I met Monica Walker on the local Weston A. Price Foundation mailing list in Portland. While many of my clients are vegans, my interest in nutrition and optimal health does not allow me to wear blindfolds. If I can learn from someone’s work, it’s my duty to study it. I learned many things from Weston Price’s book – like the importance of vitamin K2 and vitamin D, and the usefulness of various ingredients like quinoa and red millet for lactating women – and I think you will learn quite a bit from this interview with Monica; there was so much I wanted to talk about with her! It’s not just about food (though we can’t get bored of that topic, can we?), it’s also about raising healthy, attached children through natural birthing, attachment parenting and more.
Joanna Steven: Monica, thank you for speaking with me today! Through making friends in health conscious communities, I noticed that each one of us goes through a unique journey in the quest for health and happiness. Can you tell us more about what sparked your interest in nutrition, natural birth and attachment parenting? How do you feel that the 3 are inter-connected?
Monica Walker: Thanks for having me, Joanna!
My journey to health and happiness was spurred by my early years being fraught with clinical depression. I began healing in 2001, when I started practicing a holistic fitness program called The Nia Technique and revamping my diet. My interest was sparked to learn more about how our bodies, minds, emotions and spirits are interconnected and affect one another in healing and wellness.
I studied and began a practice in massage, holistic health coaching and nutrition over a period of about 7 years (and counting!). Being immersed in this world already, natural birth (which for me included a homebirth midwife and Hypnobirithing) and attachment parenting were a given. I consciously set out to have a natural birth at home (it didn’t turn out that way but nonetheless!) and after my daughter was born, I began parenting instinctively and later began reading about attachment parenting. What I learned gave me not only guidance, but reassurance that what felt like the right way for me to parent had a name and a community of support around it.
I love this second question! The main thing that I see as connecting nutrition, natural birth and attachment parenting is physiology. Pregnancy, birth, lactation and attachment all pose significant and unique physiological needs on a woman’s body. Each stage asks for certain hormones, chemical interactions, and other physiological processes. These all require specific nutrients, mainly from the diet, to ensure optimal functioning of mother and development of baby.
For example, during later stages of pregnancy, the baby’s bones are developing and it is taking bone nutrients (most famously calcium but also Vitamin D, phosphorous, magnesium and protein) from mom. Therefore, mom needs to not only be taking in foods with these nutrients but have stores they both can draw on. A less often considered physiological need is occurring during attachment parenting. Specific hormones, such as oxytocin which is commonly referred to as the “love” or “bonding” hormone, are secreted and require specific amino acids (aka protein) to be synthesized and a plethora of other nutrients to be secreted and utilized. There are similar examples to these in birth and lactation, as well.
When we are lacking the nutrients we need or the quality of nutrients is low for these many amazing processes to occur, we often encounter problems. This can manifest itself differently in each person but can look like complicated labor and delivery, postpartum depression, many pregnancy related conditions (such as hypertension, gestational diabetes, muscle cramping, anemia etc) and trouble breast feeding. (Note from Joanna: an undiagnosed – at the time – vitamin D deficiency caused me to develop gestational diabetes. Get your vitamin D levels tested regularly, especially if you plan on becoming pregnant! About half of the women with gestational diabetes suffer from vitamin D deficiency.)
Of course, nutrition and physiology are not the only cause nor answer to the complex outcomes and often mysterious processes of pregnancy, birth and parenting but from my perspective, they are the foundation. From a holistic approach, if we are built fundamentally (chemical by chemical, cell by cell, tissue by tissue, etc) with high quality nutrients in abundant supply, then we are better able to carry and birth a baby, breastfeed, and parent. We will be able to think more clearly (even through the blur of sleepless nights), make better choices, have brain chemistry that supports our mood and have little or no depression and anxiety.
This, in turn, allows us to be more present for ourselves and our children, to experience more calm and ease, to have a wider breadth of patience and to be the best parents we can be. If you are inclined to the spiritual side of things, I also believe that this foundation and the resulting mental and emotional states described above, let us hear more clearly our inner voice, to birth and parent intuitively, and to develop trust that we know best how to parent our own child.
Joanna Steven: In an Interview, Robin Lim (the 2011 CNN hero of the year midwife in Indonesia) said that humans being are very reparable, and that even if something does not go as planned (birth, for instance), there is a lot we can do later on to have healthy, beautiful, smart children. This is very reassuring to people who discovered healthy nutrition, natural childbirth, etc. after getting pregnant or having a child. Let’s assume that some of our readers are new to the world of nutrient density, gave birth in a hospital with many interventions and medications, etc. What good habits do you recommend they establish to increase their chances of having a loving, understanding, compassionate relationship with their children, and to feed them well?
Monica Walker: I am in 100% agreement with Robin Lim and very grateful for this fact! Humans are very reparable and very adaptable. I mentioned before that my daughter’s birth did not go as planned. After doing everything “right” (ha ha!) to have a natural homebirth, I ended up in the hospital with a pitocin, an epidural, a c-section and the cocktail of drugs that goes along with surgery and post operative care. So, I know first hand that even in not ideal circumstances, we can have attached relationships with our children. No matter what we have been eating, we can work with transitioning diets to more whole foods, heal digestion issues, and even the getting the pickiest of eaters to eat well (yes, my child eats only a handful of foods and is resistant to try anything new! Just my luck.).
