It’s Your Turn to Make Doula History
Lately I’ve thought a lot about what’s left after someone is gone – and who tells their story. It has made me really think about who is going to write the story of our movement. Traditionally history is written by people after events have happened, after the world has already changed. It’s written by people who have the power to write and disseminate information – which is why so many of our perceptions of history are distorted.
What about us? What about our history? Who will write the story of birth and postpartum doulas across North America and the rest of the world? Who will point out the indigenous women who never abandoned each other under the pressures of western medicine? Who will write about the women in the seventies and eighties who said, “I will go with you and I won’t leave you”? Who will write about how we took care of each other when our own families would not support us in breastfeeding or avoiding another cesarean?
The battleground of the doula revolution was not on a national stage. It was quiet, in every labor room across the planet, where one woman held another’s hand and said, “You can do this, I believe in you.” We made a stand for another person’s mental and emotional wellbeing in a system that had little room for it. We protected the space. We stood by her side when she said, “No.” We agitated the system with a smile on our faces. We kept doing it, over and over again, for years, until eventually those in power could no longer ignore us or their own research.
That’s the big story. But what about the little stories? What about the doulas in Pueblo, and Springfield, and West Bend? How did birth change there because of the presence of those early doulas? All of our communities have little stories. Each weaves a thread into the tapestry of our great big story of doulas changing birth in the world. Where are those stories?
Who came before you, person reading my blog? And what was birth like in your town? The time has come for you to seek out retired doulas and nurses and midwives and find out.
You see, if we don’t write our own stories, someone else will tell a tale that serves their own purposes. Or they will be forgotten, seen as not being important. Much of women’s daily lives has been unimportant to historians. But doula history is significant. If any one movement will be singled out as creating change in our system of birth, it is going to be birth doulas. Mostly we’ve been like dripping water, slowly eroding rock, getting the system to change. Lots of drips lead to pitting a foundation, causing it to change in response or else collapse. So while we may not be at most births, we don’t have to be. Our impact continues to grow. We aren’t done yet.
What is your community’s story of change?
Starting in the 1990’s I was the Archivist for Doulas of North America (DONA). Doulas sent me articles from their hometown newspapers. Back then it was a rare occurrence. While we might have wanted to change birth, what we really wanted to do was make sure women didn’t lose their power while having their babies. We couldn’t do that for everyone, so we just focused on the family in front of us. We hoped that over time the value of what we did would show.
Our strategy (if you can call it that) worked. Nowadays there are tens of thousands of trained doulas, and many cities have well established doula communities. ACOG recognizes the value of birth doulas. That means to me that it’s an excellent time to look backwards.
That sounds good to me, you say. But what are you suggesting I DO?
- Have fun! Talking about this history of birth in your town can be really fun. Most people like to reminisce and are excited that their memories are important.
- Investigate! If you don’t know who came before you, start asking. More experienced doulas may be able to remember a name or two. But don’t stop there. Ask the nursing unit director, the lactation consultant in her sixties, and your local midwives. Childbirth educators often last for decades and may be very knowledgeable about past trends. If everyone is young, ask who they’ve heard about being important in years past. Sometimes the only people who are remembered are the ones people didn’t like, but they don’t want to admit it! That’s fine. One name will lead to another. Look for old newspaper articles in the online archive. Most articles will reference older ones, sometimes going back ten years or more.
- If you can’t find a specific person, ask retired perinatal professionals about birth trends. Hospitals were remodeled, attitudes towards induction, breech birth, VBAC, episiotomy, cesarean birth, and having family members present have all changed dramatically in the course of my career.
- Interview alone or have a party! Sometimes a celebration is in order. In fact I think we need more parties in our lives that celebrate our accomplishments, especially when it comes to birth. Instead of interviewing one person, you could lead a group of people to reminisce. That might be more enjoyable for everyone.
- Ask questions that encourage explanations and depth about events. Here are some OralHistoryTips (pdf doc) I compiled to help you.
- Create a timeline of the order of events and include anything that might be relevant. This will likely lead to more interesting questions and observations. If you like mystery novels, this is your project! It’s a discovery of how your community moved from where things were in 1980 to where they are today.
- Record your interview and make sure your participant has a microphone near their face to avoid recording background noise. Many smartphones can do this well. There are apps that can transcribe your interview into written form as long as there is no background noise. You may end up with a really interesting podcast, or a local historical society or oral history project may want your recordings for their files.
Then what? If you complete your local project, I will publish it on a web site devoted to doula history that is available for everyone to read, including students of history to use in their papers.
This project is about more than you. It’s about those who came before but also for those who will come after. You may not know what they will look like or how they will interpret doulaing for their generation, but our history is important for them to know. And if you don’t record it, probably no one will.
Christine Morton covers much of the big history of doulas in her book, Birth Ambassadors: Doulas and The Re-Emergence of Women Supported Birth in America. It’s our most extensive resource. Since I lived that history, what struck me the most was what wasn’t in there – including all of our small struggles in our own communities. It’s our responsibility to build on Dr. Morton’s achievement and share our stories to build a more comprehensive history.
Along with Mothering magazine, in the 1980’s and 1990’s many of us eagerly read The Compleat Mother, a quarterly newsprint periodical that espoused a radical wholistic philosophy of empowering women through childbirth. It was more raw and less polished than Mothering. It did not shy away from exposing the patriarchal philosophy entrenched in the medical system and the feminist power available to us when we took charge of our bodies. Famous Midwife Gloria LeMay wrote “Remembering Catherine Young”, founder of The Compleat Mother. Remembering Catherine Young, 21 July 1952 – 11 September 2001