A New Mother’s Practice
By Chaya Ocampo Go in March 2021
Eight-month-old baby Ysabel breathes quietly as she lies here sleeping on my chest. Her little arms wrap around me, her cheek rests softly near my neck. I feel her small heart beating lightly against my own beating heart, and we beam like the yellow orchids glowing on the windowsill. Sunshine fills my whole body, and a flash of fuchsia bursts with joy in my chest, like the bright pink lips of the orchid blooms. “A mother’s body against a child’s body makes a place. It says you are here,” wrote Eve Ensler in In the Body of the World. And in this sacred place created by a mama and her baby, like two palms joined together, I pray—may this deep peace live on in these difficult times and never waver, held here lovingly between Ysabel and me.
It has been a brave long season of encountering great suffering in and all around us during the pandemic. The quiet of life in quarantine touches the vulnerability, tiredness, and loneliness in my flesh and bones; it also brings the grief of death, social injustices, and tragic killings to bear. I became a new mother during the pandemic, and every day I yearn to go deeper and deeper still to find the strength and grace needed to thrive in these exceptional times. In his Dharanimdhara Earth Holder talks,1 Zen Buddhist teacher and ordained Christian minister Dr. Larry Ward invites us to “wake down”—to awaken right into our bodies and to the living Earth we are standing on. It is in becoming a new mother in this time of tremendous renewal that I practice finding refuge by resting in love with the Earth.
My mother and grandmother had already booked their flights from Manila to be in Toronto with me and my husband Franco in time for the birth, their suitcases ready with gifts for my postpartum care and recovery. This was my first pregnancy and I had always known births to be celebrated festively, surrounded by a big village of family and friends. The lockdowns and travel bans declared by Canada and the Philippines quickly turned our birth plans upside down. Just as I wept over being physically separated from loved ones, things took another unexpected turn when I was diagnosed with preeclampsia in my thirty-sixth week. I was quickly admitted to the high-risk maternity ward to be monitored. Franco was unable to join me as hospitals adopted a no-visitor policy. I had never been flung into such isolation.
Alone in my hospital room, I had no other choice but to retreat further within for refuge. I continued resting my warm hands over my belly, breathing slowly and deeply with my whole body. I unpacked the bags my husband prepared for me to find my well-worn malong, a delicately printed blanket from the Philippines; a wooden rosary and my grandfather’s mala beads; Thay’s book Living Buddha, Living Christ; and a framed painting of a smiling, pregnant Mother Mary. “Be not afraid,” she was told by an angel as she embarked on her own tumultuous birth story.
Very soon I found solace in solitude. I eased anxieties and uncertainties by savouring the last precious moments the baby was in my womb. Gentle sunshine glowed through a large window. I enjoyed contemplating the garden outside, thinking how sweet it was to be giving birth in springtime. Looking deeply, I saw the Great Lakes in my teacup. I felt rain clouds soothing my mind, and sensed my family’s jubilant laughter and anticipation tingling all over my body. My baby and I were not only two bodies in this one body, but embodied here too was a multitude of blood, spiritual, and ecological ancestors. Here I was in the company of all of life!
I played beautiful music in my room, humming to the baby, telling her to prepare and to not be afraid and that soon Papa would join us in the birthing room. One last ultrasound revealed that the baby had indeed descended, head down, deep into my pelvis. I smiled knowing that while medically the baby would be born premature, she too was ready. When the head nurse finally came to announce that it was time for labour to be induced, she grinned and said this was the most peaceful room she had been in at the ward.
Franco was called in and stayed beside me throughout the thirty-hour labour. We were cared for round the clock by nurses whose kind eyes shone from their masked faces. Prayerful songs played softly on loop; we felt held in sacred space. Years of mindful breathing and practicing yoga guided my body through the contractions. I leaned on Franco’s steadfastness; nurse Eva’s grandmotherly presence felt like a great big tree. In the canopy of a deep, dark midnight sky, Ysabel was born in fearless peace and joy on April 30th as the world continued to battle with the pandemic.
Ysabel and I had to stay for another week in the hospital to be monitored. I learned to move slowly with an aching body whose wounds still needed to heal, while also patiently learning to breastfeed and care for a newborn infant on my own. I felt both fear and solace in being alone, and I continue to practice with this real sense of vulnerability even when we returned home. My partner offered unfailing, loving support, and our midwives and my in-laws visited to help us. But even to this day, loneliness fades in and out of my often weary heart; I touch a bone deep exhaustion from mothering without my own village around me. And I see how a mind afflicted with worries, fear, sorrow, and anger can weaken the body, just as a tired body also agitates the mind.
My father contracted the coronavirus when Ysabel turned three months old. Frontline workers in the Philippines were waging a losing battle when he was hospitalized in Manila. My grandmother was also hospitalized when Ysabel was seven months old, and despair gripped me each time at the thought of death preventing us from holding one another in each other’s arms again.
In my moments of greatest weakness, I could feel my whole being fall to my knees to touch the ground in prayer. A surrendering plea to that which is much greater than me. I was raised Catholic, and praying to God comes naturally for me. But today I have also come to know that “He” is not a being high above in the distant heavens, separate from me, but is an ultimate reality, a holy living ground always welcoming me into communion.
In one of Thay’s beautiful calligraphies, he writes, “Resting in God.” This phrase deeply comforts me. It is a loving invitation to a great surrendering, to falling down, to “waking down.” It is a practice of resting in love with the Earth, who holds me in moments of wellness, gladness, and also in crisis. As I breathed with my father in prayer across time zones, I saw that my lungs were also his lungs. Ysabel’s lungs and the rainforests also breathed with us for his healing. As I breathed with my grandmother, I held her great-granddaughter’s tiny hands too to caress hers across the seas. I am not only a young mother now, but also a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, and yes, a child of God and of the Earth. I am learning to fall into the mighty arms of the great-grandmother Earth who cradles all of us in infinite love.
Each day as I nurse and grow with Ysabel in the shelter of quarantine, I practice awakening to the possibility of resting in love. To be refreshed by our indoor garden, to touch the life curling out of delicate leaves, their elegant shapes unfurling like my own heart-mind reaching for the light. To be tickled by birdsong and the sound of wind chimes. To feel the magnificent sound of rolling thunder rumbling in my bones. To taste the sweet freedom of peach-coloured clouds at sunset. To touch glimpses of myself in the summer rain, as I thirst just like the dry earth waiting for a downpour. Each day, I practice awakening to my own deep yearning for renewal in myself and all across our world.
In The World We Have, Thay writes, “We need a real awakening, enlightenment, to change our way of thinking and seeing things. To breathe in and be aware of your body and look deeply into it, and realise you are the Earth. And your consciousness is also the consciousness of the Earth.” As I cradle Ysabel in my arms, she reminds me: “You are here, Mama.” Just as Ysabel finds deep comfort resting with me, I too am learning to rest in love with the Earth.
I dedicate this piece to teachers-elders Larry Ward and Peggy Rowe-Ward, and to my dear friends in the Earth Holder Community caretaking council.
1 Larry Ward, “Dharma talks from the Mexico 2020 Bodhisattva Wisdom School,” The Lotus Institute, April 6, 2020, http://www.thelotusinstitute.org/blog/earth-holder-talks/