Tigerlily: what's in a name

Tigerlily is a little known native woodland flower in California. To me, it is the perfect symbol for women's labors and for women’s health.  

Hearing tigerlily, one might think the flower would have stripes.  But, as our bodies (and labor!) disregard human-made designations, tigerlilies do not have stripes, they have spots.  

Our native Tigerlily flower surprises with its quietness. It prefers secluded private places. Women in labor need privacy.

Labor, like a wild animal, is shy. It does its work best in intimate seclusion.

The native Tigerlily flower turns her face towards the earth, like a woman in active labor. Life and labor humble us: a point comes when we can only surrender.  

The word Tigerlily brings together the delicate, like the graceful wildflower, and the feminine powerful in its strength, like a tigress.  

The native Tigerlily is not a cultivated plant.  We do not shape it nor choose its season. We cannot force it.  We can allow it, we can give it space to grow. 

Labor and other strong physical experiences, like emotions, remind me of the Wild inside us. A live wilderness, at moments raging, at others serene, alive without regard for our opinions and rules.  The work in women's health and labor is to listen to the wisdom in our bodies. We learn to allow the body to do what it needs to do. We learn to trust its instincts, needs, and truths.  


This morning I remember and thank a young woman I will call Karla, who taught me about labor and gratitude in a public hospital in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. She walked to the hospital to birth, so brave, leaving her family camped outside the closed doors of the hospital. She walked in, like others, dressed in her best dress.  Honduras has a high rate of perinatal loss; like so many women she had lost her first baby at 7 months pregnancy.  Now she was in labor with her second. Labor was strong.  She gave herself to it completely, thanking those of us that attended her, thanking God, with each contraction. God is here, she said.  

The labor room had eight rickety metal beds. Another woman had been in the labor room for 24 hours, weepy now with back labor. The three of us walked together, up and down between the rows of beds. When it was time to push, a nurse instructed Karla to lie on her back.  Karla became disconcerted, scared. "No lo aguanto!" she cried for the first time, "I can't bear it!" As we changed to an upright squatting position, she regained her trust and focus, as her body taught her how to push.  The baby was born en caul, with the water bag intact, and she helped open the bag after the birth. 

A clear beauty marked Karla's labor. Her gratitude made a path of light that led her where she needed to go to birth. The word "trust" is thought to have come from an Old Norse word, traust, which means strong.  I often think of her when I am labor-sitting. I hear her, crying out her thanks to God with the coming of each labor contraction.