The Big Decision: The tough choices we make as mothers

The toughest decision most of us have to make after our babies are born is whether or not to go back to work. The “having it all” myth has thankfully been debunked. The truth is that no matter whic…

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The Big Decision: The tough choices we make as mothers

The toughest decision most of us have to make after our babies are born is whether or not to go back to work. The “having it all” myth has thankfully been debunked. The truth is that no matter which path we choose, we will need to make some sacrifices.

Many would argue that we’re lucky to live in the “post-feminism era.” The generation of women before us has fought hard to create a balance of power in the workplace, but this has led to making our decision even more difficult because we have more responsibilities and expectations. If we leave our jobs to be with our babies, we risk derailing our career trajectory and feeling as though we’re not living up to our potential. If we go back to work, we may experience sadness and guilt when we’re away from our babies and feel pressured to stay committed to our jobs despite new priorities at home.Working and stay at home mom

The conundrum has left me wondering how women have come so far in the workforce, yet so little has been done to help support our equally important job as a mother. The fact that the United States is the only developed country that doesn’t require paid maternity or paternity leave sends us a discouraging message about our culture’s values. We are faced with pressure and expectations from society, our spouses, our families, our peers and ourselves to make the “best decision.”

As more women have begun to have babies after we’ve established our careers, we struggle to balance our individual ambitions with our new responsibilities, desires and intense emotions that come with motherhood. This is my honest account of the decision I made, and my reflection on how I feel eight months later.

My Career, My Identity

Before my son was born, a large part of my identity had been tied to work. I evaluated my success in life by my career accomplishments and salary.

My reputation was also closely tied to my career. I met my husband and the majority of my closest friends at work, so their initial impressions of me were based on our interactions at the office. I was Kelly, the reliable, hard-working and amiable account executive. I was proud of the reputation I had established and worked hard to maintain it.

As my passions and ambitions changed, my career path followed. After 8 years in advertising, I moved into the non-profit sector, sacrificing salary and upward mobility for a stronger sense of purpose and fulfillment. I wanted my job and career path to reflect who I was and what was important to me.

But, Is This Really It?

Although I was generally happy at my job, my career was leaving me with a sense of emptiness. Something was missing. My desire to nurture, support and connect with others was not being met by my long hours in front of a computer screen. I was having a bit of a “mid” mid-life crisis. Anxiety roused from the feeling of “is this really it?”

My husband and I had been talking about having a baby for a few years, but we hadn’t felt compelled to take action until we both reached this point. We were ready to focus on something other than ourselves, our careers, and our frivolous lifestyle. We were ready to give up those things that didn’t matter as much anymore so we could have a life with more meaning. It was time for us to start a family.

The Unknown Life Ahead

When I got pregnant, it was hard to grasp how much my life was about to change. The idea of becoming a mom and sharing this new life with my husband was exciting, scary and surreal. I put any decisions about my career and childcare on hold because I felt unequipped to make them before experiencing motherhood.

I was often asked the question, “Are you planning on going back to work after your baby is born?” I was honestly torn. I felt like I should say yes, but I had so many questions needed to be answered before I could make that decision. Would I thrive as a mom or miss my sense of independence and productivity at the workplace? My future life ahead left me with many uncertainties.

Enter Connor

 The Overwhelming Emotions

The day Connor came into our lives, everything changed. When the nurse placed his warm little body on my chest, I felt a wave of intense emotions take over me. All I wanted to do was love and protect Connor with every ounce of affection I had to give. Suddenly, nothing else mattered more.

The Adjustment Period

The first two months with Connor were a hurricane of emotions. Initially, the focus was on survival. Simple necessities like eating and sleeping seemed complicated and draining. At times, my husband and I felt like we were straight out of “The Walking Dead.” Three consecutive hours of sleep became a luxury. It must have been the “love adrenaline” that fueled our run-down bodies each day.

In spite of the utter exhaustion, life had never been so rich. The love we felt for Connor was so intense. With all the challenges came an insane amount of joy unlike anything we’d ever experienced. Our hearts were willingly exposed as we watched him grow, change, and respond to us. People say that being a parent is like wearing your heart on the outside of IMG_0748 - Version 3your body. Now I know what they mean. We were so emotionally invested in Connor’s every move. As we learned and discovered more about him, our love for him grew deeper and stronger.

This time was filled with both highs and lows. Feelings of joy, love and gratitude were paired with feelings of uncertainty, isolation and loneliness. The adjustment period was just as shocking to us as it was to Connor. However, we were facing this challenge together, and our bond grew stronger as the three of us acclimated to the changes.

The Turning Point

As month 3 rolled around, something changed. It was no longer just about survival. It was about harmony. I was becoming more responsive and aware of Connor’s needs. Each day seemed to reveal a new aspect of his personality. He was responding and interacting with us in ways we could understand. We were finally starting to “get” this parenting thing.

IMG_1052Three months is the time that most of us are required to leave our maternal duties to go back to work. Physically, I was ready. But emotionally, I was deeply invested in my relationship with Connor. We had established a rhythm and a newfound understanding of each other. Connor and I were growing closer and closer every day. He was my sunshine, my little buddy, and the center of my world.

When the end of my maternity leave approached, I realized that I hadn’t thought about work. Not once. I was so deeply engrossed in my new “job” as mom and had no intention of leaving. However, I had responsibilities and relationships at my job that I needed to consider.

The Conundrum

I liked what being a “career woman” stood for. I had worked hard and felt pressure from society and myself to stay on that path. Working diligently and focusing on my career was what I was supposed to do.

However, my world had changed significantly over those last 3 months. My rational brain told me that I should return to work so I wouldn’t disrupt my “career path.” However, the thought of leaving Connor and disrupting the path that we were on together was heartbreaking. It seemed so unnatural and disruptive to stop in our tracks and never be able to return to this place again. He needed me, and I needed him. My emotions and my career goals had come to a head.

Go Back to Work or Stay Home?

