me to describe my experience in detail. So I did. I was amazed by their reaction; I didn’t realize how lonely can a new mother be. I had such an emotional feedback. Every new mother got back to me with her own story, and other women who didn’t have children were equally moved. My experience was unfamiliar to them, but at the same time, it was awakening something very deep and painful, a wound. I followed the suggestion to share my story beyond the circle of friends, as it could help other women to make their choices, but most of all to make them feel less alone. I published my Memoirs of a Singing Birth. Giving birth is an extremely emotional experience; it is such an intense state that there will never be enough words to describe it, but oh, how much do we need them; in form of storytelling, poems, songs, performances… We have a deeply rooted need to celebrate motherhood.

Before, when I was a Maiden, my perception of birth was vague, distant and unfamiliar. As the matter of fact, I was scared in front of that black hole that for me was the act of birth. My mother gave birth in the hospital for three times. She didn’t have much to tell about it. Or, she didn’t like to go into detail about that experience, just few hints. I knew my grandmother gave birth at home, on her bed. For three times she was assisted by her mother, my great-grandmother, who was a medicine woman, and by her husband, who was holding her under the arms while she was kneeling. It was a beautiful image that I cherished as a jewel in my memory, since my mother told me about it. The forth time she gave birth, my grandma had a modern midwife since her mother could not assist her anymore, and this midwife was applying modern birthing methods, like a lay-down position. It was in the late ‘50s. But the labor was hard and long and my grandma made it only when the midwife told her to do as she did before, kneeling. Later on, the practice of midwifery became illegal in my country. All women that I knew gave birth in a hospital. The medicated birth was the end of birth storytelling; there was only silence, few descriptive words and occasional whispers of medical mishaps. Birth became ”a thing to do”, a “necessary nuisance”, something to forget about as soon as possible, something unfamiliar, often humiliating and basically it was considered uninteresting and annoying, to talk about it, even within the same family. There was no way anymore to witness a birth in the family. With the hospital birth, the chain of experience that used to be passed from mother to daughter was broken, and grandmas followed the fashion of not talking about certain things. Now, this is what I noticed in my personal background, but I found out it is common to many women that I met.

At the time when I became pregnant, I knew I was no longer a “normal” woman, I could not accept the idea of being a “patient”. The word “patient” comes from the Latin word “patientem”, meaning “bearing and enduring without complaint”. And this is what women are supposed to do while they are about to give birth to their child in the hospital. They are considered sick. Now, I was not sick. I felt all I needed was love and kindness, a maternal help. I had a problem though: where would I go to give birth with such request?

I was living in Bali with my partner Rob. We decided to give birth to our daughter on the “Island of Gods”. It seemed more human. Balinese culture pays very much attention on the act of birth and it respects both the mother and the child with all its attributes. But maternity hospitals in Bali are modern western hospitals, nothing romantic, nothing maternal. I didn’t know any trusted midwife, until I found out about Ibu Robin Lim and her natural birth center Yayasan Bumi Sehat. A friend gave me her number. I called her and we went to meet her in Ubud. She was speaking my tongue. She was practicing water birth and lotus birth; she was maternal, kind and loving. She had the answer for everything. She was strong, a fighter, but at the same time, very sensitive and generous. I felt secure. I knew I could trust her no matter what. I could stop worrying and I could let myself go, knowing I will be treated like a daughter. I felt so lucky.

Ibu Robin is a great supporter of birth singing. She and other midwives at Bumi Sehat welcome the child with songs and quiet mantras. They sing while catching the baby. She was so happy I was a singer, and she told me that singing would help me during labor.

When I went into labor, I found myself confronted with an unknown feeling of pain, cyclical waves of pain. I needed some time to realize what was going on at first, but after a few hours it became intense and very clear. At some point, I started to sing, it came to me spontaneously. It was the sign for Rob, while he was driving me to Ibu Robin that I was unable to communicate. I was in another dimension, within myself. I was inside with my pain, fighting my demon, facing the beast, killing the dragon. I was in my story, and the song was the link between me and the world.

Rob and I were writing songs during my pregnancy. We made an album during our first year together - a celebration of our love and passion, a tribute to our mojo. When we were expecting our child, the child of that mojo, new songs were coming to us. They were fine and mellow, sweet and gentle, the reflection of our pink baby cloud.

At some point during labor, I started to sing one of our new songs. It felt so appropriate. The song gave shape to my pain. If I was inside, my voice was out there, representing my feelings. It was a faithful representation, I assure you. Rob could clearly follow my waves by listening to my interpretation. There was no need for words. During these pain-singing sessions I could realize that the pain was not lasting longer then a few verses, peaking at the very beginning. I was measuring the pain and the contraction by articulating the song. When the contraction stopped, I would stop. And it was a short span. It lasted little more then one minute. It took me by surprise. Inside, I thought the pain was a never-ending giant monster. Now, this new discovery was relieving. I could rationalize the pain, I could prepare myself for a new one. I found a method!

I don’t know about you, but I like to have things clear in my mind, I’m very rational and I need to know about what’s going on, not to control it, but to let go more easily, with a piece of mind. If I were a yogi, maybe the meditation would do the trick for me. But I’m not a yogi, and my mind needs to be fed with appropriate food: information, logic, schemes, calculations. I had to cheat on my mind by distracting her, and singing did the trick. It took off my mind from the fact that my body was feeling pain, so my body could feel the pain in peace, without being bothered by fear. I let go. I let the contractions do their job. I was facing my wave of pain with tranquility and confidence, because I knew they wouldn’t last more then few verses. I would start on top of the wave and then descent towards the shore. All that in about a minute or so. If the pain was my wave, the song was my surf board. I’m not a surfer, really, but the metaphor fits nicely.

I wasn’t aware, but singing was also helping the dilatation of my cervix, as Ibu Robin would explain to me later, since the mouth and the vagina are tightly connected in our body. Of course, one could also vocalize or groan and moan, everything is good except shutting up and holding inside. Well, let’s say that screaming is not of much help, it’s a waste of energy, but its better then holding up. That is why a nice familiar atmosphere is better for birth. A woman needs to feel at ease to let herself go, like in love making.

When the pain was intense beyond my imagination, I started to make weird faces, protruding my tongue, like a demon or a Medusa. The iconographic tradition from all over the world shows this funny face, it’s an archetype. And for me, in that moment, it felt appropriate. I finally understood what was it about. It spoke clearly to me saying, take out your tongue, open your mouth, let the sound come out from your guts, from your roots, this is what you are supposed to do. Ibu Robin was encouraging me to do so. She was actually enthusiastic that I was doing all that weird stuff because she knew this would influence my dilatation. So it did.

Now, imagine the scene – it looks grotesque? Instead, it was sensual, and it felt sensual and sexy. Rob was pleased. It was as if we were making love. In a way. It was also very funny. I laughed a lot about the situation. Laughter is another good thing to do to open up. But nobody laughed at me, they were laughing with me, making jokes, chatting, being supportive and nice. I wasn’t at home, but I felt at ease at Bumi Sehat. And Ibu Robin Lim was like a mother to me.

Lecture at Mamapalooza Expo & Conference, Marymount Manhattan College, NYC, May 2011.