Life Lessons My Sourdough Starter Is Teaching Me (Or At Least Reminding Me Of)

Just over a week ago I mixed together some flour and water and left it on my counter to ferment. Guys, this was HUGE for me.

I’ve wanted to enter into the world of sourdough for quite some time but the whole thing seemed daunting. There was such a steep learning curve, so much that could go wrong and I had a hard enough time keeping up with my kefir and kombucha I wasn’t sure I could handle one more living organism (in addition to my two children, of course).

But I wasn’t able to bring my SCOBY for kombucha and though I dehydrated and brought my kefir grains I can’t make it because all the milk is shelf-stable. My time, brain and counter now all have space for sourdough.

I watched videos, read blogs and did as much research as I was able to with the preschooler on my lap while the toddler slept. Finally, I was ready to dive in. For five days I diligently added flour and water to the fermenting and increasingly bubbly glob. On the morning of Day 6 I mixed up a basic bread dough, kneaded for 45 minutes (yes, 45 minutes!) and waited for it to rise. That part didn’t seem to be over successful but I stuck it in the oven anyway, figuring it would turn out fine.

I successfully baked the worst loaf of bread in history.

I looked at what was left of my starter and felt betrayed. I had nurtured and cared for it and I spent 45 precious minutes of my Saturday morning getting sore muscles. What I got was a in inedible brick.

While I discovered I haven’t learned very much about baking sourdough bread (it’s a whole different ballgame than yeasted-breads) I am being reminded of some important lessons that not only apply to learning a new skill but to all of life.

These are nothing new and I’m not sharing any great insight or wisdom, but hopefully this can be a gentle reminder of what you already know but seems to be easy to forget (or am I the only one who needs to be constantly reminded of the basic lessons she’s already learned?).

Things seemed hardest before you start

Like I mentioned, I’ve wanted to start sourdough for some time but the idea of making my own starter intimidated me and kept me from taking the plunge. Turns out the making a starter is easy, like really easy.

Sometimes what holds us back from going on an adventure, taking a risk or just simply doing something new might not be as big of a deal as we think it is. That doesn’t mean everything will be easy, but it might not be as intimidating once we’re in it. We just need to take that first step and find out.

Grace, grace and more grace for yourself

The morning after I baked my brick of a loaf of bread I attempted to slice a piece. Crumbs were flying, my knife was bending under the pressure of my arm and I kept complaining to Ryan about how terrible it was. Eleanor, bless her heart, came into the kitchen and said, ‘Mommy! It looks good!’ She was entirely wrong but it was sweet of her.

For lunch I attempted to make PB&J sandwiches from a few pieces of the very middle of the bread that were somewhat salvageable. I really should have just gone to the bakery for a real loaf of bread. When I served the ‘sandwiches’ to the kids, Eleanor again kept telling me how good it was, that she really liked it. Any time I said something negative about the bread, she would counter me. In the end I gave them leftover Canadian Thanksgiving pumpkin pie for lunch.

More often than not, we are more critical of ourselves than others are. We are ready to extend grace to those around us but withhold it from ourselves. We set unrealistically high expectations and feel like failures when our lives don’t match them. But those closest to us don’t expect as much from us as we do. We need to let go of our lofty ideals, do our best and be content with that. Everyone else is.

It’s better when you have someone to walk alongside you

While I did research sourdough baking methods, it would have been much more helpful to have someone who has already mastered the skill standing with me in the kitchen, walking me through each step. She could have told me if my starter was really ready, how much flour to add, when the dough was kneaded enough and when it was done rising and ready to go in the oven. I’m just guessing, learning as I go and making a lot of mistakes that could have been avoided with some expert insight.

While it’s helpful to have someone to guide us as we learn a new skill, it’s even better to have someone walk alongside us as we learn how to live life well. I’ve never had an official ‘mentor’ but there have been people in my life who have helped me navigate new seasons or sometimes just get through. When we enter into a new phase or start an adventure the wisdom another person who has been there can be invaluable and can give us a proper perspective. And it just might save us from making a few mistakes.

