My doula journey
Updated: Aug 30, 2019
As I was growing up, my mother loved to tell birth stories. She really enjoyed being pregnant, and loved to tell how I was born the night of the Miss America beauty pageant. It was a party atmosphere, and the doctor sang “there she is, Miss America” as I emerged. She told how when my sister was born, my dad, a psychology student, practised hypnosis on her, and she felt the contractions but they weren’t really painful until the very end, when she turned to my dad and said “the next one is going to hurt” and my sister crowned. As a foster family, we seemed to specialise in babies, providing a home for infants awaiting adoption, so nappies and middle-of-the-night feeds were our normal. I grew up with an idea of pregnancy and childbirth as a positive, empowering thing, and I looked forward to experiencing it myself.
No woman forgets her births. Every detail is seared into our souls, the good and the bad…. Birth can be the making or breaking of a woman.
When my sister got pregnant and asked me to be on her birthing team, I took my responsibility seriously, and read book after book about labour and birth. Among my 3 sisters, I attended a homebirth, a birthing centre birth and a hospital birth. Each was an amazing experience, but very different from the others, and that began to shape my philosophy around birth, and deepened my respect for all birthing parents. When I fell pregnant myself, I was delighted to be planning a home birth, and thrilled with the support I found from my GP and community midwives, a real contrast to my sisters’ experiences in the US.
I awoke in the wee hours of the day before my due date, feeling the sheets wet and thinking “oh boy, this is it, my waters have gone!” It was a huge shock when I turned on the lights to discover it was a haemorrhage, not amniotic fluid, and I was rushed to theatre, where my daughter was born safely by caesarean under general anaesthetic. I had had what is called a “succenturiate” placenta, meaning the placenta had an extra lobe on it, which was not diagnosed. When my body started the “tuning up” contractions, this lobe separated from the wall of my womb, and the blood vessels which had attached it started bleeding heavily. We were lucky, because my daughter was still getting oxygen from the other, major lobe, but there was no way to know that the placenta would not continue to come away (and I was losing a lot of blood), so a quick birth was the safest option.
I still remember waking up in the recovery room, and my sister bringing my baby over to me. The rush of love and relief at seeing her whole and well was the most intense emotion I’ve ever had. My sister helped me to attach her to my breast, and I was as happy as I have ever been.
When I became pregnant with my son, I had what I can identify now as a trauma response. I became absolutely obsessed with learning everything I could about labour and birth. I read midwifery textbooks for fun, and devoured medical research articles. I was attempting to exert control over an experience that had been completely outside my control the first time. After reading every study ever published on VBAC (vaginal births after caesarean), I was intent on having a home birth, so when it became clear that my placenta was partially covering my cervix and that wouldn’t be a safe option, I was utterly gutted.
My son’s father couldn’t understand the depth of my feeling – I was grieving both the loss of my dream birth, but also the loss of control. I felt like my body had betrayed me, and that I was a failure. I was going back into a situation (caesarean in hospital) which had been a terrifying and potentially life-threatening experience before – it was no wonder I reacted strongly! He couldn’t understand all that, and delivered the killer line that so many mothers have heard: “it doesn’t matter, as long as the baby is healthy.” How I wish I could expunge that sentiment from the universe! It is a complete negation of the importance of a pregnant person’s very existence!
My son was born in a planned caesarean which was much calmer than my previous experience, though (as was standard practice at the time) they took him away from me as soon as he was born and left me on my own in the recovery room for a good 45 minutes before bringing him back to me. Those minutes were utter torture! But the experience on the whole was a definite improvement over the last time.
After suffering some quite difficult miscarriages, four years later I finally became pregnant again with my youngest daughter. This time I thought I knew better than to set myself up for disappointment. I realised that although this was my third child, I had never actually experienced labour, and so I knew my body would likely respond like a first-time mother’s and it could be a long slow process. I also knew that the longer I spent in hospital, the more likely it was that interventions would be pushed on me. So I resolved to labour at home as long as I could, and go into hospital in time for the birth itself. I hired a doula who was a qualified midwife, knowing that her experience would guide me well.
I was right, it was a long and slow process. I was in early (latent) labour for two days, and active labour for about 12 hours. But because I had never done it before, I wasn’t really aware – I was just doing my thing. There came a point where the surges were so strong I was having trouble keeping on top of them, and I remember thinking to myself, ok this is where real labour begins – in a couple of hours, we should head to hospital. I got into the birthing pool at that point, and felt immediate relief. What I didn’t know was that I was actually in transition. So after a handful of surges, I suddenly realised I had the urge to push! We rang the hospital, who suggested we come in, but there was no way I was getting out of that pool, so the community midwife who had done my antenatal care and who happened to be a couple of streets away, came over with all the necessary kit (none of which we needed). Shortly after, my daughter came into the world, still in the caul (my waters never broke), calm and happy. I was over the moon! In addition to my beautiful daughter, it completely redeemed my faith in my own body, and really healed the trauma of my previous births. It was probably the single most empowering experience of my life.
No woman forgets her births. Every detail is seared into our souls, the good and the bad. I have spoken with women in their 70s and 80s who still remember every detail as if it were yesterday. Birth is a great leveller. Every person on the planet was birthed by a pregnant person – rich or poor, black, white or brown, religious or atheist, we all come into the world through the hard work of pregnant bodies. Birth can be the making, and the breaking of a woman.
I knew I wanted to be a part of this everyday miracle. For years I toyed with the idea of training as a midwife, but I couldn’t see how to make it work financially or practically, with three small children depending on my time as a mum and my salary as a social scientist at a university. Nonetheless, I became the “go-to” person for pregnant friends and family. I attended a number of births as an informal doula or birth companion, and I continued to read up on the medical research. Eventually, my kids grew up and when the opportunity for early retirement arose, I grabbed it with both hands.
By that time, I knew I didn’t want to be a midwife, as I had many friends in the NHS, and I could see how the chronic underfunding and progressive tendency towards protocol-driven (not individualised, patient-based) care meant birth was becoming ever more medicalised, with midwives under such pressure that they were unable to simply be “with woman” any more. Instead, I turned my attention to doula training and found the course provided by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT). It is the only training accredited by a university, and was the most thorough that I could find. At the same time, remembering my mother’s experience, I signed up to train as a hypnobirthing instructor with KG hypnobirthing. Over the years, I expanded my training to cover postnatal support, and Spinning Babies techniques. I joined Doula UK (the de facto self-regulatory body for doulas in the UK) and became a recognised doula.
My days are now (in the words of the old Phil Ochs song) dances of delight, as I spend my time supporting pregnant people and their partners in what I know will be one of their most formative life experiences. An empowering birth is a truly radical act, that has huge implications not only for a woman’s own sense of self, but for society as a whole. Although I come from a science background and have a keen appreciation of evidence-based practice, I am coming more and more to appreciate the emotional and spiritual importance of birth experience, for the pregnant person, their partner, and their babies. My journey from science to “woo” is a topic for another day, but I can say I have never felt more professionally, emotionally, and spiritually fulfilled than I do now.