"You just worship this," the bartender advised after presenting me with a glass of seltzer. I'd stopped after work for a drink with a friend, and my increasingly noticeable pregnancy was attracting attention from someone I'd never met. The barkeep waved her hand around me dreamily, a gesture that encompassed my sizable belly. "Just worship this," she repeated.
I've been getting a lot of comments like that lately. "Worship this" was a first, but it came on the heels of "Look at you!" and "That belly!" Some time in the last month or two, this pregnancy — my first — became a public talking point. Seemingly overnight, strangers had begun stopping me in the grocery store to ask about my due date — July 2, in case you're curious.
I'm not complaining; if anything, it's a relief to be talking about what during those early months felt like an invisible, imaginary malady. Perhaps I'm overly sensitive about being one of those women who can't shut up about their pregnancies, and because I'm the first among my close friends to be pregnant, I've put the kibosh on baby talk at work and among many of my friends.
Yet, as my belly grows, so, too, does my eagerness to discuss this pregnancy with anyone — everyone — who will listen. If that means I'm gabbing with the bartender, so be it. But I also decided to explore the world of prenatal services in search of childbearing companionship. Fortunately for me, there is an astonishing array of support groups, classes and get-togethers from which to choose — from prenatal massage to prenatal yoga, from blessing ways to "belly bowls."
Is it all necessary, or even useful? I admit I've had my doubts about this sort of thing. But in the spirit of investigative journalism, I embarked on an Eat, Pray, Love-style adventure of prenatal preparations.
On a snowy evening in March, I found myself at a henna party at Birth Journeys, a childbirth education center in downtown Burlington. I bared my belly for a small group of women while Rebecca Freedner of Heartfire Henna meticulously painted homemade henna paste across it.
This was my first brush with henna, which Freedner has been working with for seven years. Henna is considered auspicious in India for pregnant women, especially in the eighth month of pregnancy, but traditionally it's confined to hands and feet; it's a Western adaptation to adorn our abdomens with the herbal dye.
Freedner typically works with pregnant women at "blessing ways" or baby showers; she thinks women are increasingly tired of silly games and are "searching for rituals."
"Do you want something symmetrical, or flowy?" Freedner asked. I went for symmetrical, and the resulting design — centered around my belly button, which several of the other women sweetly pronounced as "cute" — bloomed on my midsection. Freedner had a steady hand, even as I awkwardly giggled my way through the event. The paste was cool and smelled pleasantly camphorous.
"Hello, baby," Freedner cooed when "baby" bumped back against her hand.
After Freedner finished her work, I sat around for an hour or so waiting for the henna paste to dry, chatting with the other women at the party. One was just a week away from her due date. As she slipped out that evening, a doula called after her, in some incantation for bringing on labor, "Hydrate! Pelvic tilts! Smooching! Date nights! Spicy foods!"
As someone too lazy for makeup, too indecisive for tattoos and too skittish for piercings, I wasn't expecting to be on board with body art. And sure, I was a little sheepish when I pulled up my shirt a few days later at an appointment with my midwife. But Freedner's design was lovely, and even though I kept my temporary tattoo safely hidden from sight, I was sad to see it fade away two weeks later.
Next, it was off to prenatal yoga. The Evolution Yoga studio in Burlington was packed with pregnant women — the most I'd ever seen in one place. The hourlong session began with a frank, funny comparison between your water breaking and peeing your pants. Apparently, it's hard to tell the difference.
The "om"s would wait, for a little while at least; Evolution Yoga cofounder and veteran yoga teacher Susan Cline Lucey starts every prenatal class with up to a half hour of conversation and "checking in" with her students. One by one, we introduced ourselves and shared some pertinent details of our pregnancies.
A certified doula and childbirth expert, Cline Lucey had an answer for seemingly every complaint or question that cropped up during the discussion. Leg cramps? She had advice. Trouble sleeping? Ditto. One woman's question about abdominal pain launched an informative — if slightly terrifying — lesson about separated stomach muscles.
Cline Lucey started teaching prenatal yoga when she was pregnant with her older son, Emmett, now 8. After his birth, she says, she returned to it with a passion and trekked to Seattle three times for advanced certification in pre- and postnatal yoga. Now she teaches a whole suite of classes and workshops designed for childbearing women and their partners: prenatal and postnatal yoga, couples yoga for labor, and playgroups for new mothers.
"It's all about building that confidence in this different stage of life," said Cline Lucey.
In prenatal yoga, she focuses on helping women find comfort and confidence in their bodies — and, crucially, in practicing a "deep-connection" breathing. She shies away from talking too explicitly about the role this practice might play in labor and delivery, in case women in her classes are planning C-sections, but she points out that rehearsing deep "belly breaths" can be a way to tackle challenging situations at any point in life.
Periodically throughout class, she instructed women to connect with their babies — either by focusing on sending deep breaths to the growing fetus or resting a hand on one's stomach.
"It's not just about you in yoga," she said. "It's about you and your baby moving together and creating a supportive home."
Honestly, at first it was hard for me not to be self-conscious among so many other pregnant women. How does my belly stack up? I found myself wondering, casting sidelong glances at my compatriots.