Life is in seasons

If you’ll notice, my bread is 100% white flour. That does not make me happy. Part of the reason I got into sourdough is because the fermentation that takes places helps make the bread easier to digest so it does negate some of the harm of the white flour. Even still, my ideal would be fresh, organic whole wheat spelt flour I ground myself. But right here, right now all I can afford is white flour and I doubt I could find spelt berries in this country. One day I’ll have better flour but that day isn’t today and I’m coming to terms with that.

Our lives ebb and flow, moving from one season to the next. Some seasons are really enjoyable and we don’t want them to end, others can’t end soon enough. When we live in recognition of this, we are better able to be content in our present circumstances, not be overwhelmed by difficulties and savor the good times even more.

Time, it takes time

I expected to bake a beautiful artisan loaf of bread on my first attempt. It didn’t happen. My second loaf was better (not pretty but edible and it tasted yummy!) and I am anxious for a third attempt. I’m doing more research, learning and getting opportunities to practice. These take time, it’s not going to happen overnight. There’s a reason there’s a difference between a professional baker and me!

It can be hard to just wait while circumstances, opportunities or relationships come to fruition. While there are times to act and get things going, some things only happen with the passing time and there’s nothing we can do about it. We just need to be patient and let time do its good work.…

Three Countries. Three Babies.

Sometimes we set off on a great journey and we don’t even realize it’s happening. The beginning can be so subtle or such a tiny hint at what’s to come we can’t know we just embarked on a path that with transform us.

In March 2010 I stood in our bathroom in Hungary shaking with anticipation, waiting for Ryan to tell me if there was one line or two on the pregnancy test.

Two.

I knew this marked the beginning of my journey of motherhood, one that would change my life and me in ways that nothing else could.

I didn’t know that I was starting another journey at the same time. That journey would also become part of my identity, a defining part of my story.

Eight months later our daughter was born in Hungary.

In April 2012 I stood our bathroom in Ottawa, Canada shaking with anticipation, waiting for Ryan to tell me if there was a plus or negative on the pregnancy test.

Plus.

Seven months later our son was born in Canada.

In September 2014 I stood our bathroom in Oregon shaking with anticipation, waiting for Ryan to tell me if there was a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the pregnancy test.

Yes.

One week later we moved to Macedonia.

Deciding to continue with the move was an easy decision for us, a no-brainer, really. Because I had already been pregnant and given birth in two other countries, and one that I assumed would at least be similar to Macedonia, I felt comfortable with the idea. And everything for our move had come together in ways that left us shaking our heads in awe of our Provider God, knowing he had taken care of every last detail. He had given us everything we needed for the move, he will provide everything we need for the pregnancy and birth.

We also had the unconditional support of both sets of our parents, a huge plus. They sent us off with their blessing, covering us in their prayers.

I’m 12 weeks and in many ways it’s been a lot: pregnant+culture shock+two small children= a grueling trifecta. But by God’s grace I have the most amazing pregnancy genes, which means I don’t feel pregnant (other than insomnia – ugh). I think if I had bad morning sickness or was exhausted all the time I would probably already have been on a plane back to Oregon.

I’ve started seeing an OB here and this is where my concerns kick in. My ideal birth would be at home with no interventions or drugs. But my previous births were a c-section and 5 weeks early VBAC (you can read about Eleanor’s here and Edward’s here). So I don’t have the greatest labor and delivery track record and now I’m in the care of someone whom I’m certain doesn’t share many of my ideals and probably isn’t used to patients wanting to do things her way and not by hospital protocol. But my OB said he’s comfortable with me delivering vaginially (most OBs here aren’t after a c-section) and he allows labor to take it’s time and he has the lowest c-section rate in the hospital, all very good things. I still might have to stick up for myself to make sure the pregnancy, labor and delivery remain in my control but I’m ready.

(If things do get complicated or I feel uncomfortable delivering here I will return to Oregon. As much as I think it’d be super cool to say ‘I had three babies in three foreign countries’, the baby’s and my health come first.)

