What’s Your Nervous Nelly?

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

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

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.

A Day in the Life of a Doula

A Day in the Life of a Doula

My alarm rings at 6:30, and my morning begins with coffee with my dear, counting our gratitudes and  mapping out the day.

By 6:45, two boys are on their way to high school, and depending on the day of the week,  up to four more members of the household are out the door by 7am, on their way to work or school.

I have fifteen minutes to check email and answer any texts that came during the night before waking the youngest, getting her ready for school and out the door while getting myself ready for the work day ahead.

Morning prenatal appointment at 9am, followed by an hour of phone time. I check in with mamas who had doctor appointments in the last couple of days, check in on the two mamas who had babies last week to see how they’re doing. In the afternoon, I have an hour for updating my records on the computer, getting insurance invoices together while I eat lunch, a phone consult with a doctor at 1, and a new client interview at 2.

3pm, I pick my daughter up from school, come home to say hi to the boys, oversee homework, and then get the grocery shopping done for the next few days.

Back home at 5, I start dinner for the family. We sit down together, our family of 8, as often as we can. Afterward, depending on the day of the week, I might have a client appointment, or a class to teach. There’s navigating the picking up and dropping off at various lessons. On other nights, there are choir concerts, school plays, PTA meetings.

Back home in the evening, there’s laundry to be done, household needs to be tended, and precious time to spend with my beloveds. In the spaces between, there are bills to pay, a dentist appointment, errands to run, a movie I want to see, friends invited over, family members to connect with, and so on.  At the end of the day, today’s undone “to-do’s” are added to the top of tomorrow’s list.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Or, none of the above. Any day, any time, no matter what I may have planned, I could lift right out. When the “come now” call happens, at least once a week, my life screeches to a halt as I make a quick change, grab my birth bag, and get in the car. I might be out of bed in the middle of the night. I greet the sunrise through a hospital window,  bleary-eyed, having spent the last twelve hours with a laboring mama. My sitter gets a 6am wakeup call, asking her to step in where I cannot, to tend the morning in my absence. My clients get last minute calls to say that I won’t be seeing them today. My family might move through the day without me, while I miss the school play, the dinner guests, or the tucking in at night.

I’m often asked, “Isn’t that hard? How do you do it?”  In my view, I’m the lucky one – I’m getting to do as I love. My family’s needs for food, clothing, and shelter are met by my getting to live my passion. Sometimes, I might have a pang of, “Oh, I wish this was happening on a different day”, but when I’m present at a birth, most of the time I’m not thinking about  being anywhere else.

Committing to someone’s birth means giving them the privilege to take the reins over a day in this precious, beautiful life of mine. I get the blessing of being part of a miracle. It’s my family that pays the price. It’s the people I love who have learned that I may or may not be home when they get here. I may or may not be at the concert, the Halloween parade. The boys might have to make dinner. The laundry might wait yet another day. My kisses  and “Good night, I love you” might be by text. It’s my dear friends who accept that I may not make it to the birthday party. Inviting them over is always iffy. My mother’s phone call to ask how I’m doing might go unreturned for two days. That these who are so dear to me love me anyway is my greatest treasure.

Without their acceptance, flexibility, and support, I couldn’t do it at all. For the people who love me, I am truly grateful.

 

Beware the Hive Mind!

Beware the Hive Mind!

A stranger on the internet says: I chose a great birth center to have my baby in, but as of this morning they say that I’ve risked out. I don’t want to have my baby in the hospital. So, I’m reading a few things about unassisted homebirth, and I’m thinking that my husband and I can do this ourselves. We’re planning to call the paramedics when I’m delivering so that they can be there to help.

A hundred people in reply say:  Heck yeah! That’s a great idea! You can do it! Don’t let them bully you!

Another stranger on the internet says: My sister’s doctor says that she needs to be induced tomorrow. I’m trying to talk her out of it. How long should I tell her she can wait?

Another hundred people say: Tell her not to show up! Wait as long as she wants. I know someone who went three weeks after her due date, and she’s just fine!

And here on the other end of the screen, I sit on my hands.

I can’t believe that I even need to say that this is a bad idea on so many levels.

We have NO other information about these mamas. We don’t know why the practitioner that she knows and has chosen to trust with her medical care is advising her to make this decision. We don’t know what her birth center has said, or why the OB is concerned enough to think that the baby is suddenly safer on the outside. We know nothing of test results, or mama’s health, or signs that the baby may need help.

