The Time To Ask About Past Abuse or Assault is Never

Apr 6, 2016 by

TheOne of the most upsetting questions I have read on a doula’s personal history form is some version of this: “Have you ever experienced sexual abuse or assault, either as a child or as an adult?” While I realize the doula is trying to be helpful, the attempt is misguided at best, and can actually create problems and stresses for the client that negatively affect the doula-client relationship. What the doula really wants to know is whether there are ways to help the client more effectively, even if what the client wants may seem odd or unusual. There are better ways to obtain that information that don’t create more problems.

Asking the question automatically puts your client in a bind. They have to choose whether to be honest with you before they are ready to do so, or whether to lie. The issue with most survivors of abuse or assault is that the perpetrator took away their power of choice. Their body was not their own, it was the property of the perpetrator. The victim’s only choice was to submit or possibly face worse harm if they resisted. Part of offering healing is for us to allow self-disclosure if it is desired, and when the client initiates it. When we ask the question, it is to meet our own needs even though it is in the guise of good intentions. If our client does not wish to discuss these acts or even for us to know, their only other option is to lie. This dilemma is distressing for our client, which is not the doula’s intention. So don’t ask.

The truth is, what you really want to know is how you can help them more through their birth or postpartum journey. There are ways to get at that information without knowing exactly why. In fact, knowing details about the story is not necessary to offering effective support. Here’s what you really want to know, and I suggest you say something like this on your last prenatal visit (after establishing rapport):

Sometimes people have had life experiences that left them traumatized and that they had to recover from. Sometimes that involves assault or abuse, or even being in a car accident. There may be things that other people do or say that lead you to being instantly scared or startled or remind you of that original traumatizing experience. I just want you to know that I can help you best when I can help myself and others to avoid those behaviors, and what to do if they happen.

You can also offer examples:

  • Sometimes a person is easily startled and doesn’t want to be touched from behind without being asked first and waiting for a response.
  • Another person didn’t want to be in the bathroom alone with the door closed. The door had to be open or someone needed to be with them.
  • Another didn’t want people talking about her as if she wasn’t there. She insisted that they use her name and not call her ‘dear’ or ‘honey’ or ‘mom’.
  • Another was concerned that breastfeeding would bring up negative associations with a past experience involving their breasts. This person needed assistance in being anchored in the present whenever the baby nursed in those first few weeks.
  • Others don’t care for particular words, such as being told to ‘relax’.  

This is the kind of information we really want to know as birth and postpartum doulas. How those needs came to be is not important. We don’t need to know the story in order to be effective.  

At this point your client may choose to tell you the story. But I think it’s important to repeat that you don’t need to know their story to help them. Disclosure should serve a purpose and you want to make sure they don’t feel uncomfortable later if they tell you now. It could be a good time to get a glass of water or use the restroom to make sure their choice to disclose is one they’ve taken a few moments to consider. It is also okay for the doula to not want to know the story! Doulaing is a relationship and you get to take care of yourself too. Perhaps hearing their abuse or assault story would be triggering or upsetting for you, so its okay to ask that they keep their disclosure general rather than including emotional details.

My second point is that childhood sexual abuse is estimated to affect one out of every four women[1] in the United States, and one out of six men[2]. Sexual assault and rape are also common experiences[3], directly affecting at least twenty percent of the population. So, we’re probably better off as doulas if we assume an assault or abuse history rather than seeing it as exceptional. That doesn’t mean that every person who has been assaulted or abused will be affected by it during labor or their postpartum. In fact, some people are relieved to find that it didn’t have a negative effect in that part of their life.

In my experience there are two behaviors that new doulas are most likely to see and that they can effectively address. The first is disassociation – for some reason, the person in labor or postpartum doesn’t seem to be present anymore. They are not in their body, their present moment consciousness is somewhere else. The person may seem distant and unfocused, or may even be looking out the window or down and to the left (recalling a memory). The empathetic neurons in the doula’s gut are giving the message that the client isn’t with you anymore in the room, they’ve drifted somewhere else.

