Karoline Barwinski

Mara on learning how to advocate for yourself, body wisdom, + the power of self-care practice

Karoline Barwinski
Mara on learning how to advocate for yourself, body wisdom, + the power of self-care practice

This week, Mara Grbenick, Master Integral Coach shares how she used her intuition and body wisdom to prepare for her baby’s birth. I also love her self-care rituals that support her and allow her to embody all that she believes in. Enjoy.

Sun & Moon Signs:

I’m as Cancer as they come! My Sun and Moon are in Cancer, and so is my ascendant sign.  My daughter’s Sun is in Leo, her Moon in Capricorn and her ascendant sign is Aquarius.

What do you do for a living? 

I’m an Integral Master Coach™ and my joy is guiding women in their vision for personal, professional and spiritual development so they can realize their fullest expression in life and work. My work is to facilitate embodied personal transformation and help ease the way for people in their self-actualization.


What was important to you when it came to your pregnancy?

Health, ease, support that would enable me to be embodied in the experience.

What forms of exercise did you do?  What was it like for you?  Do you feel any of it helped with getting your body ready for birth? 

I mostly walked, and did some stretching and yoga. Ideally, I’d have developed a stronger body and core before pregnancy. We sit a lot in our culture and move our bodies in limited ways. I learned just how impactful that is in forming muscle imbalances, and those imbalances were exacerbated by the weight and demands of pregnancy on my body.


What was your birthing experience like? What were the most memorable joyful and/or most difficult parts of your labor and birth?  What sticks out in your mind about it? 

My labor was very independent—looking back on it I see myself as being like an animal that goes off by herself to manage the labor process. I labored at home for a long time and arrived at the hospital at 9cm dilated! I figured I was somewhere in transition but was so surprised I was that far along when I got there. I was so present and committed to not getting ahead of myself mentally that I didn’t recognize how hard my body had been working and that yes, I was dilated enough to soon be pushing out a baby.

Looking back, I would have liked support from a doula or midwife at home. I was listening to and trusting my body, but I also felt 100% in charge and that’s quite a masculine energy to carry—which there is a time for in the birthing process for sure. But how can you ride your labor and really release yourself if you know you’ve got to be with it enough to make a good decision for yourself?

Did you have any fears around giving birth?  How did you view your birth differently after? 

I wouldn’t say I felt a lot of fear—but perhaps it’s a kind of fear when you know you have to learn the ins and outs of labor and birth and the medical industry in order to advocate for yourself and your right to have an experience that is not unnecessarily intervened upon by outside prerogatives.

Did you have a specific kind of birth experience in mind ?  Was your actual birth experience a bit different? How did you approach any decisions that were outside of your initial plan?

I began with a belief that birth is a natural process and my body knows how to do it. I considered the potentiality of an induction or cesarean, and learned about the sequences of choices I could make if the need for interventions arose, and specified my choices in a birth preferences document—which I kept to one page because doctors or attendants will want the essential, critical details. My husband and I discussed those preferences often so he could advocate for me, and I also shared them with my providers in prenatal appointments.

Initially, I saw an obstetrician but I knew pretty quickly that I’d end up with a midwife. I tend to check out my options as a way of reinforcing my intuition. I chose a practice of certified nurse midwives who attend deliveries in a hospital that is known for supporting women’s birth choices. It felt like middle ground. My husband, who is hoping to become a doctor, is more traditional but came to value the midwifery approach to birth. Looking back, I know that I wanted a midwife all along but I saw the OB initially more for him than for me. (Interesting, isn’t it?!) Culturally, we tend to favor formal credentials, but midwives may be the ideal providers for low-risk pregnancies. Obstetricians are surgeons; the training and approaches are different.

I wasn’t interested in pain medication whatsoever, which may come as a surprise, but I knew there can be cascading effects of an epidural including feeling sick—and as someone who suffers from migraines with vomiting, I’ve developed a capacity to be with pain, and I would rather many things than a hung-over feeling. Don’t get me wrong, there were moments in labor just knowing an epidural was possible if I really needed it was a godsend!

What was the biggest thing that you did or that’s part of your lifestyle that helped you prepare for birth and/or motherhood?

I didn’t take a birth class—though I would do it for a future pregnancy because of all the stuff that you don’t know to know about. I read a ton and really felt like I knew the field of issues to be aware of and the choices available to me. There is value in the shared wisdom of the collective. I would say take a class and find out what the questions are that you have that maybe you don’t even know you have. We have a great place for that here in Portland called Birth Roots and I took some wonderful post-natal group classes there that made me wish I’d done the prenatal class! If birth is in your reality, the question is: how can you open to the experience of it?

Would you do anything different now that you've gone through your pregnancy and birth? 

I would have a doula attend my labor because I labored a long while at home before heading to the hospital. I spent much more time at home than at the hospital in labor and hadn’t anticipated that. It would’ve been helpful to my husband, too, who was carrying a lot as my sole birth partner.

