As I write this, I’m coming off of double-header births at which I had the privilege of witnessing two baby boys make their entrances into this world just twelve hours apart. (Hence why I haven’t written in a few days. Pulling all-nighters in your thirties requires a couple days of recuperation.) I’ve been working part-time as a doula, or professional labor support, for over three years now, and seeing a new little person enter the world and take his or her first breath never stops being miraculous. I love this job and find it uniquely fulfilling, but my second son, now a year and a half old, has never adjusted to the crazy hours, and I finally had to admit that, at this point in time, doula work does not work for my family. So as much as I love it, I’m beginning an indefinite hiatus from doula work.
The beginning of this break has me feeling reflective, looking back at the twenty-six births I’ve witnessed and played my own small role in. Personally, I feel that every job, relationship, or experience I’ve had has always prepared me for my “next step,” and there’s a part of me that is processing how this job has changed me — certainly for the better — and wondering which lessons I’ve learned will be most important as I move forward.
Right now, I think the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is how to offer unconditional support and withhold judgment, deeply believing that only my client knows the best choices for her and her baby. There’s a common misconception that doulas push unmedicated childbirth, but most certifying doula organizations specify that the doula’s role is to support the laboring mother’s vision for a positive and empowering birth, not what the doula would personally consider positive and empowering. That is often an important difference.Let’s face it – mothers in our society today are already being judged on a daily basis and from all directions. Does she really need to pay one more person to judge her? Of course not! And the fact of the matter is, no question has one answer that is going to be correct for all women, even choices that have been researched and have empirical evidence one way or the other. Choices are more complicated than that, and research-based evidence is just one, albeit an important, factor.
For example, take a laboring mother who has her water break but contractions are not starting on their own. In a hospital setting, it’s pretty typical for Pitocin to be recommended sooner than later. If Mama A is planning on getting an epidural anyways, starting Pitocin will probably not alter her birth plan much and may very well shorten her labor, which she might appreciate. If Mama B prepared for and really wants an unmedicated birth, Pitocin could be the first step in turning her birth into a more medical event than she’s comfortable with. It could make it necessary for her to receive an epidural she doesn’t want, and it could leave her with feelings of being out of control and helpless throughout her birth experience, which can lead to emotional trauma. For Mama B, the small increased risk of infection that accompanies ruptured membranes might not be worth undermining her entire birth plan. It just completely depends on the person.
Now people on either side of this debate could read this and judge the mother they disagree with, but we know little about them. What if you knew that Mama A had experienced a natural childbirth with her first child and found it traumatic? What if you knew that her sister got a serious infection at birth and took weeks to recover? Wouldn’t it make sense that she wants to minimize the risk of infection, no matter how small? It makes sense to me.
What about Mama B? What if she’s terrified at the thought of being immobile? What if her best friend received Pitocin at her birth and the baby responded poorly, making an emergency C-section necessary? Wouldn’t it make sense that she really wants to avoid Pitocin? It makes sense to me.
Working with pregnant and birthing women has ingrained this truth in me: There is no one right answer. We’re too different, and choices aren’t simply a matter of reading the right scientific study. It’s a matter of evaluating reliable information through the perspective of your personality, and your values, and your culture, and your experiences. Two women can look at the same statistics, make two different choices, and both make the right choices for their individual circumstances. Making the opposite choice in no way threatens the “rightness” or “correctness” of the other woman’s choice.
Now what if we took this standard of unconditional support and applied it to the rest of our interactions with our Sisters? I thought of this the other day while reading a hilarious post from Constance Hall. I had not previously read Constance Hall’s work, but based on a glimpse at her Facebook page, I would love to read more. However, I would like to argue that we need to be mindful of how we frame our more emotionally charged conversations. To set the stage, Constance was the victim of some really horrible slut shaming, which needs to just stop. Seriously. But in the course of her defense, she sets up a Sexy Slut vs. Frigid Virgin dynamic. Toward the end of her post, which for the most part does a great job of putting critics in their place, she writes, “So to all my little love lovers and intimacy creeps out there, keep on creeping on. You are still precious pearls and delicate Snow Flakes, you are just as if not more so loveable then your virgin mates.”
She was making her point – slut shaming is not cool – very effectively without having to resort to a different kind of shaming. Instead of setting up a dynamic that pits women against women based on how many people they’ve slept with, what if our goal was simply to support and witness our Sisters non-judgmentally, recognizing all the while that one Sister’s choice does not make our own choice more or less correct. The virgin Sister does not makes us more “slutty,” and the Sister who has slept with more people than us does not make us less desirable.
What if we “doula-ed” our Sisters through all of life’s rough spots and transitions – dating, break-ups, career changes, all of it – with the same care and attendance that we offer laboring mothers? Personally, I think that we, as women, would become pretty invincible.