Thursday, October 13, 2011

"You Have to be One Tough Bitch to be a Doula"

...This is the learning my recent students took most to heart....

I had the privilege of being invited to teach the MotherWit Birth Doula Training Intensive in Edmonton at Birth Source Inc, hosted by Tracey Stolarchuk. With great excitement, I packed my bags and flew on over from Montreal. At the airport, I met up with my friend, former student, and doula sister Sue Appleton Elliot, who is a birth doula at Apple of Your Eye Doula Services in St. John, New Brunswick. I was overwhelmingly grateful to have Sue's grounding presence, because I was nervous. Very nervous. Not because I was about to teach a 60 hour doula preparation class in six days, but because I was minutes away from seeing my father for the first time in over 15 years. I was so glad not to have to do that alone. Not that I was dreading the meeting, it was just so surreal.

Meeting up with my dad and his wife was lovely. It did my heart good to see my father doing well and living a life that satisfies him, having existed in the throes of terrible addiction for most of his life. I'm pretty proud of him for having climbed over a huge mountain of struggle to choose a healing path, and am amazed he made it out alive. He was proud to hear of a new grandchild (my sister's) and her marriage last year. We spent that evening having a lovely supper with them, and my father made plans with me to meet for dinner later that week. I had put Sue in charge of teaching that evening's topic so I could spend some time with my father.

It is always so exciting to meet in person the women who have, out of all the doula trainings available in North America, chosen mine to put them on the path to this crazy work. It makes me feel extremely humbled, and extremely responsible. You certainly can't teach someone how to be a doula in 60 short hours, but you can give them the overview of how to proceed, and set the tone for the beliefs they may bring to the birthing rooms they visit in the future. I was happy to see a feisty, dynamic bunch with lots of stories to tell. I knew we were going to have some fun.

My message is always very clear, that a "holistic" birth doula is not someone who believes an undisturbed environment and a healthy spritz of lavender will create the perfect birth outcome all the time. The fact is, most women in Canada give birth in hospital, and the fact is, most women want to, even though it reduces the normalcy of the process. So our work has to be tailored in support of each individual woman, in support of each environment she chooses to birth in. A good, healthy birth honours not only the precious biological blueprint of the birth process, but the resources, inner and outer, a woman brings to birth. An all natural birth can be an incredibly healing journey for many. Yet for others it is potentially an endeavour in terror, flashback, and trauma. We meet women exactly where they are, in love and support, and provide the most comfort and encouragement we can as she brings her baby into the world, on her terms, in her way, from her place of empowerment. If she comes through feeling amazing and powerful, even if it doesn't match our vision of "perfect", then this is healing and trans-formative for her. We rejoice. And if she doesn't feel that way, we are there to lean on to help her sort things out. A holistic doula nourishes the whole woman; her strength, her fears, her challenges, her choices.

After the first day of the training, I read a blog our hostess Tracey had written. It talked about her retirement from doula work, and that her parting gift to the new generation of doulas was the MotherWit Intensive she had invited me to bring to her home town. I felt an even stronger commitment to bring my absolute best to the women who wanted to learn, to live up to that faith someone I admire very much had in me to enrich the knowledge of aspiring doulas. I took that challenge and opened up, way up, and gave from a more spiritual, more emotional place than I have in the past, committing myself to my own authenticity, as I challenge my students to connect with and commit to theirs.

I looked around my group and it was clear what the theme of this training was going to be: "strength". Every training I have takes on a unique flavour. My first intensive expressed the impetus for building a strong community within which to learn and thrive, so the flavour was "sisterhood" in my mind. My second intensive was mostly full of strong, young, childless women who were inspired through their work and studies to help women birth on their own terms in a challenging environment. "Empowerment" was the flavour of that training.

I don't mean this Edmonton group was strong the way women are generally strong. These were women grounded in some serious ferocity. This was not a room full of hippie dippie patchouli doulas. These were women who have been around the block more than a few times and have held the space for some serious things in their lives. One lady had been in the Canadian Reserves and lives on Edmonton's military base, raising her three babies while her man is away in Afghanistan. There were a couple of nurses who are no strangers to pain, struggle, and every hard emotion under the sun. There was a drug and alcohol counsellor who compassionately sits with people when they have to detox from things like Listerine, as well as support them emotionally to get their lives back on track. We had a newly pregnant child and youth worker who flew all the way from a tiny island on the Bay of Fundy to meet with us in Edmonton. She and her husband were caring for a nephew at home whose mother was very sick. Sadly, the kid's mom died during the training, and my student will be going back home to support a child's grief. There was a woman who has worked in forestry for a decade. These are just some examples of the women who made up this incredible group.

What I loved about these women the most was that even though their strength was palpable, it wasn't harsh. They had the most loving hearts, and I know they will make any woman in their care feel totally safe, but really nurtured as well. And, wow, such amazing mothers these ladies were. I loved watching them all with their babies and toddlers.

