As a relatively inexperienced doula I am still discovering the types of people I get the most out of working with. I remember Reproductive Justice activist and mother of five, Mars Lord asking me early in my career to describe my ideal client and was also tasked with this during Nicola Maddhiya Goodall’s Red Tent Doula Certification Course, the training that began my journey towards empowering women in birth, supporting new families and agitating for improvements in perinatal care.
Despite the evident importance of this question I was stumped on both occasions. Not wanting to stereotype or profile people I would start to list the attributes I THOUGHT I wanted my clients to possess; Hippy(ish), free-thinking, into yoga and Music and the Arts….a rebel? But before long the A4 sheet was sullied, filled by a scribbled portrait of a schizophrenic, conflicted personoid. I always ended up painting a confused and wretched case study. Besides, the complexity of a human can little be captured by ink on a page, the inconsistencies and contradictions in each of us are so manifold they express themselves especially well, nae perfectly, in the messy cross hairs of our three dimensional World.
But with time I have noticed a disturbing trend and it is this that has signposted me to the group that I aim to find and serve. I can scarcely remember all the times I have heard a mother moved to ferocity by her first birth experience. Whether it is the deep shock and disappointment at having had an unplanned caesarean, the indignant rage that results from having been coerced in their most vulnerable moments into an intervention that they later regretted or found to be unnecessary or simply the more mundane discovery that a birthing woman can and regularly is treated with disdain; overlooked, minimised, ignored. Or worse, seen as incidental to the proceedings; a sensitive, weepy obstacle to what could otherwise be a smooth procession through the distinct stages required to achieve the end goal of “delivery”. What I now find even more upsetting are the mothers whose initial fury has dissipated, been absorbed into their being, their very bones. The way their flippant, tight-lipped remark: “It was okay, I was just glad she came out healthy” belies real suffering. The off-handed throwaway comments, the shrugs and smiles that show they have become used to not being centred, heard and respected even in their most sacred time.
I’m human and idealistic so I can’t pretend that hearing these stories doesn’t make me angry and that like most humans, when faced with unpleasant feelings of frustration and impotence I reach for blame. I want to assign responsibility, target the perpetrators and have them atone. In the interests of full disclosure I’ll admit that my anger has sometimes meant that I momentarily lay the blame at the feet of the women. Not an entirely unreasonable instance of victim-blaming, in my opinion, I naturally question how they allowed it to happen. You were healthy, you were “low-risk”, you are educated, you had supportive birth partners, you had the disposable income to hire a professional birth attendant if you wished (Or at least could have had you prioritised it), you (probably) had a fast, secure internet connection at your disposable upon which you could research anything you need to. How did you allow yourself to be so duped, so swindled, so robbed?
But this knee-jerk reaction ignores the very real power of the medical-industrial complex and the ways in which it is wielded against specific groups, in this case women. It also erroneously implies that birth care exists in a vacuum outside of society and its constructs, structures and problems. Most importantly, it makes me feel horrid and disempowers me. Where does that view leave me as a doula and so-called ambassador for birthing people and their rights and welfare? Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the ubiquitous gender inequality, sexual harassment and rampant silencing and invisibility of women and women’s narratives somehow played NO PART in women experiencing inadequate or traumatising care in childbirth. The real reason was actually her own inability to properly protect herself from this. This doesn’t give me very many places to go with regards to preventing women from this experience in the future. Except maybe it does. As a doula I can walk alongside a woman on her birth journey and together we can practice our self-defence techniques. So when someone leers at her from a car window that she ought to have a sweep I can stick a middle finger up, sourcing articles and evidence as to why the dangers of this kind of brute, physical attempt at induction far outweigh any perceived benefits. When she is fatigued and emotional, drunk with effort and wanting to give in to the lewd advances of an epidural I can use humour and connection to help her lighten up about her temporary predicament. When a group of lads (and lad sympathisers) try to body shame her into believing that because she’s not a size zero she isn’t capable of birthing her baby naturally I can roll my eyes, smirk at them and continue to admire and worship her in all her curvaceous Feminine glory.
I want to hear fewer birth stories with surgeons, monitors and jargon at their core and more with strong-headed, resilient female protagonists. Even more I want this story to be the first volume in their Book of Motherhood and not the sequel to the tragic first tale. And so it is first time mums that I most want to support. To skip straight to autonomy and agency, – over your body, your care, your feelings and your experience – going directly to empowerment, pride and amazement at the Feminine Force that you are! That’s what I want!