Family Planning


So, I had a baby May 20, and I had gained 45 pounds by that last day of pregnancy. See here for a recap.

Slowly and steadily, as I had planned in the previous post, the past three weeks of post pregnancy fitness have gone by. Here are the highlights:

  • Longest jog: 1.2 miles (yep, I’m wimpy, but it’s hot and my cardio levels are still awful), 14-minute mile seems to be my speed (yep, I’m slow)
  • Rectus abdominus muscles seem to have fully closed and function well again!
  • Down to 153.6 pounds (a 3.5 pound loss since 4 weeks ago…meaning I’m actually slowing down my loss a bit). I’ve still got 15.6 pounds left to go to my pre-pregnancy weight.  Still, an overall loss of 29.4 pounds in just 63 days since giving birth is not bad!
  • My waist is now down to 31.25″, which is a .75″ loss; 3 more inches to go.
  • 0.5″ off my hips (40.5″)…1.5 inches to go!
  • No thigh measurement change. 😦
Six weeks postpartum after my first run in seven months. Long way to go! 157 lbs.

6 weeks postpartum after my first run in seven months. Long way to go! 157 lbs.

9 weeks postpartum, at 153.6 pounds...and a little bloated from too much bread!

9 weeks postpartum, at 153.6 pounds…and a little bloated from too much bread!

Fighting the Belly Flab

To help retone my belly, which has quite a pooch, I’ve actually dug up an old favorite of my mom’s fitness books from the ’80s: Callanetics. If you don’t know much about it, it combines elements of Pilates with ballet in an attempt to retone the body. I tried one of the basic stomach exercises (that I remembered doing experimentally on and off since age 10, when I first discovered this book on the shelf) and realized how VERY far I have to go yet. The muscles are there, and are, indeed, closed, but they are weak! I’m going to keep at it, though. We’ll see how we do!
callanetics

And now as I focus on my nutrition as a contributor to that belly, I’m noticing a few things about my diet: even though I’ve cut back on meat and a little of my dairy intake (replacing with calcium rich almond milk), I’m still relying heavily on bread. I had a terrible bread addiction while pregnant, and now that the baby is here, I’m relying on it as a form of fast energy to grab one-handed  while I schlep the little one on my hip.

The Baby-Caretaker Diet

Zeke is still at that early stage of babyhood where he doesn’t like to be put down (and will scream if you try to) until it’s actually time for him to sleep at night — and this really does affect how/when/what I can eat.

The beautiful meals I would like to make myself, like elaborate salads or lovely vegan meals that take a lot of raw-material prep, oftentimes never move past the idea stage because my hands are literally full of baby. The reality is, when my hubby isn’t home to hold and entertain our 9-week old, my meal prep time is maybe 20 minutes tops while Zeke takes his mini-naps during the late afternoon.  I’m relying quite heavily on Trader Joe’s frozen vegetarian options that take minutes to heat in a skillet or can be thrown in the oven, in addition to some bagged salads, as a way to get healthy food in for dinner.

But in the morning and midmorning, when it’s all I can do to drag my tired self around after getting up to feed the baby several times that preceding night, and while I’m trying to placate the little tyrant (who is also crabby in the mornings) while I try to do simple things like brush my teeth or get dressed, an elaborate breakfast is out of the question. Smoothies might be my answer–and have been sometimes–but who the heck has time to clean the stupid blender?  I’ve had to go days between smoothies while the blender just sort of grossly soaked in a soapy version of its fruit and Kale and kefir glory, waiting by the sink for me to get around to cleaning all its nooks and crannies. ::sigh::

Folks, I now truly and deeply respect the moms who struggle with the weight issue after having a baby. It is rough trying to take care of yourself when you have a little someone who wants you 24/7!

But I’m not giving in yet.  Here’s my game plan for dealing with this:

1. Try to capitalize on baby’s naps to do prep-steps towards good meals during the day.  I’m learning that everything has to be done in bites and stages with a baby interrupting daily life. That goes for actions like cleaning (it may take me literally all day to vacuum the whole apartment in stages), cooking, and answering emails or doing work projects.

2. Use the time when my hubby’s home to do meal prep for future days (see above, only more ambitious). This will be hard to do, since I’m also now using a lot of that time to do things like shower, jog, SLEEP (oh, man, do I miss sleep) or do work from my regular job, which I’m transitioning slowly back into.  But being able to stockpile healthy eats in the freezer is kind of a dream of mine.

3. Exercise with the baby. I’ll be honest guys, in these past three weeks, I’ve been running twice. TWICE.  The rest of my exercise regime has been taking Zeke for walks or doing floor work while the baby’s asleep, but I’m starting to think that I can maybe put him in his boppy next to me on the floor for yoga, use him as a secondary weight while I do plies, or maybe even wear him while I do Zumba DVDs. A jogging stroller is unfortunately beyond my budget, so I’ll just have to do what I can in the running/jogging department. I have accepted this.

4. Use the nighttime gap to help with the breakfast issue.  There is a little gap between when Zeke finally goes down at about 10:30 and when I follow him after cleaning up and putting on my jammies.  Loathe as I am to give up much of this time to not sleeping, I’m finding that it’s often my only uninterrupted time, since Zeke settles in for a good 3-hour snooze sesh before waking again for his 1:30-2:00 a.m. feeding.  There are some lovely recipes for blender-free overnight oats over at www.rabbitfoodformybunnyteeth.com that contain ingredients like almond milk, fresh fruit, oats, cinnamon, flax seed, chia seeds, even chocolate and coconut — that I’m going to try out, since after they’re mixed, they can go in the fridge overnight to get soggy and smoothie-like. They are made of the sorts of things that give great energy in slow release form, due to the high fiber content. And they’re a little lower in gluten, sugar, and yeast than toast, since they’re oat-based. I’m hoping it will combat the bloat a bit.

Wish me luck!  I’m off to bed after making my oats. I’m trying to get it done by midnight!

Ruth

So, I have a confession to make: by the time I gave birth on May 20, I weighed 183 pounds.

Huge! Just days before delivery at my hubby's graduation from seminary.

Huge! Just days before delivery at my hubby’s graduation from seminary.

I am 5’4″; I weighed 138 pounds pre-pregnancy. That’s a total pregnancy gain of 45 pounds!

By the time I left the hospital just two days after giving birth, I weighed 17 pounds less, thankfully! Baby, placenta, blood, uterine shrinkage, and a lot of water weight played a role in that weight loss, I’m sure. But at 166 pounds, I still had a long road to haul when I came home.

I waited until my 6-week postpartum checkup this past week before really thinking too much about the weight issue. I was glad to see I’m now down 9 more pounds (157 lbs) seemingly without trying. I’ve been very focused on my baby and making sure he grows and gains, so it’s been easy to ignore my own chub, for the most part, while passively donating my fat store’s calories to my breast milk.

But pictures like the ones below from Zeke’s dedication ceremony at church definitely remind me that, while my body did great work making a beautiful baby, it’s also become a whole new shape, complete with wobbly arms and thighs, Buddha belly, and muffin top!

At Zeke's church dedication. The baby chub is only cute on the baby.

At Zeke’s church dedication. The baby chub is only cute on the baby.

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Pregnancy really changes the body: it tilts the pelvis (creating a swayback that throws the belly forward and allows the buttocks to get flat and flabby), causes shoulders to curve inward as the body curls and slightly collapses in around that huge belly, opens and temporarily widens the lower ribcage, loosens all ligaments in the body and pelvis, leaves flabby, loose skin on the belly, adds stretch marks in some places, creates huge stores of water in the body’s cells, builds up 50% more blood in circulation, and separates the rectus abdominus muscles on the sides of the abdomen to make room for a watermelon-sized uterus. Let’s not even discuss how the thoracic organs get shoved around to make room as a part of that process.

After you give birth, it takes around 6 weeks for the uterus to go through involution and shrink back to pear-size, for your organs to slide back into some places near their old locales, and for the ligaments to firm back up as pregnancy hormones recede and excess water leaves the cells of the body. At the same time, new hormones flood your bloodstream and bond you to your baby while also turning on the milk production process in your breasts, which become very engorged, enlarged, and soft. During all of this transition, your body still has to deal with the fat stores you gained during pregnancy on your hips, thighs, tummy and breasts, putting some of it to use (300-500 calories a day!) by enriching breast milk and retaining the rest as a source of backup-reserve. Overall, your body becomes a soft, squishy landscape that resembles less of an hourglass and more of a pudgy cylinder with boobs!

Beyond breastfeeding’s gift of calorie use, dropping that extra retained baby weight is a tricky game with a baby to care for. Drop weight too quickly and your body freaks out and stops making breast milk–as a way to keep from expending calories that your body seems to need, while simultaneously starving your poor baby!

My doctor is convinced that the only healthy way to go about it is nice and slowly, using exercise to re-tone the body and to burn just a few calories at a time, while remembering that the body uses 300-500 or so calories daily just to make breast milk for the baby. Crash diets don’t fit in this scenario, although good nutrition certainly does–for mom and baby both.

To that end, I’ve started some clean eating goals and recently started jogging again for the first time in over 7 months. The first jog last week was pretty pathetic–about nine-tenths of a mile before I felt winded (yeah, my lungs are still relearning how to expand to full capacity again) and my faster-twitch muscle fibers really burned. I came back inside and did a set of abdominal exercises designed to help close separated ab muscles (as I recently felt the two sides of the rectus abdominus close two Tuesdays ago; it took that long!) and called it a night. I’m still following this pattern on days that aren’t pouring rain and when Boaz can watch the baby.

It’s slow going so far. I recognize that my body’s done an incredible thing and that it had to radically transform to do it. I have to be patient.

I also know that while it’s possible to get back to my pre-baby weight, it may not be realistically possible to get back to my old shape. As Mammy famously pointed out rather plainly to Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, my figure will never be the same after the structural remodeling that happened during pregnancy that shifted muscles, organs, ligaments, and even ribcage and pelvic bones:

But even if it can’t be as small as it was, my body can be strong and toned in its own way again. To that end, I’ll share my goals here as a way to stay accountable while I try to tighten up my soft mommy-body, which at the moment resembles a kangaroo:

  • Shrink back my post-baby 32″-waist measurement to 28.5″ (a full inch larger than my pre-pregnancy best)
  • Trim my 41″-hip measurement back to 39″ (a half-inch larger than pre-pregnancy)
  • Tone up the 24″-circumference of my upper thighs to 22.5″, roughly where it was when I took weight conditioning classes

Right now, this is visually where I am — stretch marks, linea nigra, and all:

Six weeks postpartum after my first run in seven months. Long way to go!

Six weeks postpartum after my first run in seven months. 157 lbs. I have a long way to go!

I’ll be trying lots of methods to see what works, and I promise to share those, too! Hope you’ll stay with me on the journey… and wish me luck as I try to get back to fighting form!

-Ruth

Well, folks, baby Zeke (Ezekiel) has finally arrived (May 20) and your home-couple, Boaz and Ruth, couldn’t be more thrilled!

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In the past five weeks, we’ve been establishing feeding routines and learning how to deal with the unexpected joys and difficulties of parenting a newborn that needs us 24/7!

