Repost: Podcast with Natalie Angell-Besseling of Shanti Uganda

This podcast with Natalie Angell-Besseling of Shanti Uganda first ran last year. I love what Natalie’s doing, though, so I wanted to take this chance to share our discussion again.

Sometimes, in life, things happen serendipitously. This is how I came into contact with Natalie Angell-Besseling, Co-founder and Executive Director of Shanti Uganda. I just happened to be copied on an email that had nothing to do with me, in which Natalie talked about her involvement with Shanti Uganda, and I knew right away that I wanted to talk to her. This is what I love about podcasting – it gives me an excuse to email strangers and ask to have a conversation with them.

Girls doing child's pose in Uganda with Shanti Uganda

So what is it about Natalie that compelled me to talk with her? It’s all about the Shanti Uganda Society, the non-profit group that she helped found. It started with a vision to bring healing to communities in Uganda experiencing trauma, through yoga and conscious birth. Northern Uganda has been ravaged by war, and the people there are still dealing with the effects of that. It touches all aspects of their lives, even decades after the fighting has stopped.

Natalie Angell of Shanti UgandaShanti Uganda’s biggest project is the Birth House, which opened last year. Through the Birth House they offer educational workshops for midwives and traditional birth attendants, as well as preventative care, birth supplies and assistance for birthing women. They’re also working hard to reduce HIV/AIDS transmission rates from mothers to their babies. But that’s not all Shanti Uganda does. They many other initiatives, including supporting HIV-positive women through their Women’s Income Generating program. They have a very practical approach, and they’re empowering people to make their own lives better. I am really inspired by what they’re doing.

There’s really a whole lot more that I haven’t mentioned here. Shanti Uganda’s work with teen girls, their commitment to ensuring that all of their projects are locally initiated and supported, and their efforts to ensure that all of their positive change will be self-sustaining are amazing. If you’d like to hear more, or find out how you can support the work that Shanti Uganda does, I encourage you to listen to the podcast, or visit Shanti Uganda online:

For another example of serendipity at work, tune into my podcast next week with Crystal Stranaghan. Through happenstance Crystal and I were on a panel together at a local blogging and social media conference, and I found her inspiring. I knew I had to speak with her. If you could use a little bit of creative inspiration as well, you’ll want to hear our conversation. Subscribe to my podcast in iTunes and make sure you don’t miss a thing!

Be Careful What you Wish for in Birth

I haven’t written for the Carnival of Natural Parenting (hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama) for some time, but when I saw that this month’s topic was Embracing Your Birth Experience I knew that I had to weigh in. I have two children, and their births were very different. While both were midwife-attended hospital births, and both of my labours were relatively short, that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

My firstborn, Hannah, arrived unexpectedly at 34 weeks. I was thrust into a high risk birth, complete with monitors and obstetricians and pediatricians and a whole team from the NICU. She was whisked away within minutes of her arrival. My placenta didn’t deliver smoothly. I hemorrhaged severely, and even more people showed up in my hospital room. When the bleeding didn’t stop I was sent to the operating room for a D&C and I received a blood transfusion. I spent four days in the hospital recovering, and I had to go home without my baby, who was still in the NICU. We struggled with breastfeeding due to the separation and her small size.

Day 1 - Mom is doing better
Visiting Hannah in the NICU the day after she was born

My second child, Jacob, arrived a few days before his due date. I spent the morning of his birth making pickles with my friend. By noon I could no longer ignore the signs, so I called my husband. The midwife stopped by to check on me, and told me I should head to the hospital. I endured some uncomfortable contractions during the drive to the hospital, but I made it in one piece, and gradually made my way up to my room. They checked my vitals and ran a bath, and as soon as I got in the water my body started pushing. I got out of the bath, and my son arrived 20 minutes later. He breastfed well right off the bat, and we went home about five hours after his birth, stopping at Burger King for my husband on the way because he’d missed his dinner.

If you were to hazard a guess as to which of my two births was harder to embrace, the most obvious answer would be my first one. It didn’t go to plan at all. Both myself and my daughter required extensive medical care afterward. I sobbed on her first four birthdays, remembering the difficulties surrounding her arrival. It took me years to make my peace. And yet, as I reflect on my births themselves, hers was the one I found easier to accept for what it was.

