How we’re raised as people pleasers

I’ve written before that I’m a fan of Gretchen Rubin and her podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin. You might know her from her book The Happiness Project, which is one of those classics that I revisit periodically.

Several years ago, Gretchen wrote another book, The Four Tendencies, that examines what motivates people. She outlines four personality types – Upholder, Questioner, Obliger and Rebel – based on how different people respond to expectations, both external expectations from others as well as internal expectations from ourselves. It’s such a fascinating framework, particularly as you set New Year’s resolutions, raise kids, navigate politics at work and pretty much any other aspect of life that requires interpersonal skills. If you’re curious, you can take the quiz to determine your type here.

Gretchen states that:

  • Upholders want to know what should be done.
  • Questioners want justifications.
  • Obligers need accountability.
  • Rebels want freedom to do something their own way.

As I was taking the quiz, I remember feeling a familiar conflict welling up inside: how we respond to expectations from others, from a sense of duty, from the pressure to put others first. I was a people pleaser for most of my life, but that wasn’t my true nature. I felt trapped, unfulfilled and impotent. If I felt pressured into doing something I didn’t want to or if I worked long hours for a boss I didn’t respect, I lived for mini rebellions like showing up late, missing deadlines or doing something entirely for myself instead. I felt caught yo-yoing between feeling helpless and feeling selfish; during several particularly repressed times in my life, I let the people pleasing go so far that I had to take drastic action to recover (like calling off a wedding, moving to a foreign country, going to a large out-of-state college where I could feel anonymous).

It’s been years since I felt that way, but taking the Four Tendencies quiz took me back to those moments. I felt some unseen pressure to respond the way I was “supposed to” rather than how I actually felt. Because of the work I’ve done to get to know myself over recent years, I know those obligatory “supposed to” answers are not me; they’re a product of my upbringing.

I grew up in a very small, conservative, religious community. I was under constant surveillance and unforgiving scrutiny by adults in the community, and I felt enormous pressure to fit in and not step out of line. The people pleasing started there. The fear of standing out started there. And after almost 20 years of not living in that environment, I still feel its tug. Those are the lingering effects of childhood trauma.

Not surprisingly, the Four Tendencies quiz told me I’m a Rebel. I act from a sense of choice, authenticity and freedom. I don’t rely on others for guidance or power; I get them from within. And my heart breaks for that little girl, that powerful little girl, who was robbed from knowing her own strength for so long.

Postpartum healing isn’t linear

Before we had our first child, I became fascinated with the postpartum period: the personal transformation that’s possible if you’re nurtured, allowed enough space to sit with the changes and probably most important of all, open to surrender. Cultures around the world have recognized this critical juncture for centuries and emphasize the need to “mother the mother” to support her transition from woman to mother. In Ayurveda, the first 42 days is considered a sacred window, a time that defines the next 42 years.

I entered my postpartum days with a list of things I wasn’t going to do…things like worrying about how my body looked, hyper-focusing on keeping our house tidy and perfect, getting out of bed, entertaining and being active too soon. Despite a couple of setbacks, the first six weeks went beautifully. I felt physically healed, at peace and so deeply connected to our daughter.

Fast forward to today, eight months later. Over the past month, my emotions started to spike, and suddenly feel turbulent, seemingly out of nowhere. My nervous system felt unbalanced. I was having dreams about flooding water and rollercoasters, an ongoing theme in my dreams when I’m feeling emotionally overwhelmed in life.

I felt myself going off track, so I started focusing more on restoring balance to my body and recommitted to my spiritual practice. I also booked a psychic reading this week with Gina Fuschetto, She talked me through several visuals she saw of my emotional state, and we talked about what the symbolism meant to me. Through that experience, I was finally able to see my emotional landscape more objectively.

In my attempt to do everything “right” in my postpartum period (and let’s be honest, my life overall) I missed the bigger picture…the importance of letting go. I held too tightly to my ideal vision of what my postpartum period “should” be that I unknowingly managed and controlled my emotions throughout the process. As a result, my inner world felt only partially acknowledged.

