I first met Teri at a doula gathering where I shared my experience creating a group doula practice. The energy in that room was invigorating, and I wasn't surprised to later learn these doulas had created their own successful group. Teri and I had a thoughtful exchange about how this summit left her feeling, and I believe she brings excellent balance to these trickier topics that factor into birth work.
Last month, I had to the good fortune to live close enough to Berkeley, CA to know about and attend the first annual Birthkeeper Summit. To be honest, I wasn't sure why I was going other than to be in the same room as Michel Odent, Robin Lin, Nan Koehler, Loretta Ross and a number of other birth visionaries and human right activists, and to hear their wisdom firsthand. The academic in me has a hard time resisting conferences, and so it was obvious I would go. The doula in me, whose goal it is to help moms have whatever birth they feel is the right birth for them -- a goal that never comes attached to other agendas -- was a little hesitant. There were going to be some strong personalities and a whole lot of agenda-driven discussion. My stress level rose just thinking about it. Yet I knew if I didn't go, I'd be missing something significant. I braced myself for the potential of being overwhelmed by birth activist energy, shelled out my $100 for the entry fee, and took four days off-call from my very busy practice. (Many thanks to my doula team for making that latter event possible.)
The Summit did not disappoint in regard to being overwhelming and was more than a little transformative for me personally. It brought together a diverse group of birth workers who advocate for evidenced-based birth practices and access to safe and supportive care, and others who actively pursue reproductive justice and familial rights. It offered several panel discussions with experts in their respective fields, an eclectic assortment of more than 40 classes and lectures on topics ranging from social activism to spiritual healing, several movies and rare documentaries, and many opportunities to network and socialize. In short, the summit participant had ample opportunities to get cerebral, ethereal, and/or real. I both entered and came away with the sense that there was perhaps a little too much going on and not enough time to experience more than a quarter of it. In addition to the obstacle of not enough time, the Summit encountered the challenges of meeting the needs of such a diverse group, not all of whom came prepared to engage in constructive ways with one another. I had expected a symbiosis, that all of us would be coming together from our different backgrounds to find each other's strengths and work together. Instead, there were awkward and uncomfortable moments when I felt we were called out and separated by our identities, affinities, age, experience, and even the color of our skin. Kathi Valeii at the Birth Anarchy wrote about that part of the conference already, so I can leave it there, sufficing to say in retrospect that it forced me to think a little harder about my own identity, and, difficult as it is, more self-understanding is always a good thing.
On that note, let me begin my top 10 takeaways from the Birthkeeper Summit 2015:
1. As birthworkers we must acknowledge our own biases and limitations. We must also acknowledge that no one doula can be the right doula for every client. If a woman of color/queer identifying/transgendered/teen parent needs a doula of color/LGBTQ/teen to feel understood and supported, that is her prerogative. If you're a middle-class, white doula, it's not personal, so don't take it personally. Side note: If you identify in one of those former categories, the birthworker community and birthing families need more of you.
2. We all have birth stories which are valid and worthy of being heard. None is more or less significant than the other. Each individual story has something from which we can all learn.
3. One can and should be open to hearing and trying to understand the experiences of others, but this willingness is a lost opportunity when those with wisdom refuse to share it. If all you know is your own experience, your universe will remain hopelessly small. Engage and seek knowledge. Side note: Be mindful of respectful discourse. Don't expect that it's anyone's obligation to teach you.
4. Be kind to the students. We are all children of this earth and as such we all ask dumb questions sometimes. Side note: The teacher and parent in me feels obligated to say here that there are no dumb questions.
5. Loretta Ross said some brilliant words that resonated with me: First, don't be allies, be a "co-conspirators." Second, invite people into dialog, especially those with whom you don't agree. Call each other "in," don't call each other out.
6. Every community of women deserves a red tent. Apologies for the cultural appropriation, but it's a useful adaption. In this case, women (all people actually) deserve a place to come together in safe harmony to share their stories and repair their spirits. In the birth community, we sometimes call that space a red tent. The refuge of the red tent at the Summit was lovely and restorative. Many thanks to whomever put that together.
7. Paraphrasing Michel Odent speaking on the research done on initial stress responses and their effects on newborns who experience immediate separation from mother at birth: "It's taken 100 years for the medical community to figure out that a newborn needs its mother." We've still a ways to go on reclaiming that "golden hour" of bonding time for healthy newborns. Side note: He's also got intriguing data collection on what happens to babies who aren't given a trial of labor. If you don't know who Dr. Odent is, look him up.
8. As a birthworker, who immersed myself in the culture of evidence-based care for an extended weekend, coming back to the real world was painfully hard. My first week back involved supporting a mom who was fighting against a 39-week routine induction and whose care provider had no interest in hearing about her evidence-based arguments. On the plus side, ACOG's letter for the BKS organizers announced that they were considering "collaborative team-based care that includes the mother as a member of the team and a key decision maker." One can hope that in my life time this becomes the new standard practice.
9. Listening to Katsi Cook and Isa Gucciardi, I became envious of cultures that retain a process of initiation. Modern American culture has forgotten how to initiate people into parenthood (and adulthood for that matter). A baby shower, grocery store encounters with strangers, and well-meaning but often fear-filled birth stories hardly fulfill that role. I'm not sure the appropriation of blessingways do the job better, but they are a step in that direction. Side note: Take a minute to celebrate your mother, because chances are good she had to figure that role out all on her own (see above about being kind to students...).
10. Lastly, to the doulas out there: Take a minute to honor yourselves. You do hard work, often without a lot of compensation other than the satisfaction of knowing you made a difference to every family you worked with.
Teri Nava-Anderson, PhD, CD of Harmony Doula is a birth doula, doula trainer, childbirth instructor, La Leche League leader, mother, and historian. She is passionate about encouraging doulas to advance their skill sets and helping moms advocate for their best care. She is the co-founder and lead mentor at the Modesto Doula Group and a board member at the Mt. Diablo Doula Community. Teri is an advocate for the creation of doula group practices for the health and well-being of both doulas and birthing families and advises and mentors doulas seeking to move from private to group practice.
♥ four young boys and a boy dog (offspring)