Doulas and Nurses – A Mighty Team


In the birth world, whether on message boards, at a nurses station or in a doula meeting, it’s not uncommon to hear tension on either side of the story. “UGH! This nurse! She kept saying ‘You can get an epidural anytime, you know. It’s not like you get a better baby without one.'” “Oh, this doula, OMG. She kept taking the monitors off, and every time I came in the room, she was on a mission to keep me from doing my job!”

Both have tough jobs, to be sure. A nurse, in her twelve-hour shift, might be attending to three people at a time, assisting with who-knows-how-many deliveries in the course of a day. She’s watching Room 5, who has an epidural and is sleeping, on the monitor screen when the fetal heart rate goes wonky. Then she’s helping Room 3 push, then assisting Room 7 in getting an epidural. Room 4 is admitted with ruptured membranes, having no contractions, and has seventeen people camping out for her in the waiting room for whom the nurses will be playing diplomat for the next thirty hours. Room 10 is having a panic attack, and Room 8 is using self-hypnosis and doesn’t want anyone to talk to her in any way, shape, or form. That’s just in the last two hours. Who even knows what the rest of the day will bring? If she’s lucky, she’ll get five minutes to pee. Forget about lunch.

She’s fluent in the communication style and preferences of each of the eight doctors on shift that day, and can turn on a dime as needed. Dr. David loves it when everything is ready for delivery, gloves and all, when he comes in the room. Dr. Wendy doesn’t like questions, and will ask for everything she needs, so just do as she asks when she asks for it. Dr. Zen is going to be calm if her patient takes all day, and Dr. Zip is going to order pitocin in the next hour if her patient doesn’t get moving. Dr. Fortissimo is a yeller. Dr. Brown likes to be called in after pushing is well underway, and Dr. Green always does her own internal exams and wants an update at least once an hour, please. Dr. Shiny, the brand-new Resident, is eager to overmanage and hasn’t yet learned the art of patience and diplomacy. No problem – this nurse can handle it all with style and grace.

She makes the transition from one scenario to another countless times in one day. She goes from the blissful welcoming of a long-awaited firstborn to the fear-filled room of a teen mom laboring alone. Then she enters into the room of the grieving parents whose preemie baby isn’t handling labor so well, and from there to the exhausted mom who has been laboring with her third for two days. In each room, she smiles. Each one, she asks about comfort and how needs can be met. Each interaction must be accurately documented (with the software that is different this week than it was a week ago,) meaning that she must find the balance between interacting compassionately with her patient and facing a screen. Meanwhile, in her head is the ongoing chess game of which patient’s need is greatest in this moment, and hoping that the charge nurse, who is the air traffic controller of all nurses who sees that all of the tasks get done, will let her be where she thinks she is most needed when she needs to be there.

The doula works just as hard, in a somewhat different way. Her focus is on one birthing person at a time, for as long as this birth takes. She, too, provides long hours of support. She tends to comfort measures, position changes, counterpressure, and talking through fears. She keeps the birthing person informed about her options, and encourages her in her decision making. She has the time and availability to answer questions, and explain each step of the process of labor, in a way that others on the team may not.

When doulas and nurses work together in harmony, the outcome can be spectacular. The nurse is free from worry that her patient is being well cared for. Her stress level is lower, and her time in the room can be more focused on providing high-quality care, and less on housekeeping and getting more juice. When doulas and nurses work in conflict, the consequences can be stressful for all involved. So, what can doulas do to ensure a happy birthing team?

First, remember that we’re all human. Communication skills and styles vary widely from person to person. For some, it’s a strong suit, and for others, not so much. However, what one nurse lacks in “warm fuzzy” she may make up for in knowledge, or patience, or strong clinical skills. Remember, too, that everybody has an “off” day now and again. Take nothing personally.

For every one nurse who makes a snarky comment, there are surely ten more who are going the extra mile, staying fifteen minutes after the end of her shift because the patient she had bonded with was delivering and she didn’t want to leave. And, you know what? Nurse Snark probably did that yesterday for somebody else, but today, she witnessed something really intense at the beginning of her shift, and now she’s exhausted. Maybe another patient just bit her head off. Perhaps she just got called out of a room with someone who really needs her, and she is worried that the person taking her place now won’t be a good fit for the patient she just left. Maybe her kids were whining this morning because she’s working today, on her day off, because someone else called in sick. We’re all going through more than we reveal out loud. Be gentle in your judgments.

Second, if you want to be on a harmonious birth team, act like it. Introduce yourself. Look the nurse in the eye and smile. Let her know that you’re happy to help in whatever way you can. Remember to say “please” and “thank you,” and call her by name when you do. She changed soggy bed pads? Say thank you. Said something really encouraging to your client at just the right time? Thanks again. Brought extra towels into the room for the third time? Thank you. Brought you the birth ball and the rocking chair, and has the tub room all ready for your client? Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Let her show off her skills, too. Doulas and nurses both come into this line of work as compassionate people with a desire to serve others. Chances are, just like you have, she’s learned a few things along the way. When she’s in the room, let her do her thing. If she wants to share a few of her precious and limited minutes doing some of the good stuff – taking a few moments to breathe with your client through the contraction, rubbing her back, making a comfort suggestion – welcome it. Take this opportunity to learn from her, and expand your own repertoire.

Stay within your own scope of practice as a doula. Remember that you are a guest in the hospital staff’s workplace. If you have questions about the hospital’s rules and protocols, ask in a way that communicates respect and a desire to work within their guidelines. Refrain from offering medical advice, and support your client in making her own choices. Let your client speak for herself. It’s seldom a good idea to start with,”But her birth plan says…” Ask all of the questions you need to in order to help gather information, let the nurse share what she knows as well, and leave the decision-making part up to the client and her partner. Don’t speak to the doctors or nurses on your clients behalf. Remember that you are responsible for fulfilling your support role, and the client is responsible for making her own choices and letting her own wishes be known.

When all is said and done and the birth you’re attending is complete, share your good thoughts. In a job full of intensity, when laboring women are often seen at their most raw, it means the world when someone else notices something that was done well, and says so. Did you notice her gentleness? Was she great with an anxious mama? Did she sit on the floor and contort her own body to hold a monitor in place for ten whole minutes so that your client could stay in the comfortable position she’d found? Let her know that you noticed, and that you appreciate it. If she was really fantastic, perhaps even consider writing a letter to say so, and sending it to her boss.

We’re all in this together. A great team makes for a great birth experience. When doulas and nurses work together well, everybody wins.

“You Don’t Really Need a Doula”

Most of the time, when I get a call from a potential client looking for services, the first words out of her mouth are, “My practice gave me your number.” Her midwife or doctor, discussing her birth wishes during a routine appointment, said, “Here, call our doula. She’ll help you.”

Every now and then, though, I’ll hear something more like, “I hope you’ll work with my midwife. She said I don’t really need a doula – that if I want one and can afford it, that’s alright, but she’ll do everything a doula would do. I still really want one, though. Do you think that’s ok?”

This boggles my mind.