That realization is so liberating. I haven’t appreciated how much pressure I’ve been putting on myself. The changes I’ll make are small but profound. I am determined to be more vulnerable with my loved ones and myself about how I’m really feeling. And I’m committed to being even more transparent about my own experiences on this platform, too.

As I reflect on the past eight months of motherhood, my biggest surprise has been that the healing process (emotional and physical) hasn’t been linear…and I don’t think I’m alone in that experience. I expected the transition to be really hard for the first six weeks and then taper off in a predictable way once we got the swing of things. I focused so much on that sacred window that I really didn’t give myself permission to struggle after that. But I found that actually, there have been so many ebbs and flows…

Months 0-2 – physical healing, complete awe, crying because of deep love, not having a clue

Month 3 – feeling adjusted, starting to get in a rhythm

Month 4 – major sleep setback for baby, tired, depleted, anxious

Month 5-6 – deeper physical healing, finding a good schedule for us

Month 7 – loss of self, feelings of monotony, mild depression, disruption from teething leading to crankiness and lack of sleep

Month 8– return to balance and to self

As a first born and a perfectionist, I wanted make motherhood look easy. But I owe it to myself to let it look messy and complicated and exhausting, because it is! That’s not the lesson I expected to learn during my sacred window, but I’m so incredibly thankful that I see it now and that I can set the intention to let. it. go.

Parenting for highly sensitive people

Last week, I wrote about a new commitment to reimagine my every day rituals to better meet my needs. One of the three pillars of this goal is my spiritual practice.

I want to say at the outset that I’m going to be very honest here, and my intention is not to complain but to normalize talking about the hard parts of parenting. My friend Hana Raftery’s amazing vulnerability in sharing her experience with mothering as an HSP opened my eyes, and my hope is that by sharing my experience, I can help empower others. If we don’t take care of ourselves and our mental health, we can’t take care of anyone else.

Becoming a mom has been the single most soul-expanding, heart-filling, incredible experience of my life. But as a highly sensitive person, the sensory overload I’ve started to feel over the past month or so has been a struggle.

I’ve found that many of the aspects of motherhood are triggers for highly sensitive people (HSP); according to the Highly Sensitive Person Test, qualities of HSPs include:

  • Becoming easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input like loud noises or bright lights
  • Being affected by other people’s moods
  • Needing to withdraw for privacy and to avoid stimulation
  • Finding it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once
  • Feeling your nervous system become so rattled that you need time alone

Motherhood hasn’t been the only life phase that’s been a challenge for my sensitive nature. When I worked in an office, we had an open floor plan with literally dozens of people working at cubicles within earshot of my desk. The sounds of people on the phone, the frenetic energy, stressful deadlines and bright florescent lights made it difficult for me to concentrate and impossible to not feel overwhelmed and drained. At least once a day, I booked an empty conference room and sat alone with the lights off to just breathe, feel my feet and try to ground myself.

But the difference between my office job and motherhood is that now there are very few breaks. I can’t step away, put on headphones and turn off the lights whenever I feel overwhelmed. It’s harder to detach myself from feeling my daughter’s energy and moods as I did with coworkers, because I’m responsible for her wellbeing…and she’s literally part of me. The sound of her playing and laughing is so joyful, but the sound of her unhappy, tired, frustrated or in pain from teething hurts me in a way that’s experiential and deeply upsetting. The combination of these new stimuli plus less sleep plus giving so much of my physical and emotional energy to look after and entertain her has resulted in an emptiness in me.

Like so many things we struggle with in life, just naming it can bring healing. I’ve known I was an HSP for a decade, but I didn’t put it through the lens of motherhood until Hana started sharing her experience. Having that understanding helps me know where my feelings are coming from and explain them to my husband. So many of my friends have confided that they regularly feel a sensory overload as parents, so I know I’m not alone. Neither are you.

I’m still testing out healing spiritual practices that bring grounding, connection and insight and that work with my new lifestyle. Life my office job, I know I’ll find new ways to adapt and grow.

