by Sister MorningStar
© 2011 Midwifery Today, Inc. All rights reserved.
[Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today Issue 99, Autumn 2011.]
Photos provided by the author
Full moon nights over my Ozarks Holyland are magical. My Cherokee prayers blend with the sounds of the deep woods surrounding my little cottage and begin to echo the generations of prayers made by full-throated wimyn around the stone fire circle near the flowing stream. For nine months my prayers and the full moon rose to illuminate the mysteries of the glen, carrying light and love from my part of the world to the inner world of my daughter, Kalista, and unborn grandchild. I needed mighty prayers to carry light and strength and love all the way from the Ozarks of Missouri to the California coast in San Diego.
Instinctual birth depends on instinctual living. It takes mighty prayers on full moon nights to help our people find their instinctual path through birth in this technomedical world. Sometimes it breaks my heart to hear the stories of what is lost to our people and their souls in birth. Sometimes it frightens me. Sometimes it shocks me. Sometimes it makes me sound like an angry She-Bear. I did not have time for any such ponderings in those nine months. I was busy with my prayers, watching the steps and breath of my daughter and the growing, glowing soul of the next generation, hidden from my view but not my vision.
Blessingways are traditional native ceremonies that honor and prepare a mother for the mystery and power unique to instinctual birth. Kalista traveled home in her eighth month to attend her blessingway. Surrounded by wimyn who had birthed in power against the modern current, Kalista closed her eyes to deepen the sounds of the drums, prayers and blessings so needed by the soul of one nearing her vision quest.
Prenatal care a thousand miles apart is never easy. I traveled to Kalista. Kalista traveled to me. We had our prenatal phone visits weekly. By the end we enjoyed Skype prenatals on Sunday afternoons. Back in California Kalista hired a homebirth midwifery team to support her and provide emergency backup if needed. Kalista’s pregnancy reminded me of mine. She was measuring small for dates but felt great and centered. She enjoyed a vegetarian diet and hiking with her dog, Molly, up the mountains or along the ocean shore.
The birth was due around April 9, 2011. I had agreed to speak at the Midwifery Today conference in Oregon from March 30 – April 3. Kalista’s sister, Tabitha, had lived in Eugene during the birth of her first child and would be travelling back to a place of powerful birth energy where Tabitha’s birth story, recorded in The Power of Women, had unfolded. Now a mother of two homebirth daughters, Tabitha lives two miles from my cottage in the woods. She packed up her van and divine daughters and headed west to be with Kalista. Their other sister, Amory, also lives in San Diego. The tribe was gathering to support and welcome the coming of the next generation. Now it was my turn to travel.
As I left my beloved Holyland and made my last prayers and blew my last kisses at the fire circle, I pondered whether the mother and baby would wait for me. What will this story be? How will it unfold? May the child be born surrounded by the simple and sacred. May the labor be a labor that Kalista can work with and that will bring power to her. May the story inspire our people for generations, unto the seventh generation.
My priestess prayers continued as I joined hands with my sisters at Midwifery Today to raise consciousness, spirit and education about the importance of birth and midwifery in the lives of mothers and babies. In every class I made a small altar with a picture of Kalista, round-bellied on the sea shore. In every class I spoke of the power of ritual, desire, dream and individualized care for pregnant, birthing and breastfeeding mothers and their babies. Each day I spoke with my daughter by phone. Each day I could hear her desires and growing energy like the creatures in my woods that make their nests and circle and move deeper into the quiet places. I wondered if they would wait for me, this wildish mother and baby living in the city far from my woods. Before my traveling altar in a hotel room far above the earth of Mother Earth, far from my fire circle and coyote sounds, far from the deep woods with the deer birthing in peace, I made my prayers stronger every night for their simple and sacred journey.
The conference ended and I packed my bags to depart. In wonder and joy I boarded a plane destined for San Diego and a young mother, full-bellied with her first-born, and dreams and desires and innocence. I had served the family throughout their pregnancy as both midwife and mother. It is the natural way of the village midwife and I found it easy to wear the different hats as needed. The pregnancy had gone exceptionally well. Kalista, like her mother and her grandmother before her, was small and carrying a proportionally small baby. The issue of small-for-dates challenged the support midwives in California, as month after month the baby measured far behind the standard.