A lot of friends have wondered how we’re making it work financially with a baby, especially since my job at a private school as a marketing assistant doesn’t pay millions and Boaz only made something in the low-4-digits this year as a grad assistant and while working another part-time job.

For those of you contemplating young parenthood, I thought I’d put together a post with a few tips we’ve learned along the 9-month-plus way:

  1. Save Early.

Can’t say it enough. Boaz and I made sure when we married that we’d try to not touch certain funds in the event of a baby; I also set up a monthly automatic transfer in my bank account that was pretty modest, but which, over the nearly four years of our marriage, helped grow my savings account in a way that didn’t pinch later.  I’m glad we have it now, since the medical bills are sure to be insane, despite my ‘natural’ childbirth in the hospital (meaning, no meds, no epidural, no surgical/device interventions… you’d think it’d be cheaper, right?  Still had the baby in hospital…so, no. #AmericanHealthcareProblems)

  1. Don’t Snub Heirlooms or Hand-Me-Downs.

Grandma has held on to that cradle for a reason, and so long as it isn’t unsafe by modern standards, make use of it; we certainly did! (By the way, Ababy.com actually will cut a custom mattress to refurbish an old cradle!) Same goes for that friend at work whose children have outgrown their old clothes, toys, books, and other reusable baby accessories. Don’t turn them down, because your baby really won’t care whether he or she spits up on something old, something new, something borrowed (but washable), or whether it’s pink or blue.

  1. Second-Hand Furniture Saves Cash.

Somewhat in keeping with the above, keep an eye out at consignment stores, Goodwill, and garage sales in the months leading up to your baby’s arrival. I bought a diaper changing table with a few scuff marks on it that at one time came new from Target… for just $25 at a consignment shop where all proceeds from sales go to charity.  Hard-surfaced furniture like this is easy to re-sanitize and clean for use again.  Remember, too, that the timeline of use for baby furniture is pretty short for most parents: why blow $100-200 on a diaper changing table that will only get used for about 50-60 months between two kids (if you plan on having two?).  Even the “look” of furniture that’s wooden or hard-surfaced is flexible; if I want to, I can paint it later to better match a nursery “theme.” I already added storage baskets to its shelves to give me more space to organize, and I think they make it look pretty cute.

  1. Remember that Friends and Family Love Gifting (Prepare to be Showered).

Lots of women freak out thinking about all the things they will need to buy for their baby.  But, like all new brides, they should relax a little: surpassing even wedding showers, your gal pals and lady relatives boast a fascinating passion for buying cute (and necessary!) baby things for your baby shower.

  1. Control Your Maternity Wear Spending.

I was exceedingly blessed to be working in a school full of female faculty when I announced my pregnancy. I had a math teacher show up at my desk, who, realizing we were close to the same pre-pregnancy size, offered me the use of her maternity wardrobe, realizing that, since she and her husband were likely “done” and her sister-in-law (for whom she’d kept the wardrobe around) likely might snub some of the non-namebrand items, the best use for it in the meantime might be to loan it to me for the few short months in which I’d need the clothes. Awesome!

I wound up only needing to purchase a pair of jeans, a few sweaters, and my own maternity underthings (maternity and nursing bras and larger-waisted panties), in addition to a larger pair of shoes(!) to get by for the rest of my pregnancy, and I did this through both a local Goodwill with a maternity rack and through Target’s clearance sales. Even if the “look” I sported wasn’t quite me, it was still professional enough for work and I felt very comfortable – and grateful—to not have to shell out more money to make outfits appropriate for work wear.

Oh, and I should mention: for workout wear and sleepshirts, I raided my husband’s wardrobe for undershirts, jerseys and even his basketball shorts.  It amused him to see some of his larger stuff go over my huge belly, since I kept working out up until my 37th week.  My old yoga pants also went surprisingly far into my pregnancy with me, which was a nice surprise!

  1. Pregnancy Education and Fitness Can Be (Mostly) Free.

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    Exercise is important for both the birth and recovery. Here we are about 75 hours after the birth, on our first walk together. I was tired, but it was good for me and for him.

When you’re pregnant, you’ll get a lot of invitations from hospitals and even gyms (how do they find out?) via mail and other means that ask you to attend their Childbirth Education/Newborn Care Education/Prenatal Yoga/Prenatal Cardio classes.  These classes can cost an arm and a leg.

Luckily, most newborn care education can be found free or mostly free online (YouTube does have some available from reputable sources) and through your local library. I found that for childbirth education, dusting off that old card and picking up some of the old tapes on the Lamaze or Bradley Birthing Methods really worked well. Also, there are a huge amount of books out there on all these topics, and Amazon really helped me score some deals on these.

As a couple, we found that going this route gave us great flexibility: my busy student husband couldn’t make a series of classes consistently with me, but we could carve out some time on weekends to watch a chapter or two of a rented DVD together during his downtime. We also read through several books in bed together.

As far as fitness – There are a TON of prenatal yoga and fitness classes on YouTube!  Just be sure that you ask your doctor to advise you about what exercises are appropriate to your stage of pregnancy (hint: if a fitspert asks you to do crunches or other exercises on your back after your first trimester – run!).  I was able to keep up with yoga, walking, and even do some safe cardio (elliptical) and weight training (kettle bells are awesome for the pelvic floor) during my pregnancy, just by making use of the equipment at the school where I work and the mat I have at home.

  1. Shell Out For What’s Most Important – And Save in the Long Run.

    Baby Zeke - Just minutes old!

    Baby Zeke – Just minutes old and super-alert!

There is a very good time and place to spend your money when it comes to preparing for a baby, and that is in preparation for the birth itself!  I knew early on that I didn’t want a C-section delivery if I could avoid it, not only because of the long recovery, but also the sticker shock!  I also had read enough to convince me that an unmedicated, natural birth was the healthiest route for the baby overall – and would have the shortest recovery time for me, too.  But how could I go about securing that, or at least, giving myself the best chances for my best-case scenario?  Anything can happen during birth!

Statistically, there was only one element I had read about that really made a difference in what happened in the birthing room: the guidance and presence of a doula, or childbirth coaching professional, who emphasizes the mother’s emotional and physical comfort and applies evidence-based knowledge about birth positions to encourage labor progress.  A 2011 Cochrane Review (1) reported the combined findings from 21 randomized controlled trials, including over 15,000 laboring women, which revealed that doula-supported mothers were:

  • 28% less likely to have a C-section (with some individual studies reporting upwards of 60%)
  • 31% less likely to use synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin) to speed up labor
  • 9% less likely to use any pain medication
  • 34% less likely to reflect negatively on their childbirth experience

Those are certainly numbers not to ignore!  So what did I do?

More research – this time, into the work of local doulas in my area, reading review after review and even meeting some for coffee.  To my mind, it would be better to hire a doula to help me (for roughly $1,000), as a first-time mom, to engage in the childbirth process with less fear and with better support, than to simply “go it alone” and rely wholly on the Western-trained US Healthcare system, which has one of the highest C-section rates in the world, and take my chances with a $15,000 C-section bill or the traumatic psychological cost of a childbirthing scenario-turned-nightmare that happens to many women when interventions like Pitocin speed labor beyond the body’s (or baby’s) ability to cope.

Maybe my cost-benefit analysis was flawed, but regardless, I have no regrets.

My DONA-certified (2) doula was an incredible woman with a nursing background who took the time to get to know me before the birth so that we could establish a bond of trust and focus my childbirth preparations on evidence-based practices for labor support and pain management. She came to understand my birthing wishes and was ready and willing to support me in them at the hospital. There were a few times when interventions were offered to me by the hospital staff, with the major one happening when I showed up at the hospital with contractions 3 minutes apart, only to discover that, while 90% effaced, I was still only 2 centimeters dilated (“You could stay, and we could give you something to speed it along…” “No, no thanks.”)  I went home instead, and labored in the surroundings of home, where I could drink and eat when I wanted, shower for self-comfort, throw up in privacy when things got intense, shower again, and have my cat for additional company as I paced and swayed with my husband to encourage gravity to move things along.

When I returned to the hospital six hours later, I only had about 2 hours left to go before a bit more walking (which the staff wasn’t keen on me doing, but my doula monitored me during) got me to 9 centimeters—and through the transition stage, nearly ready for pushing.  The entire time, my doula was providing comfort measures, showing my husband how to help me get into better positions, and encouraging me to advocate for myself and what I wanted in a situation that otherwise may have felt out of my control.

In this scenario, my sense of control took away my fear. The pain of labor also became less shocking, more normalized, more progressive. Like the frog in the proverbial boiling pot, once I was in labor, even though it grew more intense, I also became increasingly more able to handle each new level of intensity. By the time I thought about maybe, just maybe allowing for some chemical pain intervention, the baby was practically crowning, and I was in the home-stretch (literally, stretch).  Again, my doula’s knowledge helped here: after an hour of pushing, she retrieved her rebozo band (similar to a scarf or exercise band), and gave me one end of it to pull on as I simultaneously pushed. With the help of this ancient form of applied mechanical physics, and three more pushes, baby Ezekiel arrived –pink and alert, with a perfect APGAR score, ready to meet us and eager for the breast. I’d never been more exhausted or more glad!

  1. Breast is Best – for Wallet and Baby.

While formula is arguably more convenient, it’s also expensive and doesn’t carry the benefits of real milk… so I’d encourage any budget-conscious prospective moms out there to prep themselves for breastfeeding if possible. And it DOES take preparation. I’m very glad I didn’t just assume that breastfeeding would come naturally to me; I took the time and took the classes and even saw a lactation consultant in advance (through my doula) who helped me recognize a good vs. bad latch, how to correct or modify a latch, how different holds affect a baby’s latch, and even how to make friends with my breast pump.  Days later, when I was in the muzzy, exhausted post-delivery state, when the nurses handed me my baby, I knew what to do to establish good feeding practices from the start and recognize bad ones.  I was happy to know when I was two weeks postpartum that my lactation consultant would still be available to help me (again, through my doula) when I noticed some odd things about Zeke’s latch that eventually led us to discover a tongue-tie, which has since been corrected.

  1. Prep for the Postpartum.

    This is what those strange little placenta capsules look like.

    This is what those strange little placenta capsules look like.

Lastly, when considering the recovery ahead after birth, I thought long and hard about my family’s history with depression and decided to try to prevent Postpartum Depression if I could.  One of the ways I did this was by simply taking daily walks and being sure to spend time with friends and family (this is free); the other way I did this Came with a small cost, but might have saved me heavier costs of therapy and medication: I had my placenta dried and encapsulated to dose myself with during that first month after birth.

Most mammals eat their placentas; so did women in many ancient human cultures. It’s weird but not unheard of–even today.

I’d met many women through my doula who had embraced placentophagy (consumption of the placenta) as a practice and swore by it. Since there are so few actual studies on this practice right now, it was only the very high number of personal anecdotal accounts from people I knew that swayed me.  And I have to say that, beyond the weirdness of it (which is diminished when taking placenta in capsule form), the effects of this nutrient and hormone-rich organ seem to have only benefitted me. My energy has been excellent, my post-birth anemia was checked quickly, and my mood had only very temporary lapses (I cried, I got over it, I went on to enjoy my day). Did the cost of encapsulation ultimately save me some money by supporting my overall physical and mental health? I really do think so.