I never expected to embark on a journey that would lead to all my children being born in different countries or that these experiences would shape and define me in the ways they have. I don’t know where this journey is leading (though I wouldn’t mind if it lead to a book deal!) but I hope I can encourage women giving birth both abroad and in their home countries. I’m going to chronicle my experience here and share how it differed and was similar to Hungary and Canada.

I’m excited for this next phase of my journey and I look forward to sharing it with you!

 

 …

Knocked-Up Abroad: Macedonia Edition – 10 Weeks And The First Prenatal Visit

 

If you missed last week’s post with the big announcement, you can read it here.

I’m excited about this new series (and I hope you are, too!). I’m not committing to write posts for this series on any form of a regular schedule. I’ll probably post after each visit with my doctor, so about once a month for sure but I will also write whenever there’s something share-worthy. I’m already a bit behind because my first doctor’s appointment was already 3 weeks ago! Oh well.

Also: I’m quitting my kids’ pseudonyms. They’re just annoying. My daughter is Audrey, not Eleanor, and my son is Alistair, not Edward (though his middle name is Edwards, so it’s close). Bear with me as I get old posts updated.

When I found out I was pregnant with Audrey we had lived in Hungary for over a year and though I had basically no experience with the medical system there I felt comfortable having my first child there because we had an amazing community who immediately surrounded us with support. I also had complete medical coverage through my work and if we returned to the US we would have paid out of pocket for everything. It was an easy decision to have her there.

While we never considered having this baby in the US, it’s different this time around. I came into Macedonia 6 weeks pregnant, our only contact was Ryan’s supervisor whom he had only emailed with, I not only didn’t speak the language I didn’t even understand the alphabet. I wasn’t sure how we were going to find a doctor or how much it would all cost.

But we knew this was where we were supposed to be.

A few days after arriving Ryan was on the phone with his supervisor and he told Ryan that his wife is a non-practicing family doctor so if we ever needed any help with getting medical attention, she was available. I think my jaw literally hit the floor. We told both of them a few days later and she made an appointment for me with her OB/GYN, whom she really likes.

I was already past 8 weeks, when the first prenatal visit usually happens, and then the appointment was pushed back another week making me 10 weeks when I first saw my doctor.

Our friend drove the four of us to the hospital, which is so new part of it is still under construction. It started out as a specialty OB/GNY hospital but is branching out into other areas. She told us it’s part of a ‘Turkish system’ and I’m not 100% sure what that means (maybe it’s like a chain hospital?). The name does sound Turkish. I’ll probably eventually figure it out.

The facility was modern and the waiting room was full of women sitting on red IKEA-esk couches. We checked in with the receptionists and waited. When I was called in our friend came in long enough to introduce us to the doctor and make sure we were all comfortable with the situation.

The room was large and modern but what stood out were the semi-erotic sketches of nude women on the walls. I’m 100% fine with celebrating the female body, especially in a pregnant or breastfeeding state, but I have to admit these pictures were kind of weird, given that real-life women are semi-naked in the same room and the women in the pictures were neither pregnant nor breastfeeding. It’s moments like this that I just remember that Europeans have a very different view of the body (for good and bad) and most would consider my American sensitivities to naked bodies as ‘prude’. I shake my head, smile, accept it as a cultural difference and move on.

My doctor, Dr. B (I’m not using his full name for privacy’s sake), was nice, engaged the kids with a twinkle in his eye and didn’t speak the greatest English. I knew I was spoiled with my doctor in Hungary: he spoke English very well, was up-to-date on research coming out of the US and had attended conferences there.

Even with the less-than-ideal English, I did like my doctor (all the nurses spoke English so if we do run into language issues, one of them can probably translate). He’s been practicing since before I was born and only has 3 or 4 OB patients at a time, which I appreciate because he’s more likely to be available when I’m in labor.

Dr. B asked about my previous pregnancies and births in general terms and made sure I thought this pregnancy was going well. It was a lot different than giving my complete family medical history, detailed pregnancy and birth info and general ‘get to know you’ stuff with my midwife in Canada.