Resting together
Resting with Jacob after his birth

What I am about to share next may sound whiny, given that many people would view my son’s birth as ideal. In fact, my birth attendants themselves described it in glowing terms. And yet, I found myself feeling overwhelmed and confused and the opposite of empowered in its aftermath. This, in spite of the fact that I got pretty much everything I asked for. I went into labour after I dropped my daughter off at daycare in the morning, and my son was born while she was still there, which simplified things considerably. I even said that I’d like to have the baby about 45 minutes after I got to the hospital, and I did. But in birth, as in every other aspect of life, sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.

Some mothers describe natural childbirth as a beautiful and empowering experience. It’s meant to make you feel as if you could do anything. I didn’t feel that way. I found it messy and uncomfortable and overwhelming. Yes, it was fast, but it was also a lot to take in a relatively short time. I pushed my son out on my hands a knees, a position I found uncomfortable. At the time, though, I just couldn’t move as my body worked on its own to expel my baby. I spent most of my time pushing saying to my midwife, “I know there’s nothing you can do now, but I don’t want to do this.”

The pickles I made while I was in labour with Jacob

With my daughter, I found myself with a birth I hadn’t bargained for, and I just rolled with it because I had no other choice. I held on to what went well, and shrugged off the parts that I had no control over. It was what it was, and I recognized that I had done the best I could. But with my son’s birth, I felt that I should be feeling like a birth goddess, when I really just felt as if I’d been hit by a truck. A beautiful, perfect, seven-pound-ten-ounce truck, who was everything I wanted. And yet, I felt weak and overwhelmed and confused. I couldn’t wrap my head around the rapid-fire events of his birth.

Some months after Jacob’s arrival I watched The Business of Being Born on DVD. It contained a scene in which a homebirth midwife discussed her own birth. She talked about finding herself between a rock and a hard place, feeling afraid to push but also afraid of the pain she was already experiencing. I could really relate to her words, and I found them liberating. Here was someone who helped other women have natural childbirths, and she herself was describing birth in less-than-glowing terms. She was acknowledging the hard-ness, and the discomfort, and the mess. Because birth is all of those things. Some people may find it transcendent and spiritual, but I did not. And as I watched the DVD, I realized that was okay.

They're such a help in the garden
My babies

What I’ve discovered is that birth, in all its forms, challenges us. It challenges our preconceptions, our ideals, and our bodies. It rarely goes to plan – and even when it does go to plan, we may find that our feelings don’t. You know what? That’s probably to be expected, given the extreme nature of the experience. You don’t have to enjoy birth to be glad that you’ve had a baby, and to love that baby. By allowing myself the space to feel confused and overwhelmed, I embraced my birth for what it was, rather than what I thought it should be. In the process, I made my peace with it. Paradoxically, by giving myself permission to not feel empowered, I found empowerment.

For me birth was a brief, intense, hard, transformational experience, which I endured so that I could have these two children I’m head over heels for. The way that they arrived is an important part of their story – but it’s just one part. The events of those days may have changed me, but they don’t have to define me. I’m the one in charge of writing my own story, and I choose what to take with me and what to leave behind. That knowledge, ultimately, is what has helped me to embrace both of my birth experiences, just as they were.

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

Podcast: Katherine Stone of Postpartum Progress

Seven years ago right now I had a two-and-a-half week old baby, and I was depressed. I cried for long periods of time, often for no specific reason. I was convinced that I was a terrible mother, and that I had made a terrible mistake. I did all of the things that I was supposed to do for my baby, but I really wasn’t myself, and I didn’t feel the way that I had expected to feel. To complicate matters, I didn’t really see my own depression for what it was. The people around me did – and I thank my lucky stars for that – but I wasn’t really able to acknowledge what was going on.

It’s taking all of my personal strength to not delete that paragraph, by the way. The shame surrounding depression is strong, and I think that when we’re talking about postpartum depression it only ups the ante. When you have a new baby, life is supposed to be blissful. You’re supposed to be overwhelmed with love, and just spend your days gazing at your new little bundle of joy in wonder. Only, it’s not like that for everyone. And it doesn’t make us bad mothers, it makes us human beings who are suffering from a disease that is categorically not our fault. Podcast Katherine Stone Postpartum Progress Postpartum DepressionIn my case, my depression was reasonably short-lived. By the time my baby was a couple of months old – and sleeping longer stretches at night – I was through the worst of it. I didn’t suffer in isolation for months, as some women do. My healthcare providers didn’t dismiss me, and no one suggested to me that I was in any way to blame, even if I sometimes felt that way myself. In many ways, I got off easy. All the same, I carry the weight of that time with me every day, and it colours my memory of my first child’s arrival in a profound way. I know that I am hardly alone, and I strongly believe that we need to fight the stigma of mental illness related to pregnancy and childbirth. So I decided to speak with Katherine Stone, Founder and Editor of Postpartum Progress, the most-widely read blog on postpartum depression and reproductive mental illness.

