Monthly Archives: February 2013

With Woman

With Woman

If you want to serve a woman’s birth… Begin with loving her.

Ignore the checklist of what birthing and mothering should be, and love her beyond reason.

Open your ears to her heart, and hear her stories that she carries of her own birth, her own mother, of the lineage of a hundred grandmothers before her and of the journey that has brought her to this place where your lives now intersect.

Hear the songs of her hope and strength, the melancholy of her fears, the strands that tie us all together as mothers, as women, as sisters

And if you have not yet heard where your own heart answers “yes, yes, this is mine too”, you have not listened long enough.

If you want to serve a woman’s birth… Love her.

Love her beyond your shoulds, beyond your concept of right and good and beautiful,

Beyond her own expectations of herself and her beloveds

Beyond your own fears of manipulation and control and imperfection

And remember that the journey of transformation from resistance to empowerment must be hers, and believe in her completely and love her fiercely through it.

If you want to serve a woman’s birth… Love her.

Love her in her unclaimed shadows, in her stumbling, in her victories, in her vulnerability

and remember that her choices have nothing to do with you.

Love her through her screaming and her doubting and her sweating and her swearing

as she passes through the fire of her own soul, surrendering the only life she has ever known and emerges, herself, reborn, as Mother.

If you want to serve a woman’s birth… Love her.

Love her in her divine feminine life-growing Creatress self that dwells within her and within you and around each and every woman

in our working and our doing and our creating

in our instincts and our innate wisdom and our visions and our voices

that surpass our illusions of power and greatness and quest for enlightenment and our perpetual search for a life more beautiful when  already we are blessed beyond measure.

If you want to serve a woman’s birth… Love her.

Love her in compassion, honor and believe in her

in her holy sacred messy vulnerable powerful raw life-giving self in body mind and spirit

until she knows the story of strength and courage and wisdom that is  Her Own as the new story that she now carries forward for the sisters and daughters and mothers and grandmothers yet to come

for it is this way, one birth and one woman at a time, that together we weave the web that changes the world.

Doula, Nurture Thyself!

Doula, Nurture Thyself!

Birth workers are an amazingly dedicated bunch. The phone rings, day or night, and we answer, ready to roll. We offer comfort for the aches, balm for the fears, and remind our mamas to believe in themselves, find their power,  love their bodies, and nurture their babies. We wipe away tears without judgment and celebrate joys without holding back. We are passionately committed to learning and growing. We offer the gift of our unending compassion, which continues to call us to this work we do. For many of us, this life of service to others includes the responsibilities of tending our own households, nourishing our own relationships, and parenting our own children. We are often asked, “How do you do it?” Is it any wonder that burning out is the biggest risk that doulas face?

Anyone who has ever been on an airplane has heard the pre-flight instructions,  “In the event of an emergency, an oxygen mask will drop down. If you are traveling with  someone who needs help, please place a mask over your own face, before assisting others.”  Make sure to tend to your own survival first, so that you can support someone else without putting your safety at risk. It’s a pretty basic formula, and yet, how often in our  working, our loving, and our daily living do we forget to put our own masks on first?  This is where burnout comes from. Because we love so deeply, want so much to be  “good enough”  and  offer the best service we can, we give our all and then some, with no complaining. We don’t want to be seen as selfish or indulgent, or any of the other negative labels that our  mind chatter might stir up about “Self Care”. So, we get used up and worn out. Reality bites back hard, with anger and resentment and exhaustion.  We begin to feel fizzled and hollow, with nothing left to give.  We reach the point where quitting seems to be the only option.

It is time, now, to re-write the negative and limiting belief that excellent Self Care is wrong. Self Care is not an indulgence enjoyed by the lazy and selfish, but the responsibility of anyone wishing to have a joy-filled life. It is absolutely essential to make sure that your needs for nurturing and comfort are met. It is imperative to feel nourished and sustained enough to provide you with  enough resource to give to others who are looking to you for support.  Further, when we model this way of living for our mamas, we give them permission to love and accept themselves and meet their own needs, supporting them not only in birth, but in living more balanced and fulfilled lives.

Healthy Self Care begins with checking in, with love and kindness, to discover your own basic needs, and then working to meet them. In sharing the following list, I invite you to take a mental snapshot of your own lifestyle and your care provider style, and consider where some new Self Care baby steps might be beneficial. Please hold in mind that the intention here is not to guilt or shame about how you’ve been doing it so far, or to make you “feel bad”, but to encourage you to take a good, honest look at how you are caring for yourself while providing care to others, so that you have more than enough energy over a long period of time.