As a birth community, when we advise blindly to ignore medical recommendations, we are just as much in the wrong as the practitioners who apply all interventions to everyone regardless of need.

As doulas, childbirth educators, or even online birth junkies, it’s great to encourage and support. Mamas no doubt need the community around them who is willing to say “You are so strong! You can do this!”  Yes, we are in this together seeking to learn, and sometimes, we might know information that is relevant and useful.  However – these decisions should never be left to the opinion of strangers on the internet. When we cross the line into saying, “Don’t listen to anyone!”, we are taking the risk of jeopardizing the wellbeing of a mother and baby we don’t know. This is a serious breech of ethics.

We may be a lot of wise women, but we do not possess the collective wisdom to know what is best for a person that we have never met, that we cannot see, who has been advised by a practitioner that we don’t know, about medical facts that haven’t been shared.

My answer?

Mama needs to talk with her practitioner. Ask the benefits. Ask the risks. Ask the alternatives. Ask if doing nothing is an option. Then, make her own best choice. No hive mind needed.

 

The Birth of a Mother

The Birth of a Mother
 She is standing, swaying, breathing deeply when the surge from deep in her womb begins to build like a wave. As her belly tightens, her hands grip her beloved, her face tenses, and she begins to moan. Rolling her hips, eyes closed, groaning deeply with each breath, she works through the intensity as the wave begins to subside.

“That’s it, mama. Good. Just like that. That one is done. Let that one go. Rest in between”, I say softly.

She’s been laboring for hours. When her birthing time began this morning, she was antsy with excitement when she called to let me know. She’s been preparing for this day for months. She read all of the childbirth books, the baby care books, made lists of names and things to buy. She had taken weeks of classes, and for the last several days was well past the point of taking in even one more word. She had become a weeping ball of baby and impatience. Now the time had come, and “ready” didn’t even begin to cover how she felt.  She was chatty and bubbling as she talked through the contractions that she described as “really strong”. I thought to myself that if she was still able to talk, she had no idea yet what “really strong” would look like. That moment had yet to come, though it surely would.

The mood has shifted now. There’s no more chatter – only intervals of hard work and of rest. The daylight has passed, leaving the room dark and quiet. The intensity that she feels in her body is breathtaking, consuming all of the energy she has. I hear the subtle shift in her breath that signals that the next wave is beginning.  She’s hot and trembling, and nauseous and exhausted. This isn’t fun anymore.

“You can do this. You already are”, I whisper. “Your body knows how. Your baby knows how. All is well. Everything here is exactly right.”

The word “labor” means work. The work of labor is to open. It’s the opening of a mother’s body, her flesh and her bones, to make room for the baby to pass through. It’s the opening of her heart, to love this new human being deeply and unconditionally. It’s the opening of her relationship with her partner, to love one another in this new territory of parenthood. It’s the opening of her life. It’s the wide-open stretching of all that she is, to become born anew in the next step of her life journey.

As I hear her moaning grow deeper, I know before she does that the moment of meltdown is now drawing near. It always does – in hundreds of births before, I’ve seen that every birth has one. We are closing in on the time when she will reach the edge of her very being, and will need to call upon every resource that she has. It’s the moment of “I can’t do this anymore! That’s it, I quit! I’m done, no more!” Sometimes it’s loud and tear-filled, sometimes the words are spoken only in a whisper, and sometimes, it happens silently in her head. I don’t know what form it may take – I know only that it will happen. As part of her labor, it must.

This phase of the last few hours of pregnancy is a time of in-between. It is neither here nor there – on the verge of bringing forth life, a mother is at once her old self and her new self. One foot is in the only world she has ever known, and the other is in a new uncharted territory. Standing at the edge of a new life – it is a moment both welcome and terrifying.

The medical, clinical, scientific terms for this window of time are easy enough to learn – transition, contractions, oxytocin. Websites are full of advice that says, “The good news is that if you’ve made it this far (without medication), you can be coached through this stage with constant reminders that you’ve done a good job and your baby is coming soon.”  The messages are always that what is happening in this moment is temporary and insignificant, so don’t wimp out. Lighten up, honey, you’re just having a baby.