The other worrisome situation is when the laboring or postpartum person’s behavior seems to be totally out of proportion to what precipitated it. In other words, the way they are acting seems to be more dramatic or over the top and is disconnected from what they are responding to. This overreacting may mean they were reminded of something awful that happened in the past. They are responding to that experience rather that what is currently going on.

In both instances, the most effective actions by the doula are the same. Bring them back to the present moment, to being in the room with you, gently and without exerting your power or voice over theirs. This is usually more effective when the doula is quietly and gently persistent, rather than using a loud voice or giving orders.

  • Use your client’s name, use today’s date – or better yet, ask them what day and year it is.
  • Have them look at you, have your client tell you what is happening today, and where they are.
  • Have them notice objects in the room, prompting them with positive ones (flowers, baby book, etc).
  • If invited, touch them in a preferred way (you’ll know them) in a safe place on their body (this will differ). If you aren’t sure, ask. “May I put my hand on your knee, arm, hand?”
  • Rather than ordering them to do something, invite them. Let the client choose – this is very important. “If you can, let yourself come back to TODAY fully.” “When you are ready, let yourself explore feeling safe here in the room with us, letting your body to birth/breastfeed/nurture your baby.”
  • When it seems that your client is mostly back in the present moment, ask something like, “How can I help you to feel more safe right now? Even if it seems silly, please say it. Your brain sometimes has wisdom that doesn’t make sense at first.”
  • Follow through as best you can, with the extra blanket or the pink flowers from the gift shop or finding the right song on the playlist.

These can seem to be scary situations for newer doulas, but we can use the same skills with our friends and family members who have experienced trauma and are triggered in our presence. Sometimes they aren’t even aware that it happened, and our feedback is what helps them to notice that they aren’t in the present moment anymore. To me, because of the commonality of experience of personal violation, these are life skills we all need to see one another through the journey. It’s not about complicated strategies. It’s about being a safe and trustworthy person and allowing the laboring or postpartum person to have their own experience in a supportive atmosphere.

Some doulas have extensive counseling skills, degrees, or training. They have additional strategies to use than what I’ve mentioned here. The book, When Survivors Give Birth by Phyllis Klaus and Penny Simkin, is an excellent resource. There are also facilitators offering two and three day comprehensive workshops for birth professionals wanting to focus on this issue in their practices.

[1] http://www.oneinfourusa.org/statistics.php

[2] https://1in6.org/the-1-in-6-statistic/

[3] http://centerforfamilyjustice.org/community-education/statistics/

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Doulaing For Friend’s Births

Feb 25, 2016 by

DoulaingForFriendsIt’s so thrilling to imagine being a doula for your friend’s pregnancy and birth! For some doulas this is what draws them to the work from the beginning. They want to make sure family members and dear ones have the best experience possible and to help make that happen. But underneath these altruistic desires is the reality of what going to our friend’s births really means. Sometimes it’s a harsh learning.

Ever since I started doulaing, I wondered what was different about it. I thrashed the topic over with my fellow trainers and experienced doulas for years, and then I started asking about it in my doula interviews. Eventually I had enough data to analyze (stories to pick apart!) to get to some core truths. Author Julie Brill, in her compilation book, “Round The Circle: Doulas Share Their Experiences” graciously invited me to write my findings for a chapter in her book. Along with 22 other experienced doulas, we offer advice on unexpected home births, surrogacy, encouraging the mother-baby bond, self-care, and supporting religious belief that is not your own, as well as many other topics. But here is a sample of what I learned:

1. Despite your best efforts, you have an agenda. Pregnancy and birth are times of tremendous life change and shifting of identity. When you walk alongside your dear one, you are attached to them. You want things to go well and you will do what it takes to get a positive outcome. Contrast this with your clients. You care about them and want the best, but our role is to support their efforts and not be invested in their choices. You will likely see them a few times after the birth, but your role is to see them through this transitional period. With your friends, you expect to be in their lives and their child’s lives and to see them grow up. This attachment to a particular outcome shifts and changes your support and you can’t get around it.

