Saturday, November 19, 2011

Doulas: Women of Story

I often tell my students at the end of my doula training program that one of the most poignant aspects of being a doula is about becoming rich with story. Stories of people bringing new life into their families are juicy. They can be mellow or wrought with drama, but they are always meaningful, always interesting. It never fails to fill my heart at the honour it is to be present for the unfolding of each unique and special story. Doing the regular doula stuff, like holding hands, soothing, wiping tears and breathing with are only a small part of the role. It is the BE-ing a witness and participant at the beginning of a family's story, and following up to process it with them, watching them revel in their own reaction to it, that is for me the most meaningful part of my work.

I have held the space for so many stories; triumphs, tragedies, healings, and growth. Most of the stories are wonderful, full of the amazement of women owning their own power as they roar their babies ecstatically into the world. These stories lend the entire world a little grace and our culture a little healing in that moment the mother/s, father/s and child/ren discover each other in an oxytocin haze, a new family member and citizen born. Some stories are of trauma, either due to an unexpected emergency or at the hands of others, these traumas being worked through partly by the doula's gentle whisper, "You have the right to grieve. I take it for granted you are grateful for a healthy baby and will never remind you of the fact to block your tears." A few end in disappointment. "It just wasn't what I wanted." It is what it is and we breathe that in as a reality and work on happy mothering anyway. Rarely, some end before they have even begun. There are angel babies I hold in my heart, having witnessed first hand their passing. I have seen caregivers shaking in shock while I shake in my own and we have sometimes held each other in tears, human and powerless in the face of another's overwhelming sorrow. It is true what Ina May says: your heart will get broken. But I have learned to love better because it, and savour the joys more deeply. A few end in utter surprise with me catching a baby just before the ambulance arrives or before a resident, without backup in an overcrowded hospital, gets her gloves on. Many are first babies, one was even a 12th baby (though it came before I got there, "the fastest yet", the mother said). Some are journeys of deep healing, a reclamation of wholeness to restore faith in one's body that was previously thought to be defunct until the emergence of a precious child. And some are the bitter sweetness of hello and goodbye as the surrogate gives the child she's lovingly carried to his mother, or he goes with the social worker to be given to another family, me left tearful in the wake of some grief, but at the incredible spirit of wisdom and generosity of some birthers too.

It is the stories I have been privileged to have been invited to be part of that make me a woman of story, and which grace me with the honour of being an "experienced doula". It is one thing to start out bright eyed and bushy tailed at the thought of going to births and seeing new babies come out, ensuring a safe, natural passage with your presence. Then it is another to learn the crazy ropes of hospital politics and how to play the game (resentfully at first), as many seem to hate you even before you open your mouth, as well as see that sometimes you can pull out every single one of your cool doula tricks and not have anything go better birthwise for the mother as she goes off for the Cesarean. These are the days of, "What did I get myself into?" when after 40 hours of labour support, your mommy deprived kids at home, and an overburdened partner, you are unsure of your place in this unpredictable world of birth. Then, as you gather up enough story to you and your face becomes more familiar within the places you work, you feel lighter, more in your element, having found your endurance and your stride. You don't feel hated really...maybe just a little misunderstood sometimes, but more appreciated too. And you are able to let go of the fact that you truly don't have any control over how a birth goes. You glean comfort from knowing your support meant that a hard situation will be remembered better, or that the hours, sweat, and tears you put into rubbing someones back through each contraction contributed to that unmedicated birth the family wanted. Finally, even when it seems everyone in the hospital is nuts that day and it feels like nothing you're doing for the family is working at all, you can stand back, breathe, and love. Just love. All of them. Sometimes it's all we can do. And it is good. Good for you, good for them. It is Presence in action, and it is more powerful than you can imagine.

As a teacher I get to witness others as they witness their first births, those first stories being the true initiation into the world of doula-dom. I see the the tears of their joy at seeing new life emerge, the frustration of long hours of pulling out all stops then the birth ending in surgery anyway, the shock of hearing unconscious words or seeing disrespectful treatment sometimes, to them or to the parents, and the bleakness of some family situations. As much as it is an honour to witness birth stories, ALL birth stories, it is an honour to witness others on the path to becoming experienced doulas, to see the shifts that occur as they grow from newbies to women of story. It takes a lot of time and effort to become an experienced doula and to have snippets of story from most situations imaginable, but it is well worth the effort. The more experienced I see my former students and present colleagues become, the more in love with the work they seem to fall. I know I do. Each experience inspires me to recommit. If you're in the beginning phases and feel a little isolated, drop us a line. Sisterhood is far reaching. Here's to you becoming rich in story too.