The time came when I needed to discuss my return date to work. My heart was telling me that I shouldn’t go back, but my rational side was telling me to carefully think through my options before making a decision. I knew that the choice I made would impact my family, my baby and myself.

This post is meant to help other women feel that they are not alone in making this difficult decision. This is in no way meant to preach or advocate for staying at home or returning to work. It is an honest account of how I made my decision with the intent of helping others navigate through this difficult process.

Factors We Considered

  1. Financial situation

Having financial stability is a necessity for a baby, so we evaluated this situation first. We considered how much net income my job would bring in with the additional costs of having a baby and then determined whether we could live off of one income for an indefinite period of time.

My net income

Let’s just say that I wasn’t “raking in the dough” at my current job. My salary would barely cover my working expenses and childcare, so the financial benefit of returning to my job in the short term was trivial.

Living off of one income

That said, we knew that we still needed to look at the implication of living off of one income with the additional costs of having a baby. We took a hard look at our “needs” versus “wants” when we assessed our finances.

The “needs” included all of the expenses that we couldn’t cut. We used a family financing calculator and some other online resources that helped us get a realistic idea of our post-Connor financial situation.

The “wants” included all of our other arbitrary expenses, including meals out, shopping, gym memberships, vacations, entertainment and other splurges. We asked ourselves, “Are these things still important to us now that Connor is here?” This exercise forced us to take a look at our lifestyle and recognize that we could still live happily and comfortably without many of these “wants.” It turned out that what we really “wanted” most was to spend time with Connor.

  1. Childcare and family values

The next factor we considered was childcare. My husband and I had the conversation about my career and childcare early on in my pregnancy. We both felt more comfortable with me staying home with Connor versus hiring a nanny or putting him in daycare. We wanted to be the primary caretakers so we could witness all the special moments in his early years and influence the person he would become.

On the other hand, we also believed that Connor would thrive in a childcare situation that we felt comfortable with and trusted. My husband respected my career drive and said he would support whatever decision I made. He knew how important it was for me to be a happy, fulfilled mother so I could be a positive influence on our son. Smart man.

Having this honest conversation with my husband early on in my pregnancy helped mitigate any uncertainties we had about our expectations of each other. I knew where he stood, but I was also felt confident that he would support whatever decision I made.

  1. Career aspirations

The truth is, women are forced to make a choice that comes with sacrificing either your role as mom or career. Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCO, revealed this truth in her candid interview about motherhood. It’s possible to give time and attention to both, but inevitably, most of us are likely to feel like we’re not giving enough to one of these roles.

Successful career women like Sheryl Sandberg preach that women should not just think about the short-term financial impact of leaving their job to be with their babies, but also the opportunity costs that will set us back on our long-term career path.

I thought about those opportunity costs. I was honest with myself and finally admitted that I was okay with setting my career ambitions aside and veering off my career path during this time in my life. The truth was, I was less concerned with the setbacks I would face by putting my career on hold and more concerned about the opportunity costs of losing time with Connor during his early years. Time with him was worth more to me than a raise or promotion, gaining respect from colleagues and climbing up the corporate ladder. I didn’t believe that taking time off was career suicide; instead, I believed it would benefit my career by giving me a new, fresh perspective on life and naturally lead me to reassess my goals and ambitions.

  1. Innate personality traits and priorities

Priorities and Passions 

Aside from the financial and opportunistic impact of a career hiatus, I also knew it was important to consider what decision would make me the best version of myself. Would I be more fulfilled at home with my baby or at my job? Where would I feel the most present and engaged with what I was doing? I knew I needed to be fully committed wherever I was, because only being partially present wasn’t fair to any of the parties involved.

My personality is nurturing and people-focused (a typical ENFJ), so motherhood naturally fit my inherent traits. Being with Connor made me realized that I get my greatest sense of fulfillment through helping others. I loved giving to him and responding to his needs. My emotions were deeply invested in caring for him.

My desire to connect with others also motivated me to meet other moms, join groups and form a network of friends. Having a community was critical in helping me overcome the feelings of isolation that often come with the first few months of motherhood.

Although I enjoy being around people, I also need some solitude to center myself. My alone time with Connor gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate my values and purpose. It was lonely at times, but for the most part, it was refreshing. I savored those special moments and enjoyed “just being” instead of constantly producing. Boredom was nourishing to the soul.

Some of my other strengths were unexpectedly beneficial to motherhood. Being organized helped me build a daily eating and sleeping schedule for Connor (which was meticulously documented). I work well with structure, but I wouldn’t get bent out of shape if our schedule fluctuated to fit our needs. I let Connor take the lead and adjusted our days based on what was working best for him.

My patience also proved to be a virtue. I was able to spend long days doing monotonous tasks and stayed even-keeled in stressful situations. It was amazing to see how much sleep deprivation mellowed me out! I didn’t have the energy to sweat the small things.

Most importantly, I felt happy and fulfilled during my time with Connor. I stopped comparing myself to others and succumbing to the pressure of “doing more.” Instead, I did less. By slowing down, I could see all the beautiful things that were right in front of me.

  1. Studies on the Early Years

Importance of Bonding

Brain RulesRight after Connor was born, I vigorously read “Brain Rules for Baby” while I nursed him. The book was fascinating. A certain section of the book stuck with me and guided the way I interacted and responded to him. The author explained a how the brain’s main priority is survival, and finding safety is how a baby meets this need. Who do they look to for that safety? Their parents. Babies are intensely attuned to how responsive we are to their needs from the moment they come into the world. If their needs are being met, their brain will be able to focus on things other than survival (e.g., learning). If they don’t create bonds or establish perceptions of safety, they could be permanently damaged. This sounds extreme, but the point is that babies need to feel safe, secure and loved either by their parents or a caretaker.

