I am a lover of doulas and what they do for families. We need to hear how we are doing, how we are being perceived, if we ever want to improve! When we get those bits of negative feedback, it is an opportunity for us to change and be better, not shrink and get resentful. We are all just people, trying to do the best we can. Communication is an important piece of the doula-client relationship -- the more we can communicate, before and during a birth, the better satisfied we can all be.
I hate to be Debbie Downer, that is not in my heart at all. I hired a doula for what I thought were realistic reasons. Like so many others, I read the statistics: shorter labors, lower uses of epidurals, happier feelings after the birth; those were the ones that stuck in my mind. I just didn't expect things to go the way they did, and when they went, they went fast. I felt like my doula went along with that, while I was left behind feeling alone.
I know one admirable quality of any doula worth her salt is good working relationships with the nurses and doctors at the place of birth. I was impressed by the stories I heard from my doula, the goings out to lunch with nurses, the sittings next to doctors at conferences. I will admit, it made me feel like she integrated well into the hospital process. What I didn't expect was that she might need to maintain that balance. When push came to shove in my situation, I did not feel she was with me, on my side. I felt like she was on their side, and it was her job to get me to feel good about coming to their decisions and preferences.
In a way, this was the beginning of the isolation. I had heard hospital doulas who are provided by the hospital or volunteer/work for the hospital sometimes have a hard time being neutral. I did not worry about this, because my doula was independent and nonaffiliated with the hospital. She did have a family member who was high ranking on the infrastructure of the hospital board, but again I saw this as a bonus, not a deficit. In reality, I think it aligned her with the hospital's way of doing things. It made it seem like her job was to help me buckle to that agenda in a less threatening way than if it came from a staff member.
I had a complication when it came time to push. Suddenly I was being rolled over, yelled at urgently, and told to push, even without a contraction. Extra people came rushing into the room. I was hearing all kinds of instructions at once. I closed my eyes and tried to do what they told me. My husband was no where to be seen or felt. My doula was also lost in the haze. I had no clue what was happening. I needed the tiniest bit of an explanation. The one person I would have expected this from was not there. My doula.
After the baby came out there was an audible sigh of relief. She was taken to a flat table to be given air and make sure she was breathing like she should. I felt the smallest touch from my husband's hand, and I wanted to gobble it up and have it take me away. He was scared too. We watched as our baby was being poked and prodded, mask on her face, lights flashing and alarms beeping. I looked for my doula and she was talking to the nurse about how frightening that was, and how she was sorry the nurse had to get up on the stool to help move me because the nurse was pregnant.
I could have used the emotional support my doula was giving my nurse.
It took a while before anyone explained what happened. It took even longer before our baby was brought to us. I felt pretty insignificant. I felt alone and afraid. Soon after the bustle in my room went down and I was considered recovered, my doula announced she needed to go move her car before her meter ran out. She said she would be right back.
"That's ok. I think we are ok now." She looked at me with a puzzled expression. "But the baby isn't back from the nursery. Do you want me to wait and see if we can get you nursing?" I let her know I was really tired, and I would ask for help from the staff if we needed it. She came over, gave me a hug, and said, "Thanks for having me as your doula."
Really I just felt sad. I felt let down. I wanted more mothering, and I got what seemed like a bubble gum teenager who was only with me until the cooler kids came (her friends at the hospital). I am not writing off doulas forever. I still can't deny those statistics. But next time, I am going to ask different questions, and remember to be impressed by different answers.
Lindsey is a high school math teacher and new resident to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her husband, daughter, and Shar-Pei, Bluto, are expecting the arrival of a new baby around Thanksgiving. She is just starting to reach out to potential doulas.
The parallels of birth and death aren't unknown. They both require suspending judgement, supporting in the moment, and holding space to respect individuals' journeys and nature's timeline. Today's feature isn't as happy and joyful as many others in the 31 Days project, and yet every doula knows endings are inevitable. Hold on to your hearts.
