intensely trivial

A doula comes of age

When I decided to become a doula, I did so for the glory of normal birth and for the sake of empowering women. Normal birth — one without unnecessary interventions — is, yes, messy and gritty and a lot of hard work. But, in my opinion, it is purely glorious for a woman to give birth to her baby the way God designed it to work. I have experienced birth this way, both for myself and as I’ve walked with women through their births. It is gorgeous. It is difficult. It is inspiring. It can be sexy. I love those kinds of births, when the mom courageously trusts herself to open up and bring out a BABY! I have been known to go home from these normal births and literally dance around the house in unadulterated worship at this beautiful design.
In the last nine or ten months, however, I’ve seen the other side of this calling. I attended several cesarean births in a row, something that, statistically speaking, isn’t supposed to happen to a doula — not in such quick succession, anyway. People ask me, “Were they necessary?” Well, that’s a very tricky question, and one I’m not going to attempt to answer here. I can tell you every one was disappointing to the moms, because that’s not how they’d planned things to work out. On the positive side, however, all of the babies were fine. They were all fine. Only one of them could be considered a large baby. All of the moms were fine, physically, although they were not all OK emotionally.
And then after this spate of difficult births, nothing happened on the doula front for a long while. Although it was unusual, it was a good thing, because I felt like a piece of ground meat and needed some time to heal from all of that. I knew I hadn’t failed in doing my job, which is to support the mother no matter what comes and to humanize the birth experience for her. I did that. One hospital where I attended a cesarean had never even seen a doula, and they let me into the operating room. I was allowed in to two other cesarean births, too. The nurses stood up for me and saw the value of having me there. One of the things I did was to snap photos of the babies and run with the digital camera back to the mom so she could actually see what her baby looked like. I tried to honor the mother and her child even in the surreal, space-age environment of the operating room. So that was good, right?
The inescapable truth of those experiences, however, was that births don’t always go as planned. One factor changes, and everything else has to adjust to it. Even though I wasn’t disappointed in the mothers, and their birth experiences did not invalidate them as women, I was disappointed in the way things had gone. The idealism I started out with was suddenly pulled out from under me. It was too hard on me emotionally to have to journey through this disappointment with woman after woman. I could barely drag myself through the postpartum follow-up with these new mothers, just at the time when they needed the most care. I found myself hoping that people wouldn’t hire me, that they wouldn’t even contact me to inquire. I started fearing that every birth would end up as major abdominal surgery after difficult labors. And I hated that I was so afraid, because the lack of trust in normal birth is one of the things that has screwed up the American mindset of birth, and here I was afraid of the unknown, too. I couldn’t imagine trusting birth again.
So God gave me several months of a break. Not many people inquired, and those who did interview me figured out that they really needed to evaluate bigger issues than whether to have a doula.
In January, I went to an interview with a potential client, whom I’ll call May, because that’s when her baby came. I didn’t plan for it. I just cavalierly showed up for the interview, feeling all fatalistic and futile. I felt like a phony, talking with her about natural birth and all, because my statistics, 20 births in, sure didn’t look like I would be much use in helping her achieve her dreams (not that she asked me about the statistics). But we clicked. She hired me, and we kept in touch throughout the rest of her pregnancy. It felt like maybe the dawn of a new day.
One gorgeous Saturday in May, May was finally in labor — the real thing. I followed her to the hospital with no illusions this time. I know the anesthesiologists. I know what a decel looks like on the monitor strip. I know the unspoken tension that builds in a room and can predict what intervention they’ll suggest next. I know what the OR looks like there, how the spacesuit and mask feel. I’ve watched women go through things that seem much more traumatic than the pain of labor.
At this birth, I knew May might face those things, even though she was strong, determined, stubborn, outspoken, whatever. And if she had to face them, then I would, too. I can’t describe how much I hated the thought of her possibly having to endure them, and yet I managed to entrust the whole thing to God.
In a happily surprising way, that day I discovered that the fire of those depressing, disillusioned months must have forged a stronger person in me. Strangely enough, I wasn’t anxious despite the somber knowledge of American birth. For me, I was positively zen. During the birth, some of the self-conscious inhibitions I felt at my first 20 births were inexplicably gone. I spoke with more authority and found myself making suggestions that really worked, not just because of some vague, textbook-y idea, but because intuitively I knew they would. I had more patience with the process and could see it from a broader perspective. I got some new visions of what the birth process is, some of which I think might be useful the next time I’m in laborland with another woman on her journey to motherhood.
May gave birth powerfully to a gorgeous baby boy. She was beautiful, daddy was radiant, and their baby was just perfect. Given my newfound lack of illusions, I should have merely been relieved, right? No, I was in a state of profound peace. It wasn’t the vicarious birth high I’ve experienced before, having been by a woman’s side and gone on the roller-coaster with her. Instead it was the steady assurance that I had been a strong companion, empowering her to be a confident woman giving birth to her own child on her own terms.
I think peace might be better than a high. I haven’t given up my firm faith in the way birth is supposed to be. It’s just that I feel I’ve now faced the dark disappointments birth can hold, and I’ve come out the other side a stronger, more compassionate person, and (I think) a better doula.


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  1. * Jill says:

    As I head out tonight to Birth #7 for me…this is wonderfully beautiful for me to read. I hope I will come home feeling that same peace you felt. Thank you for sharing. Love you!

    Posted 9 years ago
  2. * clbeyer says:

    Such a good post, Rachel. It almost makes me want to become a doula (but only _almost_ ). At least, it makes me want to experience childbirth again, with Kyle and strong, supportive women by my side, believing and helping ME believe that birth is as beautiful and perfect as life gets this side of Heaven.

    Posted 9 years ago
  3. * Angel says:

    I’m thrilled to read this after knowing the turmoil you’ve endured inside. We define ourselves through our life experiences. I firmly believe this truthful at least two fold in our insanely emotional lives as doulas. I knew you would find your way again.

    Posted 9 years ago
  4. * Leslie says:

    I’ve never heard you describe how you want to empower women in giving birth. How very cool. That’s very interesting to me about the western culture’s attitude toward birth. It sounds like you believe it has become too clinical. That medical professionals are more focused on the end goal of “deliver baby” rather than the process. I have no idea about the birth process, obviously, having never been through it myself. Your impressions fascinate me. I really hope I get to experience the birth process at least once before it’s too late. I admire your determination in empowering women.


    Posted 9 years ago
  5. Doulas rock. 🙂 I have been a certified doula for just over 2 years and I firmly believe I will never cease to be amazed by the power of mothers and their supportive partners, and I sincerely hope I cease to be amazed by the “Hurry up and have a baby” attitude of many birth professionals. 🙂

    Posted 8 years, 5 months ago

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