How Lilybird Got Her Name

“We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.” J.K. Rowling

When people ask how it is that Lily got the nickname Lilybird, I usually pause or deflect the question because it’s a long answer. Lately that nickname has taken on even new meaning for me, so I feel like diving in (warning: I can't figure out how to make this a short post). I have to backup first though. I have to explain how we arrived at Lily in the first place.

By the time Stephen and I found out that we were having a girl, we’d already decided that our “girl name” would be Lillian. We weren't sure if we'd stick to Lillian or go right to Lily, but we loved the many layers around the name that spoke to us. Conveniently enough, it’s a family name on both sides. Stephen’s great-grandmother was Lillian, and I had a great-aunt Lily. Neither of us knew these women, but I am drawn to names that have ancestral significance.

I’m also fond of the Lillith tales in mystical Judaism that tell of a first wife of Adam—Lillith. She was headstrong and unwilling to be subservient to Adam, so Adam asked God for a more compliant wife, which is where Eve came into the picture. (I probably won’t tell these stories to Lily for a very long time!). And, of course, the lily flower is beautiful. I actually carried lilies in my wedding bouquet, and I love all of the wild lilies that grow all over the Presidio that we walk by regularly.

But the most compelling reason why we loved the name Lily actually comes from the Harry Potter series. I first started reading the series as an 8th grade language arts teacher at a private Christian school. One day I noticed several students sitting through all of their breaks—including their lunch breaks—reading the same book. I asked what could possibly be keeping them in the classroom over break, and, voilà, I met Harry and quickly became a fan. At first I thought they were just good fun, but as the series unfolded, I began to think of them as great literature in addition to great stories. (Bonus read: Here's a piece I wrote once about my nostalgia for Harry with my take on the series' deep religious symbolism along with the trouble I got into allowing my students at a Christian school to read them.)

Eventually I talked Stephen into reading them with me. Well, we actually listened to the entire series (twice) on tape over two years when we had a long commute together (hands down the best audio tapes around—the narrator is fantastic). We listened to the final book on tape the summer that we lived in Paris on a home exchange. The memory of walking around Paris at all hours of the night listening to the book with tandem earbuds on my iPod, totally jet-lagged and yet enthralled in the final saga of Harry Potter, is still one of my dearest memories. We talked about the themes of the book for weeks over chocolate croissants and café.

When I encounter a story that taps into my need for myth and meaning in a powerful way like Harry Potter did, I find myself able to interpret the world around me in a much more compassionate way, and I see people more generously. One of the enduring themes of the series is that love, self-sacrificing love, is ultimately the most powerful force in the universe. Dumbledore, the great professor and father figure (some argue God figure), continually teaches Harry that Voldemort’s greatest weakness is that he underestimates love because he only values power.

The character in the series who begins this theme of entirely selfless love is Harry’s mother, Lily Potter, who sacrifices her life for Harry, but in that act of love, she also imparts a powerful and protective charm that sustains Harry through many close encounters.

In a strange—even magical—way, reading that book series together prepared Stephen and me to be parents (of course, J.K. Rowling herself has said, “I believe in God, not magic”). We felt that we were ready to embark on the next journey of adulthood and learn more about what it means to love another more than self. We were ready to be parents. And naming our daughter after the character who inspired us to really embrace self-sacrificing love as the most powerful force in the universe seemed the least that we could do to give her a meaningful name.

But now to the “Lilybird” nickname. Around week 32 of my pregnancy, our midwife told us that Lily was breech. An ultrasound confirmed what her experienced hands already knew, and I started to panic in a very major way.

You see, not only did I not want a c-section (which, unfortunately in this country is the automatic answer for breech babes and mamas), but I had been planning a natural birth at home. I wanted the full experience, and I was utterly terrified of a surgical birth. I started having nightmares about a large knife cutting open my belly.

I had been a breech baby, and my mother had had a c-section (and since VBACS weren’t a remote possibility then, she’d had a second c-section with my sister). Both of her surgeries and recoveries had been very difficult, and she had a hard time breastfeeding either of us. With my sister, she’d had too much anesthesia and barely woke up for three days, and when she did she was sure that my sister was dead because she’d come out totally silent, also a result from too much anesthesia.

Even typing the word “c-section” in an email made me weep. In fact, just typing this now, I’m noticing quite a bit of discomfort and some anxiety. I was committed to doing everything possible to avoid a c-section. If you’ve heard of a remedy to turn babies (handstands in water, moxibustion, acupuncture, chiropractic, abdominal massage, music/talking, tilts, external version, etc., etc.), I tried it. A breech baby had been a complication that I’d known about because I have a funky uterus, or, in more positive language, “a two-bedroom special”, as Stephen likes to call it. Most babies are naturally more comfortable head-down in the average uterus, but mine is unique (bicornuate is the technical term), and Lily was standing on her toes in there, a double footling breech.

As a last resort, I tried hypnosis, which has actually been shown to have better luck than external versions at getting breech babies to turn down in several respected studies. My prenatal yoga teacher was also a hypnotherapist (and a doula), and I saw her for several sessions. Having grown up a good Adventist girl, I had a lot of reservations about hypnosis, but my fear of a c-section was far greater! Luckily, it didn’t turn out to be anything like the movies. (I called Stephen afterwards to assure him that I remembered everything and that there were no swinging chains involved.) My therapist just practiced deep relaxation and guided visualization. The point was to help me get in touch with my feelings around motherhood, parenting, and birth to see if I was subconsciously giving Lily a message that it wasn’t safe to get ready for birth.

What came out utterly surprised me. I’m a very wordy person (witness the length of this post), and I can talk my way in and out of a lot of rationales. So often the best way for me to get in touch with my authentic self is through external practices that provide a framework for me to go deeper. What I've found is that when I can recognize truth on a spirit level, I instantly know it; I don't have to talk my way into or around it.

This is what happened for me with hypnosis. I came headlong into my own fear and recognized it instantly as a deep, core fear that was underneath many aspects of my life.  I discovered that I was profoundly terrified of bringing an innocent life into this world because I didn’t know how to explain the suffering and pain in life. I desperately wanted to believe in a bigger purpose, a higher power, and that love and beauty eventually are greater than evil, but I was scared that I simply wanted those things to be true so badly that I was clinging to my stories (both the ones found in sacred literature and Harry Potter).

Of course I didn’t find a quick and easy answer—the problem of suffering and pain has been with us always, confounding the best thinkers—but it was incredibly helpful to tap into that fear.

And in a moment of visualizing a safe space where I could communicate love, acceptance, and safety to Lily, I found myself suddenly seeing Lily as a bird, alighting in the nest that I had made for her. She seemed part spirit, still drenched in the light.

I explained this sense later to Stephen—you know—a typical expectant parent conversation: “Hey honey—I felt the spirit of our unborn daughter come to me in a vision, and her spirit is a bird.” Luckily he didn’t freak out; instead he christened our yet-to-be little girl, “Lilybird.” Now that we’ve met her, I can confidently say that it fits well.

And now that we’ve learned more about each other (parenting is a grueling but effective way to strip yourself and your mate down to core essence!), this name feels like a perfect fit of our two selves blended into a new creature—I’m grounded, of the earth; Stephen loves to fly and explore broad expanses. 

It’s a lot of fun watching our Lilybird becoming herself. So far I’d say she has my love of people and place and her dad’s sense of adventure. And I sincerely hope that we’re all learning more every day about loving each other and the world outside our nest unselfishly.

Sorry—long tale, I know. But there you have it.