Almost always, a doula is a welcome addition to a birthing woman’s care team. In a hospital setting, the doula, the midwife, the doctor, and the nurses all have different roles. The doctor or midwife’s primary job is to attend to the medical safety and wellbeing of the mother and baby. The nurse’s role is to track a mother’s vitals and labor progress, and report to the doctor or midwife any information that may mean that this birth needs help. She may be offering this care to three people at a time, and might see a dozen or more birthing people in the twelve hour shift that she’s there. The partner’s primary role is to love the mother in whatever way comes most naturally. It’s the doula’s role to provide one-on-one non-clinical support throughout labor. This might mean offering simple comfort measures, suggesting position changes, words of encouragement, information for decision making, or just keeping the space calm and quiet – whatever the birthing person needs.

Usually, the doctor or midwife is most actively involved in the “home stretch” of labor, when the baby is about to be born. At the time they are most needed, a midwife is paying attention to many things at once. Their internal dialogue sounds something like, “How’s the baby’s heartrate? Does it seem like the baby is ok? Yup, looks good. How much blood loss is this? Some, not too bad. What position is this little one in? A little crooked, but head’s moving out just fine. Good. How’s this perineum? Give it good support so she doesn’t tear… Where’s that olive oil? How’s mama’s heartrate? How’s her blood pressure? Ok, all is well there. Oh, this fluid isn’t looking so clear… how’s baby’s heartrate now? Went down a little, coming back up fine. Good.” There are a hundred thoughts at once moving through the practitioner’s head.

At the same time, out loud she’s saying, “Ok, Jane, you’re doing fine, just little pushes now. That’s good. You’re doing great.” When something doesn’t look great, which can happen suddenly, she’ll know exactly what to do for the safety of mother and baby. The biggest work of the doctor or midwife happens in short, intense, highly-focused bursts. Like Olympic athletes, they stay calm and make it look easy only because they’re very good at what they do. If they’re a hospital practitioner or in a busy birthing center, then after this birth, they may be called upon to do the same thing six more times while they’re on call in the next twenty-something hours. In a homebirth setting, she’ll need to rest up and practice good self-care in case this is one of the weeks that all four of her current clients go into labor right in a row.

The doula’s work happens in longer stretches of energy and effort. We aren’t responsible for checking blood pressure or doing cervical exams. Though this information is beneficial for those responsible for a mother’s medical wellbeing, those tasks fall outside of our doula role. Our job is to tend to labor support. Prenatally, we spend our hours getting to know you and your wishes for your birth. We talk at length about your hopes and fears. We talk about what calms you when you’re feeling scared, or perks you up when you’re tired. We’re available every day to answer your questions. We learn what is most important to you for this birth, and support you in learning how to help that happen. We spend long hours in helping you get through early labor, when it’s too soon to go to your birthplace or call in your homebirth attendant. We help you figure out when it’s time to call your doctor or midwife, and when it’s time to go to the hospital. We make sure your partner is rested and nourished. We help you communicate with the people who provide medical care for you and your baby. We provide physical and emotional comfort when labor gets intense. By the time your baby is emerging and your trusted caregiver is most needed, the bulk of our work is done. Supporting your labor up to this point might wear me out, and that’s ok. That’s what I’m there for.

For a primary birth attendant, whether doctor or midwife, to practice both as doula and perform in their own role would be irresponsible medicine. Prenatally, it would be foolhardy for your doctor to spend the fifteen minutes he has with you to talk about what calms you on a stressful day instead of talking to you about your latest bloodwork and your baby’s growth. In labor, there is no way one person alone could maintain hip squeezes, breathing through every contraction, and giving pep talks for twelve hours at a stretch, and still remain sharp-witted when their knowledge is most needed to ensure that all is well. From a simple logistical perspective, it’s impossible to support someone’s perineum and also whisper in her ear and wipe her brow with a cool cloth at the same time!

A good doula knows that when a medical judgement call is in order, that’s outside of a doula’s scope of practice. In that moment, it’s the doula’s role to stay out of the way, and to help the birthing couple to understand what is happening and why. Likewise, a supportive practitioner knows that when doula support is desired, having a qualified doula on the team is only going to serve to make the person in his or her care happier with her birth experience.

So, if you’re one of the lucky ones who has found a practitioner who says, “Here, call our doula,” cherish them. Know that your care is in excellent hands. You’ve found a practitioner who cares about your wishes and wants you to be happy with your birth experience. And if yours is the practice that says, “Ugh, I don’t like doulas,” or “Don’t call a doula, because I’ll do everything a doula would do,” I encourage you to question why wanting this support for yourself would ever be considered a bad thing.

You deserve a birth you feel good about. You, your doctor, your doula, your midwife and your partner are all playing different positions on the same team. We’re all in it together. Everybody wins.

The Woman and the Elder

Once upon a time, there was a woman who hungered for learning. She had endless questions about life and the mysteries of the universe. So, she approached a wise old medicine woman, and said, “Please, teach me everything. I’ll do whatever you ask of me.” So, the elder told the woman exactly what to do. She instructed the woman to part from everything and everyone she knew, go into the woods and dig a pit in the ground in which to dwell, and lower herself into it. Each morning, the elder would approach the pit with her walking stick in hand, look down upon the woman, and ask, “Well, have you learned everything?” “No,” the woman would answer. “You disappoint me,” the elder would reply, and raising her stick, she would hit the woman in the head and walk away.

In this way, days passed, and weeks, and months. The woman, yearning more than ever for her enlightenment, would pass the time walking through the woods, gathering the wild plants that fed her. She spent hours and days on end in singing, and meditation, and prayer. She watched the animals, and the sunset, and the moonrise. Every night, she would lower herself into the pit to sleep. Though she learned quite a lot, she knew that she had yet to learn all that she longed for. Every morning, the elder would approach. “Have you learned everything?” “No.” “You disappoint me,” followed by a harsh blow.

Years went by, until one morning, same as ever had been, the woman was approached by her elder. “Have you learned everything yet?” “No,” she answered. This time, seeing the walking stick begin to rise as usual to deliver the painful thump, the woman raised out her hand and grabbed the end of the stick. Looking the elder square in the eye, she said simply, “Stop it!”

Taking a step back, the wise woman nodded. “Good,” she said. “Your work here is done.” She walked away, never to be seen again.

The woman climbed out of the pit in the ground for what would be the last time. She knew, now, that she would never know the answer to everything, but she knew how to stop the pain, and that was enough.

**Special gratitude to Melodie Beattie for the concept of the story, shared in her work The Grief Club. The retelling of it is the author’s own.

The Cow, the Highway, and the Doula

Once upon a time, there was a village, and in this village was a field, and in this field there lived some cows. It was a nice field, full of lovely green grass for the cows to eat. There were a few sunny flat spots just right for resting on, and a big tree with branches that were just the right height for a good back-scratching. There was a small hill where breezes would drift by and blow the flies off the cows’ backs on a hot day. There were shady spots filled with delicious sweet clover, and a small pond nearby was always full of fresh water for drinking.