That’s all of my tips for now. I hope some of these ideas were helpful or inspired you in your own pregnancy or pre-pregnancy journey.  Thanks for reading!

-Ruth

NOTES:

  1. Hodnett, E.D.; Gates, S.; Hofmeyr, G.J.; Sakala, C.; Weston, J. “Continuous support for women during childbirth.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2011 Feb 16; (2):CD003766.
  1. Doulas of North America (DONA).

Want to know who my doula was, or need details about any other service I mentioned here? Message me; I’m happy to put you in contact!

Warm-up #1: Resetting the Stopwatch with Kairos Time

Soul Element Exercised: Timelessness

 

“In the spiritual life, God chooses to try our patience first of all by His slowness. He is slow: we are swift and precipitate. It is because we are but for a time, and He has been for eternity. . . . There is something greatly overawing in the extreme slowness of God. Let it overshadow our souls, but let it not disquiet them. We must wait for God, long, meekly, in the wind and wet, in the thunder and the lightning, in the cold and dark. Wait, and He will come.” – Frederick Faber

 

“You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” – Dallas Willard, on the health of the soul

 

It’s been a shocking two months since I’ve last written, and it shows how much I’ve become locked into the chains of chronos time (gr. scheduled, chronological time). But a little over two weeks ago, at 25 weeks along in my pregnancy, I took my last chance (pre-child) to go on an intensive retreat with 52 students from our Jesuit high school where I work, a retreat called Kairos (gr. “God’s Time”). It was a chance to step out of the office, step out of my responsibilities as a wife at home, and focus on the spiritual needs of myself and the community of the retreatants there with me.gods-time-1

The retreat was an intense four days of talks, reflections, prayer, small group chats, and emotional revelations, from seven in the morning to past midnight each night. Day two included my 25-minute talk as a retreat leader on the topic of “God’s Friendship”, which was simultaneously empowering and emotionally draining. It required me to dig down to things I hadn’t touched in a long time as I rehashed my history, including my faith struggles during my parents’ cancers, the pain and disorder of my father’s loss, and my own intense loneliness as I navigated those years feeling isolated in the experience due to my age and entrapment caused by my dependent status. To make sure the kids listening understood my perspective from these rough years of my late adolescence and very early 20s, I didn’t hold back on those elements; however, the meat of my talk arose from those moments (and I shared most of them) when I realized, sometimes many months after the events, that I wasn’t alone, in any of it, ever.

I won’t share the whole talk here. It was a long one. But I will say that writing it and giving it served as a reminder to me, as much as a revelation to some of the kids, that God is active in our lives in quiet ways, through gentle reminders, circumstantial blessings that are unexpected, and the generous hearts of others who follow an impulse that goes beyond mere human kindness – the kinds of gestures that can’t be explained by anything but the influence and presence of the divine.

I went back to my room that night to find a thick mail packet on my bed. Although most students (despite the secrecy surrounding this retreat) have come to expect that a part of Kairos is getting some letters from your loved ones as an encouragement, I was surprised as an adult leader to have notes from anyone but my husband, to whom I’d shared the details of the retreat ahead. As I opened note after note, I realized he’d done more than just follow an impulse to write me a little something for my Kairos mail; he’d hacked into my email to contact relatives, college friends, and even high school friends. I also opened several notes from many of my coworkers, sometimes surprised by their candidness as they shared their thoughts on their past four-and-a-half years with me.

And as I read past two in the morning in that Spartan little retreat room with one light, I remembered those many moments in my life when these note-writers had shown me that I wasn’t alone. I remembered, too, the intense spiritual talks with some of them that had influenced me in darker times.

Even though I came home on Day 4 from the retreat to almost immediately engage with the real-world and its demands again, the spiritual time-out allowed me to remember, as I embark on this next part of my life journey, this time as a parent at the end of my twenties, that I’m still not alone.

I just had to take the time to remember this truth by disengaging myself from the world’s notion of time and dipping into the non-scheduled space of eternity.

I need to do it more often, and I hope that anyone reading this gets inspired to take off for a little time to themselves to relive moments of God’s kindness in their lives. After all, it’s hard to understand and enjoy that kind of eternal, everlasting love unless we can turn off our calendar apps and schedulers for a little while and experience the time our soul is made to dwell in: an unlimited continuum not measurable with a minute-hand.

Taking that little space to breathe gave me one relieving piece of knowledge: that God measures our lives as a kind of ripening, and not as a rush.

 

Warm-up #2: Cleansing Breaths to Replace “Comparisonitis” with Gratitude

Soul Element Exercised: Peace and Perspective

 

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” – Thornton Wilder

 

“To be truly grateful, you must not only recognize the benefits or gifts that come your way, but that they are not just random acts; they are not accidents. They are coming from Someone who has good intentions for you.” – John Ortberg, Soul Keeping

 

I’ve been home from the retreat for a few weeks now, doing what women in their third trimester tend to do: scurrying around completing childbirth education, scheduling prenatal medical appointments and tests, planning for the mountain of work to get done (or leave detailed guides on how to do) before maternity leave, and trying to outfit the necessities in the nursery (oh, and doing taxes, because it’s that time again. Joy.).

I admit, when I sat down in February to figure all this out in terms of my calendar and our budget, I felt frankly overwhelmed, anxious, and at times resentful.

Not that I wasn’t grateful to be having a healthy baby – I was and still am—but I had been running seemingly every day into women who are or have recently been pregnant and who have far more of this figured out, or have had the luxury of more personal time and more financial resources due to their husband’s full-time employment, than I do. These well-meaning women have kindly asked if I’d heard of this class yet, or if I’d joined a prenatal yoga group, or gotten scheduled for massages to help with pregnancy pains, or how often I was able to nap during the day (my answer – never, during the work week).

Pinterest before bedtime didn’t help. I stumbled with a sort of helpless nesting-instinct-driven-fascination onto blogs written by women who have had the resources and time to set up and document beautiful nurseries in well-proportioned houses, and buy adorable and expensive clothes, toys, knickknacks, and doo-dads. I came across scholarly articles telling me that I was a bad mom because I hadn’t also shelled out a lot more money to take this other special class, or have this special test or treatment, before my due date arrived.

I’d shut off my laptop some nights and wander the 20 feet into the single bedroom of our apartment which I realized had been all furnished with hand-me-down furniture that I’d cobbled together into something resembling “cozy”. I had one area by the window where I was hoping to fit in the rudiments of a nursery, and I was having trouble envisioning what would go where in a small room that was seemingly full already.

Even as I shut off the lights, the smallness and the shabbiness of the room still dimly shadowed my mind as I thought back to the sparkling affluence and beauty of the things I’d looked at others enjoying on the web as other couples filled up their big nurseries and big houses with exciting things for their newborn.

And then, on the penultimate weekend of February, my in-laws arrived to offer a cradle that had been in the family for decades. My husband had once slept in it, and other kids on that side of the family, too. And in our tiny apartment, it was a better answer than a huge crib, at least for a little while. It came inside with us from the backseat of their car, out of the cold and snow.

This is the little cradle with so much history.

This is the little cradle with so much history.

As I polished up the old wooden cradle and gave it an experimental rock, I noticed some things about it. The first was that it had been well-sanded to a gleamy smoothness before it had been stained, and its components had been put together entirely by hand using a tongue-and-groove design; there’s not a clunky nail in sight. And then, as I looked closer at some of the scratches and nicks in the wood, I recognized places where wedding rings, toys, and maybe other furniture had scraped this cradle as babies were placed in and lifted out of it, from years and years in my husband’s family, in days and nights of loving routine and fretful concern.

I thought about the hours spent in previous generations sitting beside this cradle, and all the sudden, all of it – the stuff on Pinterest with that posh designer feel, the anxiety I felt about putting the nursery together in time, the worry I felt about finances being there when we needed them – it just went away.

And I remembered to be grateful for what we already had, which was all that was really going to matter: that this child would be born with a loving extended family and the commitment my husband and I have for each other. That’s all that most babies for thousands of years have ever been able to ask for, and it’s all that any expecting mom can really hope for.

 

But on that note about all this other baby stuff, stay tuned for some upcoming posts about Bringing Up Baby on a Budget….

It’s been several months, readers! I apologize. It’s been a wild ride.

And really, it’s funny that my last post in September was about a DIY facial; the breakout I experienced at that time was due to a rush of progesterone, which was one of many biological clues (and one prove-it-all test) that led to this announcement to Boaz:

Baby announce collage

Can you read it? The moment was captured live on September 17 on my smartphone, so it’s a bit blurry at this size. My message next to the sticky bun says, “There’s a ‘bun’ in the ‘oven’!”

I’ve confided on this blog before that I (hence, we) have been using the Fertility Awareness Method for nearly two years – first, to avoid pregnancy naturally (successfully, too), and then, more recently in August, to reverse the pregnancy-avoidance method to attempt to conceive. I don’t know why I was so convinced that it would take us months and months to conceive on any method, but I was pretty darn wrong.

So, the last few months, I’ve been busy, busy, busy, in addition to being sleepy, nauseous, and hungry, to the point of coming home from work and making dinner, eating it, and falling asleep in my plate instead of writing blog posts.

The second trimester is definitely here now, though, so I’m feeling much more like myself . . .

. . . And at the same time, not myself. Because at the moment, I’m essentially two people in one body.

What a strange way to start off 2015.

As weird a body-space as I’m occupying now, the head-space of this change in state has been even stranger. Everyone has heard stories about the bizareness of pregnancy dreams and cravings and so forth, but no one warns you about the philosophical space you enter.

One of the more persistent thoughts I’ve had as I entered 2015 has been this:

I’m a soul, nurturing another soul. Whoa.

It’s thought-fodder enough to really shape my resolution this year:

I want to learn how to feed my soul so that I can ultimately nurture my child’s.

That gets into some tricky grounding, though. After all, what even is a soul? And why is it that nobody (not even in most churches, folks!) seems to ever talk about it, or seem care about it anymore?

We live in an era of history where the shape of the body and the accomplishments of the mind are EVERYTHING. Our society chases new fitness and diet regimes, running until we have to replace our knees, then spend tens of thousands on degrees to prove we know what we know in the hopes of getting hired, making money, and enjoying life.

But we forget that neither the body nor the mind (or the material gains we make from them) are guaranteed to last – just ask anyone in a hospital spending what thousands of dollars they once had in savings on cancer treatments, or chat up one of the pleasantly confused old citizens wandering around your local nursing home.

I want to give myself, and my child, the only kind of health and wealth that lasts beyond this life.  

So, in this post, I want to begin exploring what a soul is, and what a healthy versus an unhealthy soul does. There’s a lot of (older) literature written about the soul, and there’s a lot to pull out of it in an attempt to define something so ineffable. Please feel free to jump in with your own gleanings from what you’ve read and discovered!

Defining the “Soul”

When most of us think of the word soul, the mostly widely-recognized early Western-world definition of the soul springs to mind without our realizing it, simply because this early definition defined so much of our foundational thinkers’ philosophies. Rendered in Greek as ψυχή, or psychē, it is loosely translated as the “life, spirit, consciousness,” closely related to the verb for breathing or blowing, essential for life; more recently in human history, it has served as our root for the word psychology (the study of the soul). We owe the popularity of this root word to Plato’s Republic, in which Plato presents the soul in three parts: logos (logic, mind), thymos (emotion, spiritedness, our response to the action in our world, considered masculine) and eros (the desires and wishes, considered feminine), which all strive to rule the will of a person. In Plato’s view, in a balanced, spiritually healthy person, logos rules the other two elements, and so commands the psyche. Like his teacher, Socrates, Plato believed that the soul, though influencing the physical body, survived after death, unlike the physical body.

