by Hallie Rogers, PCD(DONA), CLC
Most of us have heard many “birth stories”: narratives parents weave to commemorate the arrival of a new baby. Typically beginning with early labor, birth stories are the emotional and factual account of how a new little human was birthed, and can be an important part of a woman processing her own agency, role, and part in that story. My husband and I have had three beautiful births, each different than the others. While we treasure our memories of those life-changing nights and days, in my experience, it’s my postpartum stories that have truly influenced my life and had a greater impact on my family. This is my first time sharing my postpartum story–my own weaving together of my three postpartum experiences. Why? Because I want to model my belief that a woman’s postpartum story is just as important and valuable as her birth story.
Our first child (G) came almost four weeks early. We were not prepared, emotionally or literally. We have a photo of our tiny G sleeping in her car seat just after we arrived home that first time, the room around her total chaos with opened boxes, papers, and gift wrap everywhere. As my husband took that photo, we both expressed to each other how we felt completely incompetent and at a loss for what to do now. How could they send us home with this tiny person? We couldn’t possibly know what we were doing. Those first two weeks were intense, with serious physical healing necessary for me that greatly limited my mobility. Breastfeeding was challenging right from the beginning, and I remember sitting in the bathtub one afternoon crying to my mom on the phone, telling her I’d been asking myself, “What did we get ourselves into?” It was clear that in those first few weeks, I was experiencing what’s called “the baby blues,” which is a normal reaction to the overwhelming hormonal and circumstantial adjustments women have to make following the birth of a baby. I struggled initially the first few weeks, but things got easier. G was born in May, and since my husband was a teacher, starting about 4 weeks after G’s birth, he was able to be home with us all summer long. Life with baby quickly got so, so much better, and we had a wonderful summer learning how to parent together. I had the luxury of unconditional, encouraging support every day. To make it even more incredible, that support came from the man I loved the most in the whole world, and I got to learn from him and watch him settle into parenthood alongside me.
Fast forward 16 months later to our second child (M), who also came a bit early. Born in September, it was not ideal timing for a family with two parents working in education, but she decided to debut on a gorgeous crisp fall day. Right away, M was a force to be reckoned with. Breastfeeding was much easier this time (she nursed like a champ!), but as the weeks went on, we could tell something wasn’t working for her. After researching on our own and talking with her doctor and some friends from La Leche League, we discovered M was intolerant of the cow proteins in my diet. I went dairy free for the next five months so that I could continue to breastfeed M, and while I didn’t mind doing it for her, it was not easy.
My postpartum time after M’s birth coincided with my decision to leave work and stay home with our children for a while, my husband’s return to a demanding job and classes in a post-graduate program at a university, and the chilling and darkening of the seasons in our northern climate. In those early weeks, I remember being unable to sleep while the rest of the house was sleeping. In retrospect, I was experiencing relatively significant postpartum anxiety, followed later–in the winter months–by depression. While there certainly were times of joy in those first 6-8 months after M was born, there were definitely moments I wish I hadn’t had to have, particularly with two little ones looking on and feeling the effects of a sad mom. I remember sitting on the living room floor in January with the toddler playing with the baby as I just wept, for no particular reason and with no particular remedy. I felt a deep sadness, emptiness, and loneliness, and I didn’t know how to get myself out of it. I felt guilty for not loving every minute of being home with our kids, I felt ashamed of my sadness, and yet–because it was different than the depression I had had as a college student–I couldn’t see the forest for the trees and did not recognize what I was dealing with in those moments. I made excuses for why I felt sad, and failed to reach out for the help I needed. Eventually, days got longer, baby M got older, and things got easier. That summer was a good one.
Unfortunately, however, my postpartum mental health issues reared their ugly heads again as M and I weaned that fall. As my body shifted from its lactating to non-lactating state, my hormones contributed to the return of anxiety, resulting in panic attacks during the day, night after night of insomnia, general worry over things I typically don’t worry about, and even heart palpitations. A few months later, I was able to feel “normal” again, and I thought my depression and anxiety were done and gone.
After many months and much thought and discussion, my husband and I decided to have another child. We were absolutely in love with the beautiful daughters we had been blessed with, and were excited to welcome another little person into our family. By the end of the first trimester with baby #3 (L), though, I could tell there was already some anxiety mounting inside me with each passing week. I decided to try to “head it off at the pass” by talking to a counselor who specializes in perinatal mood disorders and works mostly with mothers. This was helpful, and I began to see some improvement through therapy with her, as well as the use of a prescription light box I sat in front of every morning at 5:30.