1)  Sleep well.  Six to eight hours a night, in a pleasant and relaxing sleep environment, is ideal. Having a good sleep routine and a consistent daily schedule helps make sure your body is rested and strong, so that the occasional all-nighter won’t leave you a total wreck. Learn to power nap, and if you have enough of a heads-up before the “come now” call, make time to close your eyes for twenty minutes so that you arrive fresh and rested.

2) Remember to eat, drink, and be well.  Long births can mean stretches of time with little more than crackers and small cups of coffee. We encourage our mamas to drink 4 oz an hour, and snack frequently to keep their strength up. We encourage dads to take a break to eat something. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that “I have to be here right now!”, and forget to do the same for ourselves.  Remember to keep some healthy snacks in your bag. Eat something non-processed and good for you before you leave home. Bring your water bottle with you.  It’s ok to tag-team with Dad or another support person to take a short break, step out, and eat something. While you’re at it, brush your teeth, splash your face, check your deodorant, and stretch for a minute.  It might be hard to pull yourself away, but in the long run, your mamas will thank you. A grumpy doula suffering from hunger, exhaustion, and a need to pee isn’t doing anyone any good.

3) Be gentle with your body. Labor support is physically demanding work. We use our muscles to help mamas into different positions, and to provide massage, counterpressure, and a body to lean on in labor. It’s not unusual to leave a birth feeling like you’ve just completed a marathon. Be good to your body in the between times. Take your vitamins. Find fun ways to exercise. See your chiropractor regularly. Remember your yearly physicals from your doctor and gynecologist. If you can swing it, schedule a session with a personal trainer or physical therapist to talk about the physical maneuvers you use most often, and learn how to perform them in a way that uses your body to your best advantage, to avoid strain or injury. This is the only body you get. Treat it well!

4) Be prepared for quick change. A full-time doula must be ready to go at any moment. The last minute scramble to get yourself together and get out the door can be stressful, but there are things you can do in advance so that it goes as easily as possible. Keep your birth bag stocked and ready to go, and replace what you use up after each birth. Have a change of “hospital clothes” in your car, and another ready to go at home, so that you don’t have to think about it after getting a “come now” call. Have a support network lined up in advance, so that you already know who to call for your children. Keep a couple of easy-to-prepare meals on hand at home at all times, so that there’s no need to think about what your family will have for dinner while you’re away.

5) Know where your support network is, and reach out to them. Some births are hard. You might have questions, or your own need to process your feelings. Having a strong support system in place in advance can help you get through the bumpy moments with more peace and ease. You might find comfort in a qualified counselor. A more experienced colleague can be a good resource for calling when you need wisdom and advice. A support group for birth workers might already exist in your area, or you might find others willing to help you start one. Nobody has to go through this alone. We’re all in it together.

6) Know your triggers and your coping skills. The more deeply you know, love, and accept yourself, the better you will be able to provide support for others in their own times of vulnerability and learning. Knowing in advance, from experience, what hasn’t worked well for you before will help you communicate clearly to your clients what your own needs are. How you respond to the more challenging moments that life brings your way is what builds your strength and shapes your character. It’s hard to come up with creative solutions in the moment when you’re in the middle of a crisis. Having pre-rehearsed coping strategies on-call for yourself will help you provide better care for everyone.

7) Watch your self talk. We tell our mamas to be mindful of critical self-talk because their bodies and babies are listening. The same is doubly true for us. “I’m no good at this”, or “I’m not as good as (some other person) is”, does nothing to make us better at what we do. It tears us down and takes the wind out of our sails. Remember to affirm that you’re doing your best, and you’re learning all the time. The same can be said for “I’m better than this other person because…” Don’t compare yourself to others – compare only to the self that you were before now. None of us can learn everything at once, and all of us have something we can learn from one another.

8) Create a Re-Entry Ritual. When we are present to the miracle that is bringing a new life into the world, we get to experience the Birth High that is one of the most enjoyable parts of this work. The Doctor is so proud, the Mama is ecstatic, Daddy is weeping, Grandma can’t stop hugging everyone in the room, and there’s warm fuzzy love flying all over the place.  It’s easy to forget that it took us hours to arrive at this state, and that the rest of the outside world might not be experiencing it with us. It’s very easy, in this state of being, to get emotionally bumped. We can get completely thrown off by traffic on the way home, or dishes in the sink upon our arrival, or a partner who needs to tell us right away that there are crayons in the toilet and oh, by the way, your mother called. We can go from the highest of highs to a very grumpy low in a matter of seconds. After leaving a particularly challenging birth in my first year of being a doula, I once paused at an intersection for several seconds before realizing that I was waiting for the stop sign to change! A re-entry ritual is simply and intentionally taking a minute to get back to center and  adjust ourselves to be ready to deal with the outside world again. Stop, take a deep breath. Acknowledge the wonderful experience you just had, and allow yourself to transition back to the daily world now. Stomp your feet on the ground to wake yourself up. Eat something with protein. Drink some water. Then, you can drive yourself home again. Get in the shower, take a nap. It doesn’t need to be complicated – just make sure it works for you, and follow through with it every single time.