After a while – nobody remembers exactly how long – with the cows meandering from the pond, to the trees, to the hill, and to the nice resting places, a path began to form where the grass no longer grew from being trod upon. As all of the cows plodded along from one favorite place to another, day after day, the path on the ground grew a little flatter and a little wider. It formed into such a nice clear path that after a while, people noticed it, and began using it, too. The path had some odd curves to it, where the cows had stepped around a bush or avoided holes in the ground as they wandered to and from the parts of the field they liked best, but nobody seemed to mind that, much. The path was better than walking through the trees or the tall grass, where you might come across a snake or a hornet’s nest. The children used it as a shortcut on their way to and from school. The grownups in the village began using it to walk to and from town. The farmer used it to ride his ox-cart to take his goods to market every Saturday. The path began to grow bigger.

Over years, the little village grew, and people from nearby villages began using the cow path, too, trotting on the backs of their horses as they traveled from one village to another. After some time, the path had become wide enough and busy enough with bustling people, that the cows (who were known to interrupt traffic and be a bit of a nuisance) were moved away from the path and into another field, where they were fat and happy. What was once a field was now home to a long and winding dirt road. Some of the trees with their low-hanging branches were cut back to make more room for the road and the people. A straight line cut through the field might have been a little faster for getting from one place to the other, but the cows had done the work of trampling away all the grass, and it was such a nice little road, that nobody really complained. After a while, nobody even remembered that it was once a cow path.

The milkman used it, to ride his buggy in and out of the villages every morning. The farmers set up fruit stands beside it. The baker began peddling his wares along it.

Then, a problem began to form. You see, one Spring, it rained a lot, and the path turned to mud. Everybody’s boots got wet and mucky, and the wagon wheels had an unpleasant way of getting stuck. So, some very clever people with some very modern ideas decided to pave the road, to make it easier for travel all year round. The paved road was great for business for the little village, and the people were happy.

Over years, the paved road, with its impractical meandering curves, got quite crowded with traffic, and was made wider. Most people began to drive cars. Some stop signs and traffic lights were put in, and speed limit signs, and grocery stores and gas stations and shopping malls. That little road is now a four-lane highway. The state owns the highway, and the governor allocates money every year to keep the highway free from potholes. The policemen work to keep it safe (though not always) from speeding cars and texting drivers. Thousands of folks every day use the highway to get to work, and school, and church, and piano lessons. Nobody who lives nearby has seen even one cow for years, except for the one at the petting zoo.

Some folks call this progress, some folks call it backward, and others call it “the way we’ve always done it.” No matter what folks call it, most people are going to keep on using the highway, winding and complicated though it may still be. They’ve always known it to be there. They’ve always used it. Their parents used it, and maybe even their grandparents did, too. Most of the time, people who take the highway are going to be just fine. They’re going to get to where they want to go without much fuss, and without thinking much about the road they’ve taken after they got to where they were headed.

For some folks, there might be safer, or less crowded, or more picturesque or direct routes to take to get to where they want to go. A paved cow path isn’t always the best way for everybody – even though it may be the best known. Some people might like to walk or take a bicycle, and there are easier roads for doing that. Others might want to avoid the traffic, or enjoy a scenic view. That’s ok, too.

And then, there are some so opposed to the highway that they think nobody ought to go that way. They might yell, or hold up signs and scream or rent billboards about how stupid it is to take a paved cow path to get to where you’re going. And then, there are others who holler just as loudly that only hillbillies and hippies would ever want to take a route that isn’t the highway. The problem is, not many people want to listen to someone who is screaming. Screaming doesn’t make someone right – it just makes them louder. They might be dismissed for seeming rather silly before anyone actually hears what’s being said. The highway is already there. It may have started as a paved cow path, but it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. It’s what people know.

But what if someone is willing to sit down, and talk it over? What if we start by saying, “Oh, you’re going somewhere? How wonderful! I’ve been there a few times, there are some nice stops along the way. Would you like to talk about how you’d like to get there?” Maybe it’s possible to start by listening to how excited they are to be traveling, and what they’ve thought about taking with them, and what they’re going to do when they get there, before we start with “I would never go that way!” Maybe there are some beautiful side roads we can share stories about. Maybe this is the first time they’ve ever heard about some of them. Maybe they do really want to take the highway (and if they do, do they want to go by car, truck, bus, taxicab, Winnebago?) Maybe they’ve heard rumors about some other roads, and want to know more. Or, maybe a friend took the back roads and had a beautiful time, but they don’t know just how to do that themselves yet. Maybe they’ll choose that way, and maybe they won’t – the journey is up to the traveler.

A doula is like the compassionate guide who shows up with a map. We say, “You’re having a baby, how wonderful! Have you thought about what you’d like your birth to be like? You have some great options available. Let’s figure out which ones are best for you. You can go whatever way you want to. I’ll help with the directions. I’ll help when you or your companions get road-weary. This journey is yours. I’ll do all I can to see that you’re happy with the memory of the road you’ve chosen to travel.” If we’ve done that much, it’s enough.

The Doula Path Experience

Are you ready for something exciting and new? Are you ready to breathe new life into your work, embrace your gifts, invite abundance and joy into your life, and become the doula you know are called to be? This is an opportunity you won’t want to miss.

In March of 2014, I am calling together a group of brave doula souls. Working together, we will co-create a safe space – a “container’ – in which we will delve into deep personal work together. We will challenge ourselves to create a more prosperous and successful path that serves us in living more vibrantly, with joy in every day, so that we may thrive and more richly serve others during the major life transition of birth. We uncover and transform self-limiting beliefs, learn new ways to nurture ourselves, and create a network of accountability and support for meeting our own self-care needs as we define and strengthen our professional goals.

Are you ready? Is this circle for you? Are you feeling called to say “I’m IN!” Are you ready to connect deeply with other women who are also doing this powerful work of service? Are you ready for a time of loving yourself more fully than you ever have, and embracing your own vibrant self as never before, so that you can more deeply provide loving support to those whose lives you touch?

The focus of the Doula Path Experience IS:

– Receiving ongoing guidance from an experienced colleague
– Building confidence in your personal skill set as a doula
– Connecting with others who share your passion for this work
– Receiving compassion and encouragement
– Examining the Core Values that limit us, hold us back, or push us forward
– Inviting abundance and prosperity on multiple levels
– Taking your next brave step into achieving your vision
– Believing in the value of showing up for yourself

Within this program, you will learn:

– Nuts and Bolts tips for day-to-day business management
– Exercises to discover and define your unique strengths as a doula
– Establishing, Communicating, and Maintaining Strong and Healthy Boundaries
– Identifying and Attracting your ideal clients
– Acing the Interview
– Conducting prenatal appointments with confidence
– Recognizing Red Flags, and what to do with them
– Tools for respectful and effective communication with clients and care providers
– Defining Your Doula Practice
– Teaching Clients the Process of Informed Decision Making
– Developing Daily Personal Practices to Prevent Burnout
– Finding Balance to Achieve Professional Success while Nurturing Personal Priorities
– Developing your personal five-year plan

This six week program will include six weekly 1 to 1.5 hour group teleconference sessions, beginning Tuesday, March 4th at 1pm US Eastern Time. These calls will be recorded and available for listening at other times. You will also receive three one-hour private mentoring calls with me. An online forum with daily support from me will also be included, providing connection with your colleagues within this container, offering one another encouragement, support and compassion throughout this growth and learning process.