There was a woman who named herself after the mountains where she had communed with other women and wrote poetry. In the end she went berserk with agitation, climbed out of her hospital bed in an attempt to lie on the earth again. We covered her in blankets as her community of friends took turns sitting vigil. Her strong body and spirit would not give in to disease without a great fight. Back in bed, she lasted for weeks like that, feeding off the fuel she had accumulated over a lifetime until one day, the flame burned all the way to the core and released her free at last.
There was a woman quiet and withdrawn, who only nodded yes or no. Yet when a dear one entered and approached, she open her arms to bring them in close. Her adult children had lost a father just two years before and her illness had mostly been a secret, a failed attempt at protecting her loved ones from pain. All we can do is be there to support and minimize suffering. The existential journey is their own. At a time when one can no longer deny death, loved ones gather with tears and smiles for all the healing that can finally begin. In the end, friends and family gathered in the chapel to acknowledge and honor her life. Then came a parade of flowers our way, grandiose bouquets perking up the solarium.
A volunteer angel drops in every now and again, effortlessly singing A cappella, opening the portal within the spirits of the dying, attempting to free them of blocked emotional meridians and move them forward on their individual path, on the labyrinth of existence.
An emaciated woman already a skeleton slowly turned to look at me and offer a weak smile, appearing to wonder about my treatment or judgement of a lifelong multi-drug abuser lying on her death bed before she was even old. She is estranged from all family. I offer reassurance that she will be cared for with kindness and respect. She replied "thank you". I suggest that she has experienced a lot of trauma in her life. She replied "scary". Perhaps at birth, or in the mother's womb, she was already addicted. Maybe now, in a time as vulnerable as birth, she can finally just receive love and care without having to do anything to earn it. She seeks to have her pain and anxiety resolved, just like any other human being. And in a couple days, after a week hiatus in the desert, I will return to this work, wondering if she survives still. As a death doula, I will either care for her with kindness and compassion, or if she is gone, I will care for the others who come next to this house.
It's no surprise to me that Christa's heart holds room for these monumental bookends we call the beginning and the end. She and I had the pleasure of meeting years ago when she moved to Chico, CA as a birth doula, wanting to connect. This was serendipitous, and she, four other doulas, and I went on to create the Chico Doula Circle. Christa was planning to attend nursing school in New York as soon as she had all her pre-requisite classes. Knowing her passion for mothers and babies, I was surprised to learn she was working as a nurse in a hospice home. She admitted she didn't imagine herself there -- life brought her to serving those on the other end. She holds a reverence for nature and its ways, and I know she is right where she needs to be.
As doulas, we must plow through and process our own birth experiences -- and those we have grown up hearing -- before we are able to help other women face theirs. Although Denise is not technically a doula, as a counselor, she surely has felt this weight. Her thoughts and experience on this are too valuable not to share. It is our responsibility, as doulas, birth workers, and professionals serving women, that we take the time to process our experiences of birth or they can easily get in our way, making themselves known to all those we try to help.
I had all the tools I thought I needed to overcome my fears, my doubts, and my worries about my first child. I researched everything I could about natural birth. I enrolled in an expensive birth education class, and, obsessively, I read everything I could get my hands on. I was determined to make my birth different from what my mother experienced. I would be the natural-birthing, breastfeeding, attachment-parenting warrior I often criticized my mother of not being.
To be fair, my mother had the chips stacked against her. She was from Puerto Rico, spoke very little English, and had little support from my father. A mixture of mental illness and lack of family support made for a scary experience bringing her first child into the world. When my mother told me my birth story, it was filled with fear of the unknown, being in horrible pain, being drugged and knocked out for the “main event”, and ending in my mom only having vague and indistinct memories of the process of my arrival. “This will NOT be me!” I declared triumphantly. But inside, the fear turned over and over in my stomach. I rehearsed my birth plan in my mind and told the father of my children to do the same. As a therapist in training, I was engaged in my own therapy, and discussed in depth with the therapist my fears related to the baby. My therapist gently reminded me that I was not my mother, and that I was not doomed to repeat her mistakes; but the ghosts of my mother’s “not-so-perfect” birth lingered inside of me. What if things didn’t go as planned? What if one of my choices caused me to experience exactly what my mother had been through? I couldn’t enjoy my pregnancy fully thinking about the potential hazards that may or may not lay ahead.