As for me, I was constantly reassured by Kalista’s excellent vegetarian diet and the slow steady growth of the baby. My own first baby weighed 5 lb 12 oz, pink, robust and healthy. I have had the privilege of working in Mexico where, day after day, full-term mothers measuring 33 cm birth healthy, vigorous babies. I’ve developed many hands-on skills to discern well the sounds of healthy placentas, placental placement, babies’ growth patterns, babies’ vigor and mothers’ diet and activity levels, as well as hereditary influences. Equally important, I’ve learned to respect the instinctual sense of the mother. Kalista felt her baby was perfect and fine and so did I. We declined the standard ultrasound series, fed and rested the mother, and waited for baby to reveal herself.
Contractions started one hour after I stepped off the plane from Oregon into California on April 4. Kalista was radiant, beautiful! She hugged me saying, “Sophie and I waited for you! Every day I told her, ‘Your Gramsie is coming!’ Mama, now we can have our baby!” She told me she had also been talking to her baby about the “pain” of birth. She had been at the three-day birth of her niece, Ariel Elizabeth. Like all new mothers, the stories of pain in childbirth frightened her. She wondered if she would feel tortured. “Sophie, let’s work together and make this as easy as possible on both of us.” She dreamt that her baby just appeared between her legs and took that as a sign that Sophie was listening to her. My favorite dream during her pregnancy was one where she was holding her baby face to face, teaching her all different kinds of ways to laugh. “Mama, she was doing it! She was making different laughing sounds just like I was making! You and Trace were there but you were in the background. Sophie and I were in our own little world…just laughing!” Those dreams became part of my power prayers, feeding that strong, happy independent energy that can be the mystery and magic of an instinctually powerful birth.
We were so excited to be together. We grabbed our cameras and went to Balboa Park to take the end-of-pregnancy photos that were another one of Kalista’s dreams and desires. Kalista labored irregularly and lightly through the next day. She planned a dinner party the night of the 5th, in hopes of hanging a few last minute decorations. The unplanned enthusiasm resulted in many family and friends listening to the baby with my fetoscope, Kalista smiling and open-hearted.
The morning of the 6th Kalista called with signs of blessed show. “It can still be days, right?” she questioned me. “Oh yes, it can be days,” I agreed, not wanting to bring undo attention to the increasing work I could see happening in her body. She phoned her support midwives to share the news. She wanted to be deep in nature so we went to hike Mission Gorge. Although she hiked ahead of the seven-woman group, I noticed the contractions were changing, coming a bit more frequently, lasting a bit longer and moving into her back.
That night Kalista came to dinner at her sister Amory’s, where she was surrounded by love and family and ease. Sequoia Marie, her 6-year-old niece said, “Gramsie, we drove all the way from Missouri to help Auntie Ka. We drove the furtherest, didn’t we?” Kalista would take a few bites of tofu and veggies and then hop up and bend over while one of her sisters gave counter pressure to her hips or back. Then she would smile, sigh and sit back down to have a few more bites of yummies. “This could all just stop and wait for days, right?” Kalista asked. “Oh yes, it could…” I agreed, not wanting to bring undo attention to the now established labor. I had studied Kalista and her husband, Trace, closely during the prenatal period and my instinct told me that Kalista was going to do her best work with privacy and a quiet environment. “Like the labor of any creature,” I said to her, “it can stop and start until they are safe in their nest and it is time. For you, it is time to be back in your nest and with Trace.” An hour after sundown she drove herself back home in a growing labor.
The plan for the birth included Amory watching Ariel, 7, and Sequoia, 6, while Tabitha and I went to attend Kalista’s birth. “She will call tonight,” I informed everyone. We made our plans, packed our bags and went to bed. I searched for the moon and stars beyond the bright city lights. I knew Kalista was laboring. I knew she and Trace would call me when they needed me. Like the stars I couldn’t see, they could not see me watching them with my thousand eyes.