What’s missing from our language, our culture, and our scientific understanding is reverence.  To give birth, whether birth happens at home in a tub or in an operating room surrounded by beeping machinery and medical personnel, a woman must journey to this place between the worlds. This meltdown is the work of her soul as she approaches the place where the veil between-here-and-there has grown thin, to reach through and bring back with her the new soul that she has invited into her life.

When we allow the reality that the heart of this holy moment is spiritual as much as physiological, we create room for awe and wonder. Whether or not those who surround her recognize it, to be present with a woman in this time is to stand on sacred ground. This uncertain phase of in-between is a necessary event, essential to the rebirth of a woman as she becomes Mother. It is an ancient understanding that the midwives once knew, now forgotten and shrouded in the quantifiable measurements of thinning and dilation.

This is the transition of modern civilized woman into primal birth goddess.  Logic, ration, and reason melt away. The intellectual medical vocabulary of hormones and timing and measurement become useless and without meaning. There’s no thinking, no pretense – just the genuine, undiluted energy of a woman giving birth. It is raw and powerful. Though profoundly beautiful, it is intense and sometimes unlovely.

My hands press her hips, stroke her back, smooth her hair, as she chants “I can’t, I can’t”. She can do it, of course, just as her mother and sisters and a thousand grandmothers before her have done. This is the sacred struggle of every laboring woman, standing toe-to-toe with her own fears as she battles through her resistance. It is the time when every thought she carries that no longer serves her, every story she’s heard that has undermined her belief in herself, every fear she’s never voiced is released. They are shed through her tears, her sounds, her fluids, and her blood. She quivers and shakes with the energy and the effort of letting go; of sweet surrender to the life force larger than herself. This round, weeping woman is battling her own monsters as she undergoes the alchemy of complete transformation.

She has reached the magic threshold where she makes the inevitable choice, as women throughout time have done, to take just one more step into the mystery. She becomes all elements embodied; the pure channel for a new soul to emerge from the waters of her belly, through the ring of fire, arriving on Earth to take her first breath. She returns from the brink, victorious, with her wet, squalling newborn daughter naked on her skin, and her newly-born mother-self rising up as never before.

I watch her face, moments before twisted in pain, become alight with joy and ecstasy as she falls in love with her tiny baby girl. “You’re here, oh look, you’re here! You’re so beautiful! I love you!  We did it!” It hasn’t been easy, but it has been worth it. It always is. She knows, now, down to her bones,  in a way that can never be taken from her, the story of her own courage and strength.  She is not a “poor thing” – she is a mighty warrior.

I am grateful today for her safe passage as she joins the sisterhood of women who have traveled this rite into motherhood. I am grateful to be part of the sisterhood of women for whom holding space for this time of in-between is their life work, just as it was for my great-aunt midwife before me, and countless hundreds before her.  I am grateful, always, for the opportunity to offer love and affirmation in the face of such vulnerability, for the gift this birth has given me to witness a woman reaching the end of all that she thinks she knows, and to see her through to the other side. I return home knowing that I have, once again, been witness to a miracle.

 

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Dealing with Client Debt

Dealing with Client Debt

Marie asks: What does one do when a client doesn’t want to pay after services have been rendered?

 

Nobody likes to be owed money, and nobody likes to owe someone else. Just the thought of conflict about payment  is pretty uncomfortable.

For many doulas, being in this situation just one time is enough to learn a good lesson about making sure our agreements are clear to begin with. It might be time to revisit your service agreement, and make sure that your payment structure is clearly outlined. Many birthworkers have a specific date by which payment is due in full before on-call time begins. If the risk for the client  is that nonpayment means that services won’t be rendered, it’s far less likely that you’ll find yourself in this situation again.

Many doulas have statements in their client contracts that also outline what circumstances, if any, would result in a refund of fees, or in having no money due. Some of these situations include failure to provide services, or  failure to provide adequate backup support if the doula is suddenly unreachable or unavailable. Some doulas also include clarifying statements about fees remaining payable in the event of an undesired birth outcome, or unexpectedly rapid labor, or other circumstances beyond the doula’s control. Having a clear service agreement can help avoid a lot of headaches and uncomfortable conversations.

Now that you are there, though, there are a few reasonable steps that can be taken. Step one would be to simply ask for what you are due. Acting sooner is usually easier than waiting.  If you’re doing a postpartum followup visit at home, you might mention when scheduling, “Oh, and I can pick up a check from you while I’m there. Do you need me to look up your balance and text that to you?”

