My sister recently attended her first two births as a professional doula! (See her at https://www.facebook.com/DueLove?sk=wall) I am happy to say she was also MY doula when she was fifteen years old and I was giving birth the first time. AND she attended our niece’s birth when she was only twelve, I think.
It made me remember those wonderful days of beginning down the doula’s path. I was full of passion and fire. I was really jazzed about women’s power. I couldn’t wait to attend LOTS of births. I was ready to be awake all night. I was so ready, in fact, that when my second birth was imminent, I couldn’t sleep for days BEFORE the baby arrived. And that labor turned out to be two days long. Rookie mistake. 🙂
I wanted to write to my sister, and all the other beginning doulas out there, to share something I’ve learned over the years to avoid burnout but keep up my passion. I heard it first from my doula instructor Ann Fuller, but it didn’t sink in. Then I heard it from a midwifery teacher, Elizabeth Davis, but it didn’t sink in. Then I learned it from a wise doctor in Russia and she said it just differently enough that it finally sank in.
Ann Fuller said: “When you attend a birth, remember you are not the one giving birth.”
Elizabeth Davis said: “When you attend a birth, remember you are not the one giving birth.”
Still, somehow I managed to feel disappointed, as if I had failed in some way, if my clients did not have what I considered “perfect births.”
Finally, about a year into being a doula, while I was working in a Russian birth hospital, I was lucky enough to hear a Russian doctor say, “It helps me if I assume that the Universe gives every woman and every baby exactly the birth they need to learn the lessons they need to learn in this lifetime.” Wow. That shifted my thinking. She later told a group of Americans who were complaining about the Cesarean rate in the United States (in 2000 it was at 25% and we were complaining. Now it’s at 33%) that she believed that, while the rate was high and we should all do what we can do to lower the rate, she preferred to think of it a different way. She said, “What if most of the souls who need the lessons of a cesarean birth are choosing to be born in America?”
I do not use this rather “spiritual” thinking to justify unnecessary interventions in birth. I use a different part of my brain, a very rational part of my brain, when I am analyzing cultural patterns and medical statistics. When I write and talk about larger cultural patterns, I think it is appropriate and useful to access anger and outrage.
But when we are talking about an individual’s experience, I find that accessing this spiritual, zen-like, accepting mode of thinking helps me. I can focus on learning lessons from the experience, rather than kicking myself for failure. Believing that a woman’s labor went just the right way for her and her baby helps me bring a softness, an acceptance, a respect for what she actually, really experienced. I can honor what really happened instead of focusing on what “should have” happened.
And, best of all, I can work as a doula without carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. I can help women and families. I can rejoice when births go “perfectly,” but I can also rejoice when they go less than “perfectly.” I am better able to focus on the power, strength, and effort of women (and their families) and I am less likely to focus on the negative.
Please do not misunderstand me. I believe that COLLECTIVELY we must focus on improving birth in America. But not at the expense of burning out doulas, midwives, nurses, or doctors. And definitely not at the expense of blaming individual women. If women do not get the birth they truly desire, I automatically blame what surrounds them: a culture that says pain is bad in all forms except perhaps sports, a culture that turns to pharmaceutical solutions far too often (not just in labor), a culture that makes birth sound terrifying and awful, a culture that does not honor the work of women generally (or the family work of men, for that matter).
But accepting each individual birth as perfect just as it is, that is good for my soul.
Thank you for doing the work you do, doulas!
Yours, Big Sister Doula