Anxiety can suck the life out of you. Worse yet, many people fail to understand how a person suffering with anxiety feels. Hearing someone tell you, “Oh, stop it”, or “Just stop thinking about it,” or my personal favorite, “Relax!” can actually cause more anxiety. Anxiety disorders can cause distressful emotional and physical symptoms, and can be severe in intensity. It can range from a general uneasiness and worry that won’t go away, to feeling an intense amount of fear that causes you to believe you are going to die. With the ebb and flow of feelings one has during a pregnancy, anxiety can be easily exacerbated, especially if you have struggled with it in the past.
After the birth of my daughter, I was severely traumatized. Things did not go as I had planned. My midwife and husband stood by me as my “perfect birth plan” unraveled. I got an epidural after 2 days of slow labor at home, followed by Pitocin at the hospital. After my baby was born, the doctor cut the cord right after birth, and I didn’t get to hold the baby very long after she was born. Then, my uterus would not contract and the doctor had to manually and painfully stop me from bleeding out. I almost died giving birth; after the birth, the thought of this would not leave me alone. Looking at my baby would cause a wave of fear to flow through me, and I fought tooth and nail to keep close to her at every moment. Truthfully, there were times I wanted to be away from this “little reminder” that everything I had planned went wrong, and I had almost lost my life because of this. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt because I blamed myself for what had happened. My dark fear was that I had missed out on attaching to her, just as I believed my mother had.
To add insult to injury, I tried to get my daughter to breastfeed; after days of trying on my own, I tearfully gave her a bottle full of formula. I must have cried every single time I filled that bottle with formula for at least two weeks after that day. After all that planning and prepping, I felt the ghosts of my mom’s “not-so-perfect” birth were haunting me. I started berating myself; telling myself I had failed. I would look at my child every feeding and think how much of a failure I was, and how much she would suffer because of it. I imagined gloom and doom for both of us, because I had not achieved the perfect birth.
Weeks later, in therapy, a thought struck me. What if the “not-so-perfect” birth could be a way to exorcise the ghosts from my mother’s experience? If I made an active choice to walk a different path after the events I had been through, maybe the ghosts wouldn’t control my emotions and actions the way they had for my mother. Instead of living in fear that I had done some incredibly damaging things to my child, maybe I could believe that despite the “not-so-perfect” start, I could have a “pretty-damn-awesome” motherhood. Maybe I could learn to hear the ghosts’ voices and gently reply, “Even though I hear you, you will not be as loud as before, and I don’t have to follow you.”
I won’t pretend doing that was easy. It has probably been the hardest thing for me to do in my life, and still have to do it every day. Because wish though I might, the ghost lingers. Albeit a whisper, it is there. I don’t believe it will ever go away. What I do know is, it no longer holds me the way it once did. I faced the nightmare and the fears it contained, and it served to birth a stronger, more vibrant birth story for myself and my daughter. Not one of being a victim to circumstances, but one of taking adversity and transforming it to fit my life, my vision, and my version of motherhood.
Two years later, I found myself in the same situation, ready to give birth to my son, with a plan in hand; but this time I held the loving intention in my heart that “even if things don’t go the way I plan, the birth will still be good.” I cried as my midwife told me we couldn’t have the water birth I wanted, and as I got the epidural and Pitocin once more, I grieved because I knew this was my last child, and my vision of a “perfect birth” was lost. The voices rose up in a chorus, yelling to me of impending doom, and of critical insults; but I moved forward. My son, to everyone’s surprise, was born in the caul, which brought many a nurse out from behind the nursing station. My midwife exclaimed that this was indeed a special birth. “Take that ghosts!” I thought to myself.