Along similar lines, I also spent quite a bit of time reading about “attachment parenting” which focuses on the nurturing connection that parents can develop with their children. This philosophy, made famous by Dr. Sears, stresses the importance of parents being sensitive and emotionally available to their children’s needs during the critical early stages of their lives. The idea behind attachment parenting is that babies learn to trust and thrive when their needs are consistently met by a caregiver. Conversely, children who never experience this attachment may not learn to form healthy attachments later in life and often suffer from insecurity, lack of empathy and sometimes even anger and attachment disorders. According to attachment theory, the “critical period” to form this attachment is from 6 months to 2 or 3 years, the time when babies begin to look to particular people for security, comfort and protection.

These studies made me realize that the bond I formed with Connor during his first year would affect him forever. Working would certainly not prevent me from forming this bond (quality of time is much more important than quantity), but I knew that being with him all day would allow me to become a more responsive mother. As I learned to accurately read Connor’s cues, my consistent responsiveness began to motivate him to keep sending me signals, resulting in us forming a strong attachment to each other. An amazing nanny or daycare could also learn to read his cues, but their responsiveness wouldn’t be coupled with the type of love and affection that I could give to him. This was the most important factor in my decision.

An Honest Look at Staying At Home

When my maternity leave came to an end, I decided to leave my job to stay home with Connor. To be honest, my heart told me that was the best decision all along. I knew I would be wishing I was with him the whole time I was at work, and that wouldn’t benefit any of us.

How do I feel 8 months later? Here it goes . . .

Each day is filled with so much joy, yet so many challenges. Sometimes I feel like it would be easier to put on my work clothes and live part of my day the same way I did before Connor was born, but deep down I know that my job would never bring me the amount of happiness and gratitude that Connor has brought into my life. These past 8 months have been filled with a flurry of emotions, and I’ve often felt conflicted. At times, I feel so happy and grateful to be able to spend this special time with Connor, and other times I feel isolated and exhausted. I sometimes feel guilty that I’m able to experience so much joy every day playing with Connor, living life simply and freely, while my husband is bound to his job working long hours to support our family. At the same time, I find myself envying his daily social interactions at the office in an environment that rewards his hard work and accomplishments. Being a mother is the hardest and most important job I’ve ever had, and it’s truly the most fulfilling and gratifying experience to be able to spend so many special moments with Connor.

Connor has given me just as much as I’ve given him. He’s opened my eyes to the world around us. We stop to feel tree bark, look at a purple flower or watch a butterfly flying in a yard. We talk about the birds, the squirrels and the dogs in the park. We’ll sit on a blanket underneath a tree and talk about the grass, or we’ll sit in silence while I cuddle with him. As we poke around the park, I’m reminded that we are just one of the millions of species on this earth. I have a new appreciation and respect for life now that I’ve brought one into the world.

I have not once regretted my decision to stay home with Connor. I feel a deep sense of happiness when I’m with him, and the special moments that we’ve experienced together have forever changed my perspective on both myself and the world around us. I’m grateful not only the milestones I’ve witnessed, like the first time he crawled, but also for the everyday moments, like the cuddles before his naps or the sporadic smiles I get throughout the day. It’s those moments that will be will me for the rest of my life. Those memories are worth their weight in gold.

 The Next Chapter

When I decide to re-enter the workforce, I will return as a new person. I have a fresh perspective on life and new appreciation for our world. I am more confident and balanced as a mother. Knowing that I’m responsible for another life has giving me a renewed sense of purpose. I have learned, grown and changed more than I ever could have in the office. That’s why I believe my decision will not be detrimental to my career. I am a better person because of the decision I made.

In This Together

Having a baby changes everything. A move across the country, career change and marriage didn’t even compare to the changes that occurred when my son was born. I guess that’s why some people call it a “life shift.”

No matter what friends tell you, or how many babies you have been around, no one can possibly prepare you for your baby or predict how you will feel when he/she comes into your life. The intensity of the emotions most of us experience is unfathomable until we become parents.

This is why we all need to support each other and the decisions we make. No decision we make is an easy one, and no decision is the best for everyone. It involves determining what is best for your family, yourself and your baby.

I wish that someday it will be easier for women who have established careers to have the option to take a break from our jobs for up to a year during our babies’ highly critical development period. Far too few part time jobs are available, and too little is being done to help give women any option at all. (Read this perspective on corporations’ treatment of women/mothers.)

Until then, let’s support each other and the tough decisions we have to make. That’s what being a mom is all about – doing the best that we can.

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My Labor Story: Sharing and reflecting on the life-changing event

IMG_0748 - Version 3My son, Connor, is now 11 weeks old. I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed in spite of how long some days feel. Now that I have a few minutes to reflect, I’d like to share my labor story so I can record the memory, commiserate with others who’ve been through it, and provide some insights to those who haven’t.

THE PREPARATION

Parenting is something that many of us enter into blindly. Although we’ve all been “parented” and have witnessed many of our friends and family members do it firsthand, it’s still a role that seems so foreign before we become one ourselves. Pregnancy and labor mark the beginning of this mystifying role. Although giving birth is a natural part of life, it somehow seems like such a mysterious, ominous, unforeseeable series of events that cannot be predicted even by the world’s most renown experts. To many of us (myself included), this is terrifying!

In order to deal with the stress of this unknown territory, I decided to take every birth and labor class I could get my hands on. Breastfeeding, stages of labor, pregnant mama support groups – you name it! I deal with stress by neurotically preparing, and pregnancy was no different.

I had a vision of how my labor would transpire. I envisioned an empowering experience that would bring my husband and me closer together and culminate with the natural birth of our healthy son. My labor classes preached about the benefits of having a minimally-invasive birth experience to avoid the “cascade effect” caused by medical interventions, and I agreed with their advice. I had a relatively high pain threshold, so surely I could endure the labor “sensations” and ride the contraction “waves” (we were told to avoid negative words like “pain.”) I was mentally and physically prepared to conquer labor! 

Now this is what really happened . . .

THE AGONY OF WAITING

When my due date passed, each day felt like a ticking time bomb that could explode at any moment. We felt mixed emotions – mostly excitement, but we also felt anxious about the unchartered road ahead of us.