9) Practice gratitude. Attitudes are easy to catch and easy to cultivate. We cannot be in a state of gratitude and a negative frame of mind at the same time. Gratitude is one of the best tools we have at our disposal to increase happiness and satisfaction. Being grateful for the goodness that is already evident in your life will bring you a deeper sense of contentment every day (see: More Like This, Please! for more on how this works.)  Make a daily practice of beginning and ending each day by naming three things you are grateful for, and watch how much easier the interactions with your family, your friends, and your clients will become.

10) Make time to laugh. Make time to slow down and enjoy the joy.  In a doula’s world of birth among the stimuli of flourescent lights and beeping monitors and constant comings and goings of people and staying on top of the latest research and remembering to return a phone call and reschedule the two appointments that had to be changed for today, we can forget to embrace life’s enjoyable experiences.   The simple things in life can be the most rewarding when we remember to fully experience them. Make time to read funny books. Giggle with your kids. Make time to honor your friendships. Do something just for fun. It’s ok to be silly. Birth is serious work, but not every moment must be intense.

11) Know how to release the negative.  Forgive yourself for your shortcomings. Forgive others for the buttons they pushed. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between an emotion you are currently experiencing, and a past experience that you are vividly recalling. So, when you have a negative thought stuck in the hamster wheels inside your head, they are constantly wearing you down. They tear holes in your energy, eat away at your endurance, and weaken your immune system. It’s very hard to take care of yourself and provide care for others with this going on. Learn what works best for you to let it go – whether that’s through prayer, meditation, writing it out, calling a friend and having a good cry – whatever it takes, release it. Everybody benefits.

12) Remember that life is bigger than you. Take a moment in each day to notice something beautiful, and stop to be fully present with that feeling of appreciation. Take time to connect with nature, whether it’s letting the sun hit your face for a minute, taking your shoes off and standing barefoot on the earth, or keeping a flower in a vase where you will see it. Find a moment in each day to do something to remember that life is bigger than you. Let go of the silly notion that you are the biggest thing going on.  You are not responsible for anyone else’s decisions. You are present in service, but not in control. You are part of someone’s story, but not in charge of it. Embrace your connectedness as part of a greater whole. Especially if you are doing work with your life that you feel passionately called to do, finding a moment to connect with  that calling can provide you with the strength and comfort to get through even the most difficult days.

Doula-ing is challenging work, and immeasurably rewarding. Take the time now to cultivate the Self Care habits that will serve you well, and you will be better able to have what you need to provide support for others for years to come.

 

So, doulas, midwives, docs, birth workers –  let’s hear it!  How do you avoid burnout? When do you feel most susceptible to it? What keeps you away from it?

Dads and Doulas

Dads and Doulas

By now, it has become pretty well known that doula care provides plenty of benefits for mamas and babies. Women who birth with doulas on their team have lower c-section rates, use less pain medication, are less likely to need pitocin or intervention, and feel happier overall about their births.*  As well and good as that may be, it’s very normal for dads to wonder, “Ok, so what about me? I’ve read the stuff I’m supposed to, and went to the classes, and I think I’m going to do a pretty good job. What am I, a third wheel?”  Sometimes, dads are a little embarrassed to even ask this question – it seems that many think it at least a little bit, and yet they all wonder if they’re the first to have this thought. Really, it’s ok, I get it.

The thing is, in the last twenty years, dads have become more involved in birth than ever (as in, more than ever in the history of “ever”.)  This is a great thing – mamas need the comfort, companionship, and support of the partners who love them, especially in a time that’s as vulnerable as birth can be. Our current system is still figuring out what to do with this, and while the system has come a long way, the kinks aren’t quite all worked out yet.