I heard Katherine speak at BlogHer, and I knew that she was passionate and committed to creating positive change. That passion came through during our conversation. She’s working hard to help mothers find the help they need, and to break down societal and cultural barriers to accessing that help. I find her inspiring, and I’m so glad that she’s created the resource that she has for mothers. I wish I had known about it myself as a new mom. Listen to what Katherine had to say about postpartum depression and other reproductive mental illnesses:

Next week on the podcast I’ll be sharing an interview with Emma Kwasnica, who’s working to ensure that Facebook adheres to its own policies regarding breastfeeding photos. At present, while Facebook’s official stance is that breastfeeding photos are welcome, many mothers report having their photos removed and their accounts disabled, when their breastfeeding images are flagged as obscene. Emma – and many other nursing mothers – are unhappy with that. Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes, and you won’t miss a minute!

Podcast: Leilani Johnson of Circle of Health International

Circle of Health International (COHI) is a non-sectarian, grass-roots, non-profit organization that works with women and their communities in times of crisis and disaster. They ensure access to quality reproductive, maternal, and newborn care, at a time when that access may otherwise be interrupted due to a natural disaster, conflict or other crisis. Some examples of their projects include sending a rapid response team of 11 women’s health professionals into Sri Lanka following the tsunami and partnering with the Acadiana Outreach Center in Louisiana to support women surviving the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Babies will come when they come, even in the middle of a disaster zone, and COHI strives to be there to help.

When an earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, COHI responded. And now, as the second anniversary of that earthquake nears, they’re responding again. They want to send Karen Feltham, a Certified Nurse Midwife and Clinical Instructor of Nursing at Binghamton University, on a 10 day trip to Haiti. While there, Karen will review existing protocols for managing emergencies, run emergency drills for complications and improve monitoring processes at the clinic. In short, she wants to teach evidence-based approaches to Haitian midwives, which will improve outcomes for mothers and babies. To help get her there, COHI is raising money, and they need your help.

The “Get Karen to Haiti” campaign is trying to raise $1000 to … wait for it … get Karen to Haiti. True to their grassroots style, they’re asking you to donate whatever you can afford, even if it’s only $10, to help ensure that women in Haiti have access to appropriate maternity care. When I was having my babies, I always knew that emergency services were there if I needed them. Most of you enjoyed that same luxury. While we may feel that many interventions are overused in modern hospitals, we also know that in some cases the ability to access them can mean the difference between life and death. So give what you can to help get Karen there. Then follow COHI on Facebook to get updates on their work. Podcast Circle of Health International ClinicAfter hearing from my friend Hillary about COHI and their work, I was privileged to be able to interview Leilani Johnson, the organization’s Executive Director. She talked about the what COHI does, including the current effort to send Karen to Haiti. She also told me about a very exciting upcoming project they’re working on. If you’re a birthy type like me, and you want to hear about some very important work to protect mothers and babies, take a listen:

Next week I’ll be sharing an interview with blogger Anna Hackman. She’s an environmentalist who’s passionate about green building and renovation. Her passion is so infectious that I left our conversation feeling excited about caulk and energy conservation and picking non-toxic paint. Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes, and you won’t miss a minute!

The Practical Miracle of Birth, and Christmas

Christmas is an easy holiday to love. There are trees with twinkling lights, cookies and hot cocoa, holiday parties and feasts, and children singing Christmas carols. And behind it all, there’s a newborn baby, bringing peace, hope and redemption to a troubled world.

I am a mother. While my babies were not born in a stable, and no angels heralded their arrival, I understand the promise and gift of a child. Newborns haven’t yet been labelled or judged. They are pure, distilled human potential, and the moment that they arrive is sanctified and holy, regardless of the location or circumstances. I believe that all people feel this. You can see it in the way that we react to newborns, and even pregnant women. We feel the promise of new life, and it resonates with us. This is the feeling that Christmas brings out in me.

Cuddling at 8 weeks
Me with baby Hannah

Every birth is miraculous. It means the continuation of humanity’s existence. It means two people where just before there was only one. It means one person putting herself on the line for the sake of another. It is the beginning of decades of life, and the creation of a new family order. There is hope in birth, and mystery. What will this child become? Who is this new little person? How will this baby change things?

