i had a lovely chat with alexia from fear free childbirth the other day all about doulas – what they do? why are they needed? how they support the papas? everything doula …you can check it out here
The post-partum period generally gets a bad rap in the press. New babies are seen as a bit of a nuisance – inconveniencing parents the world over with their refusal to sleep, their bawling and their disregard for your own timetable and neatly ordered life and ideas. Parents desperate for a return to normality invest in books telling them how to get their baby to behave, so they can go back to normal as soon as possible. But how healthy is this? Is life after a baby supposed to be normal?
This whole getting back to normal thing is something of an unhealthy obsession in our competitive and go-getting culture and there is great pressure for women to bounce back quickly and resume their former life at full speed. Even if that life was stressful, making her ill, or unsustainable. Women are expected to give birth then get back to normal pronto, slimming down as soon as they can, so they can pretend their bodies haven’t undergone this miracle, this transformation from maiden to woman, or mother to matriarch.
In 2015, our idols are not the curvy birthing goddesses we once treasured and aspired to be like in earlier centuries. In this mono-dimensional age, we worship and hold up the ideal of sexiness and womanliness as belonging only to young women pre-babies – the younger the better. Every billboard is an image of women either being slim and young, or if a mother, then being a slim, capable, strong, and multi-tasking one. It’s easy to see where the pressure comes from for women to bounce back quickly,and prove to the world that they are just as good as they ever were, often unaware of the extremely powerful new version of themselves they have become. They may feel raw and vulnerable and like they are anything but amazing, in much the way brand new butterfly, wings still wet, has absolutely no idea how beautiful it really is. The pressure for women to appear capable, multitasking, and non-damaged is made worse by the fact that women can be even more critical and judgemental of each other than the menfolk. The heat magazine culture of bitching at women’s post birth bodies rather than venerating their rite of passage and imperfect state doesn’t help.
Real strength and womanliness is often mistaken in these modern times. Women as primal, powerful, scarred and raw birthing goddesses are not the poster girls you will see on any conventional boards, and are not celebrated as the heroines they are, by the masses. Women are shamed from being raw, messy, bloody, scarred and primal. but isn’t this the very essence of a powerful, beautiful woman? Birth cracks open our shell, revealing hidden depths and vulnerablities. The ordeal women go through to have a baby transforms every woman into a goddess, whether others witness and celebrate that or not. So I think a rest is deserved, don’t you? Literally, metaphorically and on every level – we should give women a break when they go through the process of having a baby.
But all this obsession with the outer body is very shallow. Having a baby changes women and their partners in much deeper ways, fundamentally reshaping the inner and outer landscape of themselves and their life. Not honouring this and getting back to some kind of normal is to somehow miss the point entirely of welcoming a new soul into the world. It is meant to transform you. It is meant to bring chaos and throw priorities and choices into question. It is no less amazing than a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. There are no shortcuts. It’s all part of the process.
Having a baby is meant to turn everything on its head – for a while anyway. This is the very beauty of babies! It is their gift to us. To help us shake off our old life and step into a new one. It’s part of the fun. And when we try and rush women back into some kind of ‘normal’ we deny them of something really beautiful and soul transforming. Relationships take time to form. Mother and baby relationships are no different. The new dance the family must dance is one for which new steps must be learnt. It’s not like any other dance they have danced before, and it can take time for the rhythm and movements to feel co-ordinated and graceful! Gazing deeply into one another’s eyes, drinking each other in, is what makes the sleepless nights not only bearable, but absolutely worth it. The hormones of love and bonding work best when women and their babies are well rested, supported and loved from the outside. Establishing breastfeeding whilst rested can be tricky – but unsupported and without proper rest and time it can become hell, leading women to abandon it altogether. Mothers and babies need time to get it right.
Even if birth was smooth and went well, life outside the womb can be a huge shock for mothers, fathers, babies, and in fact the entire family. Everyone concerned needs time to recover and regroup and to find a new rhythm. A mother will feel physically sore for some time, she may bleed, feel weak, and delicate for a while. She deserves to be waited on hand and foot for a while – if not now, then when? What time could be more sacred than this? New mothers will feel tired, emotional and raw even when birth has gone smoothly. Babies can be very hard work in those first few days and weeks, as they learn to suckle, breathe and sleep – it takes some babies longer than others and this is something to be honoured and allowed for. Spending those precious few days and even weeks sitting around as nsked as possible, skin-to- skin are a vital part of the bonding ritual which help mother and baby recover and delight in each other. Baby’s first impressions of the world can be formed by and trans-formed by a mothers touch in those first few weeks.
If her baby’s birth was traumatic, and experienced it as an ordeal, a mother and her baby will still have all the above needs, but even more so. Her partner may also be traumatised or in shock. Now is a time for mega amounts of love, time, healing and nurturing to help all to regain their strength, confidence and feeling of autonomy. A mother will need non judgemental listeners to hear her as she processes, rages, and grieves for her baby and herself. She may need weeks, months or even years to fully come to terms with the experience. But in those first few weeks she will most certainly need extra loving arms, extra listening ears, extra time and space to heal.