There’s a pretty huge set of expectations for partners and husbands these days. You have nine months to learn to speak fluently the language of labor support – “surges”, “waves”, visualization,  counterpressure, what will help, what will hinder, what to do and when to do it. Meanwhile, you are also learning to speak fluently the language of “Hospital” – intermittent monitoring, hep lock, cord clamping, Erythromycin. You’re in a strange room, with unfamiliar equipment all around you, each piece of which beeps and dings at random intervals (Is that a “this machine is out of paper” ding, or an “emergency-come-here-now” ding?) Chances are, the birth of your own child is the first (or maybe second or third) birth you will have ever seen. There’s a lot that happens in normal birth that isn’t very normal in any other context – there’s some pretty primal moaning going on, and hot flashes, and cold sweats, swearing, and blood, and fluids, and throwing up.  The doctor or midwife and nurses will be there, but they’re usually only in the room for a few minutes at a time, with hours sometimes passing in between. You might be at the hospital for a very long time, and chances are that at some point you’re going to get tired or hungry.  Let’s just throw into the mix, while we’re at it, that while her instinctive  brain tells her body to go into groaning-baby-having mode, your instincts might be more inclined towards “Protector mode” (another human instinct, left over from the time when this meant standing outside the cave with a big stick, ready to keep away saber-toothed tigers).

So, putting this all together: On one of the most important days of your life, you are completely responsible for remembering everything you’ve learned, providing comfort and support to a woman in the intense throes of labor, communicating all of the important stuff your beloved wants you to remember, in a strange place, with unfamiliar faces, with a whole lot of potentially nerve-wracking stuff going on, ALL WHILE PREPARING EMOTIONALLY TO SEE YOUR CHILD’S FACE FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME. You’ve got one shot at this, and you’d better get it right. No pressure. Good luck.  Not a very good set-up, is it?

Now, consider what having a doula will do for you. She knows all the labor support tricks, and will suggest the ones that are likely to work. She’s talked with you and the mama about what’s important for both of you for this birth, and will help you remember who to tell and when to tell them. She’s  going to talk you through any of the parts that make you a little nervous. She knows the machines well enough to tell you which beeping thing is which. If she’s familiar with your hospital, she knows their rules, and she probably knows your nurse and your birth attendant. She knows where the vomit basins and the extra towels are. She knows when to say, “This is normal. You’re doing fine.” Your doula has no interest in being in the spotlight, or stealing your mojo. She’ll cover for you if you need to go eat, or make a phone call, or catch a power nap.

The love that you are able to provide for the birthing mama is immeasurable. The connection between the two of you is one of the most important things going on in the birth room. Your doula helps take the pressure off, so that you can show up and love your wife and your baby fully, in the way that only you know best. If the two of you need some alone time together, that’s fine. Your doula won’t mind. Likewise, she’ll probably also be pretty skilled at knowing when to gently step in for a little more support.

Dad, here’s the thing:  I think you’re going to be fine. I have no doubt that you’re going to do a great job. I’m not there to watch and tell you what you’re doing wrong – I’m there to see that you don’t feel lost in the shuffle. We’re in this together,  in a way that is going to benefit you, the mama, and your baby.  Think of your doula as part of your tribe, your walking Birth Wiki, and the best wing-chick you will ever have.

Go team!

 

*(DONA 2001)

More Like This, Please

More Like This, Please

Let’s play a little game together.  Right now, where ever you are, I want you to take a moment and look around the room you’re in, and find everything you can see that is the color green. No matter how big or small it is, look for and notice as many green things as you possibly can. I’ll wait.

Did you do it?

Good.

Were you surprised by how many green things  you hadn’t really seen before? Maybe little details started popping out at you, like a tiny leaf in a picture, or a pencil eraser, or a paperclip. Did you also notice how your mind started to draw your eye to things that were a shade of blue or grey or yellow, that were almost green?

Now, let me ask you, without taking a look around again:  While you were looking for all of the green things,  how many things did you see around you that are red? My guess is, not nearly as many as green things, right?

Now, take a look around for the red things. Oh, look!  They’re all over! And how about the oranges and pinks and purples that are almost red? There they are!

This works anywhere. It’s the same thing that happens when you begin to drive a new car, and it suddenly seems that there are so many more of that same car on the roads than there were before you drove one. Or, when you first learn that you’re having a baby, and suddenly pregnant bellies are everywhere. So, why does this happen?

It’s really all a matter of where we allow our attention to go. As human beings, our brain is capable of taking in far more information than we can consciously process all at once. So, we take more  notice of what we choose to pay attention to.

  Where we choose to focus our attention determines what we notice more of. It’s like listening to music while sitting at home – we notice the lyrics and the sound of the notes far more than we notice the sounds of the floorboards creaking, and the wind blowing outside, and the fish tank bubbling in the corner, and the dishwasher running in the next room. All of these things exist, and we can hear all of them at once, but where we’re consciously choosing to place our attention is on the music we’re enjoying.

Now here’s another one:  I invite you to remember a moment in the last six months when you felt truly content. It can be anything. It doesn’t have to be a major life event. It can be as small as getting a hug from a good friend, or taking the first bite of a truly enjoyable meal. Remember what it felt like to be in that moment. As you  focus on that memory, recalling exactly how right and good you felt, I invite you to notice the response to the recalling of  that moment that happens in your body.