Who am I?

I am an active doula with 15 years and 500 births under my belt. I have served for several years as public speaker and workshop facilitator for many women’s health and spirituality conferences. For eight years, I have run the ongoing program of Radical Self Care for Women, supporting hundreds of individuals through a six-month process of learning to live with greater joy, empowerment, and abundance. I am now ready to share this work online, to support doulas from near and far.

Program Requirements:

You must be an active doula, either full- or part-time, with a goal of building a thriving doula practice. Whether you identify as a beginner or as a more experienced birthworker, it is important that you have already attended a doula training, whether or not you have become certified, as this is a big step beyond the basics of doula work. You will be challenged within this program to move beyond your fears,resistance, and uncertainty, and into the thriving doula work that you dream of!

A Word About Resistance: On the brink of any big growth experience, it is normal for feelings of resistance to surface. Anyone working with birth knows that, and has seen it happen firsthand. Notice the place where resistance shows up as “I would love to, but I don’t have enough…” Enough what? Time? Energy? Resources? Money? Support? Smarts? Confidence? Then ask where you have used that limited belief to hold yourself back before. Consider how this “not-enough-ness” isn’t serving you, has held you back from living life to its fullest, and perhaps has even prevented you from accomplishing the desires of your heart. Then, give your “YES”, and do it anyway. Show up, resistance and all, and be ready to grow. You are enough. You do enough. You have enough. Come as you are.

Registration and Fees:

Priced at my current fee-per-hour rate, this six week session would cost over $600. As an introductory kickoff, the first six-week round of this Doula Path Experience program is offered at $250. That’s less than a night class at a community college, and the life-long lessons you receive will be immeasurable. Building your passion into your business is worth the investment. A $125 deposit received by March 5 will hold your space. This program is being capped at 7 people, in order to ensure my focused attention to each individual, and to build a strong and intimate container together. Payment plans may be available upon request. Check, money order, and PayPal are all options. Instructions are on the registration form, which can be found here:

What’s in the Bag?


A most-frequently-asked-question circulating in the doula community always seems to be, “So, what do you carry in your birth bag?”

I get it. I’ve been there. I’ve talked about it, I’ve shown my bag to clients, I’ve even led workshops about it. I’ll tell you – when I first started out as a doula, I carried a hiker’s backpack with everything but the kitchen sink. It weighed about fifty pounds – over a third of my own bodyweight.

What was in it? Massage tools – wooden and battery operated. Massage oils, scented and unscented. Essential oils. An acupuncture activator. Moxibustion sticks. A rebozo. A pump for my birth ball. Duct tape, in case my birth ball sprung a leak (though I joked that it was in case of a mouthy mother-in-law.) Rice socks, to use as hot packs. Tennis balls. Snacks. Lip balm, and an extra in case mama forgot hers. Hair ties. CDs of good birthy music (this was pre-smart-phone.) A yoga mat. A homeopathy kit. A reference manual. Toiletries, in case birth was long. The list went on and on and on. If I thought I might use it, ever, it went in the bag. Like any good girl scout, I was prepared.

Know what happened? Stuff broke. Bottles leaked. Things got ruined. My shoulders got sore from schlepping this massive bag from house, to car, to hospital, and back to the car again. Most of the time, I didn’t use much of what I’d brought with me, and sometimes, even though I had every material thing I thought I could possibly ever need, birth still didn’t go the way I thought or hoped it would. I felt tired, disappointed, fatigued. My recovery from the “reality vertigo” of attending a long or difficult labor, even when everything went (what I judged as) “perfectly”, sometimes took days. The real work of doula support, I learned, wasn’t what I could do with “stuff” – it began with what I could do within.

It’s not about the bag – it’s about the baggage – MY baggage. The biggest hindrance, I’ve seen, isn’t in not having the right tools in the bag, it’s about having the right tools in my toolkit. Not the tools I carry in a pack, but the ones I carry in my own head, and my own heart. The most effective tools I now carry come out in my words, in my energy, and in my hands.

My hands are among the most powerful comforting tools when my heart is committed to service. Whether I’m offering a loving touch, or removing a distracting clock out of a mother’s field of vision, serving her birth means keeping my thoughts attuned to what a laboring woman wants or needs, free from my own ideas of what “should” be. Believing in my heart that she is capable and strong, that her body knows how to birth and her baby knows how to get born makes my words of affirmation in moments of challenge a greater source of strength than any massager or homeopathic remedy could ever be.

I learned to unpack my “stuff”. It started with the unpacking of the heavy stuff I carried in the pack. What I bring now is basic and simple – a dry shirt, a phone charger, my wallet, gum. What was harder was unpacking the even heavier stuff that I carried within me. The judgments, the “shoulds”, the “have-to’s”, the “can’t”, the “try to”. It included releasing my own definition of what a “good birth” is, letting go of any ideas of my own agenda, and just showing up ready to serve in compassion and support.

I began to re-stock my kit with learning the importance of good self care – keeping myself nourished, energized, and fulfilled, so that I can give wholeheartedly without giving out. I learned how to recognize the difference between what I want, and what someone else has the power to choose. I learned how to set and keep effective boundaries. I learned the language of honoring both myself and another. I learned clear communication skills.

The simplest, most effective tool a doula can carry is love. Show up, and love her. That’s all. Love her in her moments of strength and in her moments of vulnerability. Love her in her power to make her own choices, whether or not it’s the choice I would make for myself or another. Trust her to do her best for herself and her baby, knowing that she is the only one who can say what “the best” may be.

Most of the material tools can be brought by the mother herself, or can be made up on the spot at home or in the hospital with what is already on hand.

What are you carrying that no longer serves you? What do you believe to be true about birth, about yourself, about your own strengths and weaknesses? What expectations are you bringing? What are you judging as “right”? What are you wanting, more than a mother may want for herself? Forget the bag, and check your baggage. You’ll be glad you did.

How to Set a Doula Fee

I’m seeing a lot of buzz recently from newer doulas who are wondering what to charge for services. While they’re beginning to recognize that their work in the world has value (yay!), there seems to still be a lot of mystery around where to even begin when deciding a fair price to charge. So, with that in mind, I suggest the following guideline.

1) Determine your expenses. Doulas have a fair amount of expenses incurred as with any other small business.

How much do you pay for your on-call cell phone? Divide that number by the number of clients you have (or wish to have) per month.

What do you pay for internet? (If it’s a home account shared by your business, determine the portion of your internet expense that is used for your business). Divide that by your clients per month.

How about printer ink? Books for your lending library? Figure that into your per month/per client number, too.

What do you spend per month on scrubs, “work clothes”, good work shoes, etc?

What percentage of your automobile use is for work? Figure in that much per month of your automobile insurance.