If you won’t be seeing her in person, email might be another option. This is a good step to take when it has been a longer time, as well. Reach out in kindness. Act with the intention of clarifying your agreement with one another, with willingness to assume the best of intentions. Speak to the other person with the belief that he or she is responsible and reliable, and likely to keep her word. This intention will come across in the words you choose. “Hey, Lisa! Just checking in and following up on your file. It looks like your balance is currently $—, and our contract says that balance is due by 2 weeks after your birth (or whatever your agreement may have been). With a new baby in your world, I’m sure things have been really busy! When you have a moment, please, would you let me know when you’ve dropped that in the mail to me? Thanks!” Make sure to include your address, and information for how any checks should be made out. Sometimes, people lose track of their documents, and are embarrassed to say something as simple as “We forgot how much we owe you”. They might be hoping that you have a step in place for when that happens. In cases like these, good follow-through on your end will be enough.

If it isn’t, a second attempt at communication may need to be more direct. Consider sending hard-copy mail in addition to any e-mail. Keep it simple. This is not the time for long letters or an emotionally reactive plea. Keep it factual. A straightforward  letter or an invoice showing balance past due and a “pay by” date is a good idea at this point. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Send it certified mail, and keep the receipt.

If that doesn’t work (and goodness, let’s hope it would!), the following step would be to decide how important this is to you, and how much energy you are willing to invest. Decide whether pursuing the debt through small claims court would be worth your time. Most small claims courts have a maximum allowable limit of a few thousand dollars. Make sure your records are prepared – what your agreements were, any signed documents you have in your possession, and copies of any communications you may have sent. Your local county clerk can tell you what steps are necessary to file a claim, and the documents you may be asked to fill out are pretty simple. You’ll need your clients name and address. This may take some time, and could result in needing to show up in court, though they could decide to send payment as soon as they get the notice.

Again, use this as a learning opportunity. Create good documents for yourself to share with your clients, with your fee structure and payment dates that are clearly outlined. With hope and good preparation, you’ll never have to go through this again!

When Dad is Disconnected

When Dad is Disconnected

Kara asks: I am wondering what you do when a father is not very supportive of the labouring mom, and even goes as far as to judge and try and make decisions for the mom? How do you keep mom empowered?

 

Relationship dynamics are often difficult to navigate. This is especially true when we, as doulas, are present for a only short time with people who were together before we came on the scene, and will be in relationship long after we are gone.

First – check yourself. Where might you be in judgement of this couple? We all judge others. There’s no sense in pretending that we don’t. Simply being able to honestly say to ourselves, “Wow, I’m judging that. That pushed a button for me, and I’m having some feelings about it” can prevent us from letting our own judgement spill over into the doula/client relationship. Thinking to ourselves, “That’s different than what I’d prefer for myself. This isn’t my relationship. That’s ok” can help us let that go.

Then, consider the culture. Does this family come from a tradition in which men are not typically involved in childbirth? In getting to know the couple prenatally, ask her what she thinks of when you say the word “support”. What does support look like to her? What support does she expect from you?  How does Dad see his role?  Consider, too, what Mama thinks support from her husband will look like. Does she seem to expect that he will be affectionate and hands-on, or do they seem to be ok with his being on the sidelines, involved in his own way? Sometimes, the couple expects that the doula will be there for the intensive hands-on physical comfort, and the affirmative emotional encouragement. Other times, they expect that the dad will be the one in this role, and the doula will be on the sidelines offering occasional suggestions while sitting on her hands. Both of those options are do-able, as long as we know what the expectation is.  What is it they want, need, and expect?

It’s important to understand what she thinks empowerment means. While some families make decisions by what Mama desires for herself, others seek mutual agreement, and  in others, it’s the man who has the final word for his wife. She may be expecting that he will be the one to make decisions. As strange as this may seem to doulas who may come from another way of thinking, if that’s the family’s comfort zone, it is up to us to accept them for who they are, and honor that.  We may need to work within this dynamic by presenting information, and talking through decisions together. Or, it might be true that he thinks that his role as protector/defender means that he has to know the “right” things to do or say, even when he really doesn’t. One way to help a dad through this is to talk about it. Let him know that you want him to be involved to the fullest extent that he is comfortable. Ask him if he’s ok with your making suggestions, or modeling a comfort measure (such as hip squeezes) and handing it over for him to do. Sometimes, he may feel less lost and more supportive if he knows he has a specific job to handle.