  Maybe you noticed that the tension in your shoulders released a bit, or your breathing became a little softer and deeper, or your heart rate slowed down and you sighed. Even though this particular moment may have happened weeks ago,  you were probably able to feel a little more content, like you did then, just by thinking of it again.

Where we choose to place our attention determines what we see, or hear, or feel more of, right now. An interesting effect follows this – just like noticing the “almost greens” – where our attention goes, our intention follows.  This means that when we’re making the choice to look for more positive experiences, we begin to actually experience more positives, simply because we began to notice them. It’s almost as if a magic switch inside of us gets flipped, and suddenly more and more good begins to come our way!

The possibilities for more peace, less stress, more joy, and more well-being exist around us all the time. When we notice happiness, we begin to live in more happiness. When we notice  kindness, we experience more kindness. When we notice more peace, we invite more peace. We can choose this consciously, every day, at any time, by saying “in this moment, I choose now to feel more like I did when…”, and it works.  In time, this becomes habit, and can be life changing.

We can intentionally nurture this way of living by simply beginning to notice the moments in which we are already feeling joy, comfort, love, safety, awe, and wonder. Catch yourself in moments of feeling good, and simply state, “More like this, please!” Notice what this good feeling is like in your body – your soft shoulders, your relaxed jaw, the open feeling in your chest.

Choose to consciously anchor this feeling as a clear memory, so that you now have it in your memory banks to call upon. It doesn’t really matter whether the moment you are choosing to anchor is a big, “Oh, WOW!” or is simply that moment of calm pleasure when you walk outside and notice that the air is warmer than it was yesterday, and the breeze feels nice. “More like this, please”. It’s a way of directing of your attention, and a focusing of your intention, and expressing a willingness to experience even more that is just like that.

For a  positive and empowered birth (or parenting or relationship or business or life) experience,  begin noticing the positives that surround you now, and claim them for yourself. Notice the things that are already like exactly what you hope for.

Begin with “I am at peace”, and notice the moments of peace, even in the stressful day. Affirm to yourself, “I choose joy”, and notice the happiness. Focus on “I am loved and appreciated”, and count all the colors and forms that love takes in this day.  Declare “I am safe”, and notice the calm, and the trust that grows.  They are already there, already within and surrounding you, and always available.

Embrace the power of making a conscious choice, and watch it begin to happen. It is up to you to see them, just like all the shades of green.

More like this, please!

Doula-ing the Grieving Mother

Doula-ing the Grieving Mother

As mentioned in last week’s post The Downside of Doula-ing, a large though unanticipated portion of our role as doulas is being fully present in times of grief and pain. Births don’t always go as expected or hoped for. Not every baby is born healthy and thriving. Not every pregnancy reaches full-term. Not every baby survives the process of birth, leaving bereaved mamas and papas to struggle in a storm of powerful and frightening emotions. For mamas, this is intensified by the swirling hormone shifts that follow any birth, and is sometimes made even harder by the physical process of recovering from surgical procedures that may have also been necessary. They may feel depression, anger, and guilt. They may feel isolated and alone in their grief. Having their doula to lean on can be part of the healing process.

As doulas, loving deeply and compassionately is part of our innate gifts that have called us into a life of service. Even so, it is hard to know what to say or do when someone we care about so much is grieving. We’re afraid of intruding, or saying the wrong thing, or making our mama feel even worse. We feel helpless, knowing that there’s little we can do to make it better. While we can’t take away the pain of a loss, we can still show up fully in providing comfort and support in the unique way that doulas know.

Don’t let your discomfort stop you from reaching out. Now, more than ever, your support is needed. We don’t need to have advice or the right answers. The most important thing we can do, just as we do for birth, is to just show up. Simply being there, as a loving presence, can help our mamas cope with the pain of loss as much as it helps cope with the pain of labor.

The better we understand how grieving happens, the better we can support someone who is in the process of healing. Supporting normal grief has many parallels to supporting normal birth. As people skilled in birth support, in grief support there are a few factors  that are important to remember.

Just as there is no right way or wrong way to birth, there is no right way or wrong way to grieve. Grief, like birth, doesn’t have to happen in normal, predictable, measurable stages. Like birth, it can be messy, with highs and lows, moments of ease, moments of silence and of wailing, of forward motion and setbacks. Everyone experiences this differently. Mamas need reassurance that there are no “shoulds” about how they feel.