Trace called at 2 am on the 7th. I could hear Kalista in the background breathing deeply. It happened that they had been making out “to help keep her mind off the growing intensity.” The visualizations were no longer working. Nothing was working. Kalista wanted help. Tabitha and I arrived at 2:20 am to find Kalista in a warm shower, pacing like a She-Tiger. Trace and Tabitha began creating the birthing sanctuary and filled the pool for Kalista’s waterbirth dream. While she was still in the shower, I talked Kalista through a few contractions, observing her rising and falling moon belly. Out of the shower we folded into one another’s arms. “Mama, I wanted to do all of this with Trace but you are so much more help,” she whimpered as she sank deeper into the timeless space where thought dissolves. “Everything is perfect. You are doing perfectly,” I whispered back as we swayed together.
She was moving through transition quickly. One contraction standing, one leaning, one kneeling, the next on the toilet where she could feel the head of her baby through her flowering cervix. So low was this little one, so perfect her position, so powerful the labor, so open the mother that we were barely able to fill the waterbirth tub in time. The one contraction Kalista did on her side, Tabitha breathing with her and Trace offering counter back pressure, was the one opportunity I had to listen to baby with my well-seasoned fetoscope. Like a little filly galloping in bliss, the baby’s heart sounds put a smile across my face. I put the fetoscope earpieces into Kalista’s ears and the same smile spread across her face. Up she hopped from the bed and into Tabitha’s ready arms for support. The memory took me back to Kalista supporting Tabitha in labor. Sister helping sister. I stood before a timeless and nameless bond.
Kalista preferred to stand and sway, leaning on me or Tabitha or Trace. This young, instinctual mother melted my heart as she melted around my body, opening to the indescribable power of birth.
In our efforts to fill the tub quickly, the hot water was too hot. Can you see it with me? Two connected garden hoses running from kitchen to birth room, springing leaks in between. Pans and towels to catch the spraying water. Pans of ice cubes to cool down the too hot, hot tub. Dropping the task at hand to return to whispers and candlelight around Kalista as a new contraction carried her into a world beyond ours. Can you feel it with me? I sprinkled salt and prayers in spirals in the rising tub waters, inviting Tabitha to join me. “Isn’t this when we pray without ceasing, Mother?” Her wisdom reminded me of the question of the Bolivian midwives in the year 2000. “Little Star, we know we must send our mothers to the hospitals but where are the prayers?”
At 4:10 am the midwife Sunshine arrived, the clear water bag broke, a downward urge took over Kalista’s body and she sank into the warm birth pool, ice cubes floating in spirals around her. “My bottom is going to burst! Explode! Split open!” She was sure it was more than just a baby. The dog, Molly, came nearby to midwife a few contractions.
“Trace, take me somewhere…”
“Any place you want to go, my love…”
“Our first date…tell me about St. Thomas Island…. Tell me what it looked like…”
Trace described everything in soft soothing tones while Kalista closed her eyes and drifted between then and now and here and there and the transition that leads to a regrouping of strength for bringing forth a child and turning one’s body and world inside out. We were the silent witnesses—me, Sunshine, Tabitha and Molly. The contractions resumed after a five-minute rest. Their mighty strength changed the energy of the room and the color of Kalista’s cheeks. We were ready.
“Trace, it is time to climb in with her!” I encouraged. Trace had been unsure in early pregnancy about being in front to see the birth. The couple had changed so much since then. Without hesitation he entered the birth pool and the river of birth energy with Kalista.
Kalista was powerful, instinctual, one with the downward flow of energy. She leaned on her knees against the inner edge of the birth tub, breathing like a She-Bear. Down moved the baby. Kalista reached inside to feel her baby and began talking to her. “Oh she went back up…” Down came the baby again. Pink was the scalp glistening below the water’s surface.
“With the next contraction the baby will be born…” whispered Sunshine. Trace’s hand cupped the space just above the pink head like a halo. “What do I do?” he asked. “Catch your baby!” we all whispered.
Slipping past the hands of both her parents, Miss Sophie Ljubljana Schwartz was born into warm salt water, illuminated by flashes of dim candlelight and airborne kisses by the silent witnesses. She swam through Kalista’s kneeling legs and into the loving embrace of her mother at 4:31 am.
“Sophie! You’re so little!” sang out Kalista, full-throated. For the next hour the new trinity floated in bliss and love and warm salt water. Waves of candlelight and flashes of memory-making joined our whispers of joy as we knelt within the space made sacred by the miracle of a holy birth. Brooke, Sunshine’s partner, arrived to join our whispers of joy, our holding of sacred space for this modern-day miracle. The little creature was small, vigorous, big-eyed, rooting, awed by her foreign world, searching for connection with the outer mother of her inner world. I looked at them. I looked and looked and looked.
