I live in Southern California, which to most non-Southern Californians probably seems like a vast expanse of svelte, bikini-clad women, stoned surfers, fancy cars, eternal sunshine, and superficial air-kisses. And while that’s an accurate depiction of much of the region, you don’t have to drive too far north on the Pacific Coast Highway to discover a town with a woo-vibe. Woo is urban lingo for “holistic” phenomena attributed to occult forces, considered irrational by most rational folk and strictly based on pseudoscience.
In other words, bullshit.
Encinitas, in northern San Diego, is a bona fide woo-town.
Some of you may know Encinitas from the golden-domed temple of the Self-Realization Fellowship or its Meditation Gardens, founded by an Indian guru in the 1920s. These days there is nary an Indian on the premises, save for a loud-mouthed visitor or two, like yours truly. But that hasn’t stopped the ashram, with its multi-million dollar oceanfront properties, to inspire hundreds of new-agey businesses to sprout up, looking to make a quick buck off the gullible tourist or resident seeking “spiritual enlightenment.”
You’ll find Reiki masters, homeopaths, “emotional freedom” facilitators, soul massage therapists, aura photographers, and energy psychologists, to name a few.
(Despite having a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, I did not know what an “energy psychologist” was. Then again, I didn’t attend a prestigious school located in a strip-mall or online. In order to rectify this gap in my education, I conducted some “research” at Google U. and found out that energy psychology is “acupressure for your emotions.” Doi.)
As a non-pregnant person living in Encinitas, I never gave these kooky storefronts more than a passing glance. I mean, who doesn’t like being heralded by wafting incense, semi-melodious chanting, and giant statues of the Buddha when you are picking up your dog’s poo on your morning walk? But everything changed once I had a naan in my tandoor (I’m Indian – we don’t have buns in ovens) and walked into a prenatal yoga class at the “Soul Center” where boom—I was suddenly eyeballs-deep in the seedy underbelly of the local Hippie Moms’ Network.
It was all fun and games in the beginning: I found myself “sending OMs” to my baby palace, a.k.a. uterus, activating my “sacral chakra,” participating in Maori birth dances, walking into my first “cupping therapy” appointment (it’s an acupressure technique, fellow gutterbrain), and attending a yoga classmate’s “Blessingway.” For you unenlightened ones, a Blessingway is a “Navajo ritual honoring the expectant mother and her unborn baby.” I remember being a tad alarmed (not to mention, very confused) when greeted by the blonde hostess, dressed in a sari, forehead covered with colorful dots, inviting me to get a henna tattoo on my belly. Do the Navajo wear saris then? I thought those belonged to my people.
Who gives a rat’s ass anyway, when there is an opportunity to dress up like an Indian goddess?
It’s probably becoming quite clear at this point that I had completely lost my marbles. Looking back I realize it was a natural progression. When a woman gets pregnant and suddenly finds herself surrounded by friends who are not, she gets lonely and sets out searching for a fellow herd of pregnant women to join. Pregnancy isn’t nearly as pleasant without being able to commiserate with other “precious vessels” about stretch marks and hemorrhoids. Unfortunately for me, women who discuss such topics are shunned in public in Encinitas. The herd into which I had innocently wandered had more important issues to ponder.
I had inadvertently joined the natural birth militia.
I was an easy mark. Despite dire warnings from a previously pregnant (and sensible) friend, I decided to watch the documentary film “The Business of Being Born” produced by actress Ricki Lake and her pals. The basic premise of this film is that birth is “over-medicalized” in the United States, wherein doctors push medicine and intervention to hurry along labor, which in turn, invariably lead to C-sections. It champions midwives and homebirths and has soft-focus shots of serene looking women who look like supermodels at 40 weeks pregnant, in labor and giving birth.
I somehow became convinced (to delusional proportions) that if I didn’t have an all natural birth, I would have to have a C-section. Surgery, per se, didn’t terrify me as did the fear of my bowels going on strike after general anesthesia, like they had in the past. So I read “Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth,” and even entertained the idea of a homebirth for a full minute before being vetoed by my panic-stricken husband.
The next step was finding a midwife (convenient since I had already fired my OB for resolutely scribbling “geriatric maternal age” in my medical chart) and then I began interviewing doulas. A doula is a birth assistant, much like a personal trainer, who helps you stick to your natural birth plan when you are screaming for drugs after your first major contraction.
Doulas also often come with all sorts of nontraditional (insane) ideas like “placenta encapsulation,” including this juicy (disgusting pun intended) tidbit: “Even vegans eat placentas, sometimes in stew or smoothie form, you know, because no animal had to suffer for it.” Good for those vegans, but really, no animal had to suffer? Did you give birth to fluffy, white clouds, lady? Even in “freeze-dried, powdered, encapsulated” form, the thought of eating my placenta gave me nightmares for weeks.
