I am a Birth Doula. I am in the process in being interviewed by, Nora, a student here on the university campus where I work as an administrative staff person during the day. In Nora’s Anthropology class the final paper will be about a natural healing practice in our culture. Doulas were on the suggested list. I had my first part of the interview yesterday. I can talk for hours about birth, ask anyone who knows me. But I stumbled on my words when Nora asked me, “How does the Doula do this healing thing, where and when does the healing happen?” I don’t remember what I said but now, after thinking about it a bit, what I’d like to say to her and to you today is that the healing a doula does is more preventative than curative. I don’t think a pregnant woman seeks out a doula thinking that she is looking for a healer. She is not sick. A pregnant woman does not need healing…or not the type of healing that western medicine can offer. When someone has a backache they look for a chiropractor knowing she can heal them or lessen their pain and also prevent more serious injury and prevent them from needing surgery. They know that the chiropractor is straightening their spine so blood carrying healing oxygen can flow to the muscles, tendons, bones. Likewise the doula uses various techniques to help reduce a laboring woman’s pain and clear away the mother’s fears so that the hormones that cause labor contractions can flow and the labor may be shorter and the baby may be safely born. The doula may help the woman avoid technical interventions in a process that most times is better served by non-intervention, less technology and more heart.
The doula may answer the calling to be a “helper” more than a “healer” but end up doing both very well. The support a doula provides may help a woman avoid postpartum depression or avoid experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The doula’s help may prevent a woman from needing a surgical birth aka Cesarean Section. The maternal mortality rate for a cesarean is higher than with a vaginal birth. A doula may also direct a woman to evidence based information that helps the mom-to-be understand her need for a Cesarean(a) birth for her baby therefore preventing a true emergency, while at the same time helping the family make an informed decision and empowering this woman to give true informed consent. A doula may prevent the dad or partner from experiencing birth trauma at his baby’s birth. As a birth doula I have heard birth stories that break my heart, told by women about their prior births . After the initial relief of having a healthy baby and the gush of loving emotions that naturally flow after giving birth, women can experience a flood of confusing emotions. Sometimes it seems the aftermath is a chasm of resentment, bitterness, anger and confusion between the mom and her partner or between the mom and her own body or between the mom and her baby or between the mom and her care provider. These wounds can be healed by the careful words, tender touch, and the attentive care of a birth doula. Another healing effect the doula makes is that her attention during initial postpartum may make it easier for the mom and baby to have a successful nursing relationship, preventing many childhood illnesses and providing life long immunities for the baby and lowering the moms chance of breast cancer. If 90% of U.S. mothers exclusively breastfed for six months as recommended by medical providers, the nation could save $13 billion and prevent the loss of 911 lives, annually.
How does the doula accomplish this without being a licensed counselor, medical care provider, clergy or religious leader? How does the listening ear of a friend help bolster a bone weary mother? How does the listening, compassionate, husband endear himself to his wife? How does a basket of warm dinner create community in a neighborhood? How does a cold glass of water to the repair man in your basement spread good will? In these same ways the doula serves her clients.
Let’s look closer at how the doula accomplishes what others seemingly cannot. Nurses and doctors and even nervous well meaning family members can get caught up in their own agenda, their own thoughts, and their own emotions. They may not remember to or even know how to attend to the laboring woman’s needs. The doula is trained and focused and not distracted. Her number one and main and central focus is the birthing woman. They know each other and they have practiced various ways to negotiate the twists and turns of labor. They have talked about the wide variety of labor patterns and how there is no wrong way to give birth. This removes the pressure of “performing” and the pressure of a ticking clock. The world as we know it drifts away as a woman enters what doulas call “Labor Land”. This is one of the only times when a woman is fully awake and her brain is in the Delta frequency. Delta is the realm of our unconscious mind and the gateway to the universal mind (God) and the collective unconscious where information received is otherwise unavailable at the conscious level. This mother can now follow her deepest instincts and intuitions knowing, trusting that, her doula and her care provider will recognize anything out of the ordinary. This type of doula attention usually helps a women to labor untethered to societies norms and therefore enjoy her experience more and appreciate her amazing body and her amazing power. The doula will fix a snack for the mom and her partner while they labor cheek to cheek; the doula will run a bath for mom. The doula will take a walk with mom, the doula will hold mom while she cries. Even when some well-meaning people may try to quiet moms cries, the doula encourages her to feel ALL her feeling, release all her fears, joys, regrets, hopes….the doula will patiently and quietly listen. The doula will not interject with a quick fix, her own life drama, or her own birth story. The doula uses touch or massage or touch-less massage (a fan) to comfort the laboring woman. The doula knows that the laboring woman’s senses are hypersensitive and she knows that to adjust the sounds and lighting in the birthing room of a laboring woman can make a huge difference. Even the sense of smell is heightened in laboring women. So the doula may carry the essential oils that she knows could help her client, like oils that are calming or oils that help ease nausea.The doula is there to honor this woman on her day, to hold the space sacred. The doula helps mom and dad to do one thing at a time, take one contraction at a time. Filling each moment with love and maybe some music or story telling of either memories or fantasies, or old movies or T.V. favorites or whatever is familiar and comforting to the birthing woman.
When I shared with Nora “why I became a doula” I shared the basic beginning of my calling, the bare bones – my own first experience giving birth. That experience was not what I imagined birth should be. When afterwards I hunted and gathered more information, more knowledge, and therefore more confidence, I was able to realize as I birthed my second baby, how amazing my body was, how wonderful birth really was! I also realized how much I wanted to help other women to experience this truth; that is they can birth in ecstasy!
That early seed of my doula beginnings has taken root and become a strong foundation, like the trunk of my doula tree. The tree branches spread in many directions today. I am, if it’s possible, even more excited than ever to be a doula as I realize more and more the importance of birth as God designed it. I am also excited about being a doula because I’ve become addicted to learning. Who me? The girl who never liked school? Yes. I love to learn from every unborn baby, every unborn mommy. I learn from observing them born into the world – a new baby,a new mommy are born. That transition, crossing of a threshold, the age old rite of passage, is magical, mysterious and holy. In the following years I hope I can somehow find a way to pass on to the next generation some of what I have learned from these hundreds of generous moms and babies. I am grateful to my sister-in-law, Nora Bastien, for interviewing me and letting me share about the healing work of a doula.
Today one branch of my learning has me excited about the subject of epigenetics. It is now a proven fact that the type of experience a woman and her baby have at birth will affect not only their future, but many generations of this family. A new science called Epigenetics, the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of genes, has brought this to light. Yes our experiences change our genetics, our DNA. Whether a woman and her baby have a traumatic birth experience or whether they have an positive birth will affect the future of the human race.
Who knew I’d read whole studies on such things. Who knew when I started on this path that I would call myself a healer.
The most recent systematic review looked closely at how effects of labor support varied by type of person providing labor support, and offers new knowledge (Hodnett and colleagues 2011).
Effects were strongest when the person was neither a member of the hospital staff nor a person in the woman’s social network, and was present solely to provide one-to-one supportive care. Compared with women who had no continuous support, women with companions (such as a doula) who were neither on the hospital staff nor in the woman’s social network were:
· 28% less likely to have a cesarean section
· 31% less likely to use synthetic oxytocin to speed up labor
· 9% less likely to use any pain medication
· 34% less like to rate their childbirth experience negatively.