In Hebrew tradition, the word for the soul is nephesh, likewise meaning “vital breath,” and, similar to Plato’s view, is an entity somewhat distinct from the body, although it nevertheless imbues life to the physical form on Earth through the touch of the divine.

Due to Septuagint-based translations of the Hebrew scriptures, many Christians pass over the word nephesh without even realizing that it refers to the soul when they read the English versions of Genesis 2:7 (“The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being [or soul, since this is nephesh].”), and the Psalms (such as Psalm 49:8, often translated as “The ransom for a life (nephesh) is costly; no payment is ever enough.”), and even the Torah-building law book of Deuteronomy (in Deut. 4:9a, the English Standard Version translates most correctly, “Only take care, and keep your soul (nephesh) diligently.”)

Other times, the Septuagint renders nephesh directly into the English word soul or spirit, most notably in the Psalms, which depict some behaviors of the soul: yearning for the divine (and in many places, responding to the sublime as a connection to the divine), feeling unrest, and enjoying celebratory praise and giving blessing, as well as enduring beyond life, leaving behind an empty body. Here are some examples:

Psalm 43:5a: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?”

Psalm 63:1: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”

Psalm 103:1: “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!”

Psalm 116:7: “Return to your rest, my soul, for the LORD has been good to you.”

Psalm 146:4: “When their spirit (here, denoted as ruach, meaning “breath, wind, spirit”) departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.”

This last Psalm uses the word ruach, which also has a few other instances of use in the Old Testament canon, including uses that tell us more about the soul or spirit. I’ll summarize what I found: A person’s “spirit” has many characteristics, including unfaithfulness (Psalm 78:8), sincerity (Psalm 32:2), and humility (Isaiah 57:15). The “spirit” can also be unsettled, even crushed (Joshua 5:1), but it can also be restored and brought back to health (Isaiah 57:15).

In the Christian New Testament, the word psyche (sometimes rendered psuche) is predominantly used for the soul (this is presumably Koine Greek rather than Plato’s Classical Greek). Jesus’ teachings frequently mention the word, and it’s re-emphasized again in the apostolic writings. All these instances agree that the soul is eternal, valuable, and able to be damaged by darker forces and burdened by evil doings (this is remarkably similar to ancient Egyptian beliefs recorded in the Book of the Dead, by the by).

Here are just a few example verses:

Matthew 16: 26 –[Jesus speaking:] “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul (psyche)? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Matthew 10:28- [Jesus speaking:] “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul (psuche). Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Hell.”

1 Thessalonians 5:23 – [Paul writes:] “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul* (psuche) and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

All of this is some heavy theology. But the point is pretty clear. The soul is important. We should care about it. But how do we figure out how to do that?  Maybe it’s best to look at what the unhealthy soul and the healthy soul look like for some clues.

What a soul so often lacks is the quiet needed for clarity. We live in a noisy, attention-seeking world.

How an Unhealthy Soul Behaves

 “Because my inner life is invisible, it is easy to neglect.” – John Ortberg

The soul seems to be a fragile thing in scripture and even in Platonic philosophy. Since it serves as the harbor for the complexity of our personal traits, spiritual energy, and competing desires as well as acting as the burden-bearer of our life experiences, it is prone to great unrest.

Theologian Dallas Willard devoted a great portion of his life to understanding the behaviors of the soul; one of his students, John Ortberg, boiled down some of the behavioral patterns of souls in poor health using one of the parables of Jesus from Matthew 13: 3-9, the Parable of the Sower (Ortberg, 54-60). This parable outlines three unfulfilling attitudes of various “states of soil” (which the reader understands as representing the states of various people’s souls) as they respond to a generously given “seed” (a message from God or the divine):

Hardened: This is a soil (soul) that has surrounded itself with a protective shell of bitter cynicism or suspicion after bearing the burdens of a life made difficult through sources of continual, overwhelming fear. Good things that try to grow here never even get the chance to take root.

Shallow: This is a soil (soul) that has a very shallow level of growthful depth, caused by a preoccupation with immediate gratification and comfort that leaves no room for “staying power” or capacity for commitment beyond that initial gratification. This is a soil that won’t give the best of itself to nurture anything. What good things try to grow here unfortunately die quickly.

Thorny/Cluttered: This is a soil (soul) whose focus is entangled with externals that seem important – the pursuit of a material lifestyle, awesome reputation, or unique and exciting experiences— that choke out its desires for the more valuable, simple, less glamorous blessings that come from the divine. Good things that try to grow in this soil have to constantly compete and do battle with the myriad pleasures and status-boosters that this soul desires.

Sad thing is, none of us choose to have souls in these conditions, but they do happen—to all of us, I think, just at various times of life. And when they do, they alter our psychological (our psyche’s) mindset completely, blinding us to the deeper truth of our circumstances. It can lead to our isolation or alienation from friends, cause rifts in relationships, or set us up for disappointment and heartache in other ways. Often, we look back on these periods of poor soul-health later in life with regret, recognizing at last the many missed opportunities or the time-wasting pursuits (or even relationships!) that we were too blind to see for what they really were while we were rolling around in our bad soul-dirt.

I’d love to try to protect myself in the future from having more of those regrets, and teach my child to keep him or herself balanced to avoid these spiritual pitfalls . . . but life, it seems, can really throw us all for a loop.

How a Healthy Soul Behaves

“A soul,” explains John Ortberg in Soul Keeping, “is what integrates your will (your intentions), your mind (your thoughts and feelings, your values and conscience) and your body (your face, body language, and actions) into a single life. A soul is healthy – well-ordered – when there is harmony between these three entities and God’s intent for all creation. When you are connected with God and other people in life, you have a healthy soul” (43).

Keeping this in mind, there are a few specific ways that a healthy soul then behaves:

A Healthy Soul Stays in Alignment with What It Values.

I think it’s hard to feel settled within ourselves when we observe occasional hypocrisy in our own behavior. Worse, inconsistency within our actions can become even a little pathological, leading to disordered thinking and behavior over time. But when our souls are consistently aligned with what we most deeply value, we gain a deep spiritual contentment and true sense of being where we are meant to be. One of the prayers I’ve learned at my job at a Jesuit high school comes from Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., and it goes like this,

“Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.

What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.

It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read,
whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

Fall in Love,
stay in love,
and it will decide everything.”

This kind of empowering commitment gets our butts off the couch and out there with other people who need us. It’s a powerful, meaningful way to live and to see life.

A Healthy Soul Finds Contentment.

. . . But not by going out the door looking for something/someone to give it contentment, but by practicing the art of gratitude for what is already present.

How often do we forget how blessed we truly are? Friends, family, even our abilities, all of it is really a gift. We forget that, sometimes! But when we remember to be grateful, we no longer feel the need to go restlessly searching on, seeking that one other thing we need to make us happy. We find happiness in the moment.

We remember, too, that God is a part of that happiness, when we see how little of what we had was actually earned by our actions. “Praise the Lord, my soul,” writes the Psalmist in Psalm 103, “and forget not all His benefits . . . who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things . . .”

A Healthy Soul Draws Sustenance from Something Other than the Self.

We live in an age where even well-meaning people say, “Take care of yourself!” when we feel run-down or are faced with a difficult trial. While it’s sensible to care for our bodies with adequate rest and nourishment, a soul finds its sustenance beyond the bounds of our bed and board, and certainly finds better food for growth and thought when we aren’t too focused on ourselves.

When we’re run down by the demands of our draining, self-filled lives, our souls miss the replenishing focus and direction provided by the divine. We often forget the power of prayer in this regard, but as Francois Fenelon, an erstwhile royal tutor to King Louis XIV (who fell out of favor when he stood up to the monarch) discovered while in a very stressful exile, “In order to make your prayer life more profitable, it would be well from the beginning to picture yourself as a poor, naked, miserable wretch, perishing of hunger. . . These are true pictures of our condition before God . . . and God alone can heal you” (qtd. Ortberg, 87).

A Healthy Soul Has No Need to Become Anything Else.

A balanced, well-nourished soul that is connected to others, content with its own resources, and is connected to God is virtually unstoppable. It gives the soul-bearer an oddly glowing, resilient, hard-to-drag-down quality, even in tough times. It also grants the soul-bearer the kind of un-self-concerned freedom, inner strength, and courage that’s needed to reach out to others in need in ways that are deeply meaningful and life-changing. There is a ton of value in having a soul that’s in this state, because this in itself is extraordinary in terms of its spiritual potential.

In the words of Dallas Willard, “You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe . . . The most important thing in your life is not what you do; it’s who you become. That’s what you will take into eternity.”

But of course, getting to this point can really take some work. Join me in the coming weeks as I come around to this topic again in a mini-series of posts called “Workouts for the Soul.

In the meantime, happy, soul-nurturing New Year to you all!

Ruth

NOTES:

* There are some disagreements about the role of the soul versus the spirit among Christian theologians; some view them as interchangeable, as “spirit” (rendered pneúma or ruach in Greek ) closely resembles the meaning of nephesh in Hebrew (both referring to breath, as in breath of life of the divine). But there’s also a lot out there about whether the soul and the spirit are separate entities, as it appears sometimes that they are used interchangeably, and at times, as separate and defined entities.

My take on this debate rests on Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, bone and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” From this metaphoric phrasing I (admittedly simplistically) extract that soul and spirit are loosely both a part of the same spiritual force, although with defined functions, like a bone contains marrow, with the ossified tissue of bone playing a different, but supporting role to marrow tissue. To me, though, this whole argument really isn’t terribly important; regardless of the roles of each, both spirit and soul point to the deepest, most essential and spiritually-enduring parts of us.

Non-linkable Citation:

Ortberg, John. Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014. Print.

***WARNING. THIS IS A MONSTER OF A POST I’VE BEEN WORKING ON FOR ABOUT 20 DAYS. AND IT GETS TO THE NITTY-GRITTY. TMI potential is high. YOU HAVE BEEN FOREWARNED.*** As in all my research-based posts, feel free to click the embedded links here to read the actual articles.  I have a handful of footnotes scattered throughout as well.

In my last post, I talked about my quest to step out of our 21st Century lifestyle to find better health beyond the fast-and processed-food, convenience-obsessed, indoor-oriented culture we live in today.

Part of that post was about getting synthetic hormones out of my body by quitting pharmaceutical birth control. I warned you all that I was tempted to rant about this topic. And after a few days of cooling myself down enough to rationally address it, I give you what, I hope, is a peevishly-seasoned but ultimately well-reasoned rant.

So, synthetic birth control. It’s kind of a hot-topic right now on the political scene. And it’s also something I had years of experience with myself . . . that nearly wrecked me.

But my reasons for quitting were not just physical. Beyond the desire to get rid of the terrible, weeks-per-month-occurring insomnia, terrifying mood swings, weight gain and uncomfortable water retention, brush-filling hair loss, and migraines, I also wanted to satisfy an urge to find an alternative to what the our society tells us women that we “need” to swallow, inject, adhere, or insert to stay “safe” from our own bodies’ natural cycles of fertility.

