It’s National Infertility Awareness Week and while much of the focus is on reproductive technology we’d love to highlight the importance of role holistic health plays in optimizing fertility. Heng Ou, founder of the über popular California- based Motherbees Postpartum Meal Service just launched a new book that teaches us that dreaming, preparing, clearing, and fortifying are necessary, invaluable steps for a person to take before they conceive. Awakening Fertility: The Essential Art of Preparing for Pregnancy greets its reader with the affirmation “You want to have a baby,” before gently mothering them, page after page, with helpful tips, guides, and recipes for taking a holistic approach to fertility.
Here’s what Ou had to say about the complexities of getting pregnant and what we can be doing to take it into our own hands:
Mama Glow: We know how to make a baby. But preparing to conceive begins before you start trying to conceive. What do you consider to be the first step in preparing for pregnancy?
Heng Ou: The first step to preparing for pregnancy is cultivating a relationship with your own body and menstrual cycle. Ideally we would begin taking charge of our reproductive vitality in adolescence, at the onset of menstruation. At this early stage, it’s not about pregnancy preparation, but about becoming aware of how the female reproductive system works and tuning into the specific needs we have, physically and emotionally. It’s really about starting a conversation about the phases of our monthly cycle and beginning to connect to what’s happening in our own body, mind, and heart. Learning to listen to these subtle—and not so subtle—messages can empower a woman to take charge of her own wellbeing. Of course, not every young girl will be guided to form a deep connection to her body and her cycle and that’s ok! This process of discovery can begin at any time in a woman’s life.
Your book shares a very holistic notion of fertility and pregnancy preparation that may surprise some people. What is one of the aspects of fertility that you feel doesn’t get discussed around the pressures and challenges many women experience?
When we feel the urge to become a mother, so often we become so fixated on “getting pregnant” that we rush past the very critical first step—slowing down and looking at our lives as they are, and asking, “Is there enough space here for a child?” And even, “Is there enough love here for a child?” I suggest doing an audit of your life as it is right now and seeing where you will make space for a baby. Think about it! For so many of us, we’re already moving at full speed, pressured to produce and achieve. We have full schedules and deadlines. And what can happen is that baby-making has to fit into a slot on that calendar—and that can take us away from the heart of it, the inner calling that doesn’t follow a schedule! We can forget that we need to foster and feed the desire from both parents-to-be to really, really want to make a baby. (Or your own desire if you are embarking on it alone). I believe this is the most forgotten aspect of fertility: ensuring that both partners are on the same page, that they communicate well about this, and keep feeding the love between them so it is very strong. In my experience, this helps open the woman to be receptive. (I see it as receiving or calling in the baby energy to herself.) A Chinese Medicine practitioner would say that women’s receptive, still, “yin” energy is quite unsupported and maxed out. We need to slow down and sink in to our lives as they are today before we try to create more for tomorrow.
How did your background and personal experience come into play when writing “Awakening Fertility?”
My aunts and uncle are long-time acupuncturists in the Bay Area and from a young age, I was mesmerized by their work, specifically my Auntie Ou’s fertility practice. I witnessed her help so many women conceive and was pretty much convinced that I, too, would do something to to support women along the path to motherhood. Personally, I feel extremely blessed that each of my three conceptions was easy and after circling up with my co-authors, who also had easeful conceptions (one of them at age 39), I began to wonder if there were some lifestyle choices that we each made that contributed to the ease we experienced. Also, after having two girls and longing for a boy, my husband and I turned to my aunt for guidance. We followed her protocols strictly (lots of oysters were part of the regimen) and 10 months later we conceived a boy. That was it! My fascination how mindset, nourishment, heart-state and fertility all connected—and my passion for the wisdom that my healer elders had to share about it—was born at that moment.
For someone like me, who is years away from planning a family but wants to have a baby one day – what can I be doing to stay educated about my fertility and take care of my body?
It’s quite simple—start developing the connection to your fertility by tuning in to your own reproductive system and cycle. Make friends with it—get to know it well and take good care of it! Notice any pains, aches, and differing sensations that come through on a daily basis. Notice the fluctuations in your moods and fatigue levels at different times of the month. Give yourself a few moments each day without distractions where you can sink into quiet and notice shifts; in so doing, you will begin to tune into the language of your body. You will hone your intuition to sense if you will be ovulating soon. Around ovulation, you may find that you are craving sex or you may feel a slight pain on one side, depending on which ovary is releasing an egg. Some days later in your cycle, you might notice where the blood is beginning to flow: Your labia may be more swollen as more blood heads in that direction telling you that menstruation is about to occur. Also, if you are used to using tampons, consider switching to pads, a cup, or period panties so you can start to familiarize yourself with your flow. The color, texture, and volume of your flow may differ month to month and can give you insight when you are over taxed, tired out, and so on. This is also a perfect time to actually answer your body’s needs: On your heaviest bleed days each month, take your foot off the pedal to give yourself more time to rest. This may mean saying no to social plans or hard workouts. As we share in the book, there are also warming, nourishing foods that you can learn to use at this time—like tools in your women’s tool box! Taking the time to really learn your body’s language far before you ask it to conceive and hold a pregnancy truly pays off. It may even help you discover any reproductive health issues that can be addressed now—years before you are ready to conceive. That’s when you want to address them!