2. No matter what happens, you will be associated with that birth and its outcome. Forever. Because of your expertise, you may be blamed if something does not go as expected. In order to get distance from the birth, the family may need distance from you. This need may be expressed by the partner or grandparent, not your friend. However they need to honor those feelings. That may mean not being invited to gatherings or even not having casual visits. It’s so easy to blame the doula, which is not a problem when it’s a client. We shrug it off. But when it’s your friend, you want to explain or work it out, but some feelings you can’t work out. They just are. Often it’s a big surprise to the doula when this happens.

If something goes really well, you may be assumed to have “magical powers” that you know you don’t deserve, which can also be disconcerting. What really matters is how closely the laboring person’s labor and birth expectations meet the reality. If expectation and reality are a close fit, then it is usually a positive for your friendship. If they don’t, it can have negative consequences.

3. Your relationship will change and neither of you can control it. Beyond the rollercoaster ride of many friendships, which have ups and downs and varying levels of intensity, birth does not bring out the best in us. It isn’t supposed to. It brings us face to face with who we are – our strength, our weaknesses, our fears, our beliefs about the world and our place in it. When a stranger is with you, you are able to be intimate, understanding that knowledge is held in a special private place and will not have repercussions for your future relationship. When your close friend sees you, they will know you that way forever. That knowledge and intimacy can make some people really uncomfortable afterwards (including you).

You will also see their partners and family members in a new light, which may or may not be a favorable one. As doulas of friends, we have a much greater emotional load to bear. When we care deeply, it’s very difficult to hide our feelings about a partner’s actions or a care provider’s options. We are more transparent. They aren’t used to our doula mask, and they know when we’re upset or hiding resentment. It can be done, but it’s darn hard.

So what’s a doula to do?

First, buy Julie Brill’s book and read the two chapters on attending the births of friends!  (BTW, I get no money from the sale or promotion of this book. I just think it’s a great resource so you should know about it.)

Second, contribute your baby shower, birthday and holiday gift money towards a doula’s fee and encourage other people to do the same thing. Your friend or family member still needs a doula, just not you! Imagine what a fabulous supportive friend you can be: a sounding board for feelings, an extra resource for information, and all without the full burden of responsibility. You get to show your excitement and your disappointment honestly, offering an extra set of hands whenever they’re needed.

Lastly, as an older woman I want you “youngers” to know how precious your friendships are! Having people in your life who knew you from decades ago doesn’t happen without conscious effort and cultivating compassion, caring, and humility in each relationship. As doulas we often have a leg up on those qualities – but sometimes not with our friends. There’s you, and your friend, and your relationship that all need tending – make sure that you’re looking after each one before deciding to be their doula.

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Are There Enough Clients For All Of Us?

Feb 6, 2016 by

Are There Enough Clients For All Of Us-Do you feel that you are competing with every other doula for clients? “There’s not enough for me and for everyone else. If someone else gets a client, that’s one I don’t have.”  And then you try to work harder to compete and get ahead. (Or you give up.) Fearing there isn’t enough to go around means believing in scarcity.

Let’s break down that idea – Are there enough clients to go around?

From a rational perspective, the answer is clearly “yes”. According to the Listening To Mothers III survey, 6% of people in the sample had a birth doula but 27% of them wanted one. That’s a huge gap between demand and supply. Granted not all of those people may be willing to pay a doula a sustainable fee. But the doula’s biggest market is second time parents! They are more aware of the doula’s value and will pay money not to repeat their first experience. Unfortunately they did not report on postpartum doulas in the survey, but many people have had postpartum experiences they don’t want to repeat either.

From a marketing perspective, the answer is also “yes”. By profiling and targeting your ideal client, you learn that the best person for you to work with isn’t “everybody who is pregnant”. No matter how wonderful you are, you are not everyone’s best doula. It really is a select group. When you compare your ideal client to those of other doulas, you realize that you are after different markets. Of course there will be some overlap and not all of your clients will fit the ideal profile, but many will be close to the target. I find that reassuring – we’re not all after the same person but different kinds of pregnant people.

From a personal perspective, the answer is always “yes”. People choose their doula based on who they feel safe with in their gut, not on how good your welcome packet looks. (The welcome packet opens the door and introduces you.) We have no control over that decision except to be our authentic selves.