How much do you drive, or are you willing to drive, for client appointments and births? The current IRS allowance is 55 cents per mile. If, for instance, you drive 20 miles one way to a client’s home, and you offer two home visits, support in labor, and a postpartum visit, that’s 160 miles you’ve driven for one client, for an expense of $66.00

Remember to also calculate any miles you may travel to doula meetings, or birth support groups, and divide that up per client/per month.

What do you spend per year on trainings, continuing education, or resources to continue your own learning and growing? Divide that into a “per month” amount, and divide that number by your number of births per month. Don’t forget to include your costs for certification, professional organization membership dues, or liability insurance you may carry.

Remember that you may need to pay for tolls or parking at the hospital, as well.

Do you have children of your own? How much do you spend per month on child care for appointments and birthing times?

If you’re at a birth for any amount of time, you’re likely to need to pay for at least one meal, so figure that in, too.

Consider also any fees you pay to have legal documents created, such as your contract.

Include any fees you pay for business cards, advertising, or web design.

Are you paying for your own health insurance? That’s an expense for you, as well – one that is incurred by those who are self-employed. Divide that by your number of clients per month.

When you start looking at the numbers, you may be surprised to learn how much each birth is really costing you out-of-pocket!

2) Consider the value of your time.

How many hours, on average, do you spend with each client on the phone, or offering support by text or email?

How many hours do you offer in prenatal visits, including your time driving to and from these appointments?

How many hours on average do you anticipate spending with each client at her birth? (Some doulas include a specific “up to 12 hours face-to-face support” clause in their contracts, while others average out the number of hours they’ve spent at births already attended. For me, average is 16 hours, including drive time.)

Now, how much do you think is a fair hourly wage? Multiply that number by the total number of hours you’re working for your client.

Now double it. That’s right – double it, because self-employed small business owners actually pay about half of what they earn (after deducting expenses) in taxes.

Now that you’ve considered your expenses and your time, take your “expenses” number, and add it to your “fair hourly wage” number, and that’s what you should be charging, minimum, for every birth you take on.

This is not including numbers that would need to be considered for paying for backup support. It also is based on a doula taking on her full client anticipated load every month, without taking weeks off. These are expenses that would also need to be considered, if this is work you wish to do full time.

Are you charging what you’re worth?

See What’s In a Fee? and No Free Births! for more!

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What’s Your Nervous Nelly?

After attending births for a while, some stories begin repeating themselves. Every caregiver’s eccentricities begin to become apparent. A doula begins to learn that one doctor seems to caution every mother about big babies. One midwife insists that every mother wears a belly band after 32 weeks to keep baby from flipping into breech position. One practitioner wants to know that everyone’s membranes have ruptured, whether naturally or artificially, by the time she’s six centimeters, while another is adamantly opposed to breaking anyone’s membranes at all. Another midwife gives each patient “the shoulder distocia talk.” One lactation consultant hates nipple shields, while another sends every client home with one. Why, when practice is supposed to be evidence-based, does this happen?

I explain it to my clients this way – Everybody has a Nervous Nelly. A Nervous Nelly is a set of circumstances that makes our red flags go up. It’s a moment that holds the potential to have our inner self sweating and wringing her hands with worry. As birthworkers, our experiences and our memories make up a huge part of who we are in our work. There’s more to birth work than “just the facts.” The wisdom that comes from our experiences plays a huge role in the decisions we make and the advice we give.

Anyone who works with birth for a significant amount of time has probably been part of a story that she doesn’t want to see repeated. So, she learns more about it, looks into the details of why it may have happened, and learns what may prevent it from happening again. This becomes the advice that is given to everyone. It becomes part of the client education that is given in the future.

It’s important to know your own Nervous Nelly, and talk about it with others. I have this conversation with every client, and I own openly and honestly that my personal Nervous Nelly is the mama who knows that her water broke, and isn’t willing to tell her practitioner about it. Why? Because once many years ago, after a beautiful and uncomplicated birth, I was pulled aside (into the newborn nursery, in front of tiny babies, no less) and screamed at (at top volume) by a doctor who was furious that this had happened – that I knew the mama’s water broke that morning, and she didn’t. Now, I didn’t know that the doctor hadn’t been told – I had asked my client, as I ask everyone, if she had called the practice to let the doctor know she was in labor, and was told “yes.” That doesn’t matter. The fact is, I knew relevant information that the doctor didn’t. Now, I’m much more clear in my guidelines – if it’s important enough to tell me, it’s important enough to tell your doctor or midwife. If the fear is that a practitioner won’t be supportive, it’s important to me now that a client learns this early on, so that she can choose a practice that she trusts enough to tell the truth. So, we talk a lot at first appointments about how to choose a practitioner that a client can trust. One rough experience, one time, with one doctor, changed the way I will deal with every client now and in the future.

Doctors and midwives are the same way. One powerful experience, one time, changes the way he or she thinks. This isn’t “bad” or “wrong”, it’s just part of what makes each of us unique. We’re all human. Our experiences become part of who we are. Sometimes statistics matter less than what we’ve seen with our own eyes. It doesn’t matter if the risk is one in a thousand – if you’ve seen the one, whatever that one may be, you likely don’t want to see it repeated, and are more inclined to actively prevent it from happening to someone else, ever again. The resulting advice may not always be factually accurate, but it almost always stems from compassion and caring.

Know and befriend your own Nervous Nelly. Let that inner wisdom guide you into becoming better at what you do. Know that everyone else has a Nervous Nelly, too, and allow the compassion that comes from this understanding to transform you into a being a better communicator with everyone on the birth team.

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Five Books My Kids Never Got for Christmas

Let me be clear, here. I love to read. Reading for pleasure is something that happens in my life every single day. I’m usually working on four or five books at a time. I wanted to pass this love along to my children. My kids were regular attendees of storytime at the library long before they could walk or talk. They’re always certain to include a “what I want to read” item on their gift wish lists. Reading is a great way to nourish the imagination, teach life skills, impart moral lessons, bestow warm fuzzies, and pass time snuggled up and cozy.

Ok, so we’re clear that this is not an “anti-reading-to-kids” thing, here, right? Good. That said, there were some books, which though they are well-beloved by many, that never made it on to my children’s bookshelves. At least, not with my buying power, though I’ll admit that a few were given my a well-meaning mother-in-law who considered my children deprived for having never read them. Then again, she thought I was a monster for not buying green ketchup when that was a thing, so take that for what it’s worth.

Call me cynical, or too literal. Maybe I just don’t get it. Maybe I’m doing enough to put my children in therapy all by myself, with no help needed from dysfunctional children’s literature about giving away body parts or unreported breaking-and-entering. In any case, these are the books my children never got.

1) The Giving Tree.

the giving tree

a.k.a.: Codependency 101 “Dear boy, I love you so very much that I consider myself completely responsible for your feelings. Let me give you everything I have so that you will be happy, even though you weren’t happy the last time I did that, or the time before. Don’t worry, I don’t need a thing. I’m happy just knowing that you’re happy. But not really. Sigh.”