I’ll disclose in advance that my embracing of feminism ends with most of the goals met by the First Wave. That being said, my disgust in synthetic birth control stemmed from what I saw as three woman-oppressing trends in our birth control-driven culture:

 1. Inherent Misogyny in Birth “Control” for Women: Perpetuating the Female-Only Burden of Responsibility

A woman is only truly fertile for 24 to 48 hours a month, with five days preceding this window in which her cervical fluid and the lifespan of a sperm might enable that sperm to live long enough to fertilize the egg once it’s released. All told – that’s 7 days of potential fertility per month (and some months, less than that, depending on the presence of the fertile type of cervical fluid that resembles egg white). A man makes nearly 12 million new sperm every day and is fertile 24/7.

Why is it, then, that a woman needs to take a pill for the entire month, or inject herself with hormones, in order to disrupt the beautifully intricate cyclical process that is deeply woven into other processes of her biochemistry beyond just her fertility? Why is it that she alone, in a male-female relationship, risks serious side effects and even potential cancer from the engineered hormones in a pill or injection, or has to play chicken with the danger of potentially irreversible damage to her organs from a foreign object (IUD)1?

But a man needn’t worry about a thing except, perhaps, for being a “gentleman” who does the bare minimum by wearing a condom, which even then he doesn’t have to do if a woman pharmaceutical contraceptives permits him to forgo it. Let’s face it: few men, outside of the most committed marriage, would ever even consider a vasectomy.

So, wrap it, he shall.

And whoooop-frickin’-dee-dew! Doesn’t that sound so difficult for him?

 Think hard about this, ladies: Where are the male birth control pills? It’s now 2014 A.D.– roughly fifty years since the Pill emerged on the women’s health scene in the sixties.

Did you know the Male Pill has already been attempted in research for over forty years, and there’s been talks that one version  is nearly ready and will soon be made available—although, as you’ll read below, there have been very politically-driven delays?

Read the following and ponder this question with me: Why’d it take Big Pharmaceutical companies so long to give the public the male-version of the Pill?

Here’s the short version of the story. According to the Telegraph UK’s interview with Dr. John Guillebaud, who is one of the leading research team members for the Male Pill initiative, the project will likely “take 10 to 15 years to complete and is chronically underfunded.” In addition, Guillebaud says he (and we assume, the project’s waning funders) are afraid “many people don’t feel that a man could be trusted to remember to take it.”

This bad attitude towards male responsibility, as well as many other seemingly sociopolitical reasons, were uncovered in a recent lengthy article in Aeon Magazine  in which author-researcher Jalees Rehman sought to uncover why there was this glaring “lack of adequate reproductive control methods for men” which, in Rehman’s view is, “striking — and puzzling — especially since many newer methods for male contraception have been developed during the past decades yet none has become available for general use.”

Puzzling, indeed, since trials of the interventional hormone techniques in men for the Male Pill uncovered nothing worse than what the average woman on birth control routinely suffers as side-effects: “Short-term studies of the side effects of male contraceptives have not revealed anything major: acne, weight gain, increased libido.” In fact, Rehman found that one promising study was famously cut short based on side-effect complaints from men that women reading this will find laughably familiar:

“One of the largest male contraceptive efficacy trials ever conducted was sponsored by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and CONRAD, the US-based reproductive health research organisation. Called Phase II TU/NET-EN, this landmark multicentre study was designed to answer key questions about the long-term safety and efficacy of male hormonal contraception, and enrolled more than 200 couples between 2008 and 2010. The contraceptive used was a long-acting formulation of testosterone (testosterone undecanoate, or TU) combined with a long-acting progestin (norethisterone enanthate or NET-EN), administered via injections every two months. The trial included an initial treatment phase to suppress sperm production, and a subsequent ‘efficacy phase’ that required couples to rely exclusively on this form of birth control for one year. However, in April 2011, the trial was terminated prematurely when the advisory board noticed a higher than expected rate of depression, mood changes and increased sexual desire in the study volunteers. By the trial’s end, only 110 couples had completed the one-year efficacy phase; their efficacy results should be released in the near future.”

 Poor things. We certainly wouldn’t want to try to sell Pills to men when they feel uncomfortable about taking hormones that messed with their moods and sexual desire—now would we?

Never mind that the CDC has uncovered that out of the 45 million women who have taken the Pill, 30% of ladies discontinued Pill use and sought another option because of dissatisfaction; and nearly half of the women using other hormonal contraception methods such as Depo-Provera (46%) and the contraceptive patch (49%) discontinue use due to dissatisfaction; the reasons cited in all cases by these women was negative “side effects” like the ones the men in the trial experienced, alongside a host of others.1

As most ladies know, we routinely encounter the side-effects the men in the study reported and more, and it forces us to play a many-years-long game of “Pill Roulette” for most of our reproductive lives, just trying to find a brand or patch or other hormonal cocktail that makes us less mad, fat, moody, sad, or zitty . . . or at least, less mad, fat,moody, sad and zitty than the others do.

Pardon my feelings, but after reading this and many other research-based articles that inquire into the Male Pill issue, I’ve grown sick to death of the misogynist actions of the “Big Pharmaceuticals” (a.k.a. Big Pharma), which demonstrate in this case that they care far more about the discomfort a man feels with a drug than about the discomfort of a woman, or even millions of women.

This leads me to my next point about the inherent misogyny in all of this: Let’s think about the message-bearing force behind what Big Pharma imposes on society in creating a marketing trend which continues to place all expectation of responsibility, use and purchase of birth control on women.

I work in marketing. And I recognize the peddling behind all those straight-to-physician, pill-pushing tactics undertaken by the Big Pharmaceuticals, in addition to the multi-millions spent in TV and print marketing, which all work together in our society to engineer a woman’s media and physician-based education so that she believes her only choices for “safe and effective” birth control are either hormonally engineered interventions like pills, rings or patches, or implants (IUDs). It’s exactly this marketing-based educational approach that implicitly tells men that, since all these commercials and products are geared toward women, they are not to concern their wonderful selves with the burden of birth control, beyond toting a foil packet.

I can’t help but get angry as I wonder: Is this self-perpetuating market system fair to women? Is the expectation it creates fair to women in our social culture?

Not at all. And this is why, I’m sure, many of my fellow women are nearly hysterical over the recent birth control insurance coverage debate — we’re tired of carrying the burden by ourselves. But as I’ll discuss in my conclusion, making our neighbors pay for our pills won’t change this prevalent misogyny (even inherent under the Affordable Care Act, which doesn’t require insurance companies to cover male birth control procedures like vasectomies!…Hmm!).

I actually would posit that such a step—mass insurance coverage for any and all forms of birth control for women— would lead many women reaching for this “easy answer” to only continue to place their bodies and their reliance deeper and deeper into the misogynist hands and pockets of Big Pharma, which, as we’ve seen, doesn’t really care enough about gender equality, or even the suffering of women, to change their funding and research practices to finish making a Pill for men.

So, let me step off that soap box. . . . And I’ll move on to a harder-hitting issue: the risks of hormonal and implanted birth control that women take on themselves because our society seems to offer no alternatives beyond what Big Pharma pushes into our physicians’ hands.

 2. Serious (!) Health Risks from Hormonal Birth Control and IUDs

I’m going deeper into my own research in this section. We all know there are some side-effects to hormonal and implantable birth control; after all, they’re murmured soothingly in the last ten seconds of all the ads on TV and are printed on the side of our pill cases and on the pamphlet that comes with the IUD, ring, or patch.

But when you really delve into these risks, including the ones that aren’t always on the package because they’re too long-term to initially measure, it is alarming to see how far women, in seeking to gain control of their fertility, must abuse their bodies. (Feel free to click the linked keywords in the text below to read the research articles and reports.)

The Cancer Risks We Shouldn’t Ignore

As long ago as 2005, the World Health Organization classified oral contraceptives as Group I carcinogens (Group I is the most dangerous from Groups I-IV). A 2006 meta-analysis in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings built an even stronger case after reporting that in 21 out of 23 studies, there was an increased risk of developing premenopausal breast cancer for women who had taken the Pill prior to the birth of their first child. Overall, these women experienced a 44% increase in incidence for breast cancer prior to age 50. 44% is beyond significant when the average population risk is around 13%! Personally, I’m horrified that no physicians in my high school days knew about this or thought about it, because I was put on the Pill in 2004 to help manage my acne as a teenager, and this was right around the time when my own mother was diagnosed with breast cancer (hmm…family history, maybe?).

It would be worse if I’d been on Depo-Provera, which in the FDA’s Physician Information Report for the drug based on a meta-analysis of its carcinogenic effects reports a relative risk of 2.19 (more than two-fold risk!) for breast cancer in women exposed to the shot while under the age of 25!

It’s also fortunate that I didn’t try one of the vaginal rings; Estring, an estradiol vaginal ring, has been reported by the FDA to increase the relative risk of cervical cancer by as much as 44% . To me, it’s clear: these hormonal interventions, especially for young women, can be even more carcinogenic than smoking, which raises breast cancer risk between 13-24% and cervical cancer risk between 6-27% for those women who already have some HPV-positivity, which is now very common.

Yikes.  That’s all I can say, girls. This section could have been a lot longer, too.

Biochemical Disruptions from Hormonal Birth Control

The female fertility cycle goes beyond just the ovaries and uterus. It’s also intrinsically tied to extremely important neurochemical processes in the brain and biochemical processes in many other parts of the body. When oral contraceptives and hormone-based injections interfere with that cycle, they also interfere with the biochemistry behind a woman’s moods (changing the behavior of the fornix, or emotional seat of the brain, in those using combined oral contraceptives especially), her sex drive, her kidneys (causing water retention and stones; this is especially a risk for Yaz users), her metabolism (raising fat-storing insulin levels with DMPA use and oral and transdermal contraceptives), her blood pressure (in the long-term and famous Nurses Study, the likelihood of hypertension was significantly greater for past and current hormonal birth control users than non-users over time), her sleep cycles, her bone density (with Depo-Provera especially, says the FDA on its “black box” warning ), and even her ability to distinguish a genetically complimentary mate by scent.

Again, I could go on and on. There are many other bodily processes and parts that are slightly suppressed, altered, or in other ways molested and biochemically ransacked by the interference of foreign hormones in our bodies. In women, our sex hormones influence more than we think they do. They govern our essential wellness, and not just our fertility.

IUDS, Inflammation, Explusion, Perforation, and Ectopic Pregnancy

Whether an IUD has a hormonal component (like Mirena) or not, the body naturally treats it like a foreign object. And the foreign-object response is not pretty, including raised levels of inflammation in the blood and tissues which can increase the levels of cramp-creating prostaglandins, subsequently raising the danger of the body outright attempting to expel the device (2-8% of women experience expulsion). Many women who have undergone the insertion process will never forget the hours—on occasion, days—of cramping and lower back pain that followed.