For my nineteen years as a doula trainer, I have been preaching that it never makes sense for doulas to compete with each other, no matter what organization they trained with. There’s no economic reason to do that because the market isn’t saturated. When one doula gets a client, it generates interest in the market among other potential buyers of our services. The more people we serve, the more interest grows, and more our potential market grows. Every nine months there is a complete turnover. So our best strategy to grow the profession is to support each other while also pursuing our own individual goals. Abundance is out there. The more we work for success together, the more there will be for all of us.

Every doula I have trained understands this. There are plenty of potential clients and the more we work together to educate the public and careproviders, the more paying clients we will all get. The doula leaders in our region (past and present) also reflect this attitude, and because of it we have a more collegial and supportive atmosphere in our state than in many of the places I visit across the U.S.

When we choose scarcity, we choose fear. Fear that there won’t be enough. Fear that someone else will get the good stuff first. Fear that if someone else does well, that means we’ll do poorly. There isn’t enough cake for everyone to have a piece even if we slice it small! Our bodies end up feeling tight and tense and we worry about what we can do to get more and to get it for ourselves.

Rather than thinking “not enough”, think “there is enough”. It doesn’t cost you anything to shift from a mindset of scarcity to one of abundance, except your level of personal responsibility. With a scarcity mindset, all of your problems are “out there”. The locus of control is outside of you and thus uncontrollable. But when you believe that abundance exists, your attention becomes focused on how to tap into it. You have an internal locus of control – “what I do and how I do it influences my circumstances”.

As this process advances, you’ll become more optimistic – the best is yet to come! You’re more willing to take risks and share your self and resources with colleagues. You can learn from your competitors because you are all in this together. As your relationships with other doulas grow, you can ask for feedback and help without it feeling like a threat. Babies will continue to be conceived and people will keep recognizing that their emotional needs are not being met by current medical systems. That isn’t going to change anytime soon.

What about not having enough time?

My worst tendency towards scarcity is about time. I fear there will never be enough time to get everything done; that I won’t achieve my dreams much less what’s on my daily ‘to do’ list. “There just isn’t enough time!!” Sound familiar? I’m not competing with other people for time – its not like if I get more someone else gets less. I’m really competing with myself – and I never win.

The funny thing is that it’s not true. I do have enough time. Sometimes it takes me until Wednesday to get through Monday’s to do list, but it does get done. The small tasks and the big projects do get completed, for the most part. So what’s going on here? It’s all in my attitude. Being anxious that I don’t have enough time doesn’t get me more time, nor does it make me more creative or efficient. It just makes me jittery and unpleasant. So, what’s my alternative?

I decided to change my thought. “Time expands to meet my needs.” Whenever I begin to have the impending feeling of doom – “there will never be enough” – I realize it’s all in my head. Whatever really needs to happen will and I will have enough time to accomplish it. It’s been four months now, and I have accomplished everything I needed to do.   Some things got postponed, true, but it was mostly because the time wasn’t right – and even I can’t do everything at once. In some instances my priorities changed. But what was really different was my compassion for myself and my anxieties.

Our approach to life is up to us. We choose how we want to think about life. I prefer to choose abundance.

Many thanks to Jessica English of Heart Soul Business for inspiring this post. 

As always, please subscribe!  [Box is on the lower left.]  Thank you for your support!

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Fewer Blogs but More Amy

Dec 30, 2015 by

AmySmile2This year has been about serving you, committed birth and postpartum doulas, in a different way. I’ve written fewer blogs, but posts on higher impact topics like essential oils and universal certification. When I’m not blogging, it’s because I’m writing something else. This year alone I’ve had two book chapters published, one podcast, three videos, developed four new continuing education sessions, and one peer-reviewed journal article, all relevant to what YOU do. I also wrote a 350 page memoir, but that was a personal project!  Several of these resources are FREE. I’m committed to improving our profession and your experience of being a doula.