Grief includes intense emotions and behaviors. A grieving person may withdraw from the world, lash out at loved ones, have times of  feeling normal and times of feeling completely numb. She may try to make jokes, or may cry for hours on end. It’s important to reassure our mamas that this rollercoaster, as hard as it is, is normal. As doulas, we have the skills to remain in non-judgment, and take nothing personally.

Just as there is no set timetable for birth, there is no set timetable for healing. Recovery from grief may take weeks, months, or years. There will be people who convey the message to grieving parents that they have been grieving for too long. Don’t be one of them.

Be genuine and honest in your communication, and respect that the grieving process, just like her birth, belongs to her. We can offer support in saying, “I’m so sorry this happened. I’m not sure what to say. I want you to know that I care. Tell me how I can support you.” She may not know what support she would like, and that’s also normal. If you, as doula, are having your own normal feelings of grieving and healing, seek out your own support people for your inner healing work. It is not the mama’s job to hold space for you or anyone else. Many grieving parents express that people who call or visit, while intending to share their loving concern, are really looking for the parents to reassure them that everything is ok, when it isn’t. We can continue to let our mamas know that we honor and value their rawness and their honesty. Without forcing her to open up, let her know that she has permission to talk about her loss. We can begin by simply asking, “Do you feel like talking?”  Follow her lead when she’s ready, and talk candidly about her birth and her baby. If she has lost a child, whether early on or at full term, don’t be afraid to talk about her baby by name, if a name has been chosen and shared with you. “When Sophia was born…”, “When you were pregnant with Karl…”, “Olivia’s birth taught me…” This name is etched forever in a parent’s heart, and hearing it will provide comfort and assurance that her child and her birth experience are real and will not be forgotten.

Listen with compassion. Almost everyone wonders and worries about the right things to say, when knowing how to listen is so much more important.  Let her know that it’s ok to talk, to cry, to feel angry, to melt down. Well-meaning loved ones will often avoid talking about a difficult birth, or the loss of a baby. A mama may need to know that her grief is not too terrible to talk about – that you will not run away from it.  Sometimes, it may be just as powerfully comforting to not talk, to sit in silence together, to offer support by being present through the meeting of our eyes or offering a hand to hold through the moments in which there are no words that will come. We have no need to offer unsolicited advice, compare her experience to anyone else’s, or claim to understand her experience. As doulas, our strength is in our willingness to show up, and simply be present with what is real in this moment.

Know what NOT to say.    “I know how you feel.” You can’t possibly. No one can. Her feelings are hers alone, and may change from moment to moment. Better to ask how she’s feeling, and be prepared that she may not have an answer for that.  “This is part of God’s plan.” OR “He’s in a better place” OR anything else that reflects your personal belief system.   These may not be a comforting thing to hear. They may not fit at all with this family’s beliefs. They deny the emotions that are genuinely felt, and may even evoke anger. Best to keep your beliefs to yourself, and find your own comfort in them. “Look at what you have to be thankful for.” Chances are she knows this already.  Yes, she’s alive, or maybe she does have a healthy baby, and she and her partner still have each other, or other children, or another chance. The time will come to think about these things. Right now, that’s not important. “You should…” or “You will…”   Nobody needs judgments or to be told what to do. If you have information to share, and you are sure it is welcome and asked for, it is best to begin it with “One option is…”, or “You might consider…”, with no pressure or expectation.

Know how to offer real help. Many people will say, “Tell me if there’s anything I can do.” Keep in mind that a person in grief may not have the energy or motivation to even know how to ask, or what to ask for. They might feel guilty or uncomfortable for being on the receiving end of so much attention. It’s better to be willing to be one to take the initiative and to check in. “I’m stopping by the store on the way. What do you need?” may be an easier question to answer. Drop off food, throw in a load of laundry, or do the dishes that are in the sink without being asked.  Keep visits short, unless you have been asked to come and stay a while.

Provide ongoing support, as needed. Grief can last much longer than most people may expect. Grief may be there long after the cards, calls,  and flowers have stopped. Stay in touch, and let it be known that you are still there, long after the initial shock has worn off. Avoid saying “You look great.” Appearances can be deceiving, and it’s important for her to know that there’s no pressure to hide her feelings through keeping up appearances. Know that her life may not ever feel the same. The pain may lessen over time, and life does go on, but the sadness may not ever completely fade away. Know that some days, like holidays and birthdays, may be especially vulnerable, and reach out and check in if you are able. Let her know that you are still there, caring about her. She may not ever take you up on an offer for help, but knowing that her doula’s support is available may matter more than you know.