Even when that first hurdle of potential expulsion is passed, the tissues of the uterus are still at increased risk for Pelvic Inflammatory Disorder in women who have been exposed to an STD (a rate which increases for any woman who’s had more than one partner), increased risk of accidental perforation and migration of the device (1 in 2,000 women experienced this [multiply that by millions of users and its significance rises], and it can sometimes take surgery to fix the damage it causes), as well as ectopic pregnancy which can sometimes prove fatal if undetected. Most disturbingly, even if a woman’s IUD use was in the past, her risk of ectopic pregnancy after removal of the IUD remains higher than the norm!

The IUD Mirena was my particular enemy; not only did its slow-trickle of synthetic progesterone (levonorgestrel) wreak havoc on my moods, it also created a weird biochemical dependency. It’s been over a year since it’s been out of my life, and my body still isn’t making its own progesterone at the level it was pre-Mirena. It’s extremely frustrating, and still affects my sleep, since progesterone is tied to levels of the sleep neurotransmitter GABA in the brain.

Let’s not even talk about how my body held onto almost six pounds of water for almost two years as a part of my body’s inflammatory response to the device–all in my lower belly, giving me a beautiful Budda-belly. Nor should I mention the fact that I was apparently allergic to the silicone in the IUD to the point that my hair started falling out. Yeah. It was awesomely sexy. And it’s shocking how long it took me to connect the dots as to why I was feeling crazy, cranky, sad, fat, and bald…and have the damn thing removed.

3. Social Repercussions: The Infallibility Fallacy and Why It Hurts Women & Our Relationships

Bodily risks aside, the availability and mass-marketing of pharmaceutical birth control has shaped the ideals of an entire generation of women in a way that, in rose-colored-glasses-fashion, blinds us to the potential pitfalls of reliance on a pill, implant, or device.

Having one of these contraceptives readily for ingestion or immediate use can lead us to believe that our sexual practices are “safe” despite the fine-print of failure rates and side effects . . . and even despite the very fact that pregnancy isn’t the only potential negative that our sexual practices can bring to our lives. I’m not just talking about the fact that 1 in 2 sexually active people under the age of 25 will get an STD this year, with similar figures in my age range, too.  That in itself is sad enough.

I’m talking about the damage we can unintentionally do to our relationships simply because so few of us will look cautiously into our hearts before leaping—since pregnancy isn’t a great worry anymore—into bed with a partner.

There is an emotional process of sexual bonding that no pill, patch, ring or insertable can protect us from, but so armed as we are, many women ignore that this risk—the risk to their trust, and their potential to deeply and lastingly love—can be the greatest risk of their lives, altering their future happiness.

I’m not going to whip out pro-abstinence lit here. But I will point out two neurochemical elements of sexual bonding that can get tied up in Gordion knots when women (slowly, often with the same man for many months or years at a time) bed-hop as they shop throughout their young adult years for their Mr. Right, as is the fashion these days.

Keep in mind that this now-common serial, copulatory dating practice is something that was almost impossible for our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, since the risk of pregnancy was seemingly greater with only barrier or unscientific natural methods (like pull-out) as their options.

Biochemical Bonder No. 1: Oxytocin. Oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” or the “love-forever hormone” is the mother of all emotional bonding hormones, and it’s extremely powerful in women. It’s released only under two circumstances in our lives: sex and childbirth. And it’s really a beautiful hormone that helps us fall in a to-the-death way with our new babies. Curiously, it’s been found by Israeli researcher Ruth Feldman to run at nearly twice as high of levels in new lovers as it is in pregnant women. As Feldman later discovered, levels of oxytocin in the blood of women in the first trimester were later predictive of the depth of their bond with their newborns.  Considering the double-level of oxytocin present in new lovers, it’s astonishing to consider what this could predict in terms of the depth and persistence of feeling we women are capable of when in love with a partner.

It’s also of note that in men, oxytocin is also released during sex, and has a curious effect on them: it makes them want to stay away from other women.

Taken together with oxytocin’s tendency to light up the reward centers of our brain, it’s almost as addictive to us as the next neurotransmitter . . .

Biochemical Bonder No. 2: Dopamine. Also released in the sexual act in both men and women, dopamine has been proven again and again in scientific literature to be the match that sparks the fires of addiction. It’s non-stop message to the brain is, “This. This. We need more of this. Do anything to get more of this.”

It’s also what causes so much suffering when the dopamine-sourcing ends and withdrawal sets in, wracking the body and brain with huge amounts of stress hormones and pain-receptor sensitivity. So, shortly after we breakup and move past the shock and pain, the withdrawal process makes us desperate. Hence, the all-too-common notorious “rebound” sexcapades in the struggle to find the next fix.

Any experienced woman can tell you that rebounding can set up a horrendous, vicious cycle of rushing into involvement with the nearest male creature around far too soon; often, it’s a male creature who, in our impaired judgement, winds up being more damaged/damaging than we could tell from our first candlelit moments, leading us to our next breakup, then back out looking again, and so forth . . . In the end, our brain’s pleasure-seeking, bond-seeking drives can make us miserable if they’re set up for failure with one poor choice of partner.

Freedom for the body is a heady thought.

Freedom for the body is a heady thought. But what about the heart?

The whole sexual pair-bonding process has great potential to be very messy. And because bonding is powerful, and when unsuccessful, painful, it’s logical to approach sex with more care in the first place so that our bond-seeking urges can be sustained in a focused, long-term monogamous relationship that keeps us out of the vicious cycle described above. But it’s so hard to be mindful of taking steps towards cautious psychological self-care when we are fed the very well-marketed message over and over again that being on birth control means we’re being “safe” and/or “responsible” and acting within our rights to “freedom” with our bodies. Our bodies.

Is it because there is so much emphasis placed on the freedom  of our bodies that we neglect our minds and hearts?

I can’t help but think of these words attributed to A.W. Tozer:

“As humans, we encounter people in one of two ways—either as an object to be manipulated, or as an holy other (sic).”

Which kind of encounter does today’s relationship market encourage in both men and women when the risks of bonding from sex is not even discussed or considered? When stress-free sex is marketed to us as a given, when it’s actually far more complicated than that–because it involves humans with feelings? I ask you, dear reader, if you’re still with me, to consider.

 

Okay. This list got a bit crazy. But maybe this long rant can show you why I find all of this so upsetting.

Still, for me to decide to leap out of this half-century-old system was a huge step. Seriously, to drop birth control while hubby was in full-time grad school? Surely, that would be stupid. Why leave the safety of what I knew? Why divert from our careful plans?

I had nearly lost my courage until I discovered two incentives to quit the synthetic birth control rat-race through research and my own happy experience:

1. A Science-Based Natural Method Exists (And it’s  NOT the “Rhythm Method”)

Let’s talk about something many of you have never heard about, ladies, and that’s a pregnancy avoidance method that’s scientifically grounded, virtually cost-free, and has recently bested biochemical birth control in a longitudinal study published in Human Reproduction. This study shows a 1.8% unintended pregnancy rate for the Sympto-Thermal Method (a.k.a. Fertility Awareness Method), as compared to the 9% unintended pregnancy rate for the combined and progestin-only Pill, as reported by the CDC *.

Best of all—with a little instruction, this method puts your body intelligently into your own hands, without any biochemical or implant-based interventions.

And guess what else, gals? This blogger has test-driven this method since January 2013, and I can tell you, I’m more empowered and better educated about my body than I ever was on any pill or IUD recommended by our current pharmaceutical culture—and I even learned far more through the training literature for this method than was offered to me in the politically-charged “manual” Our Bodies, Ourselves.  It also allows me to keep excellent data on my own body that can help me and my Ob/Gyn to identify hormonal imbalances and even infertility issues should the need arise.

Check out this TedTalk by a statistician who follows this method and loves the benefits of having her data:

Here’s the gist of the Fertility Awareness Method (sometimes called the Justisse Method or Sympto-Thermal Method): every woman should know that her body gives her clear and measurable data and signals as she approaches the window of potential fertility each month. All it takes is awareness of the pattern, which only requires education on basic physiology and the willingness to check three things, easily done in less than 2 minutes a day:

  1. Waking basal body temperature. A woman’s basal body temperature is low during the first part of her cycle (during her period and leading up to ovulation). It makes a significant jump—sometimes more than a degree—when ovulation occurs. These higher temperatures are sustained throughout her luteal phase, until menses recommences.
  2. Cervical position. The cervix shifts position throughout the month, based on fertility hormone levels. During infertile times, it’s lowered, and even feels hard, like the tip of the nose; during the fertile window, it’s noticeably higher—almost so high it’s hard to reach—and soft, like lips. It’s os (mouth) is also more open during the fertile window.
  3. Cervical fluid. Most telling of all signs is cervical fluid, which most women notice ranges throughout the month in consistency from milky to yoghurt-like to watery, clear or egg-whitish. Cervical fluid transforms into the egg-white like stuff during the fertile window, when it’s slippery, clear, and doesn’t evaporate easily off the finger. This egg-white stuff allows sperm to live longer and helps facilitate their passage, hence why during days when the egg-white is present, even if it’s a few days before ovulation, sex should be avoided (because sperm can live up to five days in this kind of fluid).

When signs 2 and 3 of fertility begin to show, which for most women (by the 5-Day Rule) begins after the first five days of her period, a woman should either avoid sex or have protected sex. She then should look to see a temperature shift in the coming days, a significant degree rise marking that ovulation has occurred. As soon as she’s had a full 48-hours of high basal body temperatures after her ovulation temperature shift, it’s a sign that the released egg has died, and the fertility window has closed. Playtime resumes unobstructed throughout the remainder of the luteal phase until her period comes again.

That’s it, in a nutshell. And it costs roughly $11.95 for a decent basal thermometer on Amazon, usable for the foreseeable future. It’s far greener than any hormonal birth control method, and completely harmless to the body. There are no fake hormones, no body trickery, nothing. You can even download an app to chart your temperature curve, or do it by hand. If you want, there are research-based books available and even classes on how to do this. All it takes is a bit more self-knowledge and awareness and a willingness to read up a little on what you don’t know.

I got to the point with this method where I actually laid back on the table for a uterine ultrasound last fall (this is one of my check-ups as a part of cancer screening, since I carry the BRCA2 gene), and I told the disbelieving technician who’d asked approximately where I was in my cycle, “I should ovulate later today.” She only raised an eyebrow at my precise answer until she focused the probe on an ovary, which clearly outlined a swollen follicle. “Oh, actually, yes you should,” she responded. “How on earth did you know that?” My response: “Easy. You’ve got your probe right there—can’t you feel how high my cervix is? It’s like a cathedral ceiling down there!”

TMI? Well, the point of the story is this: the pattern of your fertility is not some great mystery, and you have the right to feel a little peeved when medical professionals and sex educators treat you like you’re stupid or scare you into thinking you can get pregnant every time you have sex. And they do this a lot to make their jobs easier, since it takes way too much time to educate a woman about the scientifically measurable bodily changes that herald her fertile phase every month. The thought here, I guess, is that it’s easier to hand her something made by Big Pharma than actually empower her with knowledge.

2. Equality in Birth Control Responsibility for Male and Female Partners Is Possible (No Need for a Third Party)

It’s been great not being alone in the responsibility department when it comes to pregnancy avoidance in the bedroom. Boaz has had to become a little more educated about how my body actually works and stay on top of the data, too.

