Thursday, 24 April 2014

The doula as a witness

I love that I learn from every single birth I have the privilege to attend. Each family and each birth requires different things from me - different words, different actions, different energies. Part of the skill in being a doula is knowing when to use which words, actions and energies. 

At times I stand by as a quiet presence, at other times I am in constant contact. Some moms prefer silence, while others want distraction. I rub feet, hands, hips, legs, backs and shoulders, I stroke hair,  I whisper encouragement, I turn down the lights, I turn up the heat, I fill the pool, I bring cool washcloths, I hold the space, I keep everyone fed and watered - doing my best to remove any hindrances to the birthing mother. 

I do all these things, but I feel they are all secondary to my role as a witness.   Of anyone involved in the birth process this one is almost unique to doulas. Partners are present but the birth is their own birth experience too. The midwife, the nurse, the doctor - they have their own responsibilities that often involve papers, numbers and tools - they have additional concerns that I don't have to carry. I am able to be there - truly present - with all my energy and attention focused on the birthing mom. I know midwives who choose to be fully present with the birthing mother, but these are rare.

And so I often get to see the things that others don't. I witness a birthing mother glowing serenely through yet another wave; the gentle interactions between a mom and her partner; the dad's face as he marvels at what he and his partner accomplished. I witness the mother's triumph as her dreams and expectations are clothed in flesh.

I am there for the disappointments too. I witness the moment when the gynae orders a second caesarean section after a long battle for a VBAC. I am there when her wishes are disregarded and her body violated with impunity by those with greater authority than me. 

In those moments something in the depth of me rages.  I don't dispute the medical justification for their actions, but too often there is little to no acknowledgement of her desires, her struggles, her strength, her autonomy, her personhood

Something in me rebels at the idea of being complicit in a system that routinely disregards evidence-based care in favour of convenience, that favours policy over personhood.

While this system rolls on, someone has to mop up the emotional fallout after institution has done its work. While there is little I can do on my own to improve the care women get while giving birth in our birthing institutions, I can bring empathy the ability to sense, understand and share the feelings of another - because I was there.  

So to all my doula moms, thank you for the privilege of allowing me to witness your journey...

I was there when you believed you couldn't go any further but you did anyway. I was there when you felt your body would split itself apart but you kept it together. I was there when you found and accessed that primal power deep inside. I was there when you pushed past exhaustion. I was there when your hopes were shattered, when your deepest healing was won, when your darkest moments were met, and overcome. 

I saw what you did. 

Your triumph. Your power. Your vulnerability. Your pain. 

I saw it all.

And I want you to know: you are magnificent, you are fierce, you are breathtaking. 

I know because I was there, and I remember. 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Mother's Blessing - Alternative Baby Shower!

A group of women stuff their mouths and try to outdo each other's horror stories. They play some games that may or may not involve chunks of chocolate cake floating in a potty full of orange cordial and watch the mom open a mountain of gifts and pretend to be ecstatic about yet another pack of wet wipes while everyone makes comments about how the pile she already has will last her less than a week. Ha ha. 

'There must be more to it than this!'

Have you ever felt that way at a baby shower? 

So what if there was an alternative? What if we could create a space for women to come together to celebrate motherhood and to honour and encourage the mom-to-be? If that sounds like something you might like, then you will love the idea of a Mother's Blessing! 

I have had the opportunity to organize two Mother's Blessings for friends of mine and both have been very well received - even by the more conservative, less hippy-dippy ladies attending!

Usually a Mother's Blessing will be attended by a close circle of female friends and relatives. The idea is to create a safe space for the mom to share her fears and doubts, and for the women present to share their stories.  

The shape a Mother's Blessing might take:

  • General Introduction - It is helpful to introduce the idea of a Mother's Blessing so that the women have an idea of what to expect. I usually mention that many women experience having a child as more life changing than getting married and we really should honour that rite of passage. It is a joyful but challenging time. When you get married, you know who you are getting, because you chose them! But when you have a child there is much more uncertainty involved. Women spend so much time comparing and competing that it is important to set aside time to honour and encourage and let the mother know that she is not alone, that she has a circle of women around her who will support her in this transition.