Reinventing my rituals

I read an interesting article recently on the impact of COVID-19 on our rituals, from weddings and birthdays to coffee breaks with co-workers and morning commutes. Humans and societies thrive on rituals to mark the passage of time and celebrate milestones. In losing that aspect of our lives, we’re missing out on monumental occasions but also the day-to-day routines that govern, and in many ways, give meaning to our lives. For me, the past two years have been a blur.

My husband and I have been particularly careful during the pandemic since I’ve been pregnant for quite literally most of it and we had a newborn at home.

It’s been relatively easy for us to live like hermits because we were both able to work from home and both had very generous parental leave policies where we worked, so we didn’t have to worry about exposure at daycare. We have been blessed beyond measure to have the luxury to stay home and have done so very happily. My husband and I have a mantra that “every day is a birthday party,” and we work hard to invite joy and gratitude into our day to day, regardless of the circumstances. We’ve had so much more to celebrate with a new baby around.

Our sacrifices have been minor compared to so many people, but they haven’t always been easy. After two years, we still haven’t had our wedding celebration. I had a virtual mother blessing. We had a virtual funeral to mark my grandmother’s passing. When I had a miscarriage, I had to go to the doctor’s office alone.

Now that our daughter is almost eight months old, and we’re settling into a routine (again), I’m really feeling the absence of my rituals, and I want to find a way to incorporate them, or some version of them, back into my life. I think it’ll provide a big boost to my mental health.

I’ve been thinking about the rituals I miss, boiling them down to their essence and then finding ways to recreate them. And the more I work to understand what I’m missing, the more I realize this has little to do with the pandemic and more to do with my new role as a mother.

The journey into parenthood is such a sacred, monumental transition; my goal is to honor my needs, redefine myself and what serves me, and give myself a little grace along the way.

The three rituals I’m going to focus on over the next few months are:

  1. Learning new things and having new experiences. Instead of travel, I’m committing to learning new crafts, reading more books and listening to more podcasts.
  2. Getting ready first thing in the morning. I spoke to a friend recently, and she pointed out that I’m doing a great job of taking care of my baby, but at the expense of taking care of myself. Putting on an outfit and some lip gloss can go a long way in feeling ready for the day.
  3. Enhancing my spiritual practice. I’m always so much more fulfilled during times in my life when my spiritual practice is a top priority. Lately, I’ve had the time, but not the mental space for meditation, deep journaling, rituals to observe the passing seasons and other ways to help me feel grounded and connected. I plan to carve out a specific time every day, starting small (10 minutes) and experiment with practices that work for this new version of me.

What are you doing to bring rituals back into your life? What’s been meaningful to you?

Advice & resources for an evidence-based birth

When I was pregnant with our daughter, I started researching standard of care practices in prenatal care as well as labor and delivery. My research started with curiosity about ultrasounds, and from there, I really started questioning everything. Into my second pregnancy, I’m still doing research and finding new information all the time. My biggest takeaways from the experience are:

  1. Quite a few care practices, even ones that I assumed were perfectly fine, are considered controversial because of the health outcomes for mom and/or baby. I realized really quickly that my most important job as a pregnant mama was doing my homework so that I could make educated decisions. Knowledge is power.
  2. You have the right to decline care. Regardless of how information is presented to you, you have the final say. Fight for your rights, and enlist your loved ones and/or birth worker to advocate for you.
  3. Once you decide which care practices you are and aren’t comfortable with, find the best providers that align with your vision. Not everyone has a ton of options based on location, insurance and other resources, but try to make the most of what’s available to you. You’ll find so many differences doctor by doctor, practice by practice and state by state. For instance, during my first pregnancy, we lived in California, and I was put under an enormous amount of pressure to do prenatal testing….and they made us jump through hoops to opt out. In Georgia where we live now, prenatal testing is more of an opt-in approach.