Then came the internal exam. I figured this was coming because I had one in Hungary. I was directed to a corner of the room where I could drop my pants before walking to the other side of the room, uncovered, to the exam chair.

It confirmed that, yes, I am 100%-for-sure pregnant.

Great.

Now onto the ultrasound.

The screen faced away from me so it was probably the most disappointing ultrasound I’ve ever had. At least Ryan and the kids got a good look at the little one. Dr. B did turn the screen so I could see for a bit but it was too short for a mama who wants to admire the 3cm long child growing inside her womb. Because it was an ultrasound we heard the baby’s heart beating strong. Audrey got a kick out of hearing it.

Dr. B told me I ovulated from the left side, so it’s a girl. He then looked at me with the same twinkle in his eye he had given the kids and winked. That made me really start to like him.

We then went back to the desk to wrap up the appointment.

11 weeks – This is seriously the closest thing I have to a baby bump photo. Sorry, child #3.

For weeks I had been trying to figure out how to ask about his views on c-sections, VBACs, natural deliveries and what I could expect during labor and delivery. But because from what I had experienced in Hungary, and I assume it’s the same here, most of that is dictated by hospital policy. As the expecting mother you don’t have a whole lot of say in what goes on – it’s all predetermined. So how do I non-confrontationally and respectfully address these issues that I assume we have different views on (I would expect to have different views from an OB in the States, as well)? How do I begin the process of making it known what I want my care to look like and that I plan on being in charge, not him or hospital policy? How do I not alienate or irritate him during my first visit?

This is when I am beyond thankful for my sensitive, intelligent and tactful husband.

Ryan explained to Dr. B how it’s important to me to deliver vaginally and not have another c-section and asked what his thoughts were on that happening.

Oh, it’s no problem, replied Dr. B. He prefers vaginal births and has the lowest c-section rate in the hospital. He lets labor take it’s time and he doesn’t order c-sections because he’s impatient. And he has no problem with a VBAC, especially since I’ve have a successful one. I’ve since found out that most doctor’s don’t do VBACs; I might be very fortunate to be with Dr. B.

We finished the appointment and headed downstairs to do something we’ve never done in two pregnancies worth of prenatal care: pay.

In Hungary I had 100% coverage through my insurance from work, though we did slip my doctor a hefty amount after Audrey was born as a ‘thank you’ for seeing us privately and we paid for a private room, a total of $420. In Canada I had 100% coverage as well, though because we had to make so many trips to the hospital before Alistair decided he was actually ready to be born (and not just faking us out) and because I had to spend several days, rather than hours, in the hospital after the birth we paid through the nose for parking, over $100.

We looked into insurance for our time in Macedonia but the only plans we could find cost thousands of dollars up front, have massive deductibles we would never meet unless we have cancer, and don’t cover any sort of maternity care until I’d been on the plan for 10 months. We figured that even with paying out of pocket for pre-and-postnatal care and labor and delivery it will be less than getting insurance. Ironically, if we were in Oregon I would have 100% coverage again.

I was really nervous as the receptionist prepared our bill. We figured it would cost less in Macedonia but  we didn’t know for sure. While we do have money set aside for medical expenses, let’s just say we don’t have much wiggle room in our budget. When we first walked in to the nice, new, modern building Ryan and I exchanged glances, knowing we’d be paying for the chance to have stainless steel doors, pretty decorations, and lots of staff. I had wondered if we should just go to a public hospital and not pretend like we can pay for something that’s up to our American standards.

The total for the exam and ultrasound was $80.

Okay, I think we can do this.

While there’s a lot that could happen between this first appointment and my precious baby being born, I feel good about continuing to pursue giving birth in Macedonia. I still have questions and I’m still trying to figure out how to ask them but we are headed in a good direction and unless things change (which in this crazy, unpredictable life we lead it’s not unlikely) I am confident in having our baby here.…

Grace for Your Disappointing Birth Experience – Guest Post at Red + Honey

‘Erin, you have to wake up. You have to wake up. You need to feed Audrey’

My husband had been trying for several minutes to bring me to consciousness but I wasn’t responding, I didn’t want to respond.

