Building My Nest by Linda Louise Henry

[Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 102, Summer 2012.]
Photos provided by the author

pregnant woman holding pan of cupcakes

I made enough chocolate cupcakes for myself that I was sure to have at least one every day!

I think the best place to start is at the beginning of my story.

I was pregnant, a single mother and living in a jungle in Costa Rica. The events leading up to all of the aforementioned facts are, well, complicated. Regardless of my situation, I was going to have a baby! Because I had already given birth to other children and because I had been in birth work for several years already, I was profoundly aware that the first few weeks of a baby’s life are so very fleeting and so very precious. I decided that not only was I going to plan to have a home waterbirth, I was going to plan to stay in my nest for 40 days afterwards. Along with the perfect birth, I wanted a perfect nesting time. As this was the first time out of all of my births that I would be the only adult in the house, I realized fairly quickly that if I wanted to have the experience that I hoped for, I would need to create it myself.

First, let me define what I mean as “nest.” It is a physical space that a new mother and her baby enter into immediately following birth. It is the next stage in the process—a continuation and ultimate completion of the pregnancy and birth. Mama and baby go into this space alone for an extended period of time to share the sacred space that naturally surrounds the two after a birth, optimally for 40 days. It is safe and beautiful. Mom has no other responsibilities other than the nest. Others may visit—but the heart of the space is reserved for just mother and baby.

Within the nest, the new baby first learns about love and life. Because of what scientists call “plasticity of the brain,” we can deduce that it would likely be a beneficial thing if the first few weeks of life were spent in a sacred and safe love nest with a healthy, happy mother.

The nest is not only a physical space, but it also includes a protective shield around all aspects of life during the first 40 days following birth. This shield is built by pre-organizing life financially, as well as generally with household issues such as cleaning and laundry, food preparation, other children, etc. The shield then acts as a protection around the new mother and baby, allowing them to enjoy the nest to its fullest. These issues need to be prepared and pre-organized in the same way that the physical space is created.

I’ll tell you how I did it. I began by making lists and I kept these ongoing lists in my journal, adding to them often. One of the first things I realized I needed to do was to purchase a birthing tub before the third trimester. I found a portable hot tub on eBay for $500. The hot tub gave me a welcome, weightless retreat every day leading up to the birth. From there, I designed the room that I would be nesting in and made drawings and lists in order to make that space work for me and my family. For example, I built an addition to my bed and attached it to the wall so my kids would have a separate space to lie down and play and hold the baby that didn’t encroach on mine and my baby’s bed. They could even lie down next to me, but they would still have their own space and wouldn’t bump mine around. I made lists of how I could create enough food—good food—for the 40 days. I realized that I needed a chest freezer and after buying the freezer, I began leisurely making and buying my favorite foods and freezing them. I made enough chocolate cupcakes for myself that I was sure to have at least one every day! I budgeted for a young woman to come to my house for a few hours every morning and clean and do laundry beginning in the third trimester and to continue through the 40 days after the birth. I budgeted for the midwife, a weekly massage, wireless headphones, and lots of pillows and luxurious bed linens. I also budgeted for enough savings to pay for 3 months’ worth of bills as I obviously wouldn’t be working during the nesting time and would continue staying home for some time afterwards. After I totaled everything up, I had a good idea of how much money I needed to set aside. Miraculously, over the months I was able to save just that amount. It wasn’t cheap, but I realized that this may be one of the most important investments of my life. I sacrificed, I got creative, I sold things and I did whatever I could to make sure I would have the amount that I needed.

mom and baby in hot tub

I spent hours every day in the hot tub with Zara, looking out over the river and the jungle.

I spent months building my nest, going to great lengths to have everything in place so that when the day finally came, I was ready. Since I knew that all the logistics of my household were taken care of for 40 days, I could relax deeper into the birth. After days of on-again, off-again contractions, I woke up one morning knowing that it was the day. I woke up around 5 am to the sound of howler monkeys rustling in the trees in front of my house. The house had screens for walls, and my bed in my nest faced the river and trees where the monkeys were. I said good morning to the monkeys. This was it! I asked the monkeys to stay for the birth—I told them that I would love to have them be there with me. All 22 of them (my daughter counted) would end up staying and coming very, very close to where I was laboring. They even howled along with me during transition later on that night.

It was a beautiful birth. At sunrise the next day, with the monkeys, butterflies and hummingbirds surrounding me, Zara was born under the water. I lifted her up to the warm tropical air and the sound of my midwife quietly singing a native lullaby.

When the placenta had been delivered, my doula helped me “float” from the birth tub into the nest. Sheltered by a beautiful red Indian tapestry hung over the bed and the deep red bed sheets, it was as if I was planted in the womb of Mother Earth—safe, secure and perfect. Zara, with her placenta still attached, was placed into my arms after I was comfortable. The euphoria from that moment seemed to multiply the longer I was in my nest. Such incredible profound love surrounded us. I was the goddess of birth on my throne.