That January, however, I began to slip into what would become the deepest, scariest depression I’ve ever experienced. While I was never suicidal, it was definitely the darkest time of my life in terms of mental health. I began to see a counselor again, and with her guidance and that of my doctor, I was able to see that medication was necessary. For weeks and months I had tried every non-pharmaceutical thing I knew of to try to treat my perinatal depression and anxiety, and it had simply reached a point when those methods weren’t enough. I also began to work on a postpartum plan. I knew that for me, the postpartum time was likely to be a challenge again. So, I decided to have my placenta encapsulated this time around, to see if it would alleviate some of my symptoms and allow me to gradually “come down” from the hormone high point of birth, as well as replenish and sustain my own levels of iron a bit more easily. We also decided to hire a postpartum doula. I didn’t know postpartum doulas existed when we had our first two babies, but between baby #2 and baby #3, I had not only learned about them, but had become certified and began working as one myself. I knew the vast benefits of having trained, nonjudgmental support after baby arrives, so we arranged for our postpartum doula to come be with me and our children while my husband was working and other family was not available to help. I also asked friends and family members to help us by bringing us a meal after L arrived, and so many people generously responded. It was incredible to feel so loved and supported by so many people, and their food nourished our bodies and our souls.
My medication, my counselor, and my placenta were all helpful to me after L was born, but I truly believe that it was the support of other people that was the key factor to this postpartum time being worlds different than the last, and worlds different than even a few weeks prior to birth, when my depression in pregnancy was so serious. I honestly remember crying tears of joy and relief in those first weeks after birth, and I remember telling my husband, “This is what it’s supposed to be like. I am so, so happy. This is what postpartum should be.” They say the third time’s the charm, and for me, it seemed to be. I was able to come out of a darkness and into the light of a new phase of motherhood, eased into it with the support of our doula and many dear friends and family members who loved us into a new peace as a family of five.
Hallie Rogers is a certified postpartum doula and a certified lactation counselor, and seeks to provide a wonderful, supported postpartum experience to the families whom she serves. She lives in St. Paul with her husband and three young children. You can find out more about her doula and lactation services, read other blog posts, and contact her at www.betterbeginningsmn.com.
by Samantha Chadwick
So this week is World Doula Week. And I am just a few days away from celebrating the birthday of the first baby whose birth I attended as a doula. I am so grateful to have been invited by families this year to support them on their adventures.
And OH how far I have come! I remember nervously peeking around the corner of the wall in my house to try and watch the birth videos on my yoga DVD while I was pregnant. Now, I cry and laugh and breathe and moan alongside laboring women sometimes for hours (or days) on end and I really enjoy it. It’s strikes me as sort of an odd thing to love doing, but I do! This week my toddler has been asking to “see a baby get born” so I finally downloaded The Business of Being Born and showed her some. She loved it.
I know firsthand that pregnancy and birth can be simultaneously amazing and very difficult. As a doula I help families find resources, prepare for labor, and help work to ensure they have a positive birth experience. I see my role as supporting the birthing mother (and her partner or other companions), playing the role desired by that particular family. A lot of times that means providing information and resources during pregnancy and preparing for birth, being a good listener and helping the mother/couple discern their own wishes for the birth, and then providing emotional support and physical comfort during and immediately following labor and birth. I can assist the family in getting information that the mother and partner want in order to make choices.
Sometimes I’m in a hands-on, very active and physical support role or occasionally more hands-off, background role depending on what is needed. I take pictures and write down key moments and refill water bottles and hand out Tic Tacs and chapstick. I give the partner a thumbs up or confident head nod and swap in when they need a rest from squeezing their partner’s hips. I tell it like it is. This is probably the hardest thing you are every going to do, and it’s a amazing thing you are doing for and with your baby.
I see myself as working to create a positive, encouraging, and supportive environment for the mother and her family to birth a baby, recognizing that this is an experience she will probably vividly remember for the rest of her life, and it matters how she is treated, supported and believed in.
I believe that birth works – that women’s bodies are meant to carry and birth their babies safely, and in many cases nature works best when a laboring woman is comfortable, feels safe and loved, and is allowed to follow the wisdom of her own body without much interference. As a doula I can help facilitate this kind of environment and preparedness for what to expect and how to cope. That said, birth is unpredictable and different for every mother and baby. Just as important for me as doula is to support the mother/family no matter what comes up, to affirm the choices she makes, to listen to her and help her process what happens, and to help her remember how amazing and strong she was during her birthing time.
“There is a secret in our culture, and it is not that childbirth is painful. It’s that women are strong.” –Lisa Stavoe Harm
I am in on the secret. It’s true.