We had an appointment with my OBGYN two days past my due date so she could check my progress. Up to that point, it appeared that our son was going to make us wait for his grand debut. My OBGYN performed the dreaded “cervix examination,” and to our surprise, I was one centimeter dilated and almost completely effaced. “You could go into labor this weekend,” she told us with a smile. When she left the room, Noel (my husband) jumped up and gave me a big enthusiastic hug. His excitement helped assuage my anxiety. Unknown territory always rattles my nerves.

After the appointment, we went out for coffee to celebrate what was ahead of us. Looking back, it’s funny how clueless we were about the degree to which our lives were about to change.Broadway coffee

THE FINAL HOURS OF “LIFE BEFORE BABY”

Since our housekeeper was coming that day (I neurotically planned ahead in preparation for labor), I wanted to stay out of the house for a few hours. This gave me a great excuse to embrace the final hours of my pre-baby life.

My day proceeded with the following acts of self-indulgence: shopping, a bikini wax at Queen Bee, lunch at my favorite restaurant A Votre Sante, acupuncture, a car wash and a gas tank refill. I crammed as much as I possibly could into those five hours. If you have the luxury of setting aside a day for yourself, DO IT! I knew that I would soon be leaving this part of my life behind. 

giggle montana ave waxing a votre sante

AM I IN LABOR?

In the midst of all the morning activities, I felt a sensation similar to mild period cramps. Was I in the early stages of labor? It was difficult to tell. I always thought the onset of labor would be obvious, but it was actually subtle and ambiguous. The “cramps” continued to get stronger and stronger throughout the day. When I went in for my afternoon acupuncture appointment with Danica (the “miracle worker” acupuncturist at Well Women Acupuncture), I told her about the sensations I was feeling. She smiled, gave me a foretelling look and said that she could do something that would help induce labor. She came back with a small apparatus that rhythmically tapped my ankle and did her acupuncture magic on the rest of my body. WOW, did it work! As soon as I stepped out the door, the cramps turned into full on contractions. I swear by acupuncture. It helped me get pregnant, and now I can say with confidence that it induced my labor.

When I got into my car, I called Noel at work and told him the exciting (and terrifying!) news about the contractions. Without hesitation, he said “I’m leaving now!” in an eager and somewhat panicked tone. He rushed out of his meeting and received a standing ovation from his colleagues.

tea candles

When I got home, I went straight upstairs and prepared a warm bath surrounded by tea candles and played some new age music on my iPad. I tried to fool myself with the Zen setting, but both the excitement and anxiety made relaxing an impossible endeavor.

As the evening progressed, the contractions started to become more frequent and intense. I also realized that I was starting to feel hungry. Since we expected a long night ahead of us, we decided to order a hearty dinner to help us store up some energy for the looming marathon. Kale pizza and salad was probably not the best choice. Let’s just say that I won’t be having that meal again anytime in the near future.

I’M DEFINITELY IN LABOR

Right after dinner, I could no longer carry on a conversation. The contractions were coming on sporadically and increasing in intensity. My labor instructor’s voice kept telling me to go to bed so I could save my energy for the long road ahead. It felt strange to try to sleep right before I was about to enter the into the most monumental experience of my entire life, but I followed her advice and did it.

And then . . . holy shit! I was rudely awakened by a monster contraction. So this is what labor feels like. Okay, I was no longer uncertain if this was the real deal. Labor is no joke. 

ARRIVING AT THE HOSPITAL

Gaiam

A must-have for labor and parenthood

After the longest 10 minute drive of my life, we arrived at the hospital around 2am. One would think we were moving in for a month with the amount of stuff we had – a turquoise bouncy ball, my enormous tote bag filled with every single item on the list from BabyCenter.com, a diaper bag stuffed with items for Connor, my husband’s overnight bag, and a pillow. The following recollection is a bit of blur, so please excuse any embellishments or exaggerations (which I would never intentionally do, of course.)

THE 15 HOUR BLUR

By the time we arrived at the hospital, I was sure I was at least 6 or 7cm dilated. I labored at home as long as I possibly could with the intention of coming to the hospital at the “transition” stage and delivering within a few hours of our admittance. We were quickly struck with a harsh dose of reality. After we were taken to our room by an impressively cheerful night staff, the nurse checked my cervix. I was only 3cm dilated! WTF?! How could this possibly be? I was so confident that we only had a few more hours to go. We had an unexpected long haul ahead of us.

ginger candy

Great for labor; eat with caution

The next 14 hours consisted of roaming the halls, rolling back-and-forth on the bouncy ball, staring blankly out the window, lying on my side and receiving comforting massages from Noel. I’ve got to say, I never wanted to punch Noel in the face during labor as I’ve heard some women do. In fact, I’ve never loved him more. Oh, except when he blew his ginger candy breadth in my face and caused me to vomit. But I digress . . .

In the early morning hours of the next day, we were greeted by the morning nurse who I’m convinced was an angel sent from heaven. Her name was Ronnie, and she had an endearing British accent and a warm, loving demeanor. She took the time to get to know us and shared some of her personal stories with us as well. When I told her about my intention to have a medicated-free birth, she commended my decision and assured us she’d do her best to honor our “plan.” She then told us that she predicted I would give birth by sunset that day. That meant I still had 10 more hours to go! I felt deflated.

The pain increased as expected, but with every contraction, I felt an overwhelming throb in my lower back. My OBGYN came in mid-morning to check me and told me I was enduring the type of labor that made me cringe when we learned about it in our classes – I was having back labor! This meant that Connor was in a posterior position causing his head to press against the bony part of my spine each time I had a contraction. Back labor typically means that labor will be longer and more painful than average. It’s a brutal combination.

back labor

Back labor

I did my best to stay off my back by walking, standing on all fours, swaying my hips back and forth with my head resting on a counter, squatting, and lying on my side while Noel vigorously massaged my back. We sustained this routine for about 7 hours. My parents and Noel’s dad came to visit in us during this timeframe, and they all looked at me with sympathetic eyes. My mom gave me a sweet kiss on the cheek and asked, “How are you doing, sweetie?” I wanted to hug her – not just for comforting me – but also because I knew she had endured a similar experience for me. Having a child elevates your relationship with your parents to a whole new level.