In terms of care practices to research, I recommend starting with:

  • Ultrasounds, particularly the 20-week anatomy scan 
  • Glucose test during the third trimester to test for gestational diabetes (There are alternatives to the typical formula; my midwife gave me grape juice.)
  • Daily baby aspirin (81 mg) for birthers over 35 years old
  • RhoGAM shot during pregnancy for people with a negative blood type
  • Methods for inducing labor
  • Medications given during labor such as epidurals and Pitocin
  • Episiotomy
  • Delayed umbilical cord clamping
  • Hepatitis B vaccine for newborns, administered immediately after birth
  • Vitamin K shot for newborns, administered immediately after birth, and the alternative oral Vitamin K treatment
  • Antibiotic eye ointment for newborns, administered immediately after birth

This list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope that it illustrates the point: you have the right to question what goes into your body and the body of your baby, particularly if your gut instinct says “no.” For instance, my OBGYN told me at the end of my first trimester to start taking Baby Aspirin every day because I was considered geriatric at 35 years old. She said that it has been shown to decrease the risk of preeclampsia. Preeclampsia is a very serious condition, but one that I don’t fit the risk profile for. And as someone who rarely takes medicine when I’m not pregnant, the idea of taking medicine every single day for my last two trimesters made me very uneasy.  I followed her advice and began taking it but stopped after a couple of months because I had a nagging feeling in my body that it wasn’t the right thing for me. Listen to that voice and find resources that help you make informed decisions that are right for you.

Doing your homework is critical, regardless of whether or not you follow medical advice. One decision that was especially complicated for me was the  20-week anatomy scan. Ultimately, the uneasiness about exposing the baby to the ultrasound outweighed any benefits of the scan for me. It was a difficult decision. In fact, I scheduled and then canceled multiple appointments. I was torn because at that point in my pregnancy, the birth center where I wanted to deliver couldn’t take me as a patient unless I agreed to the 20-week anatomy scan. (The birth center made it very clear that their requirements were set by the state, and that in most cases, not evidence based). Knowing that one decision would change my entire birth plan made it especially complicated. (You can read my birth story here.) Make sure you know those details in advance so that you can make tradeoffs for yourself. 

Resources:

My midwife recommended the website Evidence Based Birth, and I found it incredibly balanced and helpful. I’ve also started listening to their podcast.

Natural birth books are another really great resource to find out more information on your care options, the pros and cons of each and alternatives to standard practices. Whether you plan to have a medicated or unmedicated birth, you will learn so much about all aspects of birth, pain management and how to feel empowered throughout your pregnancy. My favorites are listed here. They’re super informative and non-judgmental.

Pregnancy timeline for health and wellness

When I was pregnant with our first child, I created a “pregnancy by the month” note in my phone where I kept a running list of classes, books, wellness activities and other milestones so that I could consolidate all of the things I’d read from 100 different sources in one place. Looking back, it was definitely my unique form of nesting, but it was also super helpful.

Below is a less detailed version of my list that I’m hoping will be a helpful starting point for you as well. Note that before 18 weeks, I started doing 30-minute walks and some form of yoga, barre or stretching every day, which I did throughout my pregnancy.

Pregnancy on a budget

Everyone talks about how expensive babies are, but my partner and I found that actually we were spending more money starting with pregnancy. I’m seven weeks into my second pregnancy and have been giving a lot of thought to where we spend our money and where we can find cheaper alternatives this go round.

Two things I would not cut corners on are high-quality vitamins and my acupuncture visits because they have a direct impact on my health and the health of my baby.

Below are a few ways to consider cutting back that will contribute to your overall wellness. If you’re looking for other ideas, you also can read about nine healthy habits for pregnancy and childbirth, all of which are either inexpensive or free.

YouTube prenatal yoga and barre classes. I’ve found several really safe, free workouts on YouTube that I did throughout my pregnancy. In my third trimester, I worked hard to do my daily squats. This video from FIT by Larie was challenging but never felt like I was straining my body or overexerting myself. She offers really good cues for how to safely do the exercises and great modification options. I also did this Yoga with Adriene video many, many times. That said, I’ve done barre classes for years and am trained in yoga, so I have a strong foundation in proper form and how to listen to my body. I do not recommend beginning yoga, barre, Pilates or any other exercise during pregnancy without first consulting with you doctor or midwife.