Since these events, I have felt a pull to work with women who have been through similar situations, and describe the birth of their child as traumatic. Some have a great sense of fear surrounding their upcoming birth because of what they have heard about birth in the past. I hear them filled with resentment towards well-meaning people who, trying to help, do more harm than good by minimizing their fears or telling them to “relax.” They suffer silently at times, not wanting others to call them crazy, and they feel a deep sense of shame, guilt, regret, pain, worry and fear when things don’t go exactly as planned. Birth can be a wonderful, orgasmic, enjoyable, life changing event for most. It can be a traumatic, scary, life changing event for others. In my opinion, no matter what the circumstances around the birth are, it is life changing. You have the choice of how you will move through the events that shape your birth. The ghosts of the “not-so-perfect” births of our mothers, our sisters or even ourselves may try to lead you down a dark path, but remember the steps you take regardless of where you are on your walk into motherhood are yours to take. And if your birth was “not-so-perfect”, there is support, counseling, and a sisterhood of other women out there that have heard the ghost’s voices, and can help you lower the volume to a whisper.
So, how do you transform a “not-so-perfect” birth into a “pretty-damn-awesome” motherhood? It’s a long journey. It’s a different journey for everyone. Some women can say they walk it on their own. Others need to walk with a professional counselor. Some need medical interventions, natural or pharmaceutical. Some need to process the past, and learn to live in the present. Some must come to terms with the trauma they survived and walk a path towards healing. None of the paths are easy or short.
You may be trying to keep positive, and I encourage you to hold that warm intention in your heart for your birth; but if outcomes don’t occur as planned, the ghosts of trauma, guilt and shame may be screaming in your ears. Instead, voice the fears but welcome the possibility that things will go well. Hold the possibilities of the good and most positive birth experience possible while holding the knowledge that what will be, will be. Most of all, love yourself and accept the birth for what it is – a transforming, movement into motherhood full of excitement, joy, hardship, disappointments, courage, strength, awesomeness, sleeplessness, feminine power and a little of all of the above – regardless if it is an ideal birth or a “not-so-perfect” birth.
Denise Varela, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in New York, has been in the field for over 14 years, and has worked with clients from infancy to age 101. Denise is the founder of Nurture We, a team of professionals who desire to help women find the fun in life again in easy and healthy ways. Nurture We is dedicated to providing classes, blogs, life coaching and counseling on mental health and related issues. Denise understands depression, anxiety, stress and other issues drain our joy and our childlike desire to have fun. When we address these issues, we can take back what we were born with -- the ability to enjoy life through its ups and downs, acknowledge all of our feelings, and still have fun in our daily lives! Our joy and laughter and fun will be contagious to those around us and our loved ones will be nurtured by our well-being.
Amy is a fellow doula and friend from my Chico days. When I learned about the plight of refugee families, I, like many others, watched and read until my heart hurt and my head couldn't handle the helplessness I felt. Carry the Future came from mother Cristal Logothetis' idea to provide donated baby carriers to fleeing families. Genius! If I had to grab my family and leave my home, on foot, amidst thousands of people doing the same, carrying and keeping my baby safe would be my highest priority. A baby carrier would serve the crucial roles of keeping my hands free and keeping my baby near. I can't go to Greece myself, I can't be there. I am grateful for people like Amy, who can help make a difference in such a simple way, for this very complicated problem.
When did you train as a doula? Six years ago I became a doula. I have always been fascinated with birth. I witnessed my first baby born at age 12. For years, my work centered around supporting women becoming mothers, and also their new babies. Becoming a doula seemed a likely next step.
Did your own experiences of birth and being a mother factor into wanting to be a doula? Yes, I had amazing "birth plans," and used midwives, and my mother and sister -- I relied so much on their support. When everything about my plans went out the window with my first birth, I understood the power of that extra support person to speak to me, to help me navigate my options.