THE ULTIMATE PAIN THRESHOLD TEST

Okay, so here’s the deal. I’ve always considered myself to be relatively tough. I’ve run several marathons, enjoy “feeling the burn” inflicted by intense workout, and don’t flinch when I see a needle (I had to give myself a shot in the stomach every day of my pregnancy). I know that this is nothing compared to hardships others have endured, but the point is that I have a high pain threshold.

That said, however, I had never experienced “sensations” like this before. The pain became so severe that I vomited several times. Thankfully, I didn’t scream in agony or cross the line into insanity. Instead, I internalized the pain and tried to calmly breathe through it. (I was determined to get my money’s worth from all those damn classes!) But it was excruciating.

THE TURNING POINT

 At that point, Ronnie came into our room and said to me in a concerned and empathetic tone, “Sweetie, you still have at least 4-5 hours to go. You’ve done such a great job but I can tell you’re exhausted. Our anesthesiologist is really good. Just think about it. That way, you can take a nap and restore your strength. Let me know if you want me to get him.” 

Noel and I looked at each other. I could tell Noel was having a difficult time watching me in so much pain. His eyes were glassy and tired, and I knew he was internally begging me to say “yes.” I paused for a minute and then surrendered. “I’ll get the epidural. Thanks, Ronnie.”

I caved. Although I had told others I was flexible and open to deviations from my “birth plan,” I desperately wanted to avoid getting an epidural. At that point, however, I couldn’t imagine sustaining that situation for another 5 hours. Each minute that went by seemed like an agonizing hour. I just wanted to be able to focus on my son and the experience rather than the pain.

The anesthesiologist came into our room and started preparing the drugs and needle. He was fascinated by my minor case of scoliosis. He said to Ronnie, “Wow, look at this! The point is here, but her spine is HERE!” Those were not exactly the words I wanted to hear when his error could result in paralysis for life. I looked at my husband who was unsuccessfully trying to conceal his terror. Then, I closed my eyes, wished for the best, and was whisked away into a new, wonderful place. . .

The rest of labor was blissful. I was happy, and dare I say, comfortable! See before and after pics below. Enough said.

IMG_0975

Before epidural

IMG_0976

After epidural

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the epidural, Noel and I both took a short nap and woke up feeling revived. I couldn’t believe how much better I felt after that brief rest. I looked at the clock and realized we only had three hours to go until my estimated delivery time.

The nurse came in and told me that my doctor wanted to break my water since it hadn’t happened on it’s own yet. I had already caved to the epidural; I didn’t want to surrender to more unnecessary interventions. “Is it okay if we wait a little longer and see if it happens on it’s own?” I meekly asked. “Of course!” said the nurse. “We can do whatever you want.” She was right. Why was I trying to be so accommodating? This was not the time to be a people-pleaser. Sure enough, my water broke within a half hour of that conversation and I began pushing an hour later.

The pushing stage lasted exactly one hour. I didn’t realize it would be so physically demanding. Thankfully the squats, lunges and yoga I had done during my pregnancy paid off. I had a team of coaches and cheerleaders by my side with and mirror in front of me for motivation. I couldn’t wait to see Connor’s little face!

THE LIFE-CHANGING MOMENT

And then came the moment that I will remember for the rest of my life. Dr. Vogel said, “I can see the crown of his head. You’re so close!” That was all she had to say. When I looked into the mirror and saw the top of Connor’s tiny head, I pushed with every ounce of energy I had remaining. I took one more deep breadth, forcefully exhaled into the last push, and Dr. Vogel started pulling him out.

At 5pm on December 13, 2013, Connor came into our life. I became a mom, Noel became a dad, and we were looking at our son for the first time. He was so beautiful – a perfectly smooth and fuzzy head, a round little nose, and wide, alert eyes. The nurse placed him on my chest and I immediately felt the warmth of his tiny body against mine. Then, he picked up his head, looked at Noel and me, and plopped it back down on my chest. We were amazed that he had that much strength after all that hard work!IMG_0989IMG_0985

Never in my life had I been so “present.”  I felt such an intense connection to the little person on my chest. The obscure living being that was gestating inside me for over 9 months had finally become a reality. The world stopped for that moment, and I knew that our lives had changed forever. Noel and I would love and care for Connor for the rest of our lives. Everything I did from this day forward would be for him.

Labor gave me a new appreciation and respect for myself and my body, deepened my bond with my husband, and marked the beginning of a new life. I don’t have any regrets about the decisions we made along the way – including getting the epidural. I was proud that I had endured 17 hours of labor without it and felt that the final hours of my labor were much more enjoyable because of it. Most importantly, our son was healthy and loved. I’ve made it to many finish lines in my life, but never before had the prize at the end been so rewarding.

That’s my labor story. It has a beautiful ending – and an even more beautiful beginning.

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Connor William Sullivan; 1 hour old

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Postpardum room

A-cheeks

Our angel; 10 hours old

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Falling in love

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Creating a Healthy Home Environment

Our homes are our sanctuaries. We typically spend at least half of each day in our homes sleeping, eating, working, relaxing and spending time with our loved ones. But if we don’t pay attention to the environment we’re living in, we could be causing harm to the health of our families. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that over 80% of all chronic diseases could be prevented by improving our lifestyle in simple ways, like reducing our exposure to environmental pollutants. That’s why I want to share some small, easy changes that could make a big impact on our health. healthy home

The Epiphany

My “green neuroticism” can be attributed to my friend, Esther Ruurda-Drake (thanks, Esther). Esther’s interest in the subject stems from two major events – the death of her beloved mother (lost to brain cancer) and the birth of her daughter, Emilie. These two life-changers caused Esther to take a greater interest in how our environment affects our health. Through her research, she found that 30 years of environmental health studies have led to a growing consensus that chemicals are playing a role in the incidence and prevalence of many diseases and disorders (childhood leukemia, cancer, obesity, asthma, birth defects and autism). Even with this knowledge, many times she still chose “cheap & cheerful” or “handy & quick” over healthy because they were more convenient. I think all of us struggle with this on a daily basis. We want to do what’s best, but we also need a healthy balance of convenience to maintain our sanity.