Round The Circle: Advice for New Doulas includes a chapter on the results of my research on Doulaing Friends and Family Members. Basically, it turns out well when what the laboring person expected to happen and what really happened are close to one another. If the birth or postpartum doesn’t turn out as expected, the relationship between the doula and friend or family member will change dramatically, and usually not for the good. Want more?  [Link to Amazon]

Doulas and Intimate Labor is an academic book published this month by Demeter Press. Edited by Andrea Castaneva and Julie Johnson Searcy, my chapter covers my scholarly work on Doulas as Facilitators of Transformation and Grief. As doulas we are present as the woman becomes a mother and must surrender her old self in order to become her new self (this research was done on cisgendered women). Change implies grief, which is one of the unacknowledged journeys of postpartum. In addition, this chapter covers doula’s experiences when the partner dies during pregnancy, and when the baby dies before birth (fetal demise), at birth, or in the immediate postpartum period. I’ve also turned this topic into a successful continuing education session. [Link to Amazon]

Why Do People Attend Doula Trainings? is an original solo research project. I collected data in 2010 and 2014, asking over 400 people why they were taking a doula training (before the workshop). Surprisingly, many people taking a training are not there to become doulas, but because they want a general education about birth! This topic is also a successful continuing education session. The full article is forthcoming in a 2016 issue of the Journal of Perinatal Education!

Sexuality and Birth Video and Podcast – In October, I had the opportunity to be interviewed by Penny Simkin on Sexuality, Birth and Postpartum. This eight minute video is going through approval to be recommended by Lamaze as a resource for parents and professionals. I’m thrilled that this free video, which gets at the sexual and emotional needs of people becoming parents, primarily connection and pleasure.  [Sexuality After Childbirth Youtube video]

Amy Neuhadel, of The Cord in Sweden, also interviewed me on sexuality and birth. We’ve gotten great feedback on how helpful this TEN minute interview has been for parents and for educators.  [Intimacy and Pleasure In Your Birthing Year Link]

Giving Fathers What They Really Need In Birth  – This YouTube interview conducted by Penny Simkin gave me the opportunity to summarize the research on men and fathers (male cisgendered perspective).  You’ve loved my conference sessions on this topic, so here’s a short resource you can use as a discussion starter in your classes, small groups, or just for yourself!  [The Role of Fathers YouTube video link]

Giving Birth, the birth video that I executive produced with director Suzanne Arms (it really is her baby) is now finally available on Amazon Instant Video!  It took me a year, but its now up!  Suzanne Arms sells it on DVD through her site.

Northwest Doula Conference presentation covering The Top Eight Challenges of the Birth and Postpartum Doula Professions. After two hours of listening to me and what I think, I got a standing ovation. And that’s after getting people to commit to making behavior changes to meet those challenges, not just passively listen and go on their way! I had multiple requests to turn this address into a podcast, but I’d really love to give it again live at another conference and record that. Anyone interested?

New workshop content – this year I wrote several new sessions for continuing education. Hospital Based Doulas: What’s The Difference? is based on multiple waves of research interviews with this HB doulas around the United States; Doulas as Facilitators of Transformation and Grief focuses on how to be this significant person in our client’s lives, as they shift into parenthood, face the possibility of loss, and experience grief as part of the transition into a different phase of adult life. It also gives us space to breathe as we recognize our shared responsibility for the emotional well being of our selves and each other as doing doula work changes who we are as human beings.

Communication Skills for Birth Professionals is a skill building workshop where you learn by doing – you leave with skills you didn’t have when you walked in the door! It is available in two, three, and four hour formats. Two hours focuses on listening; the third hour focuses on preparing yourself to communicate successfully; and the fourth hour adds conflict resolution skills focusing on typical situations that birth and postpartum doulas face. These sessions are not formulas, telling you what to say. They teach you how to think about a situation, so you can be authentically yourself in all of your encounters.

PTSD: How It Affects Childbirth And How To Improve Your Outcomes is the latest addition to my catalogue, which came my way because of requests from physicians and nurse groups. Yay! What most doctors and nurses don’t learn in school is how to show they care. They don’t learn the physical and emotional skills that communicate their internal feeling of caring for a patient on a personal level. In fact, for many professionals their educational experience is to have the emotional center pummeled away in order to follow good practices in medical care.  The ‘cure’ for preventing childbirth to make existing PTSD worse is authentic human connection.