Library books. It’s easy to spend a small fortune on books about pregnancy. I bought SO MANY books based on online reviews without really knowing what would work for me. I highly recommend visiting your local library to flip through their selection, narrow down your list and rent the books that resonate with you. You can takes notes as you read them and consider purchasing the most helpful ones if you think you’d like them as a reference later. I’ve listed a few of my favorites here.

Foam rolling. According to FitBump founder Kira Kohrherr, “Foam rolling is a type of self-myofascial release in which pressure is applied to certain body parts to relieve pain. At a base level, foam rolling increases circulation, which oxygenates the muscles. The fluid that is transferred through the motion brings oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, which is ideal during pregnancy.” I can say firsthand that foam rolling was a great alternative to massage during my first pregnancy and helped reduce aches and pains in my back and hips during my third trimester. I didn’t have any swelling issues, but foam rolling can help alleviate that as well. Here’s a link to a simple video with 5 ways to foam roll during pregnancy. Be sure to check with your doctor or midwife if you’ve never used a foam roller before and read about the two areas to avoid (because they could trigger contractions).

Mental health. I’m a big fan of therapy and can’t say enough about how it can help prepare men and women for the enormous transformation into parenting. But not everyone has the time or resources to seek counseling or therapy. As an alternative, I highly recommend journaling and/or talking to a close friend that you trust about how you feel about pregnancy, labor and becoming a parent. Articulating your expectations, fantasies and fears can be incredibly powerful. This is especially important if you’ve experienced sexual trauma or other unprocessed emotions that could come up.

Midwife Pam England, author of Birthing from Within, advocates that pregnant women and their partners create art to explore their emotions and misconceptions about birth. She writes, “Four things stand out from my work helping mothers explore their art. The first is that pregnant women unconsciously accept scientific and/or television images of birth. Few women acknowledge or even know what their own image of birth is. Yet it is their images, whether ignored or acknowledged, that will determine how they prepare for and experience pregnancy and birth. Second, while exploring their birth art women often realize the value of spiritual and psychological support from other women during pregnancy and labor, and begin to seek or welcome that support. Third, during the quiet, reflective process of making birth art, mother become more aware of their unborn baby. They report more maternal feelings and a greater sense of bonding. And finally, women express gratitude to be heard, acknowledged and given time to reflect on their inner process.” Her book includes birth art prompts, suggested art materials, examples and tips on how to get started.

9 healthy habits for pregnancy and childbirth

One of the most important decisions during pregnancy is where you plan to deliver. When I found out I was pregnant, I didn’t give much thought to it. I automatically assumed that I would give birth at the hospital where my OBGYN practiced. During the first couple of weeks of my second trimester, my husband and I made a cross-country move. In the time it took to pack up, move and unpack, I had completely changed my mind. It’s a long story, but suffice to say that I discovered the Free Birth Society podcast, and the birth experiences it shared really resonated with me. It nudged me to stop to consider my personality, my circumstances and what scenario felt most peaceful and supportive to me.  I’ve never loved clinical settings (despite the fact that my mom worked at a hospital for 30 years and my father still does). I’m soft spoken and not great at standing up for myself and was worried that my wishes would go unheard in a busy maternity ward. Plus, COVID-19 was a factor.

Ultimately, my partner and I decided to try for a home birth. I had the luxury of going part time at work for the last part of my pregnancy, so I was able to fully commit to studying and preparing for labor. At the time, I thought it was important to learn as much as possible because of the homebirth and the added responsibility you take on when you choose that path. In hindsight, I think it’s equally important for birthers who choose a hospital birth. It’s essential for your ability to advocate for yourself and for your baby and to make the best decisions for you.

The following is a summary of what I learned: ways the experts recommend that you take care of your body during pregnancy and in preparation for labor. This list is a combination of advice from my midwife, advice from the prenatal books I read (listed here) and what worked for me.