Since we hadn’t done a birth class, my husband didn’t have a playbook, so to speak but he read the book The Birth Partner thoroughly and was a constant and supportive presence.

He was completely dependent on me to say when it was time to go to the hospital, and I was completely reliant on my body wisdom. A doula may have helped me read my labor and given some useful guidance. Being attended to by a woman who knows labor and birth may also have allowed me to be more held in the feminine. That said—I never felt alone or scared. I wouldn’t have labored as long as I did as independently as I did had I felt fear or panic or anything other than in and trusting my body. I felt solidly on, in it, and powerful!


What were the first several weeks postpartum for you like?  Is it something you thought about and prepared for? 

I read books like The First Forty Days and The Fourth Trimester, which included practical advice that I did implement. We’re in a time where many of us live far from our default support systems—families, dearest friends—and when culturally we practice disconnecting behaviors between each other in these intimate times of life. I thought a lot about the flow of visitors postpartum (we had no hospital visitors) and creating the support system I needed and wanted. I hired a postpartum doula who came once and my husband was able to be off work for a bit. I couldn’t know how labor, delivery and recovery would go and how the baby would be in this world, so I could only plan so far. There are things you can definitely plan for like plenty of food in the freezer and for the rest, I often said to my mother-in-law or others, I’ll let you know what I need when I know it. I allowed myself to not know and speak for myself when it became more clear.

From pregnancy to birth to the fourth trimester, there’s a zeitgeist around birth urging women to take charge of their experience and plan for everything. Where we are right now culturally, I wholly support that and think that it’s urgent that women “demand the ball” in pregnancy, birth and life; but as with many things, the community needs to listen deeply and advocate for those going through these special times. For example, at my wedding, my maid of honor tended to me this way—handling things, bringing issues to my attention in a way that I felt seen and supported, encouraging me, and so on. That’s what ideally women have in their gestational and mothering period. Similar to my experience in labor, you can only rest so deeply if you have to be director of your needs. Having gone through this experience, I will be a much better support to women in my community because now I see it from the other side.

How has becoming a mother shifted the way you work, or how you view your job? 

I’ve been moving for many years towards a more feminine, intuitive way of working. Rather than beating my creativity to a pulp, I’m learning to work in a way that is generative even as the form of things is emergent. I’ve become more uncompromising with my intuitive feel for which people and opportunities are a good fit for me at this time. I believe in longer runways, spaciousness, right timing, setting up a strong container for life and work to flow in. I have access to my creative source like I haven’t in ...perhaps, ever. Motherhood turned out to be healing, a teacher for me, that I was really ready for.

How do you take care of yourself / attend to your self-care needs as a mama?  Do you have any practices/ rituals/ anything you do that are especially helpful in allowing you to show up fully with an open heart for yourself and your family?

Over the years, a few things have become essential self-care: Always a good breakfast, carrying water everywhere I go, and setting myself up for eating (and feeling) well by planning and cooking meals and snacks for my days. Then, a good 30-60 minute daily walk which I often do with the dog and the baby, and at least a few days a week a bath at night.

I layer in connection throughout the week—with my husband, our dog, family, friends, work peers—basically all the relationships I want to nurture and be nurtured by. When I’m intentional about this, it feels really good. And I actually do keep a list of people I want to connect with—whether it’s old friends or people I’d like to know better!

I regularly receive bodywork, acupuncture or chiropractic care.

I try to forget where my phone is and not be on it. Sometimes, while I’m nursing or waiting out a nap in the car (even when my mind is racing with all the things I want to do in the day or in that time), I take a few breaths and find my center—how am breathing? (Am I holding my breath? Is my breathing shallow or full?) Where are my thoughts? How does my body feel? This releases tension, allows me to be present with my babe and myself, and to usually find a way to sort out the thoughts and energy that can build up when you’re giving so much of the time.

What feels challenging to you right now? What are some ways you’re tackling it? 

I suppose my work feels challenging—but in the best way! I’m excited when I know I’m going to my office and I get to work on this vision I see for myself. But there’s a lot I want to accomplish and the demands on my time have increased substantially with a baby. Getting focused and paying attention to daily or weekly tasks that can be outsourced or simplified has been helpful. Kids or no kids, working for fewer hours has been a goal of mine and it leads me to be more mindful in how I work so that my time working is more fruitful and sane. One of the ways I’m approaching this is by keeping the number of things I’m aiming to complete professionally to a tight list. I put my time into experiences and relationships that enrich more than one aspect of my life.


Resources Mara Used During Her Pregnancy

spinningbabies.com | check out their website for exercises you can do in pregnancy and labor to support your birth

The Conscious Parent

The Birth Partner

The Fourth Trimester

Pregnancy, Childbirth, And The Newborn (2016-5th Edition) | I referred to this book a lot, especially when writing my birth preferences.

Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers


Move your DNA Podcasts on breastfeeding | Katy Bowman is a biomechanist and if you’re at all interested in the human body, you’ll find her work fascinating, too. I HIGHLY recommend her work to help you think differently about how you move—and the benefits of nutritious movement—at any stage of life!