What is it you like about doula work? Witnessing the birth of the mother...her power. With each birth, I am always humbled to my core to be there as a supporter, to have been asked to help in this intimate, sacred space. The first gaze of mother to child is the most precious of moments for me.
How did you hear about Carry the Future? Carry the Future came to me through a text from an amazing mentor, Debbie Pierce. She casually asked if I thought helping fit refugee mothers with baby carriers was a possibility for me. When I answered that it sounded like a life goal, I quickly was put in touch with a group of mothers in a non-stop Facebook chat that was inspired by a woman's Indiegogo campaign to collect carriers. Two months later, I was traveling to Greece with nine strangers, who have changed my life.
We hear about human tragedy a lot, and wish we could help -- what motivated you to actually take the steps to travel to Greece? My children are a little older now, but I also have been practicing saying "Yes" more, and almost without too much thought, I committed, and it felt like something bloomed in my heart...it was right, and I have never been the same since.
How did you feel when you finally saw for yourself the situations these families faced? The refugee families were MY family! I was these mothers. I felt the fierce protection they had for their precious children. I saw the men holding their families tight, offering support to their wives, and often being the person to carry the babies on their chests. I was so taken by the grace of the families as they arrived, coming through the shock and unspeakable loss many (most) had endured. I was able to see how they could teach us, in solidarity, how connected we all are -- how the same we all are.
How safe is it for volunteers like you? I have never felt in danger on my trips. I have been to Athens two times, and Lesvos once. We would arrive sometimes at 4 am and stay until past midnight. There are eyes on everyone, caring for and keeping everyone safe. The situation has become slightly more volatile with the terrible EU deal with Turkey and the boarders closing. There is desperation, but I am returning June 3 to do the work, sit with these mothers, share and hold space like some do for each other. [A true doula's heart~SB]
Can you describe a typical day? As a group, we created jobs for ourselves, like a mama bear to make sure everyone was eating and crying and laughing enough, ferry trackers to watch the ships come in on a boat, watch apps on the phones, and photographers and journal writers to record this work. We would be up most days around 4 am, shovel a protein bar or an apple in, and taxi to the ports. The ferries carry 1000-2500 refugees at a time, and some days, we received 6 boats. These are the large boats bringing all the people from the islands after they made it from being smuggled overnight from Turkey. We would maybe take a nap at the cafe or back at our apartment if there was time between arriving boats, or travel to the short term camps to distribute aid and carriers, or even just sweep the floors. We spend time in the warehouses collecting specific needs for the camps we are going to that day, and organizing if there is a ferry strike. Many late nights, we would gather to decompress, cry it out, and share a plate of pita or Greek salads. The next day would often start 5 hours later. I have never been so glad to be so tired. It was like having a newborn child, you just "do it" and love hard.
I have always been impressed by your mother's kind and gentle, generous nature. How has she shaped your desire to help others? My mother's kindness and amazing compassion has absolutely created the desire in me to help others. I saw her always welcoming a new neighbor with dinner, or helping to feed or clean for a new mother. I have always believed we are all neighbors and connected, because of my mother's nature. She inspires me every day to be more giving and gentle, even with myself.
How many times have you been to Greece now? Are you planning to go back? What is required in planning a trip? I leave June 3rd for my 4th trip (I did a back-to-back trip in February from Lesvos, and then met and led a team in Athens six days later -- my first trip was in November last year). Buying a ticket is the first step. Everything for my personal needs has to fit in a carry-on. Each team member meets up at a distribution center (we now have three across the country) and picks up about 400 pounds of carriers to travel with. What is needed? A valid passport (not expiring within 30 days), an "anything-could-happen" team player attitude, and a desire to show love are all the requirements you need. Most of our trips are planned the same way until a situation changes, then we must be fluid and rearrange locations and accommodations -- the love and dedication stay the same.
This next trip will be more solo, and I will be working in the camps and directly with a female-friendly space for breastfeeding support, re-establishing lactation, and a place for mothers to bond with each other as they will likely be in camps in Greece for what may be a long time. I will continue to do this work, and I will return until I am no longer needed -- in Solidarity.
