I have a friend who stopped keeping track of me when my addresses filled more than one page in her address book. I’ve lived on a 150-acre island in Everglades National Park; in a spring-fed, wood-heated cabin deep in the southern Appalachian mountains; in my tent on a farm on a car-less island in Brittany, France; and on a sailboat in West Africa . I currently live in one single room in an old stone mill house in the French Pyrenees.
This past summer my brother Kevin came to France for the birth of his niece Clara. Nine months pregnant, I was moving slower than usual. Kevin appropriately supposed motherhood would make me less adventurous (as have a few others). I think a lot of people are now curious to see the outcome.
The truth is, yes, life has changed.
But I wouldn’t have embarked on the adventures that I have if I wasn’t skilled in change. Clara hasn’t squelched the adventurer in me, she is the next adventure. And as in all adventures, it’s the inherent surprises that both humble and embolden you—that teach you. Here are some things I’ve learned so far on this new adventure:
1. Pregnancy and birth are not endurance sports you can power through. I thought I’d be one of those super active pregnant women you see on the cover of magazines, eating green vegetables, commuting by bike and doing advanced yoga poses. I started out riding 16 miles a day. That lasted a month when I decided to take it easy until the nausea went away.
After the three month mark I felt worse—nauseous, exhausted, burdened with hormone induced headaches, shocked by the cellulite developing on my arms and legs and craving everything but raw vegetables. I was a far cry from the sporty pregnant woman drinking her daily dose of kale juice. I couldn’t keep one leaf of salad in my stomach.
All nine months were like that for me. Aside from a couple of 30-mile bike rides, I finally resigned myself to walking just two miles a day, eating a good amount of meat and sleeping often. In my seventh month I flew across the ocean from the US to France, finishing my pregnancy with a little more energy walking in the hills of the French Pyrenees. But it was all slow going and awkward–incredibly humbling. I wasn’t able to call on the attributes I’d developed cycling distances, mountain hiking or running marathons. Stamina was worthless. What I needed were the much more advanced skills of a yogi—patience, compassion and acceptance.
Birthing was no different. I had planned to birth at home, but after 20 hours of labor accompanied by vomiting (nope, didn’t even let up for labor), my midwife was afraid I wouldn’t have the resources to push when the time came. She gently urged me to transfer to the hospital where I could get some nourishment through an IV. That was a deeply sad moment for me. It still is. But I had to accept it. In the end (a total of 27 hours) I pushed Clara out normally (albeit flat on my back and strapped to a beeping monitor and IV). It was all a lesson in letting go for me. I guess your body gives you what you most need.
2. Let go of expectations and you’ll do more. Unlike my pregnancy, swamped in unrealistic expectations, my first few months with Clara were shaped by the opposite. My American midwife gave me two bits of advice that made all the difference. She said, “Try not to get anything done the first three months.” And when Clara arrived she said, “Snuggle a lot and breastfeed often.” So that’s what we did. Clara and I spent the first months breastfeeding, sleeping and getting nothing else done. Because I didn’t expect to do much, I was surprised with all that I was able to do with a newborn.
I wore her in a baby wrap so my hands were free to do the dishes, do laundry, or type the odd email. I was even able to edit a slide show of her first two months while she slept on me (you can see the video here). But I mostly remember hanging cloth diapers on the line, writing in my journal, cooking and walking. Walking proved to be the magic medicine when Clara needed to be soothed. So we walked everywhere, even in the middle of the night. We still do!
3. Your body is an amazing, incredible, awe-inspiring thing. Have faith in it. Yes, pregnancy and birth were humbling, but the gift after was indescribable. Peace. True love. There’s really not a word for it. Nothing else mattered. I didn’t care about the cellulite all over my body or that I wasn’t able to cross the Pyrenees in my pregnancy. The nausea disappeared without a trace and I felt wonderful.
I was going for gentle walks with Clara in her wrap two days later. Since Clara’s birth I haven’t put myself on any kind of a diet and I don’t make an effort to exercise regularly. It’s true, my life is active by nature—we pretty much live outside and just walking to the post office requires a steep climb into our village that clings to the side of a mountain. I also eat well habitually—unprocessed foods direct from our farmer’s market. But without any extra effort, my body has slimmed down naturally.