And lastly, we have the scenario in which Mama knows what’s best for herself,she knows what she wants and needs, and he’s just not willing to provide it. The only power you have as doula in this case is to decide what you will do. You can only do your best to offer support. You can’t make him not be a jerk. She chose to have a baby with him. She chose to have him there for this birth. You are not responsible for their relationship. The best you can do is show up. Give her encouraging words. Make suggestions for her comfort. Mentally zip a teflon shield  around yourself, so that his annoying tendencies don’t get to you. Brush it off as much as you can. Letting him know that he’s getting to you may give him a greater sense of power, and make his jerkiness even worse. Seek out your own support people and vent as much as you need to. Be gentle in your expectations of yourself. Don’t expect yourself to fix something that you didn’t cause – just know that in being there and doing your best, you’re making a difference. That’s enough.

Go Ahead, Ask Me Anything!

Go Ahead, Ask Me Anything!

Four days ago, I got a message from a lovely midwife in training asking if I would share my thoughts about birthworkers, privacy, and social media. In the four days since then, the resulting article has  become the most viewed blog post I’ve ever written. I’ve decided to take an “Ask Me Anything” approach for a little while, and see what comes of that. Sharing doula wisdom and experience is, after all, my goal here. So, what questions do you have?  What challenges are you facing that you’d like to hear addressed? What are you curious about? I’d love to know!

Doulas and Social Media Disasters

Doulas and Social Media Disasters

In the last five years, the social media explosion has made it easier than ever to keep in touch with friends and clients, network with colleagues, gather the latest research in the news, and pass along information. Having a strong online presence is a necessary part of growing a decent birthworker business these days. With this ease of info-sharing, however, a crisis is rapidly developing around birthworkers, boundaries, and privacy.

In my local community, it happened recently that a grandma learned her brand-new grandbaby’s name and gender through a post on facebook. As awkward as that may seem, it becomes ten times worse when we throw in the fact that the post was created not by the new parents, but by their doula!   It happens all the time – excited doulas, midwives, and even birth centers have pages full of “John and Mary welcomed baby Ian this morning! Mary worked for a hard twelve hours, but she did it all naturally! Good job, mama!”  Now, John and Mary may have appreciated that their doula was so happy and proud of them, but my guess would be that Mary would have wanted to tell her own mother for herself, first.

I’ve seen pictures on the social networking pages of doulas who live half a world away from me that show baby skin-to-skin with mama just moments after birth. They proclaim, “Congratulations, Julie!”, and instead of thinking, “Yay, go Julie!”, I think “Hi, Julie, you don’t know me, but I’ve now seen your breasts. Is that ok with you?”

With the best of intentions for respecting privacy, even a well meaning “Off to a birth!” or “Wow, great birth this morning!” can go wrong if the vaguebooking doula happens to be a friend of a mutual friend with the birthing woman. If Sarah used me as her doula and followed me on Twitter while we were working together, and sent her friend Laura my way months later, she probably knows that I’m on call for Laura, and can easily guess whose labor I’m on my way to. Even if I’ve said only positive things, Laura might not want her friends to know that she’s in labor, or thinks she might be, before she has told them herself. I may never know who has friends in common with me through other online groups. The world is small, and getting smaller with all of the ways we have available to be connected.

Attending a birth is an intimate experience, worthy of respect for privacy. In my thinking, it is a mama’s own decision, and no one else’s, to choose when to let the world know that her body is laboring, that her baby is here, and that her birth went well (or didn’t). It is her right, and not mine, to announce her baby’s gender, and the name they’ve chosen, and whether or not her baby came out of her vagina. It is as important to preserve the intimacy of her experience in our online interactions as it is to not share her birth story with others in person without her explicit consent first.

We may be excited, or sad, or bursting at the seams with good news, and that’s completely understandable. Of course we care deeply that all went well. Holding space for someone else’s joy is a privilege. Learning to contain in our hearts the love and happiness we feel, without allowing it to spill out from our fingertips,  is part of walking the path of doing this sacred work.  Protect the birth story. It’s how we do what we do.

 

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