By Brenda Strong
The path to parenthood isn’t always an easy one, but ultimately it is always worthwhile in the end, especially when you are holding your new child (or children) in your arms, and the stress and uncertainty of waiting for your child is washed away. But for many couples, the waiting and stress of becoming a parent can be excruciating.
If you are like most prospective parents, you fantasize of reading bedtime stories, sharing values, taking family trips, perhaps sharing your love of sports, art, education and possibly reliving the best parts of your own childhood, or even hoping to repair some of the areas you felt your parents could have done better. But the dream of parenthood and the path to parenthood don’t always share the same ease and rosy glow. The truth is, being a parent is hard, but becoming a parent can be even harder-especially if you happen to be a same-sex couple.
A little history: While I was pregnant with my son in 1994, I became a Yoga teacher while I was on hiatus from acting and found that the grounding, balance, expanded awareness and learning to breathe through discomfort, was ideal training for parenthood in general. During the last twenty years, I have been helping prospective parents struggling with fertility issues face the uncertain road ahead by teaching them stress reduction techniques geared specifically to mindfulness and self-care through Yoga and breathing practices.
A decade after my son was born, I became the National Spokesperson for Path2Parenthood, (formerly known as the American Fertility Association) while I was on Desperate Housewives playing Mary Alice Young. If you were a fan of the show, you will know that Mary Alice was a woman who literally killed to become a parent, which was my dirty little secret and the catalyst for the mystery. Ironically, Marc Cherry the creator of the series, didn’t know that I had been one of those prospective parents struggling with fertility issues myself. After trying for three years to get pregnant with my son, I again struggled with secondary infertility.
If we add to the inevitable stress of fertility challenges, the complication of being a same-sex couple, there are a host of additional potential stressors to navigate on the path: choosing an egg donor, surrogate, sperm donor, adoption agency, legal consultants, therapists, social workers- not to mention the varying state laws and the current and constant shifting political climate. As new parents, there are a lot of boxes to check and decisions to make that have little to do with Berenstain Bears, Dr. Seuss or Curious George; it can be daunting, but it is not insurmountable.
Most importantly, the question most frequently faced is; ‘how do you navigate the often rocky, unpredictable, complicated, emotional, financial and legal stressors of being a same sex couple, wanting the dream of becoming parents together, without letting it uncouple you?’
I believe the key may lie in the approach. As I’m sure you already know, it’s not the “what happens” to us, it’s the “how we respond to what happens to us” that is often the source of our stress. Learning to not try and control, but embrace the process, is extremely helpful. I guarantee that it will not only make you a better parent when the time comes, but also save your sanity in the meantime. In Yoga, we are constantly discovering in daily practice that perfection is not the goal, but being ‘with’ whatever is going on in the present moment with awareness and non-reactivity.
Breathe to Conceive©
One of my offerings to my fertility patients is a program called Breathe to Conceive©, and it is comprised of certain breathing exercises (pranayama techniques) that help to reduce stress and set the body up to openly receive new experiences. From a metaphoric perspective, if we practice inhaling in a conscious way, we are inviting new opportunities to fill us up. Same with conception; if we aren’t breathing, we can’t fully release our exhale in order to receive the next inhale. The Latin word “in-spirare” is the root of the word inspire. Inspiration is both physical, emotional and physiological. When we inhale deeply, we are inviting life in to fill us with its mystery or ‘to be filled with spirit.’ It is uplifting, encouraging and awakening.
Learning to breathe and receive “what is” circumstantially present in our life, is not only healthy, but necessary for our own sanity. Sometimes when things don’t go as we planned or go “our way,” we often go into ‘fight or flight’ or the ‘stress response.’ When we feel stressed, the tendency we often have is to hold our breath, or breathe so rapidly we feel like passing out. When we are in fight or flight, our heart rate increases, we are flooded with the stress hormone cortisol, and our adrenals get taxed. Our hearts pump blood to the large muscle groups in our limbs and away from our internal organs in order to give our muscles the blood they need to flee. Overtime, chronic stress can negatively impact our body’s immunity and can set us up for a host of health problems. But the immediate result is that we get tight and rigid and it’s difficult to make conscious, thoughtful decisions. Breathing deeply with proper technique can arrest the stress response and keep us from being a victim to the constantly changing environment around us.
I used to tell my Yoga students that fear often results in us “freezing,” and just like water when it freezes, we become hard and impenetrable, but we also become vulnerable to becoming fractured. Imagine you are a sheet of ice and a stone is thrown at you. You will shatter because of the rigidity of your frozen form. If you are fluid, and flowing like water (or breath), a stone thrown at you will simply fall to the bottom after it initially disturbs the surface and causes a few ripples, and peace will resume. The same is true with life experiences, as they are thrown at us, being fluid and breathing allows us not to be harmed as we process the new or changing information before us. This practice of breathing is the practice of simply being with what is present. It doesn’t mean you have to like what is happening, it just means that you aren’t resisting it. When we aren’t attached to a certain perceived outcome, we are able to find the gifts in the journey. Being with something does not mean you accept it, it just means it is included in the totality of the experience. Yoga philosophy believes that one of the causes of suffering is the attachment or resistance to “what is.” To clarify, when I say “what is” I simply mean the circumstances of your life and your journey. One of the things I like to share with my clients who are on the fertility path is that if you can adjust your mindset to the mantra that everything is FOR you, then nothing is AGAINST you, and nothing can harm you. Everything serves you. Your journey will simply become a great story you tell at the end when your child is in your arms.