  • Personal Introductions - Have each woman introduce herself and perhaps mention how she is connected to the mother if the group is large. Women can also introduce themselves as a link in a lineage of women - mine would be, 'I am Leigh, mother of Amelia and Eloise, daughter of Tracey, grand-daughter of Nancy, great-grand-daughter of Betty.' There is something special about seeing yourself as a link in a chain of women giving birth through the ages. 
As a side note: Something I find fascinating is that by the time a girl-baby has reached 20 weeks gestation she already has all her eggs! So when you are pregnant with a girl you are also carrying half the DNA of your grandchildren! So half of me was already present in Nancy's womb all those years ago... Doesn't that give you goosebumps?
  • Pampering - There are a few things you can do to make the mother feel special. Here it helps to have some inside knowledge of what the mom enjoys. It may be an Epsom salts foot bath with some pregnancy-friendly essential oils for one mom, for another it may be a hand massage or a head massage - again just make sure that the person doing these is aware of the guidelines for massaging pregnant ladies. Someone close to the mother can brush her hair for her, ready for her flower crown...
To make this flower crown on the right I used florist tape - that green stuff that is stretchy but not very sticky. Start winding around one or two flowers and every 2cm or so add another flower and keep winding and adding flowers until you reach the right size and join them in the same way as would add another flower.
  • Beads - Each woman attending brings a bead or trinket to be strung onto a necklace or bracelet for the mom to wear in labour, or just to wear for fun. Some also bring beads for the baby as well. At the most recent Mother Blessing I organized we asked each woman to bring a bead that signified something about the mom for them - and we also supplied a varied selection of beads for those who didn't have a chance to get one before the time! So, for example, a clear bead with a gold core could signify that you see the mom as transparent in her dealings with people, and that you believe she has a heart of gold. This is also good if there are ladies who can't be there - they can send a bead and a message and still be included! In the image below, a guest strung Tara's necklace on the spot so she could wear it straight away.
Tara's Flower Crown and Bead Necklace
  • Encouragement - The idea of being a mom can be very overwhelming. I think it is important to remind the mother of qualities she already possesses that will help her in her parenting journey. So, as each woman gives her bead, she can tell the mother something she has seen in her character that will help her in her parenting journey. For example, the one mother I organised a blessing for had spent some time with my children and I was always impressed at how she treated them with patience and kindness and respected their individuality - so I reminded her of a time where I had seen her do that. This idea is also relevant for subsequent Mother's Blessing (i.e. for 2nd and 3rd babies) - the women can tell the mother about things they admire about her parenting.

Further ideas:

  • Foot washing - Recently I organised a Mother's Blessing for a doula client so I washed her feet as a symbol of how I would serve her in her labour, and also on behalf of the women around her who had committed to serve and support her through this life transition.
  • Candles - Each guest can bring a candle for the mom to light while in labour, or alternatively, the host can supply candles that each guest can take home to light when they hear the mom is in labour. 
  • Henna - If there is someone in the mother's circle of friends and relatives who is handy with that kind of thing it can be really lovely to have the mother's belly decorated with henna. Each lady attending could have a henna motif done on a hand or a foot as well if there is time.
  • Belly cast - A belly cast is a lovely way to remember a pregnancy and a great way to get everyone involved. The mother may not be totally comfortable with having everyone coming into contact with her naked torso, so a bikini or smooth bra can help, or the belly cast could be done before the time and decorated at the Mother's Blessing. Click here for my belly cast tutorial.
String - Towards the end of the blessing time it is a lovely gesture of unity to have the attendees stand in a circle and each put one hand in the circle. A ball of yarn is then passed around and each woman wraps it twice around her wrist and passes it on to the next lady. The yarn is then cut and each lady can knot the yarn around her own wrist to be worn as a reminder of the pregnant mother. The string is then cut when the mother goes into labour. For those women for whom this is not something they would do, I have offered to braid the string onto a keyring or onto a zipper as a bag tag - anywhere that they will see often. 
  • Food - In this day and age I think it is not out of the bounds of good manners to ask close family and friends to bring a plate of eats to share. You could specify sweet or savoury on the invite to get a reasonable balance. 
  • Flags or quilts or stones - At a Mother's Blessing I organised recently we made a strip of bunting in the colours of the nursery (see image on the right). We then had guests write single words or short phrases in fabric marker on the individual flags so that one day when mom was having a hard time she could look up at the bunting and see what all her friends had wished for her and be encouraged. No one can be sad while looking at bunting! Sometimes guests use fabric markers to write on pre-cut quilt pieces than can then be made into a quilt or playmat for the baby. Alternatively, you could provide river stones that guests then write their words on.
  • Quotes and Poems - Each guest can read out a quote or poem about motherhood, and then write it in a blank book provided so that the mother can read them afterwards.
  • Freezer Stash - A great idea is to get some of the mother's baking pans and casserole dishes before the time and have them available for the attendees to take home. Then at some stage before or after the baby is born they can bring the mother's own dish back - full of yummy food of course! This certainly saves the mother the inconvenience of having to return baking dishes when she is trying to focus on her baby. Alternatively have attendees who are willing to provide meals write their names on a list to be contacted when the time comes. 
  • Positive Birth Stories - Moms can share their positive birth stories, or if their stories were not so positive, they can share how they overcame difficulties they experienced along the way.

Some tips if you are organizing:

  • Be sensitive - As much as a Mother's Blessing is for the mother, be sensitive to the women attending the event when planning. Not everyone wants to smooth wet plaster strips across another woman's naked breasts! But, having said that, don't underestimate how far women will go to show their love for the mom-to-be!
  • Pick and Choose - There are so many lovely things to do at a Mother's Blessing that it may be hard to choose - but things often take longer than you think so don't feel you have to include absolutely every idea. Try to choose those that the mother would appreciate most and leave some ideas for future pregnancies! 
  • Enjoy yourself too - So often event organisers are so concerned that everything must be perfect that they forget to enjoy themselves. Don't let that happen to you! There is no 'perfect' Mother's Blessing anyway, so go with the flow!
If you like the idea of a Mother's Blessing please do share this far and wide - if you hover over any of the images you will see a 'Pin It' button - feel free to use it!

For the sake of future moms, let's start an alternative baby shower revolution!!!