There is a lot of talk about what your ecological footprint is -- meaning, what impact do you have, because of your lifestyle, on the earth and its resources? Being in the world of moms and babies as a doula and an educator, I have seen a different footprint we can leave, a Birth Footprint.
Basically, your birth footprint is a combination of your personal experiences, beliefs, biases, and philosophies that could be projected onto other women and families -- instead of the pressure you put on the earth, it's the pressure you put on others.
Here are a couple examples of exerting your birth footprint (and they happen to be mine!):
Giving clients opinions instead of actual facts. We don't try to do this intentionally, but rather, we give anecdata from what we have seen or experienced, versus evidence-based information that comes from reputable sources such as Cochrane Collaboration.
With my second pregnancy, on my due date, my midwife asked if I would like my membranes stripped. I was tired of being pregnant (who isn't by 40 weeks, huh?) and I willingly agreed. Nothing happened, not one thing -- I was pregnant for another week. In my mind I equated membrane-stripping with a low-risk intervention, not inclined to do much.
Back when I was certifying I had a client who was offered a membrane-stripping by her practitioner. She agreed, and immediately began contracting every 9 minutes. This was the start of hours of uncomfortable, non-progressing labor. She went to the hospital after 12 hours with contractions still no closer together or longer in length. She begged her practitioner to allow her to stay the night and he agreed. The next morning, 24 hours after the membrane-stripping with still no change in contraction pattern or cervical dilation, her practitioner broke her water, offered her an epidural, and began induction procedures. This mama hadn't slept all night, her epidural wore off three different times, and by six pm, she was offered a cesarean birth -- exhausted, she agreed.
I had no part in her decision, we had not discussed this topic beforehand; but if she had asked me about membrane-stripping, I might have said, "It's no big deal, it doesn't do anything anyway." My answer would not have been true! While Cochrane states, "to avoid one formal induction of labour, sweeping of membranes must be performed in eight women," it goes on to mention "sweeping can cause discomfort during the procedure, bleeding, and irregular contractions" -- all of which my client experienced. Her contractions didn't change her cervix, but they did wear her down, diminish her spirit, and factor into the making of decisions she previously wanted to avoid.
Letting personal biases interfere. As we work with different practitioners in the birth world, we get good ideas about who we like, and who we would like to avoid. A woman sought out my doula services, and I was thrilled when she shared her midwives were my midwives. An assumption came from this: I knew these women well, I valued their skills and their style, and I had two of my babies with them in amazing-to-me births -- I guessed my client felt the same. But guess what? I was wrong. My client was having doubts about her connection to the midwives, and while she tried to process her own feelings, I was trying to talk these women up, in the hopes that my client would feel better about her choice to birth with them.
What I didn't realize was, this chipped away at my ability to be the non-biased sounding board my client deserved. My attempts to smooth the rough feelings my client had were actually setting us up for division, as I was supposed to be on the mom's side, and it seemed like I was on the midwives' side. Before things got to an uncomfortable point, I saw my job wasn't to fix the situation. Instead, I offered communication strategies my client could implement, including role-playing with her so she could practice conversations before her appointments. She had a memorable birth with just the right midwife, and I had a memorable lesson in my client's needs and feelings coming first.
Questions to ask yourself if you are a birth-worker:
1-Do I bring up my own experiences of birth and share them readily with my students or clients? No doubt having babies is exciting and life-changing. We do have a need to share our stories, this is human nature. I have joked that every woman has to share her birth story 78.4 times before she can move past it to help another woman. If she tries to move into birth work before she is ready, her expectations can be either to help women avoid an experience like she had (if it was less-than-satisfying), or to share a formula that other women should follow to have an experience identical to the one she had. This is the client's experience, let it be shaped by her education, desires, personal beliefs, and choices, and she will come out with an incredible story of her own to share.
2-Do I encourage her to find her own way? Another trap if you already have children is, when your client is presented with a decision, she asks, "What would you do?" It can be the easy way to just simply answer -- you have experience, you know what you are comfortable with. But that would be taking away this family's experience of facing a tunnel of indecision and coming out the other side with an answer they feel fits for them. In the short run, you can look like a hero with the solution, but in the long run, that doesn't help this family build up their confidence in parenting and making choices for their baby.
3-Do I have strong feelings about choices families make regarding birth and parenting? I have a close friend who admitted she couldn't work with pregnant or new moms because she can't handle when they make choices she feels are wrong. Instead of trusting parents to make their own educated decisions, she wants to "bully" them into parenting as she does. For example, she has always co-slept with her babies, and it drove her mad to see parents put their babies in cribs. Instead of offering evidence-based information such as Dr. James McKenna's research, she wanted to jump to scare-tactics to push parents into making their decisions. This is not choice, this is force fueled by strong statements full of fear. We must trust families to make the choices they feel are right for their situations.
4-Do I include myself as an integral part of their birth story? I admit, it feels good when a family says, "We couldn't have done it without you!" And it would be great if I could really believe that and walk around with that feather in my doula cap. Maybe it's altruistic (more likely, insecurity!), but that doesn't rest well with me. I once read a birth story where the doula went on and on to list all the things she did (10+, all numbered and acknowledged) to make this birth experience amazing for the mom and dad. Did the parents walk away feeling the power of themselves and their baby? Or did they walk away feeling like without their doula, they would not have been equipped with the tools and strength to have their baby? My response in situations like these is the same: "You could have done it without me -- I could not have done it without you."
5-Do I have specific requirements for parents? I had a former doula client who moved states away after the birth of her first baby. She was pregnant again and interviewing doulas. She texted me: "Is it normal for doulas to say they will only take you as a client if you agree to specific things?" The doula they interviewed said, she taking them as clients would be contingent upon them taking "approved" childbirth classes, committing to breastfeeding, and signing a statement to say they would agree to "nighttime gentle parenting." This family already believes in breastfeeding and the family bed, but they weren't prepared to take additional classes. Equally upsetting was, they were prepared to interview the doula, and instead they felt they were the ones being interviewed. "This was not what we were looking for, it kind of goes against the reason we wanted a doula in the first place." After a few more interviews with different doulas, they were able to find one that better fit their family. Of course as doulas we need to take clients we also feel fit our needs, I understand that. The process, though, can still be about the parents while we quietly assess how the fit feels for us, and then act accordingly after the fact if we know we aren't the right doula for this family.
There are many ways we can shape the births of our clients, these are just a few to consider. Doulas, what other ways can we impose our birth footprint on our clients, and how can we best avoid these roadblocks? I would love to hear from you.
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♥ four young boys and a boy dog (offspring)