I remember, growing up, hearing my mom's stories of birth. I knew I was a breech baby born vaginally, as was my next sibling after me. My mother had 5 children, and what really stuck with me was, "You can deal with anything for one minute," in regards to contractions. Amy's mother had a very different first experience with a truly life-threatening condition. I love that Amy's mother was not only able to instill aspects of normal birth in her daughter, but that as a woman who had cesarean births, she felt healing as she witnessed the birth of her grandchildren.
Every April is Cesarean Awareness Month. Cesareans of course are sometimes necessary and in some instances can be a lifesaving procedure for the mother, baby or both. In my work as a doula I have attended a number or Cesarean births and one of my favorite clients to work with are moms who are planning a VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Cesarean) birth.
A lot of people assume that because I am a doula that I am anti-intervention and therefore anti-cesarean. Believe it or not I am personally very thankful for Cesarean’s because my mother and I would not be here today without them. I was born by an emergency, lifesaving Cesarean.
While my mother was pregnant with me she experienced a complication called placenta previa. Placenta Previa happens when the placenta is low in the uterus and either partially or completely covers the cervix. In her situation it completely covered the cervix. This complication is a true medical indication for a Cesarean birth. It’s dangerous for the mother to even go into labor.
My mother was told she wouldn’t go into labor but would start bleeding first and to come immediately into the hospital when that happened. She had been hospitalized earlier in the pregnancy for bleeding. On June 3rd (due date was July 14th ) she started experiencing contractions, as a first time mom who was told she wouldn’t go into labor she didn’t realize what was happening.
She was staying with my grandma while my dad was at work and in the afternoon my grandma noticed her stopping to breathe through contractions and took her straight to the hospital. Upon arrival she was checked and was fully dilated. Things really got busy at that point as the doctor came in to do an emergency cesarean on her. The doctor yelled at her for eating lunch while in labor because they needed to put her to sleep. The nurse insisted that I had no heartbeat as my mom was being wheeled into surgery. She was put to sleep right after the nurse said “I don’t know where that doctor thinks he’s hearing a heartbeat at. This baby is already gone.”
Needless to say we both made it though. I was a preemie but did great. I didn’t even need oxygen. My mom still talks about what a frightening experience my birth was. She woke up assuming that she had lost her baby. She had a really rough recovery after and woke up many times asking what happened to me and being reminded that I was ok.
Now for what I learned from my mom about birth. My mom was never afraid to talk to us about her birth experiences. I’m thankful for that. Even with the dramatic way I entered this world I was not fearful of giving birth when my time to birth came because of her. She talked to us about her disappointment in never getting to birth her babies.
She went on to have two more children both scheduled cesareans. With my brother the youngest she was thankful for being able to have a spinal and be awake to hear his first cries. She searched for a provider to have a VBAC with my brother but due to the fact that she had a classical uterine incision they felt it was too risky for her to attempt.
She always talked to us about what birth was supposed to be like. Empowering, amazing and beautiful.
She was present for 4 out of her 5 grandchildren’s births. She says it was healing for her to experience those births. With the births of my children she was so supportive and helpful I can’t imagine not having had her there.
My dream is that my daughter and someday maybe my granddaughter’s won’t fear birth and that they will embrace it as a life affirming, empowering event that my mother taught us it could be.
I gave birth to my daughter Maura in late 2005, an experience that led me to become a doula. When my son Ryan was born in April 2008, the process did not work out as well as I had planned, but this only served to reinforce my desire to help as many women have the birth they've always wanted.
My goal is for women to feel empowered by their birth experience. Women need to believe in their bodies and the natural process of childbirth, and nothing makes me happier than to be a part of their blessed arrival. In addition to my work as a doula, I am a Hypnobabies instructor, and a local ICAN chapter leader. Visit my website or Facebook page to learn more.
♥ four young boys and a boy dog (offspring)