Esther gets this, and that’s why she recently started a company called “Happy by Nature.” Happy by NatureThe mission of her company is to to empower conceiving couples, pregnant women and (new) parents to help reduce their family’s exposure to harmful environmental chemicals, starting with a few easy steps, to keep them safe and healthy. Lucky for us, my husband and I got be her first guinea pigs!

Tips for Creating a Healthier Home Environment

We were surprised by some of the things we learned during the home consultation. Below are a few of the easy ways you can clean up your home.

Indoor air quality:

This should be a top priority. Here are a few small things you can do to help with the air quality in your home.

  • Leave your shoes at the door.shoes at door They carry harmful bacteria that you want to keep out of your home.
  • Get plants in for house (including the nursery) as air purifiers to keep the air nice and clean. A few suggestions can be found here.
  • Vacuum every week and wet clean as often as possible on top of that (more important if baby starts crawling and touches the floor) to get rid of pet dander and toxins that attach to dust.
  • Double check your cleaning products’ ingredients. You can use the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning and/or Good Guide to see which products are the safest and healthiest.
  • If you’re interested in checking your indoor air quality at any point, you can have a test done.

Water:

  • Know when your water filter needs to be replaced.Water bottle
  • If you don’t have a whole-house water filter, consider a chlorine filter for the water you & baby will bath in. (Read about the dangers of chlorine.)
  • Consider the water you drink at the office. If your office provides a 5-gallon water bottle, check if it is a #7 (contains BPA). If it is, start bringing your own filtered water and/or use a filter (e.g., Britta) for your office’s tap water.

Body Care:

  • Avoid “fragrance” in all your body products. It’s one of the worst offenders in body care products. Fragrance from essential oils might be acceptable, but research the product well and ask questions when not convinced. no_perfume
  • Don’t use anti-bacterial products. They have no proven benefit and may even be harmful.
  • Read labels well and check the products on the Environmental Working Group’s Consumer Guides and/or Good Guide. Don’t fall for “green washing” that so many packaged goods companies use in their marketing. (I’m personally a huge fan of The Honest Company’s products.)

 Nursery/Registry

These are just a few easy places to start. It’s important to take baby steps so you don’t get discouraged. Being green actually isn’t as hard as it sounds!

To contact Esther for a home consultation, visit her Happy By Nature website.

Please feel free to share your comments, suggestions and questions about this post.

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These Chemicals are in 80% of Baby Products

At some point, one wonders if certain safety standards do more harm than good. A perfect example of this is the California flammability standard put in place in 1975 (Technical bulletin 117) . Since then, harmful flame retardants have been added to countless baby products, unnecessarily exposing them to dangerous chemicals. (Nice job, guys.)baby and flame retardants

WHY ARE THEY HARMFUL?

Flame retardants can cause a number of adverse health effects, including lowered IQ in children, reduced fertility and hormone disruption. Babies and toddlers are even more vulnerable to these chemicals. Studies have found that toddlers have three to four times the level of toxic flame retardants in their bodies compared to their parents. Oy vey!

WHAT ARE THEY IN?

A more appropriate question would be “what AREN’T they in?” Flame retardants can be found nursing pillows, changing table pads, baby carriers, car seats and the list goes on. The Green Science Policy Institute found flame retardants in 80% of the baby products tested in a recent study. changing pad

What does this mean? You guessed it. Parents must do their research to find products that don’t contain these chemicals. And it isn’t easy.

HOW TO REDUCE EXPOSURE

Before we get into specific brands, these are ways that you can reduce your overall exposure.

1. Purchase safe baby products and furniture

  • Consider products that contain natural fibers like down, wool or cotton (organic cotton is best). Polyester is a better choice than anything containing polyurethane foam. Stay as far away from that stuff as possible!
  • Products that have the label below are a cause of concern. This most likely means that it contains flame retardants.

TB117 label

2. Reduce exposure to house dust

  • Vacuum often (at least once a week) and mop floors to help prevent dust build up
  • Wash hands frequently

3. Advocate for safer products

Your voice can help solve this problem. The Green Science Policy offers materials to help you contact the Chief of the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair or your state representatives and/or governor. Admittedly, this is still on my list of “to-do’s.”

BRANDS TO BUY

Now the part that you’ve been waiting for – what to actually buy. According to the Green Science Policy Institute and other credible sources, Baby Luxe Organic , BabyBjorn, Orbit Baby, and Boppy are manufacturers with products that meet the TB117 requirements without added flame retardants.

I also did a little more research on my own, and these are the products that have solid reputations and met our standards:

MATTRESS

Naturepedic – Naturepedic makes an organic mattresses free of harmful chemicals. While the cost for an organic mattress is high, it’s worth its price in gold when you think about how much time your baby will spend on it. Many conventional non-organic mattresses contain flame retardants, polyurethane foam (emits harmful VOCs) and formaldehyde. We’ve registered for this one. Naturepedic Mattress

Naturepedic No Compromise Organic Cotton Classic Lightweight Dual Firmness Crib Mattress ($259 on Amazon)

CHANGING PAD

Naturepedic (again) – Steer clear of changing pads that contain polyurethane foam and synthetic waterproof coatings. Instead, look for organic cotton or wool and a polyethylene food-grade waterproof coating. This Naturepedic changing pad has all of those qualities. A natural waterproof coating eliminates the need for a waterproof cover, which gives you more options (organic changing pad covers usually aren’t waterproof). It’s pricey, but worth it. Our babies spend a lot of time on these.naturepedic chaning pad

Naturepedic Organic Cotton Contoured Changing Pad ($99 on Amazon)

CHANGING PAD COVER

Burt’s Bees – Organic is the way to go when it comes to something that will be directly touching your baby’s skin. Burt’s Bees makes soft, stretchy organic changing pad covers in a few simple colors.