2) The Runaway Bunny

runaway bunny

Or, as my oldest son and I have come to call it, “Run Away, Bunny!” “Dear little bunny,” says Mama Bunny, “No matter where you go or what you do to get away by yourself for a while, I will always, always, be… right… there.” A classic, sure to annoy or terrify introverts of all ages!

3) Love You Forever

Love You Forever

A new mama is rocking her baby and singing him to sleep. D’awwww, how sweet! A few pages later, a sixty year old woman is driving across town in the middle of the night, a ladder strapped to her vehicle, to silently break into the window of her still-single middle-aged son’s house, so that she can rock him and sing to him in his sleep. Because that’s not creepy at all. D’awwww!

4) The Rainbow Fish

rainbow fish

Hey, kids, if nobody will play with you because you’re too pretty, you can always try cutting off your own body parts and gifting them to everyone. Maybe then they’ll like you.

5) Guess How Much I Love You?

guess how much I love you

What starts out as a simple expression of affection between a son and his father quickly becomes a ruthless display of machismo. Face it, kid, you dad is bigger, stronger, can reach higher, can hop farther, and can sure as heck love more than you. Better just give up now. You’ll never measure up.

And there we have it. Books I’ve never read to my children, giving them an incomplete childhood for the sake of honoring my own squirm factors.

I’m sure they’ll tell their therapists this one day. For now, I’ll just be over here, reading.

Things We Don’t Talk About

Months ago, I heard from a local colleague, telling me that she had served for the birth of a third baby. As it happened, I had attended the birth of this mother’s first child. Most of the time, when a client has another baby, I’m among the first to be told. I wasn’t surprised, this time, to learn that I hadn’t been invited. My colleague didn’t ask my thoughts, and I didn’t offer them, but I knew exactly why I wasn’t there.  The woman she had served was living with abuse, and I had taken the risk of calling it out for what it was.

As her doula, that wasn’t my role. Nowhere in my scope of practice is “abuse awareness” mentioned. Professionally, I was stepping outside of the box. As a woman, witnessing what I had seen firsthand and hearing her tears, her pain, and her frustration, I couldn’t leave it unspoken. So, at her postpartum visit, I urged her to seek help. I left information with her on resources that were available. I offered to listen, if she needed support. I never heard from her again.

Mental, emotional and financial abuse is widespread. It may not leave bruises, but the injuries run deep. Women from all walks of life can be subject to it. It happens to people of all races, all faiths, all income levels, all cultures. Surprisingly, even in light of this,  it’s seldom spoken of openly. The guilt, shame, and potential for misunderstanding leaves a woman feeling frozen solid, unable to speak.  Many people fail to understand how a woman could continue to allow herself to remain in this position. It’s so easy for an outside observer to ask,”If it’s so bad, why doesn’t she just leave?” The blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of the victim.

If you and I met today,  I hope that you would see me as a strong, confident, happy person. I’m an empowered small business owner. I’m well-educated, financially stable, have a wonderful circle of friends, with a loving partner and a cherished family. Yet, I too once found myself trapped in abuse.

At 22, I met a charming, handsome young man. He had moved to town, he said, to pursue a new career as a stockbroker. He was full of hope and promise. He was spontaneous, smart, and funny. He thought I was fascinating and beautiful. He admired that I came from a good family.   He called me “princess”. He listened to my stories for hours on end. He was interested in learning more about the things I was interested in.

Intimacy was built quickly with the sharing of our life stories. He trusted me enough, he said, to tell me of the abusive Vietnam Vet father who kidnapped him away from his mother when he was three, and the family who never loved him. He shared his emotional pain about his “crazy ex wife” and the infant daughter that she “wouldn’t allow him to see” that he’d left behind, states away. He admired and respected that I was raised in a traditional way, and that I wanted nothing more than to be a wife and mother. He said he wanted to make that our dream together – to be the loving father he never had, and to be the loving husband he had never had the chance to be.

The red flags were there, even then, but I never saw them. I didn’t know, then, that the chameleon identity of a sociopath can show up as “I want to learn how to do all of the things that interest you”. At his older sister’s wedding, where I met his extended family, his youngest sister cautioned me that “he only loves women until their credit line is used up”. His parents were angry with him for leaving his daughter. Furious letters came in the mail from his ex, saying that she hoped he didn’t lie to me like he did to her. This only served to fortify his woeful tale – the ex was jealous, he said, because I was going to have the stay-at-home-mommy life that she had always wanted. He couldn’t be the loving husband to her, because she was so bitter – not sweet, like me. His parents, his sisters?  Well, hadn’t he told me that he’d always been the black sheep in his stepmother’s eyes because he was adopted? A shame that they couldn’t see him for who he really was – not like me.

Like most abusive relationships, the shift into isolation, enforced poverty, emotional torture, and self-blame didn’t happen all at once. There was never a grand proclamation of, “Now that I’ve got you fooled, let the games begin!” Instead, after calling my father for his blessing, what he said was, “You make my life better. Marry me.”

We married less than a year after we met.  I got my first credit card.  He got several of his own, and several more in my name. My paychecks went into our joint account, while he took care of everything. At first, his work was going well. He had made enough to buy us a home. He said it was time to quit my job, so that I could focus on making a nice home for us, and allow him to be the breadwinner.  He paid the bills, and gave me an allowance – a generous one, I thought – for food, and for what we needed at home.  We were ready to start a little family. My life was committed to being a good wife, and a good mommy.

Sure, sometimes he was moody and irritable, but we all have bad days sometimes. He was more forgetful as the days went by, blamed on ADHD. I found pornographic videos and magazines hidden in the house or in his car a few times. I felt betrayed, and became angry. More than once, I loaded it all into the trunk of my car and drove it to a dumpster in another part of town. I would threaten that this could not be part of our marriage. But, if I wasn’t so tired from the baby, he’d said, or if I hadn’t put on so much weight, or if I just gave him more of my attention, he wouldn’t have to resort to that. It was my fault, really.

During that time,  he experienced two miserable job failures. He’d been fired from one job for what his boss called “a gambling problem,” and then the stock market crashed. It was only after tens of thousands had been squandered that I even learned there was trouble. He “hadn’t wanted to worry me”, because I was only weeks away from my due date with our first child, but things were looking bleak. The bank accounts were all overdrawn. He had taken out loans that he couldn’t repay. The credit cards were all maxed out. He’d had to call my parents to borrow money to get by. He’d used up all of our savings, he said, to pay his office assistant while he tried desperately to keep his office running. He had invested in a high-risk stock and lost everything we had.  All of our bills were unpaid. We began working with a credit counseling service, making payment arrangements that would allow the roof to be kept over our heads.

When the first baby was six months old, he filed for bankruptcy. Months later, I was expecting again. Within a year, things had gone from bad to worse. He said, “I want to be a better husband and provider. I want to move away with you, and start our lives fresh.  We’ll never go through anything like this again. I’ve been offered a job in New Jersey. We move in two weeks.” We sold everything. Well, everything I had that was of any value. We moved, leaving behind my lifelong friends, my church community, and my parenting support circles.