I don’t work a typical 9-5 shift
I am on call 24/7
It is not uncommon to spend a day away from my own family
I get to witness your special moments and see you become a family
When you are happy, I am happy
When you are sad, I feel sadness too
I live for that next surge and the next phase of labor
I live to see the moment when you meet your precious child
I put all my energy, time, tears, and joys into your special day
I am overjoyed to be a part of your birth story, no matter what path it takes
I love to learn and see what changes the birth world will bring us
I love the passion I feel when I am working and connecting with new families
I do all of this, because I am your doula
Danielle Cincoski is a certified birth and hypnobirthing doula. She also does placenta encapsulation. When she is not “doulaing”, she is Mum to 2 crazy and cute toddler boys Charles (3), and Graham (1).She lives in Forest Lake with her Husband Joe who is a veterinarian. And yes, they have 4 animals.
by Karen Schultz, CD(DONA)
In pre-natal meetings or in the early hours of labor I learn a surprising amount about my clients, and they about me. Inevitably, our conversations turn to family, the birthing stories of our mothers, and the dreams for our own babies.
There is always a thoughtful pause in the conversation when they ask, “Do you have children?” I smile and always offer the same response: “No…not yet.”
It is often the case that a woman comes to work as a doula after experiencing her own labors and realizing what a benefit that extra support was or could have been. She either didn’t have a doula and wished she had, or did have a doula and was inspired to follow in her doula’s footsteps. But for some of us, the call to doula comes without our own transformative birth journeys.
I am the only daughter in a family of six. My mother birthed naturally in hospitals and breastfed all of us for two years apiece, an oddity at a time when breastfeeding, for any length of time, was frowned upon. My mom’s influence was subtle over the course of my childhood, but by her example I slowly came to the conclusion that 1) birth is sacrificial, sacred, and beautiful, and 2) women are strong enough to labor well, to breastfeed well, and to nurture well.
I had always been interested in childbirth (I think most women intuitively are) but I hesitated in considering it my life’s calling. What could I, a woman who had never experienced labor, offer a women in the throes of childbirth?
I considered nursing school for a time, but I didn’t want to be bogged down in charting and paperwork when my real love was building up the bonds within families and communities. Science was also a passion of mine, and eventually I did teach high school anatomy & physiology, along with biology and a host of other subjects. Inevitably, when the time came for classroom lessons about fertility, fetal development, and childbirth, my female students would moan about the anticipatedpain of birth, while my male students would acknowledge the fear they had of simply supporting their future wives during their labors.
I thought, “Is this how our young people should face one of the most transformative experiences of their lives?” Surely not! It just didn’t seem right that our society was priming them to believe in the weakness of the female body, rather than in its strength!
It wasn’t until I left teaching and returned home to Minnesota that the doors to birth work began to open. With a bit of nervousness but firm resolution, I attended my first birth on New Year’s Eve of 2012. It was remarkable! In every birth I attended since then, I’ve been struck by how comfortable I’ve felt in the birthing room, how confident I was in the mother’s ability to birth well, and how touched I was by the love between parents. I also became more practically aware of the advantages of my singlehood: I didn’t (yet) have to juggle the responsibilities that come with motherhood–no worries about getting a sitter for a long labor or finding a back-up doula when a little one catches a fever! My responsibilities, in large part, are to myself only.
I also realized that being a doula who hasn’t birthed carried another benefit: I am not burdened by my own “birth baggage”. I don’t have, for instance, the memory of an epidural followed by regret of that choice, or a c-section that I felt could have been avoided. I can pretty safely say that I don’t have any expectations of how labor “should” go because I can’t judge based on my personal experience. I know that every labor is different because every mother is different and every baby is different.
Of course, I hope it goes without saying that I know dozens of “doula-mothers” who successfully leave their own birthing experiences at the door of the birthing room and only retrieve wisdom from them if it is of benefit to the mother and her particular need. I also know with certainty that there are doulas who, having not personally experienced the intensity of labor, might struggle to have compassion for a laboring woman in great need. There are strengths and weaknesses of both states in life.
So what is it, then, that makes for a stellar doula? Is it simply a matter of knowing what labor feels like? That seems far too simplistic; having a baby isn’t just about getting through contractions or learning how to push. It’s about realizing the gift of our femininity, discovering a deeper bond with our partner, and trusting in the strength of our created bodies. It’s about relying on those whom we love and trust for a firm and steady hand and the unfailing reassurance that we can do it.
For many expectant parents, I think it’s quite natural to ask the question, “Will my doula know what to do if she hasn’t had her own children?” But I would urge these parents to instead think of the qualities necessary for an exceptional doula: Compassion. Understanding. Presence. Wisdom. Joy. Having birthed or not having birthed, it is these qualities that are most important.
Karen Schultz, CD(DONA), is happily settled in the Twin Cities after a hiatus in Washington, D.C. where most recently she taught science to high schoolers. Read more about her at http://filiabirth.com.