Then came the “we have to get a goat” phase. Yes, it’s exactly how it sounds; I was obsessed with buying a goat when a lady in my yoga class insisted that breastfed babies get colicky if their mothers drink cow’s milk. The best thing, really, was to drink milk squeezed that morning from a CAMEL, but luckily a goat would do since PetSmart was completely sold out of the humped varietal. This phase lasted about a week, when I realized that my backyard was not big enough for either goat or camel, I didn’t have the guts to milk the thing, and that we’d need a permit, which meant moving to meth capital of San Diego, the ominously named “Valley Center.”
Don’t ask me why I didn’t dismiss this as a totally preposterous idea in the first place (see note above re: lost marbles, which many of our spouses would contend is basically a synonym for being pregnant).
Then came our first Hypnobirthing class, taught by a woman with the smarmy personality of a cult leader. She was a dynamic speaker, and I ignored the vague discomfort I felt around her because I really wanted to believe that you can hypnotize yourself during labor and birth so that you feel no pain.
(For those of you who have given birth, you can stop laughing at my gullibility now. For those of you who’ve never given birth, I will tell you that there is pain. Pushing out a baby the size of a cantaloupe from your vagina was never designed to be painless.)
I learned new words and phrases for old things, e.g., “surges” (contractions), “guess dates” (due dates), “evil pharma puppets” (obstetricians and pediatricians), and “natural” (pseudoscientific health-related bullshit).
It was only a matter of time before something so outrageously ridiculous would beckon my inner scientist to return to smack some sense into my newfound touchy-feely, hippieness. It came in the form of a bright yellow flyer placed on each seat during our last Hypnobirthing class:
“Make the compassionate and informed choice,” it said in bold letters; “don’t let your child’s doctor pump her with toxins.”
I’m not sure why I didn’t see this coming. The extent of “naturalness” in this community with an average Crackpot Index of 150, the obsession with attachment parenting and all its trappings was, of course, a hotbed of the “vaccine-decliners.” (Note: The Crackpot Index is a real thing. Check it out!)
I can’t decide if these anti-vaccination folk are assholes or truly idiotic. As my friend, Anya says, “These are the same motherfuckers whose kids go to Africa to ‘expand their horizons’ where they drop dead from the measles.” All I know for sure is that my husband and I made a list of the suggested “vaccine friendly” doctors, daycares, and preschools in San Diego to make sure we stayed the hell away, right before we made a beeline for the door.
Looking back, I’m glad that I experienced this journey despite its brutal, abrupt end. I enjoyed most of my pregnancy, the yoga classes, made some new (non-nutty) friends, added exponentially to my vocabulary (“Blessingway,” anyone?), and got to know my town better. I also learned to be wary of “natural parenting” folk, who preach a gentle philosophy but are hardly the live and let live type.
My own birth story ended with a non-evil OB in attendance and indeed, the unmedicated, natural birth I had wanted. I will tell you that there was pain, and if my labor had lasted more than two hours and I didn’t have wide, Indian birthing hips, I would’ve begged for the drugs and received them gratefully and unashamedly.
The more serious consequence of my foray into the “natural parenting” world is that I have become more aware of the kind of impact this sort of parenting style has had on the community; San Diego had a large outbreak of measles in 2008, stemming from a happily unvaccinated 7-year old, who then passed on this precious gift to numerous infants who were too young to be vaccinated. Encinitas has one of the largest populations of unvaccinated or under-vaccinated kids; some county reports estimate that 83% of kids at a private preschool in Encinitas are unvaccinated.
The usual response from these “highly educated and caring” parents is that measles is just a harmless childhood illness that can be cured by extra hugging, essential oils, and drinking “bone broth and fermented cod liver oil” (I guess plain old chicken soup just isn’t woo enough). The infant who sustained long-term damage to his eyes and ears because of the measles probably “just was not worn enough” by his mother.
There is also a burgeoning cottage industry mostly facilitated by “natural” moms that peddles snake oil health remedies to unsuspecting as well as highly suspecting but sometimes credulous parents (exhibit: me), and eschews science based medicine, sensible pediatricians, and Tylenol. I have probably not learned my lesson well enough, because every few months or so, I find myself out of a couple of hundred dollars having bought a “miracle cure” for a cold. Now you know what isn’t actually a life threatening illness (albeit sometimes feels like it)? A goddamn cold.
All parents do their best to protect their kids from obvious harm (presumably, even the anti-vaccination nutters), or at least all reasonably good parents do. To that end, we found a pediatrician who does not accept patients whose parents choose not to vaccinate. The reason is simple; I don’t want my kid to be in a waiting room with some poor, highly-attached child hacking away with pertussis. I will also be fully vaccinating my kid, on schedule, so that she can travel to India to visit crazy relatives, change the plight of AIDS victims in Africa, fight air pollution in China, receive her knighthood from the (future) King of England, or simply go to school in Encinitas without fear of contracting some preventable, 19th-century illness.
As for me, I will be recklessly guzzling down cow’s milk and staying the hell away from rotting fish products until the end of my days.