When we arrived in New Jersey, there was no job after all. We lived with my parents for two months, before relocating into a house that was leased with the intent to purchase, before losing it because no mortgage could be obtained. Some days, he went on job interviews. Others, he slept for hours on end. He might keep a paper route for a few weeks, only to lose the job as a result of spending three uninterrupted days in the garage, forgoing food or sleep, converting it into a workshop and gym using cabinets he’d trashpicked and equipment he’d bought with his paycheck.  There was no help with the housework, ever, and cleaning up after himself was unheard of. “When you’re married, you just do things like that for your husband,” he’d say.

The next several years were spent in a rental house the size of a cracker box, in a town far away from my family, living hand-to-mouth. He sold my car, since I “didn’t need to go anywhere”, to save us money. He had a new job every few weeks. Some, when things were good, would last a few months. While he always had new clothes because he had to dress to impress for work, everything my babies and I needed came from hand-me-downs, yard sales and thrift stores. He always had a cell phone and a computer for work. I often had neither. We had a land line when the bill could be paid, which it sometimes wasn’t. I was given no more allowance. Paychecks seemed few and far between, while he reported computer trouble in the office that was causing the delay, or a problem with his paperwork in HR, or once that “the main office where paychecks come from was in the Twin Towers in New York, and we haven’t been paid since they fell.”

We went deeper and deeper in debt to my parents. The house we still owned in Texas was foreclosed on, after he spent the checks from the renting tenant on three broken motorcycles instead of house payments.  He’d leave for work while it was still dark out, and return long after the babies were in bed. He never answered his phone. My days were spent alone, with two small children. Sometimes we had food in the house. Sometimes, we didn’t. Sometimes, we had pancakes and apples for a week at a time.  Sometimes, his work went well, eventually making it possible for another house to be bought. Sometimes, it didn’t. His manic attempt to start his own business during my third pregnancy ended in thousands more in debt, and almost a hundred thousand is still owed to the IRS (in his name, not mine, thank G_d).

He always had money. Even when I was home alone for days at a time, with little ones who needed diapers or food, he always had money. The accounts were kept in a bank different from our always-overdrawn joint account. He had the statements mailed to his office, so I wouldn’t see them. He put a hold on our home mail at the local post office, so that he could pick it up there himself, so that I wouldn’t see the unpaid bills, the collection notices, or the checks that sometimes came in.

Sometimes, I would threaten to leave. Sometimes, I did leave, once staying for eight weeks with a friend in another state. Convinced by my upbringing that divorce was wrong, and convinced by him that this was my fault for being “bad with money,” thinking I had nowhere to turn for support, I always came back.

In the midst of it all, I was sure that we were going to pull out of this darkness; that all would be well. He would have bouts of remorse resulting in late-night “tell all” sessions in which I would learn of his affairs, his trips to strip clubs, his desire to get help, his “finding Jesus,”  his longing to get better and be happy. I would believe him. I didn’t know yet that this is how abusers work – giving only the promise of change, just enough to keep their prisoners from leaving. I valued my life – homeschooling my children, being with them every day, tending our home and hearth. I wanted to believe that the bad parts would get better, so the good parts could remain.

In time, when the third baby became old enough for me to leave her with a sitter, I made the tough decision to put my homeschooled boys into the public school, and I went back to work. I took on a catsitting job, twenty hours a week, for an eccentric elderly man. I was growing my doula practice, something I’d already set in motion part-time for a few years. Getting it off the ground as a full-time job took years, but it did happen. The more I earned, the worse the financial situation seemed to become. Now that I had income, his money could be spent freely on toys from eBay and Craigslist; motorcycles, road trips, a coin collection, workout equipment. Broken down cars, set aside to repair and resell “someday”, lined the driveway.

It was then that the hoarding began, with first the garage, then the storage basement, then the finished basement, the pool shed and eventually an upstairs bedroom becoming full of useless “toys” he would find online. Most often, he would claim that they had been given to him by someone at work, or that he had won them in a fundraiser auction. It was left to me to pay for food and the mortgage. The utilities, bills I never saw that were always in my name because his credit was too damaged to get an account, would go unpaid until shut-off notices were left on the door. “I’ll pay you back for that as soon as I can,” he’d say. That never happened.   I drove falling-apart clunkers, the cheapest that could be found, until they died and had to be replaced. I fed my family on $80 a week, and heard, “Can’t you make anything that isn’t beans or soup?” There was never anything left over for self-care or savings.

When I opened my own checking account, he searched for my checkbook and, upon finding it, wrote a check to a coworker, in the amount of everything I had, to payback a loan. Savings bonds,intended for college for the children, given by their grandparents, would disappear from my filing cabinet, along with the jewelry I was always managing to “lose”. Birthday gifts of cash, the insurance check to fix the kitchen ceiling, or monetary gifts from my folks always ended up in his pocket, or deposited in a mythical mutual fund that he could somehow never find the statements for, when asked. When I tried  to keep cash hidden in the back of a dresser drawer, saving up so that I could flee, he’d wait until I was out of the house, and would search until he had found it. When questioned, he never knew anything about the missing money, and claimed that maybe I lost it, or one of the children had found it. Saving money was impossible, and getting out remained a dream.

Meanwhile,  extramarital affairs were now part of my reality. As he was no longer satisfied with the fantasies of porn, he sought out real people through local hook-up sites. One affair, which was devastating news enough on its own, I learned of while pregnant with my third child.  I cried a lot. I prayed. We went to a couples retreat for surviving an affair, and made promises that it would get better. He started a twelve-step program for sexual addiction, and went into a treatment program for bipolar disorder. Neither lasted very long, and both provided more excuses to leave the home for hours at a time, making opportunities for further infidelity easier to hide. I worked hard to re-establish trust and be a better wife. Another affair three years later, equally traumatic, was revealed. He continued to work odd jobs, and leave at strange hours of the day and night. Learning of another infidelity became a constant fear. Sometimes, he didn’t come home because he was in jail for shoplifting and assault. Meanwhile, I was going through growing and changing of my own, joining a study group for women’s empowerment work that took me away from home one weekend a month. I was learning more about who I am, and becoming brave enough to live as my authentic self.

I didn’t need anyone else to ask why I didn’t just leave – I asked myself that question, all the time. The answers came easily. I stayed because I thought I loved him. I stayed because love meant not abandoning him. I stayed because divorce is a sin. I stayed because I made a promise in front of my family, my friends, and my Creator that I would never leave. I stayed because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I stayed because I thought I could make him want to change. I stayed because I thought I had nowhere to go, and I didn’t want divorce to hurt my children. I stayed because I didn’t believe that this was abuse.

I wasn’t covered in bruises. My husband didn’t drink or use drugs. I wasn’t beaten – well, once, hit in the ribs, with an elbow, but just once, because he was really mad that I looked over his shoulder at his computer, and he was really sorry about it… Sure, things had happened that I didn’t approve of. In his periodic bursts of anger, there were holes punched in the walls of the garage. I had a hairspray bottle thrown at my body. Through his gritted teeth, I was called every nasty name in the book, told that I was worthless, and that no one else would ever want me. And yet, through it all, I did not identify as a woman experiencing abuse.

