I was six months pregnant with my second baby when my mother first heard about birthing beads. Listening to a radio show in Australia, she immediately realised that this was the perfect substitute for a more traditional baby shower: perfect for any woman who has oceans and mountains dividing her from so many of her family and friends; perfect for any woman who may not want or need a gift-laden, boisterous celebration. Perfect for…me.
I had never heard of the concept before I received my first envelope. Inside was a card written in my mother’s impeccable handwriting, saying, “You will be receiving beads that will travel to you from all over the world. Each of your friends and family will send you a bead chosen with you in mind.” Out spilled her four glass beads – one pink, one blue and two white. She had been secretly executing this plan for weeks, navigating Facebook, calling on helpers, ensuring that the word was spread.
I had been having a hard pregnancy filled with anxiety and fear – so very different to my first joyous, anticipatory and affirming experience of pregnancy. I certainly wasn’t feeling particularly celebratory, and as time went on, I felt more alone and became highly aware of the vast distances between me and so many of my potential support networks.
But then the envelopes started to come.
Beads were travelling to me from all corners of the globe – two or three beads a week, from Australia, Canada, the U.S., Argentina, Germany, Norway and South Korea. Beads were hand-delivered to me, palm to palm; beads were wrapped in bubble wrap and boxed up. Beads that were slipped into envelopes had worked their way out of a corner to now be floating around on some ocean wave somewhere. Beads came from women and men, from mothers and their children, from the oldest of friends and from my husband’s workmates. I threaded them onto some string in the order that they arrived – coloured glass beads, carved wooden hearts, shells with holes in them, silver charms, a bead that had been worn by the sender for years, crystals and pearls, river glass, a Turkish blue eye…the list goes on. They were almost always accompanied by a card or letter, wishing me luck, telling me how brave and strong I am, cheering me on. One of my best friends in Australia sent her bead along with a tracing of her hand, telling me that it was there for me to hold anytime that I needed it – right now, during the birth and for the weeks, months and years afterwards. I cried every time I opened an envelope!
My mum arrived in Switzerland just prior to my second baby’s birth, giving me a few more beads from other friends and family. Of course, I had grand plans to string them on immediately, but life got in the way and I went into labour first! So there I was in the passenger seat of our car, my husband driving us to the hospital just after midnight, holding tightly to both my half-threaded string of beads and the little bag with those yet to be strung. In my hormone-flooded glory, I decided that this would be the perfect time to finish the threading, before we arrived at the hospital. My stalwart husband, aware that this was a terrible idea, drove with the inside light on for me nevertheless. And of course, during a contraction on the Autobahn, I dropped them all! Beads rolled all over the car, into every single crevice that you can imagine. My vision of a perfectly calm arrival at the hospital was replaced by the reality of me labouring against the car, screaming at my husband to find more beads, describing the ones that were still missing, yelling at him to look under things. This was not the relaxing experience I had planned!
Luckily for my beads, I am not the kind of mother who has one-hour labours, so we had time at the hospital to recreate my beloved string and hang it over my bed. I distinctly remember focusing on particular beads at certain points in my labour and feeling the strength and love that emanated from that string. In the weeks after the birth, through the emotionally-charged complexities of our breastfeeding experience, it remained hanging from the window above my favourite armchair. And today, two and a half years later, it continues to be one of the most precious possessions I own. To have these beautiful beads from all of these beautiful people all over the globe, wishing me love and sending me strength: there could be nothing more valuable.
Story and photo by Johanna Sargeant
Originally from Australia, Johanna and her husband unexpectedly made Zurich their home in 2010, when it was simply too beautiful to leave. Fuelled by her own tumultuous experiences of motherhood with her two young boys, this former English teacher, writer and musician retrained as a breastfeeding consultant. She runs fortnightly breastfeeding support meetings, teaches prenatal breastfeeding classes and remains busy providing online and in-person support for mothers throughout Switzerland. Follow her Milk and Motherhood blog and Facebook page.