I drank in every sound, movement, smell, impression. I knew I was witnessing something Holy, something that is becoming extinct, something primal and instinctual. I could hardly believe what I saw. Two animals undisturbed, finding their instinctual way with one another in the moonlight. Two animals falling in love, unhurried, bonding to one another. Two human animals birthing beyond intellect, without machines and instruments and artificial lights and the distraction of information. Two animals birthing without someone else’s concern, fear, anxiousness, pressure, time line. I kept looking and what I saw was two endangered, innocent instinctual creatures who had birthed in pure peace, floating arm and arm, lost in a mutual gaze, undisturbed, unhurried by the protectors of the sacred space that is now rare on earth, especially for humans. What I saw felt like the breath of the wild animals in my woods on full moon nights. I closed my eyes and I could see my cottage in the woods and the fire circle and the smoke carrying my prayers and the living waters of my cool stream thousands of miles from the dancing waters before me.
Kalista held her baby close and climbed out of the tub to squat over a landing pad and birth her placenta with a total of maybe a quarter cup of vegetarian blood. She climbed back in the tub where we had placed floating heart-shaped candles. We made a little boat for the lotus placenta so that mother and baby could enjoy another hour undisturbed, unhurried, weaving a story that will be passed on to our seventh generation.
The sun was high in the sky when new Aunt Amory and Uncle Keith brought Ariel Elizabeth and Sequoia Marie to see their new cousin. Like an advent nativity scene, everyone gathered around the new life. On bended knee, we sang our native songs and kissed the tiny petal-soft fingers, one by one. I can still see Sophie’s tiny fingers wrapped around the seven- and six-year-old fingers of her future playmates. “I’m in love with her…She is the most beautiful baby in the world,” sang her cousins. We sat in a circle around Sophie and sang our tribal She-Bear song. Her ears perked, her eyes widened, her breath deepened, her mother smiled. The tribe had gathered from the four directions and in the center was the new star, filling our hearts with joy.
It was another twelve hours before we set up for the ritual candle burning of Sophie’s umbilical cord. We sang lullabies as Kalista and Trace each held a taper candle against the cord. It shrank, thinned and separated in two. The first mother, as we call the placenta, was proportionally small and perfect as the new creature she fed and nourished. I placed it in a bag in the fridge to be planted beneath a chosen flowering plant at a later ceremony. I spiraled Sophie’s 6-inch cord close to her navel with the charred end facing north. I made a little gauze bellyband to cover the cord until it dried in place. One holy moment followed with a rhythm of nursing and diapering and soaking in herbal baths. We rested and nourished the mother so that the mother could mother her baby.
I moved the curtains back to free the light of the setting sun. With Kalista’s upturned face shining brighter than the setting sun, I lifted the She-child high, to be bathed in the golden rays. “Before your family and ancestors and angels, Miss Sophie Ljubljana Schwartz, may you live long enough to know why you were born.” In this way Sophie received her Cherokee Blessing from both her midwife and Grand Mother.
The sun rose and fell on that first day as timeless as the image I have of new life born for the first time on our planet.
This was the most miraculous, easy, blissful birth and family to work with of my career. Instinctual birth is disappearing on our planet. Why Kalista? Why Sophie? Why me? I look at Sophie’s changing face every day and make my prayer, “May you live long enough to know why you were born.”
Midwife note: Sophie Ljubljana Schwartz weighed 5 lb 6 oz and was 19.25 inches long, darling as the first star ever born into a night sky.
Sister MorningStar has dedicated a lifetime to the preservation of instinctual birth among native people. She was raised in the Ozark Mountains within the influence of Cherokee traditions. She birthed her own daughters at home and has helped thousands of other women find empowerment through instinctual birth. Sister has served on state, national and international boards helping to oversee the development of midwifery certification programs. She is the founder of a spiritual retreat center and author of The Power of Women: Instinctual Birth Stories (Motherbaby Press), as well as other books related to instinctual and spiritual living. She lives as a Cherokee Hermitess and Catholic Mystic in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. Visit her on the Web at www.sistermorningstar.com.
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