I saw myself as strong, and powerful – someone who understood what commitment meant, and who could endure hardship without complaint. I prided myself on staying true to a lifelong promise I had made with a struggling man who was trying very hard to be better. Being in charge and taking care of him was my job. Without me, I knew he would simply self-destruct.

I had no idea the extent of the secrecy until much later, when an email account of his was left open on a computer we shared. Then, I saw years worth of personal ads, emails exchanged, and plans made. The number of people he had communicated with was in the triple digits. Some were women, some were men, some were couples or groups. Some of them, he asked for money for offering his “services”. In one email exchange, the woman he planned to meet had said, “You’re wearing a wedding ring in your picture. What if your wife finds out?”  He answered, “I’m careful. I never leave any traces of what I’m doing. Besides, if she did find out about our little trysts, nothing would change. She depends on me for the life she wants. I keep her completely financially dependent. So what if she knows? She can’t do anything about it.” 

Here, for so long, I had thought I was the good and supportive wife, enduring financial hardship, “for richer or for poorer”, out of love. And here it was, in black and white: I was being held captive.  It wasn’t that he didn’t understand – he just didn’t care. His life was about getting what he wanted, when he wanted it, from whomever would give it. On the same computer, I discovered video from a hidden camera placed in my bathroom. Though we’d declared ourselves as “separated”, and were living in different parts of the house, he’d been watching me while I changed clothes and got in the shower. This was not love, this was about power and control.

The divorce decree was signed two weeks later, at our kitchen table – it was cheap, it was quick, and it was quiet.  Seventeen years after saying, “I do,” I got the kids, he got the house and the “stuff”. That was all he wanted. I got out.  I found my own place – small, but enough to keep us sheltered and safe. I worked fifty hours or more every week, between doula work and pet sitting, to keep a roof over our heads.  I sought out public assistance. I put the youngest child in school. I put myself in therapy.  I started to get a lot better.

I wish I could say that it all stopped then. There were episodes, still, of his taking things from my new home. Lawn tools disappeared from my basement. A Saint Joseph medallion that he wanted and demanded to have, that I refused to give him, disappeared from my dresser days later on an evening that he picked the kids up from my home. When asked, he said, “You said you didn’t have it. I don’t take anything that isn’t mine.” I’m told that he wears it around his neck to this day.

He refused to pay child support, and is thousands in arrears even now. The financial and mental games continued. Without me to pay the bills, his home was often without water or heat. My autistic son was lost five times in one month while in his father’s care. My daughter would be taken to school after visitation in his home, dirty and inappropriately dressed for the weather, wearing only a a Halloween costume in June, or sundress and sandals in mid-winter.  They would be given foods that they were allergic to, and end up in the hospital. They would be returned home without their shoes or backpacks. The challenges were endless.

Eventually,a year after I left, there was an assault on my body with his vehicle, on the day that I filed to have child support deducted from his paycheck. I called the police,went to the police station, and got a restraining order. I began to speak up. I told. I told my parents, I told my brother. I told the court, and a support group, and the IRS, and my therapist. To fight the restraining order and re-establish contact with me, he took me to court thirteen times in the following two years, strapping me with the financial hardship of attorney fees. He lost, every time. With the help of a fabulous, stubborn, creative attorney, I won a ruling against use of the court system to harass and abuse a domestic violence survivor. This was the first time this had ever been awarded in the area in which I live, and now provides hope to other survivors who will come after me.  Further mistakes on his part, those that came from endangering my children and placing them in harm’s way from his addictions while in his care,  ended in a severing of his parental rights and court-ordered “no contact” between him and the children.

A string of a dozen girlfriends has come along in his life since then. They’ve been used as well-meaning unintentional enablers, every one of them. A few along the way have reached out to me, to ask my side of the story. They want to ask if they’re crazy, or if it’s really happening that their bank accounts are getting wiped out, or that maybe he’s not as “forgetful” about repaying his debts to them as he’d like them to believe. It’s not any fault of theirs – they’re generous, kind-hearted women who get hooked by the sob story and really just want to help, just like me, and just like the wife (actually a pretty cool chick) who came before me. None have lasted very long. They’ve been quicker than I was at seeing the signs and figuring out the real story. I don’t tell them my details, but I tell them to trust themselves.

The house I once lived in, the very house in which my daughter was born, once so cozy and full of life, now looks like the site of a reality TV show on mental illness, full of filth. Very little of the piles of random clutter and trash left behind is worth saving. The organic wooden and cloth children’s toys have all been mouse-chewed. Insect and rodent traps are in every room. Things stored in the basement are covered with mold. The ceilings are falling in from water damage, and the plaster is crumbling off the walls. It’s being foreclosed soon, after years of non-payment, and he’s crossing the country with his newest love to start his life over, weaving again the woe-is-me tale of leaving his “evil ex” and his children behind. He didn’t even tell them goodbye.

As for me, I’m stable, and I’m happy. I’m grateful for my beautiful blended family, and the home that we cherish. I love my job, I own my functional car, my bills are paid, and we’re not worried about where our next meal will come from. I have a lot of joy in my life.

The journey to this point has taken a lot of inner work, and remains ongoing.   I’m embarrassed, still, by the red flags that I didn’t see. I’m humbled, still, by the number of times and the sincerity with which I wanted everything to turn out ok. I’m ashamed, still, of how much I didn’t know, or didn’t see though it was right in front of me, and that I let someone who professed to love me treat me so badly – that I allowed myself to be controlled, demeaned, and humiliated. I’ve learned, too, to own up to my part in it. I never talked about it. I was mistaken in thinking that I was alone, that nobody would understand, that I would be blamed and thought of as crazy. I had never heard another woman share a story like mine. This is the harm that comes from silence.

I have learned to claim my own self-worth, and to treat myself as having value. I was wrong to think that I could be responsible for someone else’s health or happiness, or to blame myself for someone else’s actions, or to think that my anger, hurt, insistence, or sadness would make a difference in what someone else chooses to do. I’ve learned, too, to forgive myself, and to accept that sometimes I was doing the best I could, even when my best didn’t look very good.

Mine, I have now learned, is not an unusual story. Though I may not fit the description of what most imagine as “the face of domestic violence”, I’m a pretty typical survivor, and we are everywhere. This story may be echoed by your sister, your daughter, your friend, your colleague, or your client. It might even be your own story. By current statistics from the CDC, Intimate Partner Violence, including psychological abuse, is experienced by 24 people each and every minute. No one living with abuse ever needs to think that she is alone.

Today, I pledge to keep the silence broken. I will continue to speak up, to speak out. I will tell a sister that she, too, has value. She didn’t ask for this, it isn’t her fault, and it isn’t her job to fix it. I will speak, even when I am judged as weak or foolish for staying for so long. I will tell another woman that I believe her, that abuse is real even when it doesn’t break bones, and help is available. I will continue to speak, even when it means that she might never see me again.

We need to share our stories with one another, to remove the shame, and to offer hope. We need to let those who still suffer know that we’re not alone. We never are.   Sometimes, life is messy, and that’s why we’ve got to be in it together.