Oh, at first he may have blushed a bit when I drew pictures as I explained the method and pointed out some landmarks. Now he’s got his nose in my temperature chart (he’s not the only guy I’ve seen do this; many other men using this method actually make the chart recordings for their partner, so they’re sure to be in the loop). Some mornings, he even brings me the basal thermometer and puts it in my mouth when I’m groggy and don’t want to get out of bed. We talk about what my body’s doing that day and what it means in terms of our activity, and oftentimes that conversation is initiated by him. From all this, he now knows when I’m fertile, or PMSing, or what have you—he even brings home my favorite dark chocolate at “that time of the month.”

Through this little routine of education and care, I receive acknowledgement from him that what my body naturally does is powerful and deserves respect, and in my response, I acknowledge that what his body can do is powerful and deserves respect. There’s a balanced consciousness on both our parts, as well as a kind of wonder and reverence, as we navigate as partners through our desires and the changes of my cycle.**

And it’s all made good sense to share the process and strategy together. After all, as partners, we can potentially create life together, so why shouldn’t we share the responsibility for restraining that power between us?

Maybe it’s revolutionary, but I don’t believe it’s my coworkers’ responsibility to pay for the choices I make at home in my sex life, nor my government’s. I think it’s ours—mine and my husband’s. Even if we weren’t married, that responsibility would still be ours, because our choices as sexual partners are our choices to make.

I think the media has helped us reach a point of confusion on this topic. I see a prevailing assumption in advertisements, political ads, and even TV shows that tell my fellow females that we’re so helpless in our own bodies that we can’t (and shouldn’t) control our urges, and so we need to depend on the insurer/government/big socialized health system to help us prevent mishaps. That we can’t, or even shouldn’t, take this responsibility for our bodies on in our own homes or hands, because we’re so undereducated/poor/stupid/slutty/helpless to even think for ourselves. That even good education won’t help us—that nothing will, except a magic drug or foreign object that is designed to render us temporarily infertile, mess with our body systems, and possibly give us cancer.

The most insulting ad of all – this is an ObamaCare ad!  See how much our government respects women?  Here see a very sexist “dumb-slut-needs-free-pills”-portrayal of young women that I find frankly revolting.

The most insulting birth control ad I’ve ever seen –  and it’s an ObamaCare ad! Do you see how much Obama’s camp actually respects women? Here we see tax-payer funded advertising from the Got Insurance campaign modeling a very sexist “dumb-bimbo-slut-needs-free-pills”-portrayal that I find frankly revolting. “OMG, he’s hot!” Really? REALLY?!

How is this not misogyny? And a misogyny just as bad as the kind that keeps women from being educated–this time about their own bodies!

It really makes me sad to think that despite the fact that there’s a birth control method out there that is free, doesn’t harm the natural processes of the female body, and works well within the framework of a committed relationship (the only healthy sexual relationship, I argue—sorry, all who like to play bedroom roulette!), women either don’t know about the method, aren’t told about this method . . . or they just want their pills and devices for convenience—and more than that, if one is to believe the various politico-posts circulating on Facebook, a vast majority of young women want someone else to pay for them.

I have to wonder if, maybe, this desire to have the government pay for contraception has ultimately come about because women just don’t trust their partners or themselves enough to take on the private responsibility for their bedroom activities.

It doesn’t help that current law and lobbyists insist that our partners practically have the “right” to be as uncommitted to us as they like; after all, everyone else will pay to enable our partner to have sex with us “safely” under the Affordable Care Act, so that our men don’t need to ever worry about what might happen, or if we might ever need or want them to share the responsibility. There’s a great deal of unmerited calm in the thought, “Oh, she’s on the Pill; it’ll be fine; we don’t have to think about it.” This thought is not empowering to women. And the dismissiveness of the mantra it holds is very new in human history, and it’s very insidious.

Did our own parents get to do this? Did they have the “right” to never have to pay for their contraceptives? Or to not think about what would happen if they went to bed with the wrong person who ultimately wouldn’t rise to the challenge of an accidental pregnancy?

And for thousands and thousands of years before the advent of the Pill, did any woman, or man, have the “right” to rush into a liaison without acknowledging that there was a potential that some consequences might follow?

Heck, no. Sex has forever entailed risk and responsibility on both sides, just as the giving and receiving of anything of value always should. And I would argue, Pill or no Pill, implant or no implant, 2014 A.D. or 52 B.C., humans still need to have the attitude that sex holds value and a demand for responsibility that its participants must acknowledge. After all, even if nothing living is conceived, if we go to bed together, we should still honor each other and how the intimacy of the act will reveal us and, for that time, render us vulnerable to someone who is wholly other.

I’m starting to think that the last three or four generations (Boomer, X, Y and Millennial) have suckled the embittered teats of the past forty years of feminist thinkers to the extent that we have actually started believing we’re better than our ancestors and are owed more than they were, just because we have Big Pharma contraceptives, which apparently give us the “right” to sexual irresponsibility and free love simply because these contraceptives exist. And we’ve gone so far now as to even try to force, by law, complete strangers to pay the price of our pleasure by buying the drugs and devices that upset our bodily processes and raise our risks for all kinds of conditions and even cancer and potential infertility down the road.

I can’t help but observe that we’re limping forward in the name of progress by essentially shooting ourselves in the foot.

I can hear the acrimony rising against me now—about how things are better now, since women were repressed for thousands of years with no control over their bodies, etc. And certainly, for many women in the past and in the developing world today, that was and is still true—there was ignorance, there was and is certainly abuse and many mouths to feed. And for women in poverty, with few choices, who were and are preyed upon sexually, life was and is a misery.

But in the past, prior to Second and Third Wave Feminism, there was also a cultural assumption which prevailed in the West that protected many women that is very tellingly absent today, and which leaves in its absence many women and children who are miserable without it: that is the notion that a man must take equal responsibility for his part in all this.

That was the one blessing in the thousands of years of oppressive Western patriarchy that we no longer have today: men had an expected role, and a big one, when new life was involved, and it wasn’t the “norm” then that a woman should raise children alone as a single mother. A man should and must “do the right thing” by a woman he slept with, or risk losing face in any respectable society.

It’s something to consider that, in recently declaring our independence as women, we’ve lost something that sustained vulnerable women and children for thousands of years. As one woman writing on this issue put it beautifully,

“[W]hich, is really, the more misogynist view: the view that for all of world history women have been idiots, or the view that gives women more credit, and thinks we have only gone over-board in the blip of the past [fo]rty years?”2 (Date corrected; this is a ten-year-old quote)

I vote for “gone over-board on the blip.”

There’s a new repression in today’s seemingly “feminist” assumptions that actually isolate women in a lonely state that, from a distance, looks like strength, but is actually weakness; it pits them against the world as they cry like fishwives, or worse, like panhandlers, to have their sexual health and child-rearing needs met by people they don’t even know, reaching out for government assistance that is usually poorly, slowly, and impersonally managed.

In our generation, we have to find and stand on a middle ground that requires men to be participants in family planning beyond a condom wrapper. And it shouldn’t be a new ground that asks the government to step in to create laws that perpetuate an attitude shift that is actively harming women and our relationships with men by shifting the share of responsibility from ourselves and our sexual partners to our employers, and ultimately, to our woefully inept government.                                          

It is painfully clear to me that for any person, as in every other aspect of our life, it’s this simple: no one but us should pay for our personal choices we make about our bodies, because they are our choices. And when we share those choices with someone else through a shared act like sex, that person becomes responsible, too.

This is a tough post for me to write, because I know I’ll make many girls (and even guys, I’m sure) angry. And if I have, I’m sorry.

Please bear in mind that I share these arguments because I care about my fellow women and want to present an alternate view that contrasts with what is so predominately put forward by the media today—a message which seems suspiciously to profit nearly everyone involved (Big Pharma, political lobbyists and figureheads, and even men) —except for women.

Footnotes/End notes:

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Health Statistics, Contraceptive Methods Women Have Ever Used: United States, 1982 – 2010. (February 2013).
  2. Shalit, Wendy. A Return to Modesty. (1999). Simon & Schuster, Inc.: New York, NY. 216.

*The CDC here lumps FAM in with “natural family planning” methods, including the unscientific Rhythm Method, and reports a suitably slanted failure rate, offering only this caveat, “Failure rates vary across theses methods.”

** Side note 1: couples who use Natural Family Planning like the Fertility Awareness Method have been discovered in a research study to have a divorce rate of less than 5%. That’s way lower than the 50% running average. It’s just correlation, not causation, but maybe there’s something to sharing this commitment to intimate knowledge of each other’s bodies that leads to better intimacy. (Source: Kippley JF, Kippley SK. The Art of Natural Family Planning (2007, 4th Edition). “The Couple to Couple League.” 245.)

>>Side note 2: in the interests of those concerned about teens and birth control in the rash of recent articles citing increased birth control pill use as a reason why teen pregnancy levels are low, the pill is not 100% of the reason for that trend. In fact, it’s about 56% of the sexually active 52% of the teen population’s reason (who otherwise still overwhelmingly rely on condoms if they do have sex) while the thirty-years’-record-breaking 58% of teens who don’t have sex use . . . well . . . abstinence. Huh.). As the data shows, the real reason is a huge trend in the delayed onset of adolescent sexual activity, increasingly showing teens waiting till the age range of 17-19 to begin having sex, at which point, many “teen pregnancies” resulting may actually be “adult pregnancies” of 18 year-olds.

LAST THING: THIS SITE IS AMAZING and WITTY. Go there for more info on how and why to ditch the Pill, patch, or other device.

Does anyone else think that today’s technology culture has shaped our lives in unsustainable ways? That the so-called “convenience” now also means that life must be faster-paced, with more on our to-do list, simply because we can now “handle” more tasks with the help of our smart devices?

Does anyone else wind up staying up later to read or watch longer into the night on a lit-up screen?

Does anyone ever actually cook a nice whole-foods-based meal anymore, or is it all take-out and processed/pasteurized/overly packaged nommage?

Does anyone outside of Chicago and New York City ever walk instead of drive a car to their destinations (even half a mile away) anymore?

 

And am I alone in noticing that, after awhile (usually on the weekends), the way we live in the name of modern efficiency catches up to us, namely with sluggishness, mopeyness, and (eep!) pudginess?

 

Between an unfriendly gym scale and this research presentation by clinical psychologist Stephen Ilardi, I had a moment of uffish thought at lunch a few months back:

 

Here’re the highlights, if you don’t have time to watch: Dr. Ilardi argues that we’re in the midst of an epidemic, and doctors are having to prescribe more and more medication to help us deal psychologically with the effects of a life that, to all the generations before us, would seem simply unnatural. He also argues that by returning to our ancient ancestral roots in the way we eat, work, and move, we’ll return to mental and physical health. (And in case you were thinking, “But wait, didn’t pre-civilization humans live a really short life?” Vallois’ 1961 theory that life was short and violent was recently disproven; so long as primitive people survived the parasites and infections rampant in childhood, they actually lived to a robust age within a the range of life expectancies today, even with all our modern science.)

Ilardi’s argument matches up with what many of us have already noticed: that our twenty-first century life has hit the human mind and body hard, in ways that thousands of years of microevolution from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle couldn’t prepare us.