Resting together
Newborn Jacob, his hair still wet

Every birth is also deeply practical. Both of mine reached a point where I pushed only because I had no choice. Pregnancy takes its course, and a child arrives, one way or another. And then you make the adjustments, because you have to. You get up in the middle of the night and feed the baby, because you have to. You buy diapers and a car seat and little baby clothes because you have to. You eventually figure out systems and rhythms and routines to make the whole experience flow a little more smoothly, but parenthood is far more poopy diapers and 3am feedings than moments of transcendence.

CARAVAGGIO Rest during the flight from Egypt, detail of Mary and Jesus, c1597
Photo credit: carulmare on Flickr

When I consider the Christmas story – a young couple, traveling, welcoming their baby in a stable – I see both the miraculous and practical. Of course, the fact that the story also includes a star pointing the way and a heavenly host praising God amps up the miraculous level a little more than usual. But at its heart, it’s still a birth story. It’s the arrival of a new human being, full of promise and potential, who we hope will grow into someone great.

Tonight, I will make merry and eat turkey and read stories aloud. I will help my children write a note for Santa, and leave out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. I will remind them (over and over) that they have to go to sleep if they want Santa to come, and I will remind them to come and get me before they go look at the tree. I will stay up late wrapping. I will fill stockings and light up the tree. And before I finally go to sleep I will visit my sleeping children, and remember the practical miracles of their own births. Those moments when they came into being, and changed my life, whether I was ready or not.

Merry Christmas! I will not be posting on a regular schedule next week, so let me take this chance to wish you all the best, and thank you for sharing this past year with me. It means so much.

Talking TCM and Changing Your Lifestyle with Allie Chee

I connected with Allie Chee – also known as Texanese Mama – on Twitter. That’s not particularly noteworthy, because I probably connect with more people using Twitter than by any other means. But then she sent me a message, I checked out her blog and we started emailing back and forth a little, and I could see that she had a really interesting story to share. Now that I’m all about collecting people’s stories, I asked to interview her, and she agreed.

Allie Chee Texanese Mama Traditional Chinese Medicine TCM PodcastAllie grew up in Texas, and her lifestyle was very typical for an American child in the 1970s. But a course of events exposed her to some different ideas, and she slowly started to change her lifestyle. She eventually overhauled her entire lifestyle, from what she ate, what she did, what her home looked like and the words she chose, in accordance with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic precepts.

When Allie was expecting her first child in her early 40s, she held strong to her new lifestyle, and approach to health and nutrition. It led her to choose to give birth at home, attended by a midwife. She shared that story in a guest post here last week, called Swimming in the Bliss of Natural Birth. While Allie acknowledges that home birth is not for everyone – and indeed, I did not choose it for myself for a variety of reasons – I found her story compelling, and admired the way that stuck to her guns and advocated for herself and her birth.

During our interview Allie shared the story of her journey into Traditional Chinese Medicine, and talked about how that informs her daily life. I asked her whether she thought that making dramatic, wholesale changes to your lifestyle is realistic for most people, and we discussed her experiences as a first-time mom at age 42. It was really interesting to listen to what she had to say, and I learned a little bit about an entirely new worldview through our conversation. You can hear it for yourself here:

Next week, I’ll be sharing an interview with another mom – my local city councilor, mother of two and one-time surrogate Selina Robinson. While Allie and Selina have very different stories, they both bucked convention to do what they knew was right. If you’ve ever been curious about what it’s like to serve as a surrogate, or you have your own designs on local politics, you’ll want to hear what Selina has to say. Subscribe to the Podcast in iTunes, and you won’t miss a thing!

Guest Post: Swimming in the Bliss of Natural Birth

A guest post by Allie Chee on choosing home birth as a first-time 42-year old mother.

I’d always imagined a natural birth. In our 20’s my cousin, Christina, and I would joke and laugh about squatting in the shade of a tree to have our babies – and we were just joking…but not completely.

Allie Chee Guest Post Woman Swimming PaintingThrough my 30’s I watched not one or two, but almost all my friends enthusiastically enter the hospital in labor, having claimed for nine months that they would have a natural birth, and saw them come out 2-10 days later having been induced, forced to labor on their back, drugged, cut, observed by countless strangers, having had their babies taken from them immediately after birth, having nursing problems, and having been given food I would call toxic.

If you’d asked them ahead of time if that would have been their story, none of them would have said yes. And these were fit, health conscious women. I wondered what was going on after they entered those doors of the L&D that all of them were checking out with dramatically changed birth stories. That question led me to do a lot of research and I discovered many things I’d never known.

