Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Shadow, Trauma, and Love: A Doula's Path to Healing

Being a doula is an amazing job.  We are frequently exposed to and bathed in the healing light of massively transformative love as new parents, quivering from the shock of birth, reach for the fruit of their hard work, taking the new life they’ve worked so hard for into their arms and into their hearts.  Ah, to be witness to such things is good for one’s soul.

But there is a darker side that doulas with a reasonable amount of experience have come to witness as well.  Instead of seeing a joy filled moment, sometimes we are exposed to something violent and shocking.  It doesn’t happen often, but on occasion there are instances that etch into our memories like a bad dream.  This is when someone enters the space who has lost all sense (or someone who has never had it) of what birth represents to families and to humanity as a whole: a sacred rite of passage, a peak experience, the expansion of the heart with Love.  Though not always the case, in my experience this has happened with primary caregivers (either doctors or midwives).   It occurs when you hear or see something that seems completely incongruent with how the energy of birth should be held for the birthing woman, her partner (if there is a partner), and the baby/ies.  I’m not talking about the odd off the cuff comments, or the harried health care provider seeming rushed and disconnected, or the typical projected opinions.  I feel those are things we encounter from people in our everyday lives, and while challenging, they don’t “ruin” a birth or our experience of birth as a doula.    What I am speaking of are those moments, and most of you doulas know it, when your heart recognizes before your mind does that abuse is occurring. 

When trauma unfolds before us, it is a healthy response for part of us to disassociate in order to protect our psyches from the reality of the situation at hand.  There have been a small handful of times in my life as a doula I have witnessed my clients disassociate. Not because their birth was dramatic and things took a turn way off from what they had hoped for (that’s a different story), but because someone treated them with pointed malice, disdain, disrespect, and vicious manipulation at the most vulnerable time in their lives.  I will not go into the stories.  I am still working out my own responses to some of the things I have seen.  It is not only the parents who find themselves in a position to heal from this kind of inflicted trauma, but you too, Doula.

So Doulas, what have you done in these situations when something that is undeniably abuse occurs before your eyes?  My first reaction is often to justify it.  I cannot believe it is happening, so my mind tries to make it right somehow so I can cope.  I try to make excuses, “Oh, this caregiver must have their reasons,” or “They are really good people, just having a bad day.”  Very quickly, though, my heart, which is the best gage for what a violation is, realizes what’s going down.  My next response is quick, violent rage.  I find myself wanting to lash out verbally and physically to the perpetrator of the shocking, destructive behaviour.  What goes through my head is, “I am supposed to advocate.  I am supposed to protect.  I am supposed to hold the space for a peaceful birth experience!”  But standing in the reality of violence, you quickly realize that you can feel completely powerless to do anything effective.  To feel helpless to defend your client and save them from this nightmare is one of the very worst things one can experience as a doula. 

Why can you not defend?  For one, when I have tried to advocate in these situations, even in the gentlest, most non-combative way I know how, I have been met with screams of “Shut up!!!!”  When someone is on an Ego rampage, any attempts at reasoning will fail.  Besides, who are you?  You’re “just the pesky doula.”  It isn’t our job to argue, anyway.  So our typical responses, which may be to not even address the caregiver but ask the client, for example, what HER thoughts are on the matter at hand, will be met with rage.  To add any fuel to the fire may cause further damage to this already desperate situation.  This can hurt your client, and it can get you unfairly banned from working in that hospital again.  Yes, that’s right, just for standing up for what’s right.  You will be accused of medically interfering, even though that would be the furthest thing from your intention. That is a risk you may want to take, and if you do, bless you.  This is not a risk I want to take because the implications are too big.  The reality is that doula work overall will be lost, and if we can’t be there, many others in the future will not benefit from the care we provide. The relay-ing of the story by the caregiver who caused the damage will likely include a gross misrepresentation of what we were doing.  That’s the way Ego rolls.  Whose “word” wins?  Not ours.

By now, if you’ve never experienced this before, you’re wondering what the hell you’ve signed on for as a doula.  How, in this day and age, can we be so pushed into a corner with our inexpressible Truth, that the risk of speaking it from our hearts will destroy our careers and rob future clients of the beauty of our work as most know it to be?