The frenzied pace, the terrible, nutrient-poor, saturated-fat and sugar-laden food, and lack of daily physical effort . . . These factors really do take their toll, even on the young. With most adults in the US on prescription meds and nearly half of our population overweight or obese and dealing with the ailments that come with it, we’re essentially turning into the mobility-chair bound creatures predicted in the futuristic Pixar film WALL-E.

"WALL-E." (2008). Pixar Animation Studios.

“WALL-E.” (2008). Pixar Animation Studios. Behold, our fat future.

 

Let’s not also talk about the fact that being stressed, poorly nourished, and overweight becomes expensive quickly in terms of medical costs. In fact, it’s these combined “diseases of civilization” that are the biggest healthcare crisis we face in our world today in terms of inflating medical service demands, and with those demands, costs.

 

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to keep my medical costs down and actually enjoy life a little. . . and not wind up in a Hoveround chair.

 

So I thought about it how much civilization and its offerings actually affect my life right now.

I might have experimentally heave-ho’d my way into my pre-marriage skinny jeans and frowned at what I saw in the mirror after just two cozy years of happy marriage. A scale in my work place’s wellness center told me that it was only eight pounds’ gain since my big day as a bride—not huge, right? But then I did the math of four (4) pounds a year (4 lbs. x just 5 years = 20 lbs. . . . which makes a huge impact on a 5’4” frame).

Vanity, and health concerns, made me pause.

 

And then I remembered that I had trouble with stress-induced insomnia now and again.

 

And then I thought about the fact that depression ran in my family, and that at times, it tugged at me like a weepy child at my sleeve.

 

So I did a little reading and tried some baby steps to take myself back in time . . . to go more “native” in my thinking, as it were, by thinking about what my ancestors 500 to 1,000 years ago would have done to just live their lives. I came up with a few lifestyle modifications, and I thought I’d share these little experiments and what happened after, just to see if they encourage anybody else out there.

 

EXPERIMENT 1: Taking Modern Conveyances out of the Equation (Within Reason)

 

I quit taking elevators instead of stairs. That was a no-brainer.

Hubby and I started walking dates, instead of gabbing across our laptops in the evenings.

Ruth's grocery-getter. Glamorous, no?

Ruth’s grocery-getter. Glamorous, no?

Then I took a bigger plunge and ditched my all-American car habit during fine weather in favor of a bike commute to work. Don’t be too impressed by this – it’s less than two miles from my apartment to my office door. Sure, it takes a little extra effort some mornings to pack my work pumps in a backpack while I roll out the door wearing yoga pants and sneakers under my skirt. But it also means I don’t have to schedule in some kind of fabricated, pointless gym exercises that day, which just feel unnatural, and as Dr. Ilardi explains in that presentation, are, actually, instinctually unnatural to humans and most animals. Gee, no wonder I hate working out.

Just two months later, this little change has meant getting my booty back (and core, thighs, calves, ankles, and gas money) without having to work in the extra expense in time and fees for the gym. It’s also given me the endorphins needed to just feel more cheerful overall. And it’s frankly hilarious to see the way people respond to me, all dolled up for work and riding along on a bike in a very non-serious-biker way. Sans matchy-matchy spandex top and bottoms, I somehow manage to look like a helmet-wearing Dorothy Gale stole the Wicked Witch’s bike most days, which the old folks walking the neighborhood in the mornings find very entertaining.

 

EXPERIMENT 2: Eating Like Hunting Is Actually Hard To Do

 

I bet you thought when I wrote “hunter-gatherer” farther up in this post that I’d wind up going all “Paleo Diet” in this portion of my experiment. Nope!

I did think about it, though, since it’s a pretty big fad right now and touts all kinds of ancient-world wisdom. But I started reading more about the dietary components and soon realized that this modern-day diet currently calling itself “Paleo” has FAR more meat in it than any of our ancestors ate on a typical prehistoric day.1 In many places and in many seasons, when gatherable green food was plentiful, people didn’t expend the energy or risk the danger of hunting animals often bigger than themselves. Prehistoric hunters also didn’t catch anything to eat most days even when they tried to; based on the quantity of meat that researchers seem to think the ancients consumed, it seems like early humans hunted with considerably less hunting success than the big cats (for lions in a group, roughly 30% of capture-kill attempts actually succeed; for humans in a group, attempts vary from a 3%-30% success rate, depending on the size of game stalked, according to research like that done by Kristen Hawkes,who has published multiple studies of the Hadza hunter-gatherer people). Regardless, meat, for most ancient people, was reserved for seasonal feast times (when game was available and meat was a treat) or famine (when plant food was scarce).

But regarding the other animal product ruling the current Standard American Diet, the Paleo Diet is spot-on: dairy products, which came much later on the human timeline of edibles, were totally absent from our ancestors’ diets for millennia, and for most modern humans, are still too dense in saturated fats, casein, and lactose to be metabolized in our bodies well.

Yet in today’s Standard American Diet (aptly abbreviated as SAD), there’s meat or an animal product or byproduct at every meal. Too bad we aren’t prepared to deal with this diet physiologically—to the point where it’s killing us slowly with every excess forkful.

 

Please, consider the following (and check out the links to the sources I’ve done my best to embed; I was overrun with footnotes):

 

  1. High-levels of animal protein consumption has been recently associated with higher levels of blood-circulating IGF-1, or insulin-like growth factor, which is linked as a growth agent for multiple forms of cancer (including colon cancer, which killed my dad at 54, and breast cancer, for which I carry a mutated gene).
  2. Animal protein consumption, especially red meats and dairy, are also linked to incidence of stroke, both Type I  and Type II diabetes, and infertility in women, in addition to many other lifestyle-influenced diseases and metabolic disorders.
  3. The evidence of the deleterious health effects from meat-heavy eating is so bad that even the pocket-stuffing-corrupt USDA (which is financially backed by multiple meat-industry sources, in addition to Coca-Cola) has gone so far as to risk the wrath of their sponsors by announcing in the 2010 revised dietary guidelines that it’s time Americans cut back on meat intake, calling animal and meat products “solid fats” so as not to raise too many hackles, although their referent is clear when one reviews text closely, as well as the new “My Plate” portion guide. The upcoming 2015 guidelines are anticipated to advise even less consumption of animal products as the “My Plate” recommendation graphic evolves while lobby groups that are sick of the silly political games holding back American nutritional reform sue the USDA (check out what the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine did in 2000 and again in 2011).
  4. Cow’s milk is hormonally and nutritionally designed to take a 90-pound calf and turn it into a 400-pound animal within a year, and even low-fat dairy products (including yogurt—the fastest-growing refrigerator staple this decade) metabolize in such a fashion as to promote weight gain in humans.
  5. Roughly 75% of the adult population in our world is lactose intolerant or has some form of lactose maldigestion, with highest incidence in groups of African, Asian, Hispanic, or Native American descent (see source).   So many of us just aren’t equipped to digest the stuff, but we eat dairy anyway because it’s marketed to us at an insane rate (“Got Milk?” and “Milk Life” campaigns ring a bell, do they not?). Dairy also contains casomorphins, powerful opiates that keep us hooked on the yummy creamy, saturated-fat and hormone-laden stuff. Seriously. Go look it up. Milk contains morphine to keep babies calmly eating—and it affects humans equally as well as a little baby calf.
  6. A diet-based population study from 2009 showed that non-vegetarian eaters have the highest BMIs on average (and it’s an overweight BMI, at 28.8) when compared against ovo-lacto vegetarians (25.7), pescatarians (26.3), and vegans (23.6). Note that the vegan average is the only one within the “healthy” BMI category. (BMI standards currently dictate that a BMI between 18.5-25 is “healthy”).
  7. Lastly, consider that in 1909, the average American ate 123.9 pounds of meat per year and 3.8 pounds of cheese (which is 70% saturated fat. Seven. Zero.). In 2007, we ate 200.6 pounds of meat (mostly chicken!), and in 2005, we nommed on 31.4 pounds of cheese per year2. And with nearly 100 extra pounds of those calorie-dense animal products going into our bellies, we’re fatter than we’ve EVER been.  The USDA’s stastical summary in its 2010 “The Total Diet” report indicated that, “Currently, the average American gains about a pound a year between the ages of 20 to 60 years” (p.2).

 

The Power-Plate was created by the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine in 2009, and it reflects decades of research on diet and longevity, which revealed a plant-based diet as best. Note that the USDA's My Plate has somewhat copied it, after PCRM laid on some pressure.

“The Power Plate” was created by the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine in 2009, and it reflects decades of research on diet and longevity, which revealed a plant-based diet, sans dairy, was best. Note that the USDA’s “My Plate” has somewhat copied it, after PCRM laid on some pressure.

After reading all that, I was convinced to go more and more plant-strong in my diet, eliminating more and more animal products, and spacing out my meat consumption to the point where meat and cheese are now special treats – not everyday things.

Not to get too personal, but I’ll share a few things that have happened once I made these adjustments:

  1. I’ve lost five pounds in roughly four weeks after I finally committed to this dietary experiment. (YAY!)
  2. My seemingly-perpetual tummy bloat went down after I’d gone a solid week eating vegan meals.
  3. My joints, which I never even really noticed were stiff before, loosened up, to the point where I realized I was bounding up stairs that I used to trudge upon as I made my way to work. I can’t really explain this, beyond saying that I just feel sort of weightless. Some research indicates that dairy and meat can raise inflammation in the body, so I guess being without it for a week or so made a difference.
  4. I got an energy boost overall, to the point where I felt more productive.
  5. Regularity, folks. Fiber makes a gal feel perky. (TMI?)

 

EXPERIMENT 3: Getting Rid of Synthetic Hormones

This step of my lifestyle experiment actually started far before I saw Dr. Ilardi’s presentation, but I put it last here because I was nervous about posting this controversial step. After consideration, though, I think it’s important enough to mention. It was a tough road, because it meant getting off the progesterone-based birth control I’d been on for the first year and a half of my marriage.

I didn’t take this step lightly; it was after months and months of debilitating insomnia, significant hair shedding, migraines, strange acne and weight gain that bloated my lower tummy (imagine a mini-Buddha belly), in addition to a depression so intense that I went to see a professional. My husband was all for trying something new—trying anything, really—to get back the girl he’d dated and married. I’ll continue some notes about this transition for you ladies in an upcoming rant on this subject, but suffice to say, I adopted a science-based natural form of control in January of 2013, and today I’m still not pregg-o and am feeling and looking so much more like my old, pre-pharmaceutical self. Everything is back to where it was pre-hormones, including my sleeping patterns—except for the acne. Still haven’t figured that one out. Who knows?

 

So, friends, this has been my journey back to nature and back to some older ways of living. And while it’s certainly not the mainstream lifestyle of a Millennial and still has gaps I need to modify, I’ve had no regrets!

 

 

NOTES (to keep this section small, I’ve included embedded links to most sources  in the post above. Do feel free to click into them where they appear in the text above):

  1. Researcher Vaclav Smil at Colorado State reported in “Eating Meat: Evolution, Patterns, and Consequences” (2006) that, for prehistoric peoples, “animal foods provided generally less than 15 percent of all dietary protein” (p. 607); compare this figure with the 19-35 percent animal protein-basis in the trendy Paleo Diet.
  2. Foods per capita figures from US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. Presented here by Dr. Neal Barnard: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/91/5/1530S.full