The last day of our class is always a challenging one, as we spend time discussing the hardest aspects of birth attending; witnessing trauma, death, dealing with anger at a system that often isn't even conscious of some of the deep wounds it perpetrates sometimes, as well as how the intense enery of birth can launch us right into countertransference, opening up old wounds we didn't even know we had. I was already coming from a pretty raw place. The evening before, I was ready to meet my dad to spend some time with him, after 15 years of our not seeing each other or communicating much. I called him to see if he would be picking me up from the store after he finished working as we planned, his place of work being 5 minutes away. Apparently he had forgotten our plan. I pretended there hadn't been a plan so he wouldn't feel bad. I had to take some time to process that. For a while as Sue drove me in respectful silence back to our hotel, I felt like a kid who found out for certain that Santa Claus wasn't real. It's not that I had any expectations of my father suddenly being like a father...but maybe a little young part of me secretly hoped for it. I don't blame my dad. He is ageing and forgetful. But the truth is that we are just not part of each others' lives. This is not out of malice, but because even though we're related, we don't know each other. He was too sick while I was a child to ever be able to safely relate to him. I breathe that truth in. It is what it is. So a little time alone and a good cry of letting go with my husband over the phone, and I was able to come to a place of a better understanding: that I truly am a girl with no daddy, but that I do have a father who is doing his best in the world as a person and has done some mind blowing work to heal. He is kind, generous, and he is with a great partner. I like that. It is my responsibility alone to do with my feelings what I may, and blame certainly isn't going to be my choice.

As I was preparing the class a little later, it occurred to me how doulas often have a community of other doulas to process hard stuff with each other, because women naturally gravitate towards each other for emotional support. It made me wonder what doctors do. So I messaged by OB resident buddy for a chat about that. Yes, it is true, doulas and OBs probably do seem like strange friends in theory, but I have found this relationship to be quite healing, as well as inspiring. We swapped some really sad birth stories, and I learned that his greatest emotional support when birth gets tough comes from the nurses in labour and delivery, who are truly like moms to residents. I was happy to know that, and truly, not surprised. Nurses are pretty amazing, after all. I think it must be hard for doctors, who, given all their clinical responsibility, can't really hold a woman's hand in the face of emergency and cry with her afterward because they have to keep such a strong clinical perspective, yet their pain at what happens to their patients is just as acute as mine is for the sadness my clients experience. I feel doubly blessed for my community of doulas, and open our circle up to any doctor who needs a hug and a good cry when the dust of clinical trauma settles and the emotions begin to rise.

After a hard afternoon of painful topics on our last day of training, we talked about the qualities of a doula, and this is when it occurred to me how the hippie image of the doula is so incredibly whack. Media has it all wrong. We joke about it because while it's true we might be a little weird, most doulas I know aren't hippie-ish at all. I looked into the eyes of every one of these fierce women in front of me, and told them: "It takes one tough bitch to be a doula. When you have done this work long enough, you WILL see trauma you can barely contain, you WILL get your heart ripped open with grief, you WILL feel anger so strong at the sight of mistreatment, you will want to hurt someone. I WILL commit to continuing my work. I HAVE had my heart broken, yet I do it anyway. I HAVE experienced rage I've had to struggle to transform into love for those hands that will catch a new life, yet I commit to staying present, knowing it will probably happen again. This is my path, this is my choice, and this is how we can help to heal this culture, by choosing again and again to open ourselves up to love even when it hurts." Not one person flinched. Nobody turned around and tried to get out of Dodge as quickly as possible. Every set of eyes looked back at me with determination and even inspiration, and the words of a very wise mother in the room resonated from a guided imagery exercise we had done earlier in the day: "Love transcends all need for understanding." When the father is in pieces, if the baby has died, when a woman feels raped by an experience we couldn't control, when everything hits the fan at once, our role isn't to flesh out the reasons why. That's for the caregivers to do if it's even possible. Healing comes for and from us in the form of love; from the act of giving and receiving it, and from the sense of feeling worthy of it, even at our lowest. It reaffirmed to me the greatest compliment I have ever received after attending a hard birth: "You made me feel loved. When others couldn't meet my eyes, you loved me."

One thing I try to do in my trainings is introduce the concept of ritual or ceremony. Women, who used to cycle together and celebrate days of harvest and full moons together with ceremony, are particularly hungry for it. If we burn a little sage in class, eyes tear up at what seems to be an ancestral memory. My Edmonton ladies have already found ritual, as evidenced by the many awesome tattoos I saw (and I'm sure there were a few I didn't see). Many people judge people with tattoos, especially when the tattoos are sported by women. But really, with the world out of balance, commerciall-y baby showers taking the place of Blessingways and birth being something to schedule for convenience instead being seen as a woman's rite of passage into motherhood, it makes perfect sense to me why women would feel a deep desire to transform much of their emotional pain and personal experiences into body art through the process of enduring physical pain. This is a more ancient, less cerebral impetus towards healing. It doesn't have to make sense.

I wanted to take a moment to honour and celebrate the tattoos of my students. They all have stories, even if you may not understand their meaning by looking at them. Some tell stories of commitment, others of survival. A couple of them move me incredibly. One woman connected to our group lost a child years ago. Yet colourful butterflies of hope and transformation fly on her skin forever. How healing is that?! And beautiful. The one photo you see at the end may seem like the funniest, silliest tattoo ever, but make no mistake. If you knew this woman and her life, it is a profound message of surrender, serenity, and the gift of humour.

So, my inked up little Albertan badasses, love to you all. You are all tough bitches, and I mean that in the most loving way you can imagine. Go out and doula. It was an honour to meet each and every one of you. Merry meet, merry part, and merry meet again.