Burt’s Bees Honey Bee Changing Pad Cover ($17 on Amazon) Burts Bees Changing Pad

TRAVEL CRIB

nuna-sena-safari-600_2The Nuna Sena Travel Crib – A European brand that is Certifiably Green  with 100% Oeko-Tex certified organic fabric. Oeko-Tex is an independent certification and testing system that provides manufactures in the textile and clothing industry with a benchmark for evaluating harmful chemicals in textiles. I don’t know about you, but I trust a European brand’s safety standards much more than US standards. (Think about the artificial flavors, synthetic growth hormones and arsenic they allow in our foods. Enough said.)

CAR SEAT & STROLLER

While it’s nearly impossible to find a car seat and stroller free of flame retardants (unless you want to spend $440 on an Orbit car seat), there is a solution.

A few words on car seats and strollers. I commend Orbit for taking the lead in manufacturing chemically safe products for children. Part of the reason they’ve done this is because their products are sold internationally, so they must meet the minimum safety requirements of other countries (which are much more stringent than US standards – no surprise there). Apparently Britax also vowed to phase out harmful flame retardants by the end of 2012. If you’re confused like me and want to see how all the car seats stack up against each other, Healthystuff.org is a great resource that reported on the best and worst car seats in 2011. However, much of its info is outdated.

We decided to go with the Chicco Keyfit 30 Infant Car Seat. It had top safety ratings and a Medium to Low score from Healthystuff.org (which is good).

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Chicco Keyfit 30 Infant Car Seat and Base

The bottom line is that you have to do your research to keep flame retardant exposure to a minimum. I’m hopeful that one day, these companies will realize that their consumers want chemically safe products.

I hope this was helpful. Please respond with any comments, suggestions or new information that may contradict what I’ve found. We can all learn from each other!

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The Hunt for the Perfect Crib

baby cribI naively thought that buying a crib would be as easy as finding a new sweater. You try on a few different styles and colors, check what materials are used, consider the price and make a decision. Right? Not so much.

Sadly, most cribs on the market contain toxic materials. Since infants are especially vulnerable to toxins, this news is quite concerning. Studies have shown that toxins found in baby products can cause hormone disruption, lowered IQ, reduced fertility, immune dysfunction, cancer and more. These learnings are what inspired me to make a carefully-researched decision about our crib purchase since our baby will be spending most of his time in it during his first few years.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

First, let’s talk about what to look for in a crib.

Cribs should be:

  • Made of certified sustainable wood and hardwood only (no pressed or engineered wood – including particleboard, plywood, fiberboard and medium density fiberboard, all which typically contain added formaldehyde)
  • Finished or painted with a water-based, non-toxic substance that contains no VOCs (or better yet, get one that’s unfinished)
  • Lead and phthalate free

Seems simple enough, right? Unfortunately, this criteria is harder to find than you’d think.

baby and chemicals

Most cribs on the market are structurally safe due to government regulations. However, the government is doing very little to regulate toxins in furniture, mainly volatile organic compounds (VOCs). There are currently over 80,000 unregulated industrial chemicals on the market in the US; and the regulations that are in place are considered too lenient by many experts.

Scary, isn’t it?

WHAT TO AVOID

In general, these are the chemicals that should be avoided:

  • VOCs (volatile organic compounds)VOCs are gases emitted from certain solids or liquids, including paints, lacquer and finishes used on cribs. Concentration levels of VOCs are up to 10 times higher indoors than outdoors, and can have both short- and long-term adverse health effects.
  • Lead – Scientists have found that no level of lead is considered “safe” for children. Even small amounts of lead can effect a child’s ability to learn. Lead is commonly found in wood finishes and coatings.
  • Phthalates – Studies show evidence that phthalates could affect the reproductive system. Phthalates are used in in hundreds of consumer and household products, including wood finishes.
  • Formaldehyde – Formaldehyde is often added to engineered wood as a bonding agent and is present in many glues used for crib construction. It has been classified as a known human carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It’s important to note that formaldehyde is a chemical that occurs naturally in the environment. The key is to look for no “added” formaldehyde.
  • Polyurethane – Polyurethane is notoriously toxic. This substance can be found in some wood finishes.

If you do happen to go with a crib that contains some of these chemicals, another option is to set it outside in the open air for several weeks to allow it to off-gas. You could also open the windows of the nursery, turn on some fans, and allow it to off-gas inside for several months. However, avoiding these chemicals altogether is the safest route.

COMMON PITFALLS AND MISCONCEPTIONS

Now let’s get into the common pitfalls of naïve crib shopping. While these claims may sound good, they don’t tell the full story.

  • The “non-toxic” finish claim. Contrary to the claim, non-toxic does not mean “no toxins.” This simply means that the manufacturer has met federal safety standards for the maximum allowable levels of certain toxins. However, those standards don’t prohibit the use of VOCs nor do they adequately regulate heavy metals and other harmful chemicals.
  • The “water-based” claim. Although water-based finishes are better than petroleum-based, they can still emit VOCs and contain carcinogens and heavy metals.
  • Lead and phthalate SAFE. “Safe” does not mean “free.” Again, this only means that the manufacturer has met the federal safety standards, but the product can still contain low levels of these toxins.

QUESTIONS TO ASK

Calling the manufacturer is the best way to get the most reliable answers. Product labels and descriptions are often not enough. When calling the manufacturer or a store, be weary of customer service representatives who are trying to please their customers. They often don’t know all the details and will tell you what they think will make you happy. Don’t trust these guys! Instead, you should contact the manufacturer directly and speak to a technical expert.