Watch for red flags. It is common for a healing person to feel sad, depressed, disconnected, and even a little lost in the chaos of the emotional whirlwind of grief. If, as weeks progress, she seems to feel worse instead of better, cannot function through daily life, begins to ignore basic self-care such as hygiene, or begins to talk of suicide or self-harm, these may be signs that more heavy-duty professional help is needed.  As always, medical judgment calls are way beyond the doula’s scope of practice. Though necessary, it can be difficult to express your concerns without being invasive or intrusive. It’s ok to share your thoughts from your own point of view, without “shoulds” or telling her what to do. “I’m troubled that these thoughts you mention are keeping you from being able to eat or sleep. Have you considered  mentioning this to your doctor?”

Take excellent care of yourself.  As doulas, our love is our power. We show up fully, knowing that the unexpected is part of life, just as birth is part of life, and we love with our hearts wide open. This is part of the journey that we have accepted, when we choose to walk the doula path. There is a lesson in supporting a grieving mother – or any mother –  one of knowing how to give, without becoming used up and given out. Remember that this is her experience. It is yours to witness, but not to fix. She will have her own community, her own family, her own care providers, and her own experience. Take care of yourself, and your own gentle, loving and compassionate heart as you experience what it is to support a mama in whatever form her birth may take. Remember to pay attention to your own feelings. Seek out your mentors, your wise women in counsel, and your own care providers as needed. Check in with yourself on your own basic needs – nourishment of both the physical and spiritual, hydration, self-expression, sleep. Pay attention to how your needs are being sufficiently met, so that you are filled up enough to have caring to give to your own family, to your own community, to this mama and the many others who may come your way.

 

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The Downside of Doula-ing

The Downside of Doula-ing

Usually, I write about births, and I’m focused on parents preparing for birth. Today is a little different. Today, I have thoughts to share with the doulas and birth professionals, my sisters and brothers who share in the experience of caring for birthing women.

When I first felt called to become a doula, I imagined the joy of witnessing the happiest and most memorable day of a mother’s life again and again. I knew that it would be a blessing and an honor to hold the sacred space for the passage of a new life into the world. That was absolutely right, and remains true to this day, as hundreds of babies later, I am still moved to tears almost every time.

I hadn’t imagined this amazing work having a downside. It’s mothers and fathers and babies! It’s Happy Birthdays and awe and wonder! How can there be any shadow to that? I have learned, over the years, that most women who train to be doulas stay in the field for less than two years. There is an incredibly high burnout rate among labor support professionals. Having spent several years now working with my own mentors, and supporting newer doulas as they go along their own doula path, it seems there are a few bumps we all experience along the way.

If you are starting out as a birth professional, or are considering becoming one, I want you to know that these things happen. It’s healthy to be prepared for them,  and it’s important that we talk about them with one another as part of our Self Care. Holding in our tension, our grief,  our stress and our own processes is exactly where burnout comes from. In fourteen years and 400 births, I have learned that we’ve all experienced some of the same rough spots.

 

1) We’re human, and we’re superheroes.  A full-time doula’s schedule can be brutal. It’s intense.  Any day, any time, we are ready to lift right out of whatever we may be doing. When someone gives the “come now”, like Superman hearing a call for help,  we drop everything, make a quick change, and show up. Births can be long. We need rest and food – two things that aren’t always easily afforded when supporting a laboring woman. She is allowed to be grumpy and tired. You are not. She’s irritable and demanding. She’s due-any-day and a basket case. It is not acceptable for you to be so. You had a rough day? Trouble in paradise? Doesn’t matter. Hang your personal life on a hook outside the door when you walk in, and be fully present.

2) We get attached. The skill of non-attachment is required, and it’s not easy.  You will experience the “bump” and the resulting swirling feelings that happen the first time (or first several hundred times, depending on how much time your learning takes) that a mama doesn’t take your advice, or disagrees with something that may be important to you. You might feel frustrated, or feel rejected, or be tempted to take something personally. Your buttons are going to get pushed, sometimes very hard. You cannot decide what she will do – you may only decide what you will do. You may have to remind yourself repeatedly “This is not my birth. This is not my birth. This is NOT MY BIRTH.”  It really isn’t. It’s hers, completely, and it’s your responsibility to let her have her own experience. It’s our job to present the information as objectively as we can, and allow her to make her own best decision.  Regardless of her birth story or outcome, if she knows what choices she has available and understands that she has the power to speak up, we’ve done our job. The end.

