Doulaing At Midlife

Oct 2, 2014 by

flowersmall“When my 60 year old mother insisted she was middle aged and I wasn’t, I replied, “Mom, how many 120 year old women do you know?”    -paraphrased from Postcards From The Edge by Carrie Fisher

I went to my first birth when I was 20 and my first birth as a professional at 24.  Most of my clients were older than I was, some by more than a decade.  As I aged it seemed that my clientele youthed.  At first I was their hip, knowledgeable young friend.  Then a sister, then a companion, and now their mother.  My experience is respected and my perspective has changed.  Overall, I am more patient and more understanding of the stresses on medical care providers.  Obstetrical trends have come and gone and returned again.

Doulaing at midlife is precious and different than at any other age.  Among my research participants and friends there seem to be a few common markers.  Rather than seeing ourselves giving birth, we see our children or nieces and nephews reflected in our clients.  This shift in perspective is subtle but one day you realize it’s not your generation in the bed anymore.

For those of us in female bodies, once menopause is assured, the passing of our fertility comes home to us neon loud at a birth.  There was a time when each of us decided that our family was complete and that we would have no (or no more) babies.  But there’s a difference between the inner feeling of “I’m not going to do that (again)” and “I will never in my lifetime be able to have that experience (again)”.  It is a bittersweet moment, like losing an appendage you didn’t know you had.   The surprise is almost as challenging as the grief – haven’t we traversed that terrain already?

It’s a moment unique to perinatal professionals, but more poignant to doulas.  We’ve got nothing to distract us when we’re at the bedside.  We’re there to feel, to relate, to be sensitive to everyone else’s needs.  So the surge of grief, of personal realization may catch us by surprise.  This moment may be harder if our menopause arrived early or was the result of a medical condition.  If we have lived in service of women’s reproductive bodies, why didn’t our own work perfectly?

Another common experience is acknowledging our physical limitations.  Our bodies are not quite as cooperative adopting odd labor positions.  We don’t recover as quickly from a long birth.  Some of us develop health issues that have to be accommodated.  This means our practices have to change, taking on partners and mentee doulas to help share the load.  But first we have to sit with the emotions that come with those realizations.  We are aging in a culture that spotlights only the drawbacks of growing older.

We have a huge store of knowledge to draw upon – having seen generations of children come into the world.  We’ve seen doctors come and go, inductions rates plummet and surge, and believe in the power of VBACing women.  The third marker is recognizing our own value.  If our majority culture does not see our wisdom, we must see it in each other and in ourselves.  The doctors, nurses, and midwives may be much younger and eager to dismiss us.  We have perspective and history – the lines on our face garner respect if we know how to use them.  This challenge is in acknowledging what we know – and what we don’t. While young women are the future of birth culture, we have already learned many lessons the hard way and can spare them much pain.

With our clients we know that this time is unique and scary and full of growth.  We can say, “Yes, its not what you expected.  But you know, it never really is.”  From a midlife maternal perspective, many firsts have come and gone: first baby, first child in kindergarten, first night your child doesn’t call, and the first one leaving home.  It never really feels how we expect it to – the fulfillment or the angst.  We can join our kin doulas without children in appreciating our clients as pseudo-daughters, dispersing wisdom and reassurance while not replacing their own mothers.

This is also a time of introspection and reorganization.  If they haven’t already, many doulas at this life stage become leaders in their communities.  They may move to parallel careers that are less demanding.  We need growth but we also need rest.  Rest does not mean stagnation.  Indeed periods of rest and introspection are often followed by frenzied creativity.  We give birth to books, to workshops, to programs, to businesses, and to new doulas.

So midlife doula kin, there are similar signposts on our individual journeys.  Look in the mirror and see your value.  I do.

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Another Reason Why Birth Is Sacred

Jan 1, 2014 by

Long ago I learned that rescuing people from their own actions is often a trap, one that ensnares us as well as the person we are trying to help.  When it comes to my client’s birth it can be really hard as she makes decisions that are not going to take her in the direction she previously desired.  As a doula I want to grab her and say, “No! Nooo….No!”  The more attached I am to her personally the harder it is…until I shift my thinking.  Once I remind myself to respect the transformation and challenges of pregnancy and birth as a sacred path it becomes much easier to support and serve this mother.