Information to get from the manufactures:

  • Directly ask if the wood and finish is lead, phthalate and formaldahyde free if it’s not obvious in the product description.
  • If a product claims to use a VOC free finish, ask the manufacturer about their testing protocols for heavy metals before being sold. Make sure they’re using a 3rd party testing lab.
  • Ensure that the manufacturer is testing the finishes on all their production runs. You do not want to end up with a black sheep that’s been contaminated.
  • Find out where they get their lumber and if they follow sustainable practices.
  • If they are using engineered wood or pressed wood, find out how it is manufactured. In some cases, they may be using recycled wood waste and a formaldehyde-free adhesive (this is okay).
  • Ask if their glues are formaldehyde free.

It’s also helpful to read the Q&As on the seller or manufacturer’s site carefully. Many times, you’ll find that other savvy parents have already asked these questions above.

RECOMMENDED CRIBS

Okay, so now you’re probably wondering what brands meet all of the criteria listed above. I wish I had a simple answer, but unfortunately I learned that finding a crib is a labor-intensive research project. Thankfully, some other diligent bloggers have already done some of the legwork.

A solid wood crib is the best way to go, but it will typically cost at least $500. While this is a big investment, it will be more durable than others made with engineered wood and will carry a higher resale value. You can also rest assured knowing that your baby isn’t surrounded by toxins.

PR crib

The Non-Toxic Nurse recommends the Pacific Rim (starts at $800). This is a pricey proposition, but it’s one of the only cribs that’s made of 100% solid wood with a finish that consists of food-grade tung oil and beeswax.

sniglar-crib__24122_PE109000_S4

A popular low-cost option is the Ikea Sniglar ($69.99), which is solid beech wood crib that comes unfinished. Although the mattress platform is made of pressboard, this is preferable to it being used throughout the crib.

The Daily Green also offers some good advice on buying non-toxic cribs, but many of the brands highlighted in the post are over $1,000.

Footprint-Slat-Solid-Wood-Crib-2T

Green Cradle is another brand that was frequently mentioned in many of the sources I came across. It’s made of solid wood and completely chemical free. Their transparency is also quite impressive (which scores them major points!).

Which cribs were our contenders? Here you go:

giggle cribGiggle Better Basics Harper Crib – We liked the style of this crib and it was within our price range ($595). Although the description says it’s made of engineered wood (typically a red flag), the Harper Collection uses only water-based and non-toxic (meaning no-VOC) paints and glues. This collection is also made from sustainably harvested timber and is manufactured in a facility that utilizes timber waste rather than electricity to heat their timber kilns and workshops with remaining waste used to make an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels. I was impressed by their answers in the Q&A section. This is a reasonably-priced and attractive option.

NOT RECOMMENDED

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Babyletto Skip Crib  – The price and modern look was right ($395), but unfortunately this company was not. This is a popular brand that uses sustainable New Zealand pine wood, but it contains MDF and paints/finishes that are “lead and phthalate SAFE” (not FREE) with “undetectable levels of formaldehyde.” I thought we could do better than this, so our search continued.

Pottery BarnJust out of curiosity, I also contacted Pottery Barn about the Kendall Fixed Gate Crib ($599). While this is a popular choice, I found their answer to my product inquiry a bit suspicious. I asked is the finish was lead and pthalate free, and this was their response:

“All PBK products meet or exceed US, Canadian and recognized industry standards, as well as Williams-Sonoma testing standards, for safety and toxicity (including lead).  All PBK products are tested by an independent laboratory to ensure that your child is using products that meet our high PBK standards. We do not share specific test results, as they are a proprietary part of our development process.”

Really? Their safety test results are proprietary? No thank you.

OUR WINNER (MY RECOMMENDATION)Nest Crib from Room & Board ($699) Nest crib cherry

Not only did we love the solid look of this crib, but it also met all of our standards. El Greco Woodworking was one of the most transparent companies I’ve come across during this process. I spoke with the owner and learned that their cribs have NO lead or phthalates. They buy their lumber from the Appalachian Hardwood Manufactures, Inc, which is a sustainable and carbon negative company (verified by the U.S. Forest Service). All of their coatings are non-toxic and free of lead and phthalates. After their lacquer coating cures, which takes 30 days in warm, moving air, it no longer off-gases because the solvent has dissipated and the coating becomes chemically inert. Even the MDF they use on other cribs is Certified Green, meaning it has no added formaldehyde. Everything is crafted in their factories from rough lumber to the finished product. All made in the USA.

A FEW CLOSING THOUGHTS

Whatever decision you make, it should be based on your personal preference and needs. There are many factors to consider when buying a crib, including price, style, quality, durability, convertibility into a toddler bed, etc. I hope you find these suggestions helpful as you begin your crib hunting process. Good luck!

All comments are welcome and encouraged. We can all learn from each other.

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About Me and This Blog

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That’s me on the right

Before I begin writing my first official post, I’d like to explain the inspiration behind this blog. As an expectant parent, I’ve done what most of us do in this situation. I’m neurotically trying to prepare the best possible environment for our little one when he’s abruptly thrown into our chaotic world after spending nine months in my safe and warm womb. But when you’ve never done this parenting thing, how do you know where to start? My solution has included immersing myself in pregnancy and parenting books, signing up for classes and nonchalantly squeezing in baby questions every time I talk to a friend who has a child. My biggest learning has been that everyone has his/her own opinion and style. No one will can tell you the “right” way to parent. It’s both a blessing and a huge inconvenience.

When it comes to preparing a safe environment, I have spent countless hours researching products and health hazards in the home. I’ve literally made myself sick from staying up too late at night because I’ve been sucked into the black hole of the internet researching product after product to find the best and “greenest.” Because we expectant parents need and value our sleep, I’d like to share what I’ve learned to make this process easier on those who are beginning the baby preparation process.

This blog contains both factual information as well as my own personal option. I hope you find my posts helpful. Here’s to creating a safe and healthy future for our unborn (and born) children!

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