Growing up mixed-race in a small market town in Essex with two white “parents” meant that me and my maternal grandparents shared a strangely ambivalent relationship.
My mum had told me stories about how her parents, Brenda and David, (an acutely ordinary working class couple) had been far from impressed when they discovered that she was dating a black man. Knowing, as I did, that that particular black man, my dad, had turned out not to be too great a husband or father, I often wondered whether they had ever altered their earlier opinion or if they had been vindicated. Perhaps mine (and my older brother’s) presence was an irritating reminder of the advice they’d bestowed and which had been ignored by their wilful, insolent daughter. Was I messy, indecisive, under-achieving proof of the validity of their Sixties Era racism?
My nan, however had never shown me any obvious hostility (except for, rightly, when I had kicked a cousin hard in the face at point-blank range) and whilst we were not close by any means (I was always dumbfounded by peers who doted on their grandparents, visiting them frequently and feeling bereft when they passed away) we did share tender moments on the too-rare occasions that we met.
Increasing age has engendered in me a new benevolence for my own mother and (perhaps?) by association, hers. And so it was that on my recent visit back to the UK from Spain, (where me and my dog have been scuba diving for the last 4 months) I felt compelled to cram a visit to my maternal nan’s house, the same one she had shared with her husband for the last forty or more years – as long as I can remember, into my already hectic schedule.
I had started to regret the decision for a visit before we arrived. I was tired from travelling and shopping all day, it would mean getting home for dinner later and most pressingly I feared it would reinforce my niggling suspicion that whilst she was (fairly) old (77) my nan wasn’t necessarily wise. During my doula training with Red Tent one of the ideas I had considered as my final project was a series of interviews with grandma’s which then for brevity was compressed to a series of visits, chats and surveys with my own nan. But I’d scrapped the idea thinking that she was too ordinary, too mainstream, too run-of-the-mill, too Establishment.
I arrived and after excited pleasantries had been exchanged I settled into their velvety sofa where my grandad answered the easy questions on TV quiz show The Chase, berating the unclear formulation of any question he answered incorrectly and smugly picking dirt from his fingernails whenever he answered right.
A lull in conversation encouraged me to think of news that I could entertain my nanna with so I told her that I had now trained as a doula, explaining that it was someone who supports women in pregnancy and childbirth. She scoffed and asked how I can support pregnant women to give birth when I’ve never had children and likened me to a ‘young’ (said in a sneering, derogatory way) health visitor who she says had come round to her house to lecture her about breastfeeding (after the birth of her 5th child!!!!)
I tried to defend my self by explaining that I will be paid to be present and as such will
not be offering unsolicited advice or arriving uninvited. She then vocalised (loudly) that because I will be getting paid she felt it was exploitative. I was losing my temper a bit by this point. Wasn’t she my nanna and me the charmed, angelic GRANDaughter who can do no wrong? Wasn’t my every utterance and deed supposed to be praised with wanton enthusiasm, my every shortcoming denied or forgiven? I patiently explained how, in hospitals and even midwifery units there is sometimes coercion by midwives, obstetricians and/or gynaecologists for a pregnant or birthing woman to have interventions she may not want or need and that some women don’t feel that they can object or decline; a doula helps to give these women a voice and agency. I was confident, assertive and succinct. I thought that ought to be the end of it. She said that women who didn’t know that they have a choice and who didn’t stand up for themselves were idiots! I started to think maybe she doesn’t really appreciate or understand the landscape of modern maternity services but must say that her palpable outrage had slightly shaken me.
I was not fully armed with an arsenal of studies, facts and figures with which to rebuke her claims and whilst her barrage didn’t make me question what I knew; natal outcomes for both mother and baby are better when care is midwife or doula-led, woman-centred and provided on the mother’s terms outside of hospitals or units, that birth is not and need not be a medical event but is (more often than not) a natural physiological process. However, it did make me realise that maybe neither do I, really appreciate or understand the landscape of modern maternity services and I CAN NOT really know until I start to navigate within my local maternity services. I can (and have) read all I want and listened to the stories of others but real knowledge comes from experience and every borough and individual working within that borough’s trust will be different and unique. It’s a strange feeling to know that if by some miracle, maternity services in Britain were transformed overnight to a provision in which women were heard and honoured I would feel both deep gratitude but maybe also sorrow for it might mean that there will be little for me to do, would not my job as a doula have become obsolete. But no, a pregnant woman can never be too adored, respected, nurtured and loved. I’m sure I would still find some way in which to contribute.
My nanna was feeling terribly generous this particular evening. Even throwing in what, in her view are times when it might actually be dangerous for a woman not to be in the care of trained medical professionals – she described how with one of her sons a vaginal examination had shown that there was no more fluid and that she should be induced which she agreed to. (So you see this coercion and lack of informed consent has a long history and isn’t just for idiots – my poor Nan may have also fallen prey). She got angry when I explained that a vaginal exam is rarely accurate in determining the quantity of amniotic fluid left. I knew I was right though because it was revealed in the rest of her recollections of my uncle’s birth that even after her induction it was still more than 18 hours before he was born so (a) the induction hadn’t been that effective and (b) having no fluid was obviously not as much of a dangerous emergency as it had been presented as.
She made it clear that she thinks doctors and nurses know way more about how to care for pregnant women than I ever could and that I would just be meddling; a chancer, a mercenary, a nosy voyeur at best and a liability at worst. I am pleased that my faith in my self as a birthkeeper is steely strong and whilst I don’t instantly have facts and statistics at my fingertips ready to reel off in the face of angry opposition to my role or presence I will stay cool, calm and collected when explaining to any midwife that a vaginal exam at this moment is not something my client desires or requires or that if you don’t much mind my client feels it best to wait for the unfolding of events before she has her waters broken or that actually this woman would prefer to walk around in the garden with her husband getting smoochy and releasing naturally-occurring oxytocin before she accepts the offer of a synthetic substitute. And as for me not having had children of my own it just means that I may be available at those crucial times when others can not be; Christmas and School Holidays.
With lots of love and a renewed passion, Rhia