As above, so below.  It is important to put your experience into perspective.  The truth, and even most medical caregivers will admit this freely, is that in our current mainstream birth culture, there is a GROSS imbalance between the birthing woman’s own power, ability, intuition, hopes, dreams, and wishes and Medicine’s seek to control this unpredictable situation, this “disaster waiting to happen” that is birth.  We all know statistically that all these protocols designed to keep women and babies safe are prone to causing more problems than they prevent.  They are problems, yes, that can be mitigated by more application of birth technology, but problems all the same.  The family’s experience of birth to some caregivers has been deemed to be not only very low on the check list of “delivery” protocol, but in fact a matter of much disdain, as if whether or not a family has a “nice experience” (regardless of whatever comes up) is a matter for the privileged and the spoiled.  Herein lies the wound. So it makes sense that as you go about your own business doula-ing with your loving supportive heart, this truth of the implications of this imbalance will be played out to you in the form of birth story.
Every once in a while you will see an extreme example of the dangerous results of this imbalance, embodied in the form of raging Ego that has forgotten its original noble intention: to work in partnership with a woman to keep birth safe for her and her baby.  In balance, we have the potential for empowered, thrilled, safe births. We CAN have the best of both worlds.  The possibility is there. Out of balance, we see the very things we as doulas seek to help our clients avoid: lasting birth trauma (physical and emotional), postpartum depression, feelings of being a bad mother, worries about bonding, maternal guilt,  and loss of faith in one’s body.  These feelings are exacerbated, not healed, by a society whose message, subtle or otherwise is, “But you had a healthy baby and you’re alive, so stop whining.”  These negative stories generate fear, Medicine responds to that fear with amping up control, and soon we are off into stratospheres of terror, losing the essence of what birth means to a family as part of their important tribal story, as a legacy to their future generations.

So let’s go back to that place again where we talked about you, Doula, standing in the proverbial corner with your Truth in your throat, powerless to express it.   What is your Truth?  Why are you here?  I know what mine is.  A very wise and beloved man asked me to remember when I found myself in this heinous situation and was caught up in feelings of powerlessness to ask myself these three things.  “What do you stand for?”  I stand for peace.  I stand for love.  I stand for truth. Wherever it can be eked out, this is the very reason I embarked upon this path of a doula.  “Who do you stand for?”  I stand for the mothers, fathers, and babies who need and deserve to have their births infused with love and peace, a witness to their important family narrative.  “Who do you stand with?”  I stand with those whose intent is to see birth be safe AND peace-filled, no matter how the birth actually unfolds. 
If you notice, there is no asking of, “Who do you stand against?”  To do so is to further division.  And it is the division between control/empowerment, Ego/Truth, us/them that has created this situation of violence in the first place.  So where on earth do we find our power to carry out our original intent of bringing love and peace into the vortex of a nightmare?

Embody the shift in energy you wish to see.  This may sound hokey and weak to some, but I can assure you, this is the most powerful tool at your disposal in a situation such as this.  If you stand for love and peace, step into that role with everything you’ve got.  Drop the knife of divisive thinking and remember that there is a place in the heart of everyone in that room who at one point had noble intentions.  Even if not, it is still important that this child be born into an environment of love, into hands that are as peaceful as they can be.  So, for now, put down all of your reactions, just put them down, and focus on bringing peace into the room for the family.  For the healing of he/she who is caught in the violence of their ego.  This doesn’t mean just shutting up and putting up.  It means ACTIVELY centering yourself, opening up your heart, and channeling love into that room with every breath.  You will be amazed at what you might see happen or the accounts you hear afterwards.  You will be amazed at how you shift from feeling powerless judgment to a sense of doing something good.  Do you have control over the family being unscathed?  No.  But can you lessen the violence in the moment?  You can try.  It’s all you’ve got.  You can at least not fuel it further. It doesn’t guarantee results.  But you did something good. The greatest acts of loving kindness and generosity are being able to love even when you think there is nothing there left to love.   You do what can, remembering “What do I stand for?  Who do I stand for?”  “Who do I stand with?” while being unattached to the results.   You never know how they will translate.  And that’s okay.

Doula, after you have done that work and you return home to rest, you will have your own process.  As a doula teacher, I have witnessed some of my students be traumatized by some of their experiences.  It has taken me a long time to figure out how to help them deal with it, as I was still healing from my own experiences without knowing what to do.  I had nobody to turn to while I was learning, and I feel these experiences had a profound impact upon me.  Now I have tools in which to help doulas protect themselves energetically while these traumas are unfolding, and ways to help them work through and find meaning and healing from these experiences.   I feel strongly as a doula teacher, that these skills are basic and necessary (not advanced), and I do my best to relay them in the doula training program I provide.  I also feel it is so important for a doula to have a community to which she can reach out and find support for these struggles.  It is within this supportive environment a doula can step into the power of her intention to truly be an instrument of peace for birthing families.  Together, we move mountains.

Lesley Everest