I’m not into my smallest jeans yet, but a month after Clara’s birth I was already wearing at least one pair of my jeans. I was back on my bike two months later and now, at three and a half months, I’m powering up hills on my bike and hiking in the mountains with Clara strapped to my back. My stamina has returned, en force.
A client on our September bike tour (yeah, managed a tour with a 2-month old) told me that many competitive marathon runners perform better after pregnancy and birth. It just shows that women’s bodies know what they’re doing. Mine needed to concentrate on growing a baby for nine months and that meant substantially slowing down. Now it’s concentrating on raising one and I guess I deserve a little extra energy for that.
4. You are not home bound with an infant. Two weeks after Clara’s birth, we were at the outdoor market sitting in a café drinking a Perrier. Our regular bartender was surprised to see us there. It even startled him when he realized Clara was curled up inside the wrap I was wearing. “Isn’t it early to be out with her?” he asked. I told him she wouldn’t have come into the world if she wasn’t ready for it.
I didn’t plan to continue my nomadic ways with a newborn, but I guess it’s hard to extinguish old habits. We’re on the move a lot with Clara. We returned to France after a long stay in the US when I was seven months pregnant. Unfortunately, the tiny studio apartment where we live had already been reserved for other guests during three weeks in August, a month after Clara was due to arrive. We accepted the conditions and didn’t think much more about it. How hard could it be to move a wee little baby?
Turns out, not hard at all. The real burden was all our personal belongings. We turned my little French car into a mobile storage unit, loading it up with our winter clothes, backpacking gear, bike parts and life workings of two adventurers. André still bitches about the calvaire (cross to bear) of moving all our crap. Admittedly, it was he who moved it all (twice) because I was occupied with babe at my breast.
Once our stuff was stowed, we spent those three weeks peacefully house and pet sitting for a Dutch friend in the village who conveniently returned to Holland at the same period. Clara slept with us at night and napped when she needed (in the wrap, on the couch, on the floor).
That same approach allowed us to take her on bike route scouting trips. We squatted at another friend’s house on several occasions while we biked routes in the area during the day. André and I took turns on the bike while the other one followed in the support car. When Clara needed to eat we stopped under a tree somewhere and breastfed.
It worked so well we decided to run our September tour the same way. Only difference was Nana (Avery’s mom) came along for extra support. Clara slept with us in different inns each night, never with any panic or crises. She joined us for nightly dinners, quietly sleeping in her wrap tied to my beating heart.
What’s made our mobility even easier is something most are shocked to hear. She’s potty trained us. Yep, Clara tells us, with cries and signs, when she needs to be taken to the portable potty or to the bathroom sink (she’s gone on the side of the road a few times too). We haven’t mastered it completely but for the last two months there have been almost no number two’s in the diaper. That means our diaper bag is a lot less bulky. If you don’t believe me, it’s called elimination communication, and half of the world’s babies do it. Except in industrialized countries where we encourage babies to go in their pants. You can see a video about it here.
5. What no one prepares you for: you’re birthing a person, not a baby. I knew this the moment Clara came out. She laid on my chest and looked intently back and forth from my eyes to Andre’s eyes. Clara still looks at me with that same depth. Realizing that she’s a person and not just a baby, that she’s someone who is constantly communicating with us, gave us the confidence to bring her into the world unencumbered with all that baby stuff.
We’re now back in our one room in the mill house. The bed is in the kitchen that’s in the living room that’s next to my computer desk. You get the picture. Clara has a little shelf in the corner with her clothes, blankets and the few books and toys people have given her. She has a small co-sleeper bed attached to the side of ours. That’s it. To be honest I wondered how we’d be able to function with a baby in such a small space. But it’s been easier here than in the big houses we stayed in. Our tiny home is like a perfectly arranged commercial kitchen line—everything essential is within reach and we can communicate with each other easily. What else does a family need?