If that isn’t enough for you, I also wrote a 350 page memoir of the experience of taking care of my terminally ill mother, who was misdiagnosed for the first half of her illness. Tentatively titled The Summer of Mimi, I hope to complete the second and third drafts in 2016. This was a personal goal of mine, but as I can’t stop being a doula all over my life, its has juice in it for all doulas too.

2016 promises more content and more projects!

As always, please subscribe!  [Box is on the lower left.]  Thank you for your support!

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Busting The Myth of Privacy in Hospital Birth

Sep 18, 2015 by

woman's fist 4One of the craziest misconceptions that first time parents have is that laboring in the hospital will be private.  Where did they ever get that idea?  You’re in a room that isn’t yours, it’s the hospital’s.  You’re a guest in their house – a paying one, yes, but it’s still their space.  In hospital language, the phrase “private room” means that you aren’t sharing it with another patient, not that you will have privacy in it.  A home-like room does not mean the same privileges as being at home.  Ask just about anyone that has had a long labor and they will set you straight.  The problem is, hardly anyone ever asks about privacy, they just assume they’ll be in control.

“We don’t want a doula because we want our birth to be private.”  This is one of the most common phrases almost any birth or postpartum doula hears.  Pointing out that privacy is an illusion or a myth has never really gotten me anywhere, because I immediately come off as argumentative.  It took me years but I finally figured out what to say. I have learned to ask, “What does privacy mean to you?”

Usually they look at me with a puzzled expression.  Then the person will usually list, “being left alone when we want to, being just the two of us, not having people coming in and out the door, focusing on each other, that kind of thing.”

Depending on what’s been listed, I slip one of these four responses into our conversation:

One:  “You’re right, privacy is so important to laboring with less pain and faster progress.  You’d think hospitals would take that into account with their procedures, but their system hasn’t adapted very well.  An experienced doula knows how to work that system to your best advantage and get along with nurses.”

Two:  “Oh, okay, do you know that you don’t really have any say over who is in your room?  Or that auxiliary staff that needs to talk to the nurse will just come in your room randomly?”  “The nurse’s pager is beeping with people talking to her almost constantly sometimes.  She can’t turn it off.”  [Note: State what is true where you practice; this is true in my area.]

Three:  “What if you need something when it’s just the two of you and you don’t want your partner to leave?  What happens then?”   “Labor usually lasts a long time.”

Four:  “Doulas have lots of strategies to maintain your privacy, that are difficult to establish and maintain on your own.  She can make signs on the door, talk softly to trigger others to do so, sit outside your door as a smiling guard, update and talk to visitors in the family area, and handle your texts and replies so you can focusing on laboring as a couple.”

Then I’ll usually conclude the conversation with one or both of these statements:

Your doula maintains your privacy for you.  She will sit in the corner or outside the room when you want, and be at your beck and call.  She’s there to support you both doing whatever you need to do.”

“Remember the movie Top Gun?  She’s your partner’s wingman.  (You can suggest an updated pop culture reference in the comments!)  That’s her job.  She can keep other people out or minimize any disruptions.  Wouldn’t it be great just to have some wait on both of you, who is there only to meet your needs?

This tactic of asking people what they mean by a concept gives us more information to expand the discussion.  Often an idea or concept, such as “privacy” stops us because we get caught up in our feelings about it.  Whenever we’re going on the offensive – even in the guise of giving information – it puts other people on the defensive.  Yet, when we ask questions, and listen to the answers, we avoid making assumptions. People reveal more about their priorities and perspective when we ask.  We learn more about what is important to our clients and potential clients and can target our information to their interests.  This ups our effectiveness as communicators and shows us as the caring people we are.

 

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Showing Up

Aug 20, 2015 by

The Road Goes On Forever, And The Party Never EndsOne of the doula research interviews that influenced me profoundly happened at a 2004 conference.  That morning a birth colleague, Sophie*, came striding in to my hotel room with coffee and her breakfast on a plate.  We’d met in 1988 at a retreat for birth professionals.

“I didn’t think you‘d mind if I ate while we talked,” she said as her plate clunked down on the glass table.  When I transcribed the interview later, I could hear her chewing and cutting her lox and bagel with a knife and fork on the recording.  It was so like Sophie to assume my loving acceptance of her quirks; just like she would about mine.

