I am so excited to have Ally write this beautiful and poignant piece. Ally is a dear friend of mine, my former back-up doula, and a truly amazing woman, mother, and birth activist, advocate, and worker. Her energy is endless and her inspiration knows no bounds. - Britt
I don't know how to make a family tree.
I want to make one for our family. I envision a bunch of names and dates and relationships blending into a gorgeous picture. I want to design a Tree of Life that branches all about with births and marriages and even deaths, and I want to bask in its history and meaning.
I can't figure out how to do it, because this 'tree' stuff is far more complicated than I realized.
This month, my husband left to attend the funeral of his father in the U.K. Sadly, his father and grandfather died within 17 days of each other: my mother-in-law lost both her husband and father, and the family was gathering to grieve, and to remember.
While he prepared to to depart, we were preparing also to celebrate the 7th birthday of our youngest daughter. The family things going on, all of the communications and details and whatnot, led to quite a few discussions with our daughters about their relatives...and emphasized how prevalent the roots of birth are in our lives.
Birth is about women. Their bodies. Their pregnancies. Their children.
It is the complete adoration I have for my three daughters, and for the baby I never met. It is the ache I feel as I continue to recover, physically and emotionally, from a recent hysterectomy. It's feeling an emptiness from where my womb sheltered my babies, it's letting go of more munchkins under our roof, and it's feeling the weight of apron strings thinning and separating as my girls grow and blossom. Each week, friends announce the arrival of their babes, and they share their escapades with their toddlers. These friends are assorted ages, varied in personality and background, 'first-time' and 'repeat' moms. The little ones & their adventures are the wisps of my own children, who used to curl into my arms, crawl about my floors, and climb on my furniture and steps. Bed-bouncing monkey songs and sweet finger games are replaced in my mind's albums by the voices of my growing daughters belting out chart music and sophisticated dance moves. And as birthdays pass and calendars get tucked away, I accept that I am getting older too.
Birth is transitioning, as described by a friend who is fostering two young brothers. She and her partner are trying to find their footing and groove as sudden-mamas, and they have opened their arms, home, minds, routines, and hearts to these little guys, for as long as they are allowed to share their lives together. Birth is uncovering a capacity for parenting, beyond biology and circumstance.
Birth is watching from afar as my one sister and her wife try repeatedly to conceive. They try, despite the hurt, the expense, the red tape and the indignities. It is watching up-close as another sister survives four miscarriages, with no understanding of why they happened, nor any certainty about how to proceed if she wants her son (my nephew, whom she had as a teen) to have a sibling. In the meantime, birth is watching these couples hope, shower fondness upon their nieces, nephews, and classroom students.
Birth is carrying the genetics of my own biological mother, who was fourteen when she had me. I was adopted by her older married sister, my Mom, at my birth. My Mom and Dad had been waiting for several years to have a child, and were overcome with sorrow that they could not. My Mom was one of six children, who grew up up in a multi-generational household. My Dad was one of five children, who grew up in orphanages after being placed there for most of their lives. My parents desperately wanted children, and to have their own family. The sculpture of a stork in my bedroom as a child became a symbol of their yearnings and then of their happiness. Later, when I attended college for Social Work, and then attended trainings to be a doula, the stork represented my belief in the power and significance of birth and families. I couldn't imagine doing anything other than surrounding myself with women, children, and the zany paces and pieces of their lives.
Birth is graduating university and finding the love of my life while being a camp counselor...and finding out that this life partner of mine had an upbringing that included boarding schools and traveling to other countries - while mine took place in the same neighborhood where we live now. Birth is roaming through the world of birthwork, and transferring my skills from there to the world of the elderly, as I become the primary caregiver for my parents, who are struggling with illness and age. I see glimpses of their past selves and hear notes of our shared history as their moods and states ebb and flow. I drift between roles and responsibilities - of offspring and adult, of 'family member here' and of 'woman with her family there'. A friend described the dynamic with my parents as this: 'It's like mothering all over again, or mothering coming full circle'. Because birth is about parents. Parenthood. Parenting. Nouns and verbs, people and actions. Children and childhoods, stories with characters and themes, beginnings and endings, cliff-hangers and continuations. While listening to my husband mourn over the phone with his mother, I think about the layers that emerge when we contemplate the lives of those before us; the lives of those who gave us life; the lives of those who live with us now; and the lives of those who will live beyond us, too.
Perhaps the pieces of blank paper and scattered art supplies don't make sense because my image doesn't make sense. The individuals and the couples. The bodies, the blood, the pregnancies, the adoptions. The learning, the vocations, the decisions. The celebrations and ceremonies. The suicides, the losses, and the deaths. So many faces, so many voices, so many legacies, so many memories. A tree isn't the image I need. An orchard is. Where there is not one tree, but many, with seeds and nourishment from many sources. Where a tree has blossoms and fruits, and where the seasons emanate with the temperatures of emotions. Where a tree has a swing hung for fun, a trellis dug for support, and a bench built for peace. Where a tree has patches of bark peeled away and the markings of etched scars. Perhaps here I can dwell in the stillness of sunrays and shade, and honor the heart-breaks and heart-swells. Perhaps you will join me here, and perhaps we will burrow in the branches of your tree and see what story we discover together.
As the Philadelphia birth world blooms bigger and brighter, I think it's time I start putting some of the insightful questions I've received and information I've research into a public journal. I hope you'll find this inspiring, empowering, and totally enjoyable.