How is fertility, pregnancy, and motherhood linked back to ancestry, and why is it important for us to connect to the experiences of the women who came before us?
This is close to my heart. Familiarizing yourself with the conception, pregnancy, and birth experiences of the women who came before you can help to clear any unconscious blocks that may be standing between you and motherhood. If you have the ability to do so, take the time to ask your mother about her experience having you, and your siblings if you have them. We are deeply intertwined with the experiences of our maternal line. If your mother experienced a difficult or frightening time birthing you, there may be an echo or imprint of that trauma that you are carrying now. This is nothing to be scared of, but rather it’s an opportunity, for there’s a great power in bringing awareness to it before you move forward into motherhood. While you’re talking to your mother, ask about your grandmother’s pregnancy and birth experiences, too! In Awakening Fertility we have a list of questions you can ask your family members.
Fertility struggles can cause strain on a relationship. What do you encourage couples do to stay emotionally connected and supportive of one another while they’re trying to conceive?
Couples so often feel helpless and start blaming one another when conception doesn’t happen as they hoped. So much of our cultural conversation around this is oriented towards the woman’s body—her age, her health status, her stress levels and so on. No wonder so many women experience a range of challenging emotions including disappointment, guilt, or shame around fertility issues. And then this can push her further away from her partner, which clearly doesn’t help. It’s essential to remember that making a baby is a two-way street. Sure, the woman carries the baby in her womb, but remember, an egg cell cannot create a baby without a healthy, robust sperm cell. The DNA is half the man’s! In my auntie’s Traditional Chinese Medicine practice, the health of the man is given equal consideration as the woman—often more so today, given the stressors on sperm. So it’s important for each partner to take active responsibility for their physical, mental, and spiritual health and get equally on board, and for the couple to above all remember that they are a united force. Awakening fertility is not solely a woman’s project! And if men start to understand this, even if it stretches them emotionally a little, it will lift the guilt from the woman and help them come at this with hearts joined and strong to make the dream real. It’s so important to hold on to faith in your dream. As one of the wise ones interviewed for our book told us, if a woman wants to become a mother, she will; even if how she gets there doesn’t look the way she expected.
Can you speak to the ties between food and nourishment and a person’s fertility? Are there certain foods people should eat more or less of when they are trying to become pregnant?
One of the things my co-writers and I hope to share is that nourishment in the preconception months or years is mental, emotional, and physical. And when I cook for and with women, I try to bring this approach to “what to eat.” For example, from a traditional Chinese medicine point of view, the kidneys are the foundation for reproductive health for both women and men—which is why my auntie would insist both partners came in for each session. The kidneys are also where fear and insecurities unconsciously take hold. It goes both ways: weak, undernourished kidneys can generate fearful feelings, which in turn block loving experiences, and harboring fear can cause physically weak kidneys! That’s why for fertility, caring for your emotional health goes hand in hand with the physical and in the book, we talk a lot about feeling into what your body is saying it needs to feel safe, supported, and energized, which changes all the time.
My whole M.O. around preconception food is keeping it clean, simple, and not intimidating. It’s easier than most women think to cook with ingredients that support kidney health and fertility. In the book, I share recipes for many of these which include oysters, walnuts, eel, sardines, oatmeal, flax seed, trout, salmon, miso, fish roe, egg yolk, berries, asparagus, organ meats like liver and kidneys, almonds, crab, scallops, and ginger. From a Western point of view, I suppose we’d call these nutrient dense foods, but they are also warming and energizing and cleansing. Meanwhile, it’s wise to dial down the alcohol, the oily foods (especially those cooked in high heat vegetable oil), ultra heating spicy foods, and cold, “heavy” foods like excessive dairy. It’s vital to know that the liver and spleen require equal care—eating lots of bitter greens and beets help your liver stay clear and vital, which in turn helps it keep your hormones in balance! But above all, I want women to “consume” happy thoughts, less stress, more sleep, and an easeful attitude alongside all the good food. As my Auntie Ou would say when her patients tell her they are ready to go for it, “No thoughts for anything less than happiness.”
Learn More about Motherbees & Purchase Awakening Fertility: The Essential Art of Preparing for Pregnancy