I very much want to give specific ideas about growing loving relationships with our children and feeding our families healthy, whole foods but first, I want to look at how we can set the stage to make lasting changes. It’s easy to find information out there with how-tos and this or that expert opinions on changes to make. In fact, you all probably have your own ideas for your own lives (which are likely the best ones). It’s more of a challenge to be able to implent this information in a lasting and meaningful way. Here is what has worked for me and many of my clients:
Let’s give ourselves lots of time. It takes time to build loving, connected relationships with our children. It takes time to add new, healthier foods to our diets. It takes time for our minds and emotions to catch up with what our bodies and hearts are asking us for. So often, we have such strong desire to feel more connected to our children and to live with greater health, that we attempt to change a whole bunch of habits and behaviors at the same time. I have found that this can be a recipe for failure for many people, which often leads to backsliding or worsening of the habits and behaviors that we are wanting to change. So, first and foremost, I want to encourage all of us to give ourselves lots of time to make changes that we want to have in our lives.
Secondly, let’s set reasonable, achievable goals. For example, early in my journey to eating better, I gave myself an entire year to eat only organic produce at home. This goal was very doable for me in this time frame. I didn’t concern myself with what I ate when I went out to eat. I didn’t worry about the quality of the animal products I ate during that year (that was the next year!). Knowing that I had a full year to go to new stores, adjust to price increases and develop the internal commitment to this change, made it incredibly easy. In the end it took about 8 months and then I moved onto my next goal, which took even less time (though I gave myself the full year) and even overlapped with the produce goal since I was already in new stores and meeting new people and finding resources that helped me meet this new goal.
Thirdly, let’s go easy on ourselves. We are where we are for a lot of very good reasons. The process of change is uncomfortable because it is revealing what no longer works for us. It is a unique human blessing and curse to be able to see so clearly what we don’t yet have. This is both very helpful as it can inspire us to make change but it can also hinder us by creating thoughts and feelings about what we may have done “wrong” in the past or that we are not good enough or should have known/done/changed sooner, etc., etc., etc. We are all familiar with the these loops in our head, aren’t we? Especially when it comes to children and food, let yourself be okay with where you are and respect the person you were when you made the decisions you made in terms of your birthing, parenting or eating anywhere and everywhere along the way. It has all led you here: to a new place of inquiry, a place with a strong desire to have more of what you want and to improve the health and well-being of yourself and your family. This is something to celebrate, not berate! A side benefit of going easy on ourselves is that it allows us to make mistakes or back slide and then just start again. Inevitably, we are going to yell at our child or show less compassion then we intend to. We are going to eat things we know don’t make us feel good. And that is okay. Humans are reparable and adaptable, so going easy on ourselves lets us be reparable and adaptable and makes for a happier way of being.
Now, that we have some tools on how to incorporate new habits, here are couple specific ideas to play with:
One of the best things we can do to create more loving, compassionate and understanding relationships with our children, no matter how they were birthed, fed or parented and no matter what age they are, is to start actively listening to and empathizing with them. Active listening means that we quietly listen to what they say, without talking/interrupting and with as little chatter in our won mid as possible and we pay attention to what they are communicating in their body language and facial expression. Empathizing is when we imagine how we might feel if we were in their shoes (at their age), express that to them and then ask how they are feeling. “I heard you say that XYZ happened. If that happened to me, I would feel sad. Are you feeling sad? You are? Yes, you are feeling sad.”
Often, a child comes to us with a feeling they don’t know how to handle or a fundamental need that is not being met. This process not only will create a deeper connection between you and your child (or partner or mother or anybody!) but it will also help your child to be able to recognize her emotions and learn to understand and deal with them. Most of us have had the experience of going to someone with a problem and that person immediately trying to fix it and providing solutions. This can be frustrating because often, we are not looking for a fix or solution, but to express what we are feeling and thinking to another person: To be heard, to feel understood and to be brought back to our center. Then and only then are we ready to look for a solution, which often arises from within ourselves after we are heard and empathized with.
Actively listening to our child, then imagining how we would feel in their situation, asking them about their experience and reflecting all of that back is an incredibly supportive and nurturing act and one that creates a sense of being understood, valued, and loved in the child.
In terms of suggestions for feeding children, I’m a big fan of “crowding out”. Begin adding foods to your family’s diet, rather than removing foods. Perhaps you eat mostly canned or boxed food. You can buy some ground flax meal, store it in your freezer and add it to canned spaghetti sauces or soups (after they are heated), on top of salads, or in smoothies. Ground flax is a great source of healthy fat, fiber, protein, minerals and vitamins. Once it’s ground, you hardly notice it and it doesn’t change the flavor or texture.
Another great tool is substituting. Start with substituting brown rice for white rice or brown rice pasta for wheat pasta. Pasta is still a processed food but whole brown rice is more nutrient dense than white flour. It can take a little time getting used to the differences in how it cooks, but that’s okay, because you have given yourself lots of time, right? Later, you can try eating your favorite pasta sauces over brown rice or even whole buckwheat noodles.
Something to note is that whole foods have stronger and different tastes than refined or processed food because they have all of the nutrients intact. If your family is used to eating more processed foods, be sure to take baby steps as you add foods in and substitute. It’s easier to move from iceberg lettuce to romaine or baby mixed greens than it is to raw kale salad. Your taste buds and preferences will change, slowly over time.
Joanna Steven: I love what you say about empathizing; it reminds me of John Gottman’s book How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child. We don’t often realize that children can become very frustrating by their overwhelming emotions and their inability to label them or even make sense of them. Helping them see that we understand and that their emotions are valid is such a great thing to do!
Come back tomorrow for Part II!