Several decades ago there was a lot of interest in vision quests* and understanding the deeper spiritual nature of existence.  These journeys of challenge and hardship were entered into to discover one’s strengths, weaknesses, inner nature, and relationship to the Divine.  For some groups it also involved the risk of death.  Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about the “hero’s journey” and the meaning and interpretations of this myth in contemporary society.  (Today we have Frodo and Harry Potter.)

Early on in my path as a doula, I saw the potential of birth to hold these same meanings for today’s women.  Women faced these same challenges by gestating, giving birth, and nursing – they didn’t always need a vision quest in the wilderness.  While our culture has not adopted the idea of a ritualized journey, the experience of childbirth still holds this potential for women.

If we appreciate a woman’s birth story as her own personal myth it has the potential to reveal to her deep truth and knowing about herself.  It can be a mirror of who she is.  Within her birth story is how she deals with challenge, how she deals with authority, how she supports herself, what strengths she brings forth that she didn’t know she had.  It reveals her relationship to what is unknowable and undefinable in human existence.  She must give herself over to a process that may be unknown to her that she is not in control of.  How does she respond?  What allies does she call upon?  When the crisis comes, what does she do?  How does she deal with her deep fear as it faces her in the mirror?  How does she experience pain and what does she want to do about it and what does she do about it?  How does this mother see the world?  How does she see her place in it?

To me, every laboring woman I am with is traversing this terrain.  My role is to guide her to finding her own way not to show her which way is right.  There is no way I can know her inner experience or how her history has shaped her to act in these moments.  I don’t need to know – I just need to trust that this journey is unfolding as it should for her.  Women have taught me to trust them to find their own truth.

This doesn’t mean it’s easy.  This doesn’t mean I don’t speak up; it means I trust her to let me know she wants me to.  It means I have developed an automatic questioning in response to my “No! No!”: “Is it about me or about her?”    It means I trust that when she whispers, “I think I want an epidural.”  I whisper back, “Do you want to talk about it some or do you know that’s what you want?”  If she nods “yes”, I get the nurse.  I believe she KNOWS and I do not rob her of that power of choice.  To dither about her birth plan is to diminish her as being able to know what is best for her in that moment.  My service is to trust her unconditionally as the heroine on her own quest.  She will find herself whether she wants to or not.

In my decades of doulaing I have found that many women come back to me and say that their birth taught them so much about themselves.   They learned who they were.  They faced their fears and lived the consequences of their choices.  When a woman has support, true support without an agenda, she finds her voice.  We amplify it so others can hear it too.

Women change their lives based on their births.  They end bad relationships, become fiercer mothers, move across the country, yell at their obstetricians, yell at their midwives, hug and cry with their obstetricians and their midwives, grieve for not knowing.  They grieve for the woman they left behind and embrace the woman they now are.  Who am I to know what is best for that woman in the midst of her birth?  I know nothing!

This acknowledgement of the deep spiritual nature of birth and the risks it contains for crisis and change, keeps me humble.  It also frees me.  I am a chosen companion for the journey, an ally who will respond as needed. Sometimes offering wisdom but always offering patience and calm.  I follow her lead because this is Her Story, the myth she is living and creating with each breath.  I trust Her and I trust my service to her, which is why birth and the path of doulaing when practiced this way is sacred.

 

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.  Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”   -Joseph Campbell

 

* The term “vision quest” has different historical and cultural meanings in Native American or First People cultures.  I’m using a popular culture definition of the term.

 

If you wish to explore these ideas further:

The Women’s Wheel of Life, Elizabeth Davis* and Carol Leonard, Penguin/Arkana, 1996     (*midwife and author of the midwifery textbook, Heart and Hands)

The Wholistic Stages of Labor by Whapio Diane Bartlett    http://www.thematrona.com/apps/blog/the-holistic-stages-of-labor-by-whapio

The Woman Who Runs With The Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ballantine Books (1993)

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth DVD Documentary, PBS, 1988, 2013

Transformation Through Birth, Claudia Panuthos, Bergin and Garvey, 1984 (still being published!)

Birthing From Within, Pam England, Partera Press, 1998

 

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