Few things in life can truly prepare a woman for pregnancy. It is the ultimate feminine experience — perhaps even the ultimate human experience — and quite unimaginable until you find yourself there, eight-and-a-half months rotund, wobbling to the bathroom once again to pee in the middle of another sleepless night thanks to a still-forming human skull pressing against your bladder. Even if you spent your childhood dreaming of the day you’d become a mommy, it’s an indescribable experience.
One day, there’s just you — the singular person you’ve always been. Then, in an instant, there’s another (or multiple!) human(s) inside of you — growing and eating and kicking, and in some mystically ethereal way, communicating with you, even though you’ve yet to even meet them face-to-face. ‘Psychedelic’ doesn’t even begin to describe it, but it may be the most appropriate adjective we have.
When I found myself pregnant (at age 40, nonetheless!), I was shocked to say the least. But I also felt ready for the journey, something I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have felt a decade or two earlier. Some of that “readiness” was probably my ticking clock finally feeling redeemed, but there were other factors, too.
The year before I became pregnant, my partner (a.k.a. future baby daddy) and I went to Colombia for two reasons: to drink the medicine, but also to take counsel with the Kogi, a remote indigenous Colombian tribe who live deep inside Tayrona National Park in the northwest part of the country. They rarely come down off the mountain and even more rarely spend time with Westerners, “Little Brother” as they call us. But the changing climate and its impact on their communities has led them to seek out Westerners, to share their culture and their message about caring for the earth, even leading us in “making payments” to the land through ritual.
I had done my share of psychedelics before this trip and was no stranger to the issues surrounding global warming and deforestation. But the biggest message from the Kogi surprised both my partner and me: They told us to have children.
I’d never been vehemently anti-family exactly; but I’d also never yearned to have a house full of children either. And at age 40 I was pretty sure my work as a writer would be my child, my de facto legacy, as ridiculous as that sounds now. (For, once a mother, you realize you’ve always been one.)
Both of us chuckled at the quaintness of the message. How sweet of the Kogi to suggest we have children to make the world a better place. Even if it didn’t seem destined to happen, it was nice to know that we were being asked to foster the next generation, who, without question, have quite a world of work ahead, especially if they also want to be parents.
After ten days and several ceremonies, we traveled back home to Los Angeles and did our best to get on with our lives in the bustling city, soon even forgetting the Kogi’s urging to have a child.
A year later, in the throes of December 2012 (the predicted Mayan calendar “end-time”), certain the world wasn’t going to burst into a ball of flames, we still thought it a good time to head out to the desert anyway for a quiet and reflective winter solstice camping trip. Of course, we came back pregnant.
The sanctity of an ayahuasca ceremony is, quite ironically, a little bit like the first rule of Fight Club: You don’t talk about it. Or more accurately: You can’t really talk about it because it is in so many ways indescribable. So personal, so ever evolving within you, long after the ceremony ends. Sure, you can try to describe some of the visions, or what it’s like to puke your guts out, or perhaps to even recall the Icaros shamans often sing during ceremony. But those are just pieces of the experience, not ever really a complete picture. Pregnancy and parenting is a lot like that too: You can describe what it sort of feels like to have a baby growing inside of you, or the pains of labor, or the first time your child looks into your eyes. But not really. You can’t ever completely explain those experiences because they’re so vast, so eternal, so beyond the confines of words.
According to plant wisdom practitioner Sitaramaya Sita, who has studied and worked with the indigenous Shipibo people in the Peruvian Amazon for over 15 years and cultivates a North American herbalist practice employing Amazonian technologies, ayahuasca has long played a profound role in the lives of indigenous Peruvian women. “[W]hen girl children are born, drops prepared from a specific plant are put into their eyes so that they can see the designs of the ayahuasca, can see the visions and paint them on the pottery, embroider them on the fabrics, and work individually and collectively to bring forth design stories and visions,” she told me in an email.
In the Shipibo culture, a woman is considered fully in her power only after children have been raised and the woman has entered menopause. “The experience of birthing and raising children informs, enriches and empowers the [women] in the later years,” Sita says. And many women, particularly in the Santo Daime ayahuasca tradition, will actually drink the medicine during childbirth. (As someone who has done both separately, I can see where it would hold some intensely spiritual benefits, but not something I would ever consider attempting.)