I turned on the recorder.  With her first story, Sophie said, “Amy, the most important thing you do isn’t a double hip squeeze. It’s not whether she gets drugs.  It’s showing up. Showing up is 50% of what we do as doulas.”

As the interview progressed, she told more stories and reflected on what she’d learned.  Sophie said, “I change that!  Showing up is 75 % of what we do as doulas!”

By the end of the two hour interview, she changed her mind again.

“It’s 99% of what we do as doulas!  The rest is just fluff.  Showing up for her, that is what counts.”

Showing up is an approach of non-judgment and a series of continuing actions over time that support the mother wholeheartedly even when others are unable to accept or support the mother’s needs (Gilliland, 2004).

In my research, doulas who had been to a hundred or more births usually told stories about this deep level of acceptance, or what Sophie called “showing up”, being the most important and most significant service that the doula can offer.  Many proficient and expert doulas mentioned the need to accept mothers whatever they are feeling or doing, and to believe them when they say they want something, even if it is different from their stated wishes prior to labor.  Here’s the excerpt from my original interview with Sophie:

“In my life there is always compromise, always negotiation, always other people in mind.  I have to take everybody else into consideration.  So I think when someone shows up for me one hundred percent, supports me one hundred percent, hears everything I have to say and amplifies it, that’s what I mean by showing up.  That to me is the greatest gift.  That’s it.  I think that’s 99%.  I’m going up to ninety-nine. [laughs heartily] I think that’s huge. I really do. Because I think very few women get to have that.”

Women have to compromise for everyone in their life.  They have to compromise for their partners, for their kids, for their pets, for their parents, bosses, and on and on.  Women shouldn’t have to compromise for their doula at their own birth!  Instead our role is to be present and mindful in the moment, and do that for hours and hours. answering her needs so she is free to labor.  What she says she wants, even if it’s surprising, isn’t there to be challenged.  Explored and confirmed, yes, not challenged.  Additionally, when women feel that whatever they do or say or behave will be acceptable to their doula, they will feel free to enter fully into their experience of birthing their baby.

What does that look like?  Let’s say I’m at a birth, with a mom who had previously been adamant about not using pain medication.  She looks at me and for whatever reason, says, “I think I want an epidural.”  The doula’s “showing up” thought process prompts me to consider the mom and ask, “What can I do to best support her in this moment?”  The attitude of the doula has to be one of caring detachment.  If we get caught up in our clients doing things a certain way or having certain things happen, the experience becomes about us and not about them.  Effective doulas need to find a way to be caring and loving of the woman and her intimate family, without being attached to what she does, how she makes decisions, or what choices she makes.  It’s essential for our own mental health, but also for our effectiveness as labor support.

What do I say to that mom?  “Would you like to talk about it more or try something first, or do you want me to get the nurse?”  If she says to get the nurse, then that’s it.  I’m there to support the woman in labor, not her birth plan.

But the reality for us is that we WANT things for our clients, we WANT them to have great births, we DO get attached.  What helps me is understanding that the birth is her journey; she is the leader, she tells me the route.  If I think she’s making a “wrong” turn, that is me comparing her journey with some idealized one I have in my head.   I know birth influences the course of women’s lives forevermore.  So who am I to judge what’s best?  I don’t know her path.  When I can say that inside of me and really own it, I am much freer to support a wide variety of women making a wide variety of choices, and to truly show up for them.

 

*her name has been changed                “Just Show Up” image courtesy of Edward Tufte.  http://www.edwardtufte.com

 

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When Midwives Don’t Recommend Doulas

Jun 17, 2015 by

MWBlogphotoSo your local midwife told a prospective client of yours that she didn’t need a doula.  You feel surprised, even betrayed, at her lack of support.  What’s going on?

First, the midwife is right.  No one is compelled to have a professional doula.  Some women have friends or relatives who can serve in that role.  Some midwives have an assistant or student who s/he prefers to doula her client.  Women and their families have needs in labor that a professional doula is trained to meet.  But there are other people who can serve in those support and communication roles.