By my second visit, though, I'd loosened up and learned some helpful tips and tricks that have since proved invaluable. I'll be going back as often as I can before giving birth.
My next stop was a prenatal massage appointment with Eileen Togher of EarthySoul Massage in Burlington. I settled in to a cozy chair at her College Street massage studio and, before long, I was pouring my heart out about my various ailments.
Togher took notes, nodding sympathetically. Then she showed me to her complicated pillow fort of a massage table. I shimmied out of my maternity jeans and onto it. Her system of cushions and bolsters allowed me to lay face down — for the first time in months! — without squashing my belly.
The soundtrack for my massage was some sort of soothing woodland-fairy-type music. Sure, it was cheesy, but I was totally on board. Scented oils? Cozy blankets? Yes, please. The hour was over in a blink.
Togher started her career as a massage therapist and reflexologist in Brooklyn, working in a Park Slope boutique where it often seemed to her as if every other woman walking through the door was pregnant. That prompted her to pursue additional training in prenatal massage.
Her education prepared her to work with clients experiencing gestational diabetes, high blood pressure and nausea. She's also equipped to deal with pregnancy-specific concerns such as sciatica, hip pain or swelling during summer months.
After moving her practice to Burlington in 2009, Togher noticed that Vermont mamas-to-be don't seem quite as stressed out as her New York clients; she sees fewer stilettos kicked off at the door. But even in our relatively calm environs, she said, massage can be a benefit for many pregnant women.
"For many months during pregnancy, you feel like this isn't your own body," said Togher. You're telling me, sister.
I'm too stingy — and too preoccupied budgeting for baby — to be sold on a regular massage appointment. And while I was thoroughly relaxed, the session didn't magically fix all of my aches and pains. My advice? Drop hints about a gift certificate.
After all of the pampering and socializing and talking about feelings, I was itching for something a little more, well, practical. So my husband, Colin, and I hauled ourselves to Porter Medical Center, our local hospital, for a two-hour breast-feeding workshop one Monday night. My midwife had recommended we start thinking about lactation.
"Women become preoccupied with labor during the third trimester," she warned. But labor, she went on, is — let's hope! — just one day of your life. Nursing, which surprises many women as more difficult than expected, lasts much longer.
Porter offers its "Breastfeeding Mondays" class roughly once a month, but there's no shortage of other options in the region. Sally MacFadyen, a board-certified lactation consultant, offers a similar two-hour class in Burlington. MacFadyen points out that women typically leave the hospital with their newborns before their milk comes in, a process that takes about three days.
"Breast-feeding is a learned behavior," said MacFadyen. "A lot of people think, well, I have breasts, and babies drink milk, and it should just be easy."
That's not always the case, as I learned in my crash course. Porter nurse and lactation consultant Vicki Kirby pulled out a baby doll and a breast-shaped beanbag prop. Colin and I, and about 15 other expectant parents, dutifully studied a full-color illustration of variations in baby poop. Oh yeah, I thought. I forgot about that part. Turns out, checking diapers is one of the best ways to tell if a newborn is getting enough to eat. I took notes.
I'm not sure how much of the two-hour class will stick with me in the hazy days after birth. Without a real, live baby in hand, the class was more theoretical than I would have liked. Hopefully, MacFadyen is right that "it's not rocket science."
In early spring, I returned to Birth Journeys to attend the monthly Pregnancy Circle hosted by Rachel Stanton and Sarah Campbell, the doula team behind Mother Rising Childbirth Services. The monthly gathering is intended as a place for women to share and connect over pregnancy. Going in, it sounded like hippie-dippy group therapy. I was skittish.
It turned out that our circle was more of a square: In addition to the two doulas, only two pregnant women, myself included, turned out for the event. We hunkered down on low couches in the comfortable, soft-lit space at Main Street Landing and munched on whole-grain cookies and hummus and veggies artfully displayed in — you guessed it — a belly bowl. We soaked our feet in herbal foot baths and chatted about cloth diapering.
The pregnancy circle is a fledgling undertaking; the meeting I attended in early April was only the second time the group had gathered. The evening's theme focused on fears around labor. Stanton and Campbell spoke briefly about the ways fear — and the tension resulting from it — can make labor more difficult and painful. Then they turned expectant gazes on us two participants. What, pray tell, were we afraid of?
I was dubious about the exercise, but dutifully made a list as instructed — and was surprised to note my sheet of paper was covered with items. Who knew I'd been bottling up so many worries? Then we headed outside, and Stanton unveiled a metal bowl filled with lavender buds. We huddled around the cauldron, put our sheets of paper in it and Stanton lit them on fire. A passerby gave us a look.
"There goes all the fear you hold about birthing," Stanton intoned. "The birth will be perfect." I started to giggle, and soon the other women were chuckling, too. "You will be strong enough," Stanton read. "You are strong enough."
And you know what? I believed her.
When I recounted the experience to a friend — down to the foot baths and ritual burning — I threw in an eye roll for good measure, to prove I hadn't gone off the prenatal deep end. But truthfully, this was exactly what I had been looking for: a chance to talk frankly, unabashedly and at length about the strange, transitory experience of pregnancy. A chance to just worship this.
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