Once pregnant, my experiences with ayahuasca took on a whole new meaning for me and appeared more frequently in my consciousness. Yes there were some significant physical parallels between the two: trusting in the unknown, puking, fear, exhaustion, feeling disoriented, love. But I was also quite surprised by the less obvious ways the medicine seemed so relevant to the pregnancy, and now even more so as a mother.
As parents, we (hopefully) always feel love in a profound way, even when we’re facing the inevitable parental fears (disease, injury, marrying a Kardashian, etc). But I also saw a parallel between the undeniable awareness of interconnection. One of my most profound experiences in Colombia was observing the Kogi stand guard outside of our circle (they do not drink ayahuasca). They were tending the fire as the medicine took over me and forest began to glow in a bright neon luminescence. It appeared as if there were direct lines of communication between the Kogi and the trees, the rocks, the sky, the dirt, the clouds, creatures — and of course, each one of us in the circle. Interconnection — that notion that we’re all made up of the same stardust — is so helpful particularly as a new mother getting used to the fact that this tiny, fragile being is no longer “part of you” once she exits the womb. We are, all of us, connected in ways much more infinite than the eye can see. It’s that connection we can also call a “mother’s intuition” — that deep level of communication that all mothers experience, particularly in those early days.
There’s also a great lesson from both ayahuasca and parenting in surrender. My ego elected to put the cup of medicine to my mouth, but once the ayahuasca was inside me, there was little left I could control. I had to let go. Pregnancy, birth and parenting are surprisingly similar: we can’t change who our child is, how their birth is going to happen or who they will grow up to be. Of course we can guide her and create an environment that supports our ideologies, but a loving parent knows there’s no greater power than helping a child find his or her true joy. That comes by letting the child be who she is and creating safe spaces to explore that. It is their life to live, not ours to control. And anyone who has tried to control or resist the medicine once it’s inside them knows how impossible, how futile that notion is. All we can do is be present, receive and allow ourselves to participate in the experience in the healthiest way possible.
On our last night in Colombia, the medicine was intensely healing. I literally felt squeezed and wrung out like a wet rag left to dry by the fire, finding new life as the warmth brought me back to shape. Not even quite sure what had been cleaned out of me, there was still a palpable feeling of gratitude, like you might feel after a massage or a long, restful vacation. Parents are often chided (most often by the childless) for being “so in love” with their children in what can be mistaken as a form of externalized narcissism —“my child is a wonderful reflection of me!” I was certainly guilty of suspecting that to be the case with many parents I knew before becoming one myself. But that’s not it. That’s not really even close to what we’re experiencing.
As parents, we most often find ourselves in sheer awe at this nascent consciousness coming to life in another being. Yes, that person once lived inside of me and now has my eyes, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a grateful sense of “Wow! I get to watch this?” Much like you might experience having stumbled on deer quietly prancing in the forest or a pod of dolphins playing just off the shoreline, it’s a gift to watch, even if that wild animal is just a human infant pooping for the very first time.
Parenting is not easy. For me, those early days were the most difficult days of my life. Sleep deprivation isn’t so hard on some people. I am not one of those people. I longed to be the blissful mother who was unfazed by the magnitude of sacrifice a new mother must offer her helpless child. But I felt swallowed up in the present moment, like it would most certainly last forever — a feeling I’ve only ever had before in ceremony during the deepest, most confusing moments of reflection, of darkness, of having to trust that it had been the right choice to even drink the medicine at all.
Inevitably, just like the medicine’s potency fades, so did those sleepless nights with a newborn. The calmness after the storm makes way for reflection, for a deeper understanding, and most important: a respect for why we must experience these moments at all.
“Many people experience Ayahuasca as the Mother or Grandmother and from this perception and experience are able to access the nurturing, loving, compassionate, soft places within ourselves and recognize those places in others,” Sita tells me.
That’s not to say that an ayahuasca experience will make you a better parent or more compassionate person, but it might. It may certainly help you become a more aware parent. And that matters, most especially if we’re eager to avoid repeating major parenting flaws we may have experienced as children ourselves. It also serves to remind us that all of life — our own and our children’s — are part of a journey much bigger than this physical experience. And if there’s anything that’s been most helpful both in ceremony and in parenting, it’s coming back to that truth.