  1. Herbal teas. My midwife recommended NORA tea, named for its ingredients: Nettle Leaf, Oatstraw, Raspberry Leaf and Alfalfa Leaf. I purchased the individual herbs from Mountain Rose Herbs and brewed a quart every day beginning about halfway through my second trimester, although you can begin anytime after 16 weeks. The  tea can improve the strength of contractions, release of the placenta after birth, lactation and bleeding postpartum. My midwife prefers NORA tea to the more mainstream Red Raspberry Leaf tea, although I used that too in a pinch. NORA tea is a bit of an acquired taste; I added the herb Lemon Balm to add some variety of flavor towards the end of my pregnancy. This article provides an in-depth description of NORA tea’s benefits as well as the recipe I used.  
  2. Dates. A small study published in the Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology suggests that eating six red dates per day from 36 weeks onward appears to result in shorter, easier labors. Noor dates are preferable; if you use Majool dates instead, then reduce the number to 3 per day.
  3. Squats. According to Ina May Gaskin, the most well-respected midwife of our time, squats are critical to a healthy pregnancy. In Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, she says, “I suggest daily squatting as part of your morning routine. Start with ten on the first day and increase that number as the days pass. Three hundred a day would not be too many. I have noticed that first-time mothers over thirty tend to have shorter labors since I began sharing the virtues of squatting.”
  4. Yoga. Prenatal yoga was so beneficial to me, particularly in alleviating the late-pregnancy aches and pains. Yoga can help with the baby’s position in the womb, which is critical for a healthy delivery. In Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, she says: “Good posture and movement will make it less likely for your baby to settle into a more challenging position in the final weeks of pregnancy.” If you decide to do yoga during pregnancy, it is vital to find an instructor who understands the pregnant body so that he or she can guide you with appropriate modifications and prevent injuries. Regardless of your fitness level, there are certain poses (like twists) that are contraindicated for pregnancy. Your body also produces a hormone called relaxin that loosens your ligaments, giving you a false sense of flexibility, which can lead to strained muscles. Bottom line, find an expert to help you navigate these changes and strengthen your body in preparation for labor. (You might also consider YOGA Birth Method which includes yoga poses appropriate for each trimester and during labor as well as breathwork suggestions for each phase of labor.
  5. Perineal massage. Between 34 and 36 weeks, you can begin a daily massage of the tissues between the openings of the vagina and the anus. Prepping this area for labor can help reduce tearing, reduce the number of stitches and soften existing scar tissue. My physical therapist shared this animated how-to video with me, and I found it really helpful. I used sesame oil mixed with a couple drops of geranium oil.
  6. Walks. Make time for 30-minute walks outside every day. It’s good for the body and the soul.
  7. Nutrition. One of the most important ways to prevent complications and improve your health during pregnancy is to eat a nutritious diet. Drink water, limit preservatives and ensure that you’re eating enough fruits and vegetables, particularly dark, leafy greens and orange vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes and yams) since they contain important vitamins that you need during pregnancy. You also should aim for 50-75 grams of protein per day. The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy & Childbirth is a great resource for meal planning because it explains what nutrition your baby needs each week based on its development. Ultimately, listen to your body. Your cravings are clues that tell you what your body needs more of.
  8. Stress. Chronic stress impacts every system of the body; a growing fetus is no exception. If you don’t already have a daily practice like yoga, breathwork, meditation, walking in nature, devotional or journaling, I highly recommend starting one now.
  9. Hollywood labor. In Western parts of the world, all we know of labor is what we’ve seen dramatized on tv and in movies; as a result, our associations with birth are fear and pain. Unlike our grandmothers and great-grandmothers who were accustomed to home births, we’ve likely never seen birth up close. In Birthing from Within, Pam England addresses the misconceptions and fear that first-time parents have of labor and childbirth. Midwives, including my own, stress the importance of reframing the pain of labor and instead, focusing on the intensity of the sensations and working with them, not against them, to birth your baby. I highly recommend that you watch videos or read accounts of actual births to reset your expectations. (The Free Birth Society Instagram account and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth are both good resources.)

I cannot stress enough the value I’ve found in the midwifery model of care and how it contributed to my pregnancy, labor and childbirth. The advice is so logical, holistic and accessible, and it spans not just physical health but emotional health as well. If you have the option and the resources, I highly recommend hiring a midwife or doula to support you during your journey. The attentive, supportive care you receive helps you feel healthy, strong, confident, prepared and empowered every step of the way.