Growing up in the States, we are hardly surrounded by the images of natural motherhood such as: home birth, breast-only feeding until weaning on homemade solids, mothers cared for and nurtured for a traditional 40 days postpartum. And we definitely don’t see many examples of women over 35 choosing home birth. If we desire to have an experience out of what is now the norm (as outlined above), we have to figure it out for ourselves. And so I did.

I read dozens of books, studied birthing and postpartum care methods from around the world, watched every DVD produced on home birth, went through several doctors and midwives until I found my match, and I came to the conclusion that so many other home birth mothers do:

Birth is completely natural. My body and my baby know what to do. We will do our best to prepare, to have strength, and then we will let nature do her thing!

Ah, Mother Nature. Just because she knows what to do and will take charge doesn’t mean that it won’t be incredibly difficult. My throat (among other things) was so sore from grunting and growling in labor that I could barely speak the next day. However, in the big picture, that was over in the blink of an eye, and the reward for my baby and me will last for a lifetime.

If it had just been for me, perhaps I would have been tempted to use painkillers despite knowing the multiple benefits of natural birth for the mother. But I also wanted my baby to experience her birth and first few days out of the womb with bright eyes and a clear mind.

I’d watched the movie Orgasmic Birth a dozen times for fun and inspiration, and though I did actually believe that it could happen that way, no, crowning did not feel like an orgasm. But I was prepared ahead of time for the fact that it must be incredibly painful – otherwise how could all of my strong friends have chosen drugs and surgery when they were so opposed originally?

There was only one way to make my dream of a blissful, sacred birth happen…and that was to give myself no choice. If I stayed at home, when push came to shove (!), I would have no way to do it but go through it. Just like swimming in the surf.

All lovers of the ocean know that to reach the open water, you need the courage to leave the shore and swim through the breakwater. And in using this metaphor, we should not let our minds drift to the warm ankle-slapping waves of the Caribbean. We’re talking about Mavericks and Waimea Bay here! When the waves between the shore and the open water are huge, you must dive right into them and let them roll over you. It can be terrifying, but with solid resolve, you reap the reward of an experience few people have.

My original reason for pursuing home birth was just to be able to preserve my goal for a natural, drug-free birth. As I studied more and more, I found that a home birth in every way offered the opportunity for a deeply sacred experience, which it was.

When I first spoke to my midwife, I asked if she thought I were “high-risk” for home birth. She looked surprised.

“High-risk? Why? Are you sick? Do you have a problem?”

“No,” I answered. “But I had two first-trimester miscarriages.”

“So?” she replied. “That is a terribly painful experience, but there are millions of miscarriages before babies are born. If it were three or four, we’d have to do further consideration, but two doesn’t necessarily make you high-risk.”

“And I have fibroids, but my OB-GYN said they were small and not positioned in a way that would cause a problem.”

“OK, that’s good. What else?”

“Well, I’m 42 years old.”

“Women have always had babies in their 40s. Nothing new there. Are you fit?”, she asked.


“Do you eat well?”


“Is this what you want?”


“Then of course you can have a home birth,” was her conclusion.

I asked her to explain the differences in experience and risk for a home birth vs. a birthing center.

She said that the only difference was that (given my home was equal distance from an excellent hospital as the birth center) at the birth center, I would not be alone with my husband in my own peaceful environment, and four hours after delivery I would have to pack up, walk to the car with my baby and drive home. If at home, four hours after delivery she and her team would have tucked my husband, baby, and me warmly in our bed, would have fed us, cleaned up , and would leave quietly.

My husband and I looked at each other, smiled, and both shouted, “Home birth!”

And so it happened. Eight hours after we realized I was in labor, my baby was born in a tub in our family room. The lights were dim; the room was warm; my husband had a fire going in our wood burning oven; he put on a traditional Japanese flute CD I love; and he served as my “squat chair” in the tub. Surrounded by our midwife and three doulas who stood back until they knew they were needed, my husband and I joked, kissed, and played together right until the intense pushing started. One hour later my baby was born, and I was lying on my yoga mat, pushing out the placenta while my baby crawled her way from my abdomen to my breast and started nursing.

And just as they’d said, four hours later we were tucked in bed, the midwives had cleaned the house, and the three of us fell asleep in an ocean of bliss.

[This is not intended to encourage women who want a hospital birth to change their minds. Women need to give birth where they feel the most comfortable and safe. This is intended to be a story that a woman committed to her home birth decision can enjoy, as I enjoyed so many home birth stories before my baby arrived.]

Allie Chee is a Certified Traditional Chinese Medicine Nutritionist. Read more about her on her blog at Listen for her podcast coming up in the next few weeks here on

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