Not for the Squeamish: Why I Became a Birth Doula

Infertility runs in my family. My maternal grandmother’s pregnancy was an act of God—it took her and my grandfather ten years using every fertility treatment available in the 1950s and a whole convent of praying nuns on their team before my grandma missed a period and kept the pregnancy long enough to discover that she was pregnant with not one girl, but two.

My aunt, my mom’s twin, married at thirty, experienced an ectopic pregnancy and a trip to the emergency room, and then never was able to conceive again. My mother, on the other hand, easily grew and birthed three babies without any losses at all and with minimal waterworks. (Can any living, breathing woman go through a pregnancy without weeping daily?)

So when my husband and I decided to casually forgo our birth control, “just to see what would happen,” he and I were shocked, ecstatic, terrified, and jubilant when, after skipping my period that first month, a test confirmed that we were pregnant.

A dear friend happened to be pregnant as well. She was a few months ahead of me, and she began to tell me all about her midwife, Emily. While the midwifery style of prenatal care sounded interesting to me — if a bit hippie — I decided that for my first birth, I should be conservative.

I made an appointment with an OB-GYN just a block away from my house. The first couple of appointments were uneventful, and even helpful — my husband and I saw a little peanut in my belly and heard its heart beat like a tambourine. But after our third appointment, I found myself weeping on my husband’s shoulder in the parking lot.

Between sobs, I managed to complain, “This is the birth of our first child, and our OB can’t even find the time to write your name in my chart even though you’ve come to every appointment with me. Is this how we want to welcome our child into the world?”

The next day, I mentioned our troubles to my friend, and she handed me a copy of the movie, “The Business of Being Born,” which my husband and I watched, enthralled, a few evenings later. Another week later, my husband and I peppered my friend and her husband with questions about home birthing: was it really safe? What if something goes wrong? What if there’s a truly unpredictable emergency? And the next week, we met with Emily the midwife to again ask her all the questions we could think of and find out if home birthing was really for us.

Ultimately, we realized that any concern we had ultimately came down to fearing the wildness of childbirth. My husband found Emily’s answers and presence convincing (Is it safe? Yes, according to many research studies. What do you do in emergencies? We use all the tools nurses do in the same situation and you’re a 10 minute drive from the nearest hospital. What are your qualifications?, etc.).

However, I found I had to wrestle within myself. While I trusted and respected Emily and truly felt a kinship with the relational style of midwifery that she practiced, I doubted myself. Could I handle the intensity of labor if it really was as painful as I’d always believed it would be? Could I trust my body to do the work of childbirth all on its own, without any interventions? Could I forgive myself if an emergency took my child from me?

I finally decided that I did not want the first decision I made as a mother to be made for me by my fear of the unknown; I wanted to begin mothering my daughter with strength and courage, even in the way I birthed her. For me, that looked like being honest with myself and choosing the birth that I really wanted (a home birth with a Certified Professional Midwife), rather than choosing a birth based on what might go wrong (meaning, for me, a birth in a hospital. I should say that there were no birthing centers in my area, though of course, that’s a great middle ground between the poles of hospital birthing and home birthing).

I began to prepare for my birth as fearlessly as I could — I read every book my midwife recommended to me, including Ina May Gaskin’s classic Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth and Pam England’s Birthing from Within. I made birth art, depicting myself in my pregnancy and visualizing what my labor might be like. I wrote mantras and Bible verses on a chalkboard to encourage me during labor. I stockpiled all the supplies we’d need. I prayed fervently to God for the strength to fearlessly (and quickly) deliver my baby into the world.

The day of my daughter’s birth came, and my labor started slowly while a pink birthday cake baked in the oven. When active labor finally began, it hit like a train, and my baby was born into her father’s hands in a tub in the middle of our living room within just six hours of when those first active labor contractions began.

However, the hard part of labor was not over for me — while my baby said hello to her new world, my placenta was expelled, and I began to bleed. On the way from the tub to my bed, I began to hear a ringing in my ears, and my midwife realized that I was slowly hemorrhaging. I remember she and her assistants consulting in my living room, after the herbal remedies they had given me had not curbed my steady bleeding. My husband and I were left alone in my room with our child. I remember I felt afraid.

I had not hired a doula for my birth, though I had heard of the concept from Ina May Gaskin’s book; however, I believed doulas were only necessary for hospital births. Why would I need one when I was in the care of a midwife? Looking back, I realize that I needed a doula in that moment right after the birth of my daughter, when my midwife and her assistants were huddled together in my living room, planning how they could help me. I needed someone to hold my hand while my midwife was attending to my health. I needed someone to tell me it was okay to be afraid. I needed someone to say that she’d be there with me, regardless of what happened.

Afterward, I dealt with some trauma related to my hemorrhage and also related to my experience of the pain of my labor. While my midwife did talk through my experience with me within a week of the birth, I realize now that I needed someone to sit with me and work through all the intricacies of my birth story — the parts that proved I was brave and strong, and the parts that scared me and made me feel weak and vulnerable. Perhaps a presence like that could have helped me avoid the crippling Postpartum Depression that followed my daughter’s birth.

My second birth, the birth of my son, shared similarities with my first except that I knew what to expect and I opened myself to the experience in a way that I was unable to do for my first birth. I still birthed at home — even with the same midwife — but this time, everyone played a slightly different role. My husband was still involved, but my midwife and her assistants became doulas to me. They held my hands as I tried to retain my rhythm during the intense transition contractions. They spoke words that focused my efforts as I pushed my baby down the birth canal. And they encouraged me to hold and guide my baby’s head as it exited my body — they gave me the power to deliver my baby all on my own, as they watched just inches away. And because they knew to expect it, they made sure to give me a shot of Pitocin in the thigh to help avoid any extra bleeding. My midwife and her assistants provided timely support to help me be the strong and powerful woman they believed me to be.

Even so, I never considered working as a doula until my children had grown a bit, and my husband and I decided that at least for the time being, we were done having children. I began to notice myself continuing to take an intense interest in my friends and acquaintances who were pregnant. I would volunteer to bring them meals just after they had delivered babies, even if we were only loosely connected, and I would find myself asking specific questions about how long the different stages of labor were, which drugs were used when, and how different procedures had been performed. I noticed that what I had believed to be just a seasonal interest (“I’m pregnant, so I’m interested in pregnancy”) had progressed to something else entirely: it had graduated to a personal passion.

It wasn’t long after that realization when I pursued becoming a certified birth doula. Today, I feel privileged that I get to walk along the path of pregnancy and childbirth with a women and her supporters. I feel equipped to give her timely, personal information about her choices during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period. I feel honored to be invited into a pregnant woman’s birth as a gracious and continuous presence in the midst of the unpredictability of the birth experience. I enjoy the challenge and spontaneity of adapting to a new stage of labor and adjusting my support to meet a laboring woman’s needs in each unique moment. I delight to see fathers and partners take ownership of the birth of their child, and I like to find ways that I can help fathers and partners be even more involved as labor supporters. I savor the conversations I have with families when a family is waiting for labor to begin and after the newborn has arrived — these conversations are ones of intense vulnerability and intimacy in which I get to bring words of understanding, encouragement, empowerment, and trust.

Whether a birth happens at home under the care of a Certified Professional Midwife, in a birthing center under the care of a Certified Nurse Midwife, or in a hospital under the care of a OB-Gyn, birth is beautiful, breathtaking, unpredictable, and normal! My story has led me down this path, and I couldn’t be more thrilled – because to me, being a doula is the best job in the world.

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