3) Our mamas are human, too.  We get the honor of being present for one of a woman’s most raw and vulnerable life experiences. This is a privilege, no question. It is huge to be in that place of trust. Most of the time, this means that we get to play an integral role in someone’s most precious memories. Though birth is profoundly beautiful every time, the truth is, it’s not always pretty.  Women will show up for labor exactly as they show up in life. Every woman has an entire life story that has taken place prior to meeting you, and as her doula, you often won’t know more than the tip of the iceberg.  She has her own habits and her own core beliefs – about birth, about her own strength, about power and control –  that will play out during her birth time. One in four women has experienced abuse in her lifetime. Marriages aren’t always functional. Friends and relations present in the birth space aren’t always supportive. Sometimes, if it is part of how she lives, a mama will be looking for someone to resist or to blame, and doulas are easy targets. Sometimes, if it what she has learned to do,  a woman will surrender her power to other people,  even to her doula, and the expectation is there that the doula will tell her what to do.  There is sometimes a spoken or unspoken expectation that a doula will be able to control people, emotions, or events that she simply cannot.

4) Doctors, Midwives, and Nurses? Also human.   Some practitioners are bullies. Some practitioners have had negative experiences with other doulas, or with a laboring woman’s sisters or friends who call themselves “doulas”, and have negative feelings about doulas being present for their patients at all.  Some may not have great communication skills. They might be busy, or snarky, or having an off day. They get bumped and triggered, too.  As doulas, we’re the lowest folks on the totem pole in the birthing room. We have a responsibility for acting with politeness and respect toward every other professional in the room, regardless of our personal opinions, previous experiences, or  inner reactions. We don’t tell them what to do, or how to do it – NOT OUR JOB. We get good at biting our tongues, or better yet, we can be a model for taking a deep breath, letting it go, and providing compassionate support for our mamas. That’s what we’re there for.

5) Sometimes, things just go wrong.  We may want, with every fiber of our being, for every birth to go peacefully, happily, and well. We may do everything in our power to help this happen for every woman we can. Often, it does, and that joy is the best part of this doula gig. There are other times when the unthinkable happens. Medically necessary inductions aren’t always successful. A longed-for unmedicated birth becomes an unexpected cesarean birth.  Husbands are caught in affairs or leave the marriage with no reason and no warning, leaving the mama to birth on her own. Dire medical emergencies occur. We witness abuse in relationships between mothers and daughters, or husbands and wives. We witness birth rape.  Babies are diagnosed with conditions “not compatible with life”.  Births become a time of grieving.  We come prepared to support women through the physical pain of birth, but the tools we carry in our birth bags are useless for the breathtaking emotional pain that  happens. Sometimes, a doula’s most powerful skill is to simply be the one who witnesses that, yes,  something went very wrong.  We hold space for a lot of  pain and loss. This unanticipated aspect of the doula role is why many quit after the first undesired birth outcome.

 

In time, it becomes clear that when we give our YES to walking the doula path, we are giving a bigger YES than we expected to our own learning and growing more deeply than we may have ever thought possible.  These challenges hold the potential to become the valuable life lessons that doula work has to offer. “I could get called away any minute” can also become “Be fully present and enjoy this moment, right now.” As we learn to make observations instead of placing  judgments  we learn that our feelings and reactions have nothing to do with the mama who is in labor, or her partner, or her doctor.  Feelings belong to the person experiencing them, not the person who triggered them, and are indicators of what your lesson will be with this birth.  In being gentle with our mamas, we learn to be gentle with ourselves. Learning to accept ourselves as “good enough” in the face of the desire to defend ourselves  is our own work to do. The same is true for discovering our own core beliefs, recognizing where they differ from the stories of others, and allowing both to co-exist. We’ve been given an opportunity, in experiencing these bumps, these hard moments, and these feelings, to work on our own growth. That’s the gift that doula work gives us, again and again. These skills take time, sometimes a lot of it. It takes patience, and a willingness to work deeply with our inner selves.  Reach out to your own support people. Do your own self-care work in whatever healthy way you know how. You’ll begin to see where these lessons – honoring boundaries, taking nothing personally, owning our own experiences – pop up in other places in your life, too. Keep it up. It gets easier with practice. We learn to hold space with love and compassion for someone else’s process, without making it our own. We witness the breaking points, and we learn to stretch without becoming broken. We grow stronger and become the rock our mamas need to lean on and reach out to, without their needing to worry (as they may with friends and family) that seeing their fear, their struggle, their vulnerability, their grief and their anger will tear us down or push us away. We support them in the process of learning that they, too, can stretch without breaking.

Each downfall, each dark side, each shadow is yet another opportunity to look within ourselves and ask, “What’s my lesson in this?” These lessons are the reward we receive from our wholehearted willingness to honor the rite of passage that is birthing a child. We can let them tear us down and burn us up, or we can learn, and grow, and be grateful. The choice is ours.

 

What have been your bumps, and your learning? What have your biggest lessons been?  I’d love to hear you – please feel free to comment.

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