Second, the midwife is wrong.  Midwives may feel that their role is to support the woman in labor as well as provide expert medical care.  Since they are there continuously as a doula would, they think they can fulfill both roles.  That can be true depending on the midwife, her assistants, and the events and length of the labor.  If a birth becomes medical, there are two patients to care for – the mother and her baby.  Unless there is a third person whose priority is the mother’s emotional wellbeing, those needs go unmet.  You cannot adequately address emotional wellbeing, especially in a medical crisis, if you are monitoring and conducting lifesaving measures on a mother, baby, or both.  You just can’t.

In addition, just because a mother may trust her midwife with her medical care, that doesn’t mean she is the ideal person to meet her emotional needs.  There are many times I have been hired as a doula at a home birth for just that reason. Sometimes the mother feels fine with the midwife but is concerned about her partner’s needs.  With a lengthy labor, having a third knowledgeable person with a professional attitude can be an asset to a midwife and his or her assistant.  All of us are less tired, we can nap more frequently, and think creatively about positions and comfort measures to try.  We are all on the same team, chosen by the mother and her partner(s) to be their support.

However, it’s also not that simple.  Doulas often have strong emotional reactions when this happens.  Doulas often imagine that since midwives and doulas are both professional birth workers, we would naturally support one another.  We recommend midwifery care.  We’re kin, right?  Yes and no.

There are some very emotionally supportive, hands on midwives. These ladies and men give a lot of emotional support and are instrumental in suggesting comfort measures.  Others sit and knit, quietly observing, and only get involved to do monitoring and the eventual birth and aftercare.  Most midwives are somewhere in between – and it may also depend on the clients they are working with.

Some midwives may feel a sense of competition with a doula; as if we are infringing on her territory or passing a judgment on her abilities.  They may even have begun as doulas and feel they can continue in both roles.  They may like the doula role and be unwilling to give that up.

Our histories are also different.  For over six hundred years, midwives have been maligned, persecuted, misunderstood, and demeaned. Lies were told about the abilities of Black Midwives in the American South in order for physicians to get their business.  The worst kinds of discrimination and injustice against women have occurred in midwifery history.  A legacy of this oppression is that they fight among themselves about what kind of midwifery philosophy and training is best.

Doulas, beginning as birth assistants or labor assistants, have been around in a structured way for about thirty-five years*.  I contend that our whole profession would not exist if there was universal access to supportive midwifery care that treated the whole woman.  We exist to fill a gap in the medical system and the American way of doing birth.  While doulas are begrudgingly accepted (sometimes enthusiastically), we do not face the same obstacles that midwives do.  Midwives compete directly with physicians for business, while doulas do not.

There are a lot more birth doulas than midwives in North America today, and with a lot less training and dedication than it takes to become a midwife.  Midwives may witness a revolving door of doulas in her community, and only want to work with certain ones.  After all, a labor can be a long commitment and in the intimacy of a home or birth center environment, the midwife may want to control who is there in a professional capacity.  Perhaps its not all doulas that are being discouraged, but its just sounds nicer to phrase it that way.

What if the midwife is in a hospital setting and still doesn’t recommend doulas? 

Does the midwife feel that the nursing staff is able to support and adequately provide for mothers?  Is there a history of negative experiences with a particular doula or a rotation of mostly novice doulas?  Maybe this midwife doesn’t recognize the emotional needs of mothers the same way most doulas do, or feels that they are adequately met by the way birth is done in their facility.

At other times, midwives see themselves as working towards the same goals as doulas.  Rather than feeling competitive, they realize there are multiple ways for an individual woman to get the support she’ll need for her birth.  They want women to have births they feel good about, which lead to strong mothering and optimal outcomes, but don’t necessarily have to be the provider.  These midwives usually recommend doulas.

So when you’re surprised by your local midwife’s remark, take a moment to consider these multiple perspectives.  Hopefully they will help to explain why she or he might make that statement.  What’s the best reply?  As always, the best doula reply is to turn it around and ask the mom!  “Why do you think the midwife would say that?” and follow her lead.

 

*Silent Knife: Cesarean Prevention and Vaginal Birth After Cesarean, by Nancy Wainer-Cohen and Lois J. Estner, published in 1983, was the first book to recommend a labor assistant. They cite a lecture from 1981 (p. 225-227).

 

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