Less than a week before my daughter was due, I was camping in the middle of the desert at Burning Man. Spending the final weeks of pregnancy living in an RV, covered in dust, and sweating through 100+ degree days probably sounds crazy to most people, and with good reason. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that the best plans are always a little bit crazy.
For the first half of my pregnancy, I was in a state of extreme panic and resistance. I was ill for the first several weeks, unable to even look at a photo of food without feeling sick. Cooking and recipe testing for this blog was completely out of the question, which led to feelings of laziness (re: worthlessness). I felt like my body had been hijacked; there were weeks I couldn’t get out of bed for days at a time. When the nausea finally subsided in my second trimester, I still wasn’t feeling good about my pregnancy. I was terrified of labor, panicked over my growing body, and spent most of my days feeling resentful towards my husband for talking me into having a baby.
Luckily, when I was five months pregnant, we met a man who changed everything. He was an elderly paraplegic bar owner in Cabo San Lucas who’d taught himself to walk again, despite his doctors telling him it was impossible. Hearing his story was inspirational. After talking with him for a couple of hours, we asked him for the single most important piece of life advice he could give. He said this, “Do whatever the hell you want in life and don’t listen to anyone.”
That’s typically how I like to live my life but up until that point, being pregnant felt like something that had to suck. I viewed pregnancy and childbirth as a curse on women, the ultimate burden and sacrifice. It’s generally accepted that it’s going to be awful. All I remember hearing about is is “You’re going to get fat, get stretch marks, your pelvic floor will never be the same, your life is over, blah blah blah.”
But meeting that man in Cabo opened a tiny window in my mind. A window to a world where my experience wasn’t dictated by the beliefs of other people. On the way home from Mexico, we decided to go to Burning Man- even though it was a week before my due date. It just felt like the natural right step. It was my fifth Burn and my husband’s seventh. The theme for the year was too perfect- Radical Ritual. What better way to radicalize the ritual of pregnancy and childbirth than by going to Burning Man?
Once we started planning the trip, my entire pregnancy changed. I went from feeling anxious and powerless to feeling bold and exhilarated. I decided that my pregnancy would be different than the horror stories I’d heard over the years. I would not let my discomfort get the best of me. I wanted to feel strong so I did. I wanted to feel like I could do anything- and I did.
My biggest motivator for planning such a big (some would say irresponsible) trip to Burning Man was the strong desire to prevent postpartum depression by any means necessary. I have a long history of severe depression and really didn’t want to navigate life as a new mom while trying to edge out thoughts of self-harm and suicide.
I knew there was no better place in the world for me to prepare for childbirth than Black Rock City. The art, the freedom, the self-expression– it’s the most awe-inspiring place in the world. I knew it would be impossible to focus on the fear of going into labor while surrounded by so much beauty, wonder, and synchronicity.
Trying to convince other people it was a good idea was not easy. Friends, family, co-workers, even our campmates thought my husband and I were being reckless. There was so much controversy surrounding our decision that some members of the Burning Man community thought we should be banned from the event entirely, while another threatened to report us to Child Protective Services.
Getting this reaction from a community based on principles such as radical-self expression and radical inclusion illustrates two things: 1) Women lose autonomy over their own bodies when they become pregnant. We are no longer considered people, merely vessels. 2) Rather than being viewed as a healthy, natural process, pregnancy is viewed as a medical condition that requires treatment and interventions.
Despite the intense pressure not to attend, making the journey to Burning Man while nine months pregnant was one of the best decisions I have ever made. By bucking the system, listening to my intuition, and staying true to myself despite the fear-based birth culture that exists in our country, I was able to turn my lifelong fear of pregnancy and childbirth into my greatest source of empowerment.
Looking back on the experience, my favorite aspect was seeing how fate met my headstrong decision to make this crazy trip with complete and utter support. I’ve written about the synchronicity of Burning Man before, but what I experienced this year was profoundly magical.
The day I missed my 39 week Dr’s appointment while at the Burn, I ended up having breakfast at a diner with an OBGYN. She said I looked healthy, told me it’s great that I was walking 5-6 miles per day, and reminded me to drink plenty of water and have fun. Even at Burning Man, I got my wellness checkup! Later that day, I went to a birth empowerment workshop led by two midwives who were camped right next door to me. They pointed out their tents and said to come find them if I needed anything. I wasn’t planning to go into labor at Burning Man, but it was so wonderful to know I had support so close by.