So yes, absolutely get all your ducks in a row, hire expert advisors, doctors, attorneys, adoption agencies, urologists, agencies, reproductive endocrinologists, egg donors, surrogates etc. Just know that there is always the possibility that there are going to be hiccups along the way that will potentially be stressful. You are bringing a child into your family, and that has an element of alchemy and uncertainty to it.
Renowned Buddhist Nun, Pema Chodron, has some advice regarding getting Comfortable with Uncertainty in her book of the same name, where she guides her readers through the basic tenants of Buddhism, exploring topics such as loving kindness, meditation, mindfulness, “now-ness,” letting go, and working with fear and other painful emotions. It’s all about compassion. Learning self-compassion and acceptance of “what is” allows a sense of calm and clarity inside the everchanging soup of information and shifting legal landscape of potential parenthood for same sex parents. Parenthood doesn’t fix your emotional issues, it magnifies them, so learning a bit of self-compassion before you become a parent will be extremely useful. Mindfulness practices have a profoundly calming effect on the body, mind and heart, and can make you feel calm when the world around you is spinning out of control.
There are other tools that you can begin using to combat the stress of planning for parenthood and eventually, parenthood itself. These are some of the things that I encourage you to explore for your own sanity and your children’s future therapy bills.
1. Have a sense of humor. Life does.
2. Be curious. Our children are our teachers, and they start teaching us before they even arrive. Be open to learning new skills and techniques for self-care and emotional intelligence or you will become your parents. If you had great parents, you are off to a great start. If not, don’t wait for your child to arrive to get started.
3. Be patient. Your child is coming when THEY are ready, not when YOU are.
4. Trust the process. When you set the intention in motion that you want to become a parent, pay attention to the signs and follow your heart and gut.
5. Communicate with each other and your team. When you name what is going on for you emotionally, (instead of bottling it up and making assumptions or having expectations that set you up for disappointment), communicating and naming what you are feeling, you are able to better address what is often at the root of the difficulty. Feelings then lose their power over you and assume their proper place in the landscape of the moving conversation with life. It will also build trust and intimacy with your partner and your team, which is a wonderful foundation for parenting.
6. Make friends with fear. Fear and uncertainty are a natural part of the process of creation (And you ARE creating a child!). As Elisabeth Gilbert states in her book BIG MAGIC, “Fear is an inevitable part of the (creative) process, you aren’t going to get rid of it-so allow it be a passenger in the car, but tell fear very clearly that it’s never allowed in the driver’s seat.”
7. Learn Self-Care. What is self-care? Basically, it is learning certain techniques to become more self-compassionate, mindful, present, conscious, aware, and self-regulating, by nourishing your body and spirit, and ultimately taking personal responsibility…you know, adulting. Because if you can’t take care of yourself and your physical and emotional needs, how in the world are you going to take care of your child’s? (There is a reason the airlines ask us to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we put it on our child.) More importantly, when the stress of parenting arrives, these techniques will be well oiled and at the ready for your own sanity. You will be happy you took the time to take care of yourself, and as you continue to take care of your needs as your child grows, you will be modeling behavior that will reap huge rewards in the future. Yoga, meditation, acupuncture, breathwork, sleep, Cranial/Sacral, biodynamic healing, massage, essential oil therapy, cognitive therapy, nature walks, are all self-regulating techniques that can press the re-set button on your stress accumulation.
8. Breathe. I know it sounds silly, because if you weren’t breathing, you wouldn’t be alive- right? But there is breathing and there is BREATHING. I taught a mini breathing seminar as part of a TEDXWOMEN talk on stress and it only takes 20 seconds of conscious Ujjayi Breathing (Breath of Victory) to alter/arrest the fight or flight (stress response) and get you into the relaxation response and fully present. My mother had a “ten breaths” rule before she ever said anything she might regret to her children. It’s a good rule of thumb for life in general, especially if you are in an emotional state, to breathe and wait it out. If it still needs to be said after 10 conscious breaths, it will be just as impactful (if not more so) because you have taken a moment to be with yourself and breathe. Also, when you are in the planning stages of parenthood and waiting for your child to arrive, focusing on lengthening your inhales will prepare you for effortless receiving of the process and eventually your child.
Remember, there are many paths to parenthood. There are opportunities to learn from others who have been successful, but remember as unique as your child will be, the path to having them will be equally as unique.
*My educational program and instructional Yoga DVD’s, along with the Fertility Ball Method, has helped countless couples conceive, they can be found at www.strongyoga4women.com and my Four Fields of Fertility™ is now part of www.soulfulconceptions.com.
Blessings on your journey!
About the Author: Brenda Strong is an actress, yoga teacher, and mom. She may be best known for her seminal acting and voice portrayal of “Mary Alice Young” on Desperate Housewives (2004), but this Emmy-nominated and SAG Award-winning actress has had a long and impressive career in film, on stage, and in television. Known for her commitment to women’s health and wellness, Ms. Strong also served for ten years as the National Spokesperson for Path2Parenthood, a family-building nonprofit organization which merged with Family Equality Council in 2018. Having gone through fertility issues herself, Ms. Strong was driven to help others experiencing infertility, and is the creator of Strong Yoga for Women. Learn more at http://strongyoga4women.com