‘She’s beautiful – she looks just like you. Don’t you want to meet her?’

I don’t know what held a tighter grip on me: the pain, the anesthesia or the disappointment that my daughter was just born via C-section.

I had planned on a natural birth in the hospital but when Audrey’s heart rate began dropping drastically with each contraction early on in labor the doctor wanted her out now and I was not in a position to argue.

She was born healthy and I was so happy to be holding my precious baby girl in my arms but I mourned not bringing her into this world by the strength of my body with a clear mind and an open heart.

Though I knew there was nothing I could have done to prevent the C-section I was determined that my next birth would be the natural and empowering experience I hoped for.

Twenty-months later I was once again in a hospital, this time pregnant with my son. It was 8 weeks from his due date and I was having intense and regular contractions. The next three weeks would see me in and out of triage before I went into labor 5 weeks early.

Despite the fetal heart monitor strapped to my belly and IV in my hand, I labored naturally with the support of my husband and midwives. Everything was going as planned until I began to push.

My son’s heart rate dropped and because he was moving through the birth canal quickly the 2nd midwife lost track of his heart beat. She knew he was coming soon and she needed to be ready to receive him so she called for a nurse to come and hold the monitor.

Because I was a premature VBAC, the full medical crew showed up and took over.

One moment the midwife I knew and trusted was delivering my baby and the next it was a doctor I had only briefly met and I knew didn’t hold to the same birthing philosophy as my midwife and me.

Because she believed my son was in danger the doctor gave me an episiotomy to speed things up and he was immediately taken to an exam table rather than placed in my arms.

While my son’s birth was a much more natural and empowering experience than my daughter’s, there were aspects that left me disappointed and frustrated.

– – –

Child birth doesn’t always go as planned, does it? You might plan for the most gentle, natural home birth conceivable only to still need interventions, or for it to end as an emergency in a hospital.

You might not even be able to plan for a natural birth, much less a home birth. There might be medical conditions or location restraints that dictate you deliver in a hospital under medical supervision.

Sometimes your preferred options aren’t available. Sometimes people make mistakes. Sometimes people make the wrong decision or a decision was made and you’ll never know if it was the right one. Sometimes your body needs help.

And all of this is okay.

Yes, you carefully chose a birth care provider, you know the advantages of natural deliveries and the reasons why a home birth can be better than a hospital birth. But the reality is that sometimes what is a beautiful, completely natural expression of the female body turns into a medical condition that requires intervention to save the life or health of the mother or baby.

You do the best you can with the options you have available and you respond as well as you can when labor throws you a curve. No matter what has to be done to bring your healthy baby into your healthy arms you should never be made to feel like less of a mother, less of a woman for it, by others or by yourself.

You brought a new human into this world and that, in and of itself, is amazing.

It is disappointing, maybe devastating, when your ideals and desires don’t match your reality, especially when your desires are what’s best for your baby. Other people probably won’t understand this. They might say, ‘Your baby is healthy – that’s all that matters’. Yes, the most important thing is that your baby is healthy but that does’t mean how you experience your baby’s birth is insignificant. For most of us giving birth is a deeply emotional and vulnerable experience and when it isn’t empowering or satisfying we can be cut deep into our beings.

And that’s okay. It’s okay to be disappointed, left wanting, to cry, to mourn.

But remember: how you brought your child into this world is a very small piece of how you raise him. It’s an important part of your story as your child’s mother but as time goes on you’ll write whole new pages and chapters and books together that will far outshine the birth.

The shared memories and laughter will cast redemptive light on the shadows of an imperfect beginning.

– – –

When Audrey first noticed the long horizontal scar on my lower abdomen she asked what it was. I explained that it was from the cut the doctor made so she could be born.

‘Mommy, it’s beautiful’

She gently touched it and I cried, but unlike all the tears I shed because of her birth before this moment these tears were ones of acceptance and grace.

You can read Audrey’s full birth story here and Alistair’s here and you can follow my new series about being pregnant in Macedonia.