Over the next weeks, I was able to gently process the powerful and intense experience of the pregnancy and birth. I was able to wrap my head and heart around what had just happened in my life and to grow into my new role as Zara’s mother. I didn’t have to worry about doing anything other than loving my baby and taking care of my physical recovery, which seemed minimal since I had no other responsibilities. I had everything I needed within arm’s reach (diapers, phone, snacks, etc.). My older kids were taken care of, as I had created safe spaces for them nearby where they were happy with new toys and books. I had them help out by bringing up food, making smoothies, or taking the diapers down to the laundry. They felt important because they were! I needed them and they were amazing. They took turns each night sleeping in the side bed next to me and Zara. Every evening before bedtime was spent in the hot tub together as a family. The kids would get out and into bed, and then Zara and I would climb into our nest where soft, wonderful blankets and red silk pillows surrounded us. I had a very soft red light on all the time, with tapestries and crystals hung over the bed. I played beautiful music and lit candles all around the room. I even had a headlight flashlight to make nighttime diaper changing easy. The space was magical. It was the perfect environment to appreciate the beauty and miracle of the precious little life next to me. Often I would just stare at her, and so many times during those weeks, I would cry and cry the purest tears of love and gratitude.

For 40 days I did not leave the nest except to go to the bathroom or to take a shower. I did not put on “normal” clothes and stayed wrapped in a special ceremonial birth sarong that allowed me to feed Zara easily. I had cranial sacral treatments for both me and Zara and special post birth massages. During the day, all of my food was brought to me by friends, the kids or the woman who was helping me with the house. I would spread a sarong on my bed and eat my meals with Zara lying next to me while I gazed at the jungle. I loved it when friends brought over food—but I never needed to depend on it because I had a freezer full of my favorites (don’t forget the cupcakes!). When friends did come, I had a specific rocking chair placed at a comfortable distance from my bed, within the nest. This was the boundary that I created and it was surprisingly honored by every visitor. I spent hours every day in the hot tub with Zara, looking out over the river and the jungle. I would sing to her and eat chocolate.

There were times I was so proud of myself. I would look around my nest and say “I did this!” with the same conviction and satisfaction of when I had given birth at home, on my own terms. To say I became empowered from the experience is ridiculous. It was so much bigger than that. I was changed.

It wasn’t long before I realized that this was an element of birth that I hadn’t paid enough attention to before. In the way that I was changed so dramatically by my first homebirth, this experience had the same effect on me. I wanted to tell everyone! I had discovered something huge.

After the first couple of weeks, I brought my laptop into my space. I was careful and selective and didn’t spend much time on it, but I began doing some research online and discovered much more information on infant development. These two things, my experience and this new-found information, started to morph into each other. It started to make sense why I had been so euphoric, because that is what comes naturally when the process is honored and allowed to occur unhindered. We need it as mothers, and babies need it to optimally pass through the first critical developmental stages. It made absolute sense.

For all the same reasons that we advocate for an optimal birth experience, we should be advocating for an optimal nesting time too. It makes sense that an extended period of time in a beautiful protected space with the mother’s needs taken care of, with baby surrounded by love and 100% attention, would be a good thing for both mother and baby. Of course the experience would have a positive lifelong impact! We may even deduce that this nesting time is imperative to maternal and infant health as much as quality prenatal and birth care are. And considering the epidemic of postpartum depression we are facing now, it’s not just an elephant in the room, but a herd of elephants stomping their feet saying, “What happened to the nest?”

So what can we do as the gatekeepers to fully offer the best care to new mothers and their babies in regards to the nest? A good start would be to incorporate the importance of a nest within our prenatal care. Educate your clients and encourage them to begin their nesting as soon as possible. Consider partnering with a postpartum doula or someone who could act as “nest builder” and roll her fee into your fee as part of your services. She could work with the mom and family to build the nest in every aspect and then be physically available to the mom during her nesting time. Most of the physical services necessary during the first week postpartum would include helping with breastfeeding and recovery and making sure the household is running smoothly. At the very least, have resources of women available in your community who can help facilitate any physical help needed during the nesting time, while encouraging the moms to build and honor their own nests.

In the ultimate goal of bringing peace to earth through peaceful birth, and within our responsibility to the women and babies that we serve, let’s make a commitment to begin honoring the nest with greater respect and reverence. It may just be what the world needs right now.

Linda Louise Henry now lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She has seven children and one granddaughter. She is currently in the process of writing NEST: A Guidebook for New Mothers, and, after 22 months, has continued to stay at home with Zara while making it through life unscathed. Look for Linda’s new blog, “NEST,” at nest-keeper.tumblr.com.


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