What I learned at the birth empowerment workshop ended up playing a HUGE role in the actual birth of my daughter. There, I was reminded that I am the authority of my own body and that medical doctors in the US can often have a limited, generally fear-based view of pregnancy and childbirth.
While some developed countries have c-section rates as low as 10%, the rates in the United States range from 25% to as high as 45%. Cesareans have become such a routine part of childbirth, yet we often forget that it is considered major surgery. I knew that the long, slow recovery process from a c-section could send me into a deep postpartum depression.
Luckily, my Burning Man midwives taught me how to communicate with my doctors. They showed me how to firmly and respectfully create the birth experience I wanted instead of succumbing to the misguided beliefs of overly cautious surgeons. Of course, I realize the necessity for OBGYNS and c-sections in case of emergencies or high risk pregnancies, but that wasn’t my experience and I was tired of being treated like my pregnancy was a disaster waiting to happen.
I ended up having the most wonderful birth experience. It was everything I wanted, and nothing like the traumatic birth experiences I’d been so afraid of. But that almost wasn’t the case.
At a routine checkup the week after my due date, the doctors pressured me to stay at the hospital for an induction, despite having a healthy pregnancy and already being in early labor. They sent three different doctors into my room to pressure me, using language like “dead babies” “lawsuits” or my personal favorite, “If you leave the hospital without getting an induction, your health insurance won’t cover the visit.” (Which is not true, by the way. It’s a common method for doctors and nurses to get their patients to comply.) Using what I learned from our Burning Man midwives (and my awesome doula Julie!), I resisted the doctor’s scare tactics and listened to my body and my intuition instead.
Twelve hours later, I went into active labor. Had I followed the doctors’ advice, I would have been induced with Pitocin, leading to more painful contractions, and a significantly higher risk of c-section. Instead, I was able to give birth naturally with the help of an incredible, supportive midwife and birth team that respected every preference of my extremely comprehensive birth plan.
Having such a positive birth experience has helped me so much in the transition to being a mom. I feel I’ve been able to slip into this new phase of my life with an ease I never dreamed was possible. The best part is that this experience empowered me to live even more boldly. I’ve been reminded of all the magic that occurs when I choose adventure and trust the timing of things. With that in mind, my husband and I are taking our baby girl to Nicaragua for three weeks in December. Yay for bold living!
The year before I got pregnant (during another period of bold living), I dabbled in stand up comedy just for fun. In one of the exercises from a comedy workshop, the instructor helped me distill my core beliefs and view on life. What I came up with is this, “Follow your heart 100%. Never settle. Fuck the haters.” I can’t wait to teach these ideals to my daughter and watch her life unfold. So whether your intuition leads you to Burning Man, Nicaragua, or anywhere else in the world, listen to it. It’s always right.
*This is MY story about my experience navigating a low-risk pregnancy in a medical system that treats all pregnant women as high-risk. I understand and respect that some pregnancies are higher risk and may require the care of OBGYNs over midwives. I appreciate the role of OBGYNS in high risk or emergency situations- they save mothers and babies!
It should also be noted that I did not frolic off to Burning Man without a lot of careful planning. To stay comfortable in the extreme heat, we rented an RV and brought a golf cart for transportation. I carried a UV blocking umbrella wherever I went and monitored my heart rate throughout the day to be sure I wasn’t overexerting myself. I even bought supplemental helicopter insurance in case I went into labor and needed to be airlifted to the nearest hospital. We packed our hospital bag along, stowed away in our RV next to the bed. But, despite all of our careful planning, I knew I wouldn’t go into labor at Burning Man. I knew that we would make the trip, have the time of our lives, and return home safely with plenty of time to get ready for the baby, (which is exactly what happened.)
*If you are birthing in the Vancouver, BC area and are looking for amazing midwives, Clare and Jesse can be found at Pomegranate Community Midwives. If you are birthing in Los Angeles, CA, I highly recommend Jocelyn at Kaiser Panorama City.