Mothers are only as strong as the web that supports them. We are not meant to do the very intense task of raising babies on our own. It does take a village. In these times of fractured families who live spread out lives, women are more vulnerable and in some ways, lonelier than ever before. Thankfully we live in an era where it is culturally more acceptable for fathers to help out and be more hands-on. But in the absence of a loving partner or husband on the scene and without a tribal or community sisterhood to support us, we can feel the task of mothering to be too great, too hard, too much. It’s normal, even with the best support around us, for us to have moments such as this anyway. But for those mothers who are home-alone very soon after a baby’s birth, pushed to their limits of sleep deprivation and patience, it is no wonder so many women suffer from PND or PTSD.
So how can we support new mothers and babies? We can start by giving them a proper babymoon period and respecting their need to have time to bond with their new babies and fall in love with them as nature intended. The glue that hold them together is innate but needs time and space for it to be discovered and enjoyed. We need to pamper and fuss over mothers as much as they will allow us, and indirectly if this is more appropriate. We need to tell them how beautiful they are. How important this massive job is. How amazing their bodies are for carrying and growing a baby and for going through such a big transformation for their babies. We need to love them and nurture them, even if it is from afar while they are tended to by their very nearest and dearest. We can drop yummy foods on the doorstep or send a basket of cakes or some other foods that will keep. Do kind, thoughtful, practical things for them. Make them laugh. Offer to take on their menial jobs for a while. Be there on the end of the phone if they need us. Bring them chocolate and treats. Support in invisible, quiet ways.
This should be the priority of every support team surrounding a woman, a team that might be conventional or not, formally named as such, or not. It might be made up of her husband, and/or any other partners, doulas, sisters, friends, a mother (or mother figure), or other children she may have. Anyone who is in a position to help, should help. It doesn’t matter so much who is doing the supporting, just that some kind of team does. The team should support the woman’s own strengths, believe in her as capable and strong, and never use the support as a bargaining chip. It should be given unconditionally so as to raise her back up on her feet when she is ready, not push her down.
Women who feel truly loved, cared for, listened to and nurtured get back on their own feet soon enough. And when they do, stronger, wiser, more beautiful than before, you can be sure as heck, they’ll do the same for you in a heartbeat. Mum’s don’t need ten baby blankets or five teddies for their new baby. What they mostly need is unobtrusive support.
What greater role could there be in life than supporting one another when we can, and enabling a new mother to learn to dance with her baby, as they both go forwards, changed, irrevocably, in a new world that waited for them…. and carried on spinning in the meanwhile!
this blog is part of the #postnatalrevolution in honour of sheila kitzinger passing on to the light.
wysewomen workshops hold a very popular motherwarming workshop at different locations all around the country – the motherwarming workshop looks at different ways to keep mum, baby and family healthy in the immediate postnatal period – find local dates near you here
wysewomen are also involved in loving the mother – a week long journey for women to develop love for the mother.
yesterday whilst a wee bit poorly and cold tucked up in my bed for one reason or another i started to think about empathy….and empathy in the birth room in particular…it’s what we all want isn’t it? to have others understand how we feel, what we are going through and what we need to heal.
when the birthkeeper puts themselves in the shoes of others her universe expands, her stress levels go down, her immune system is boosted and her brain lights up in the same way as the person she’s empathising with…there is some really amazing science that goes with this involving mirror neurons and your brains inability to reason that its not actually happening – we are born and wired to have compassion – isn’t that great? it seems like it will go a long way to making our life better.
so who’s shoes? what about mum? how is she feeling? what’s going on for her? what about her fears that you know of? perhaps that fear of doctors because of the rough vaginal exam she had as a young woman during her loss…what about that hope she has for her baby being born peacefully to heal that wound….what about the feelings of deep sadness she shared with you that her partner doesn’t find her sexually attractive whilst she’s pregnant and her great joy that she is birthing and becoming a mother which she’s dreamt of solidly for around the last ten years…and all the many thoughts and feelings you know nothing of…..what happens to you as a birthkeeper when you wear her life for a minute? you understand and you allow
what about the baby? we could write a large book on what we imagine this baby is thinking and feeling whilst birthing is taking place….how is she feeling? what’s going on for her? i’m sure there’s a whole lot of wooooaaahhh…….transitioning from one realm to the next …… flooded with chemicals at one moment high and dreamy on endorphins…loved and happy and safe full of oxytocin….rushing from adrenalin…..stressed when mum stresses…..i wonder about synthetic oxytocin and how that feels…focus goes from baby to mum continually…”we don’t want the baby to get tired”…”we’ve got to think about your pelvic floor”…what does this little soul feel when its very life is put on the line….what happens to you as a birthkeeper when you wear her life for a minute? you understand and you allow for stresses and strains and sleepy babies and babies that need a little energy or rest or time and you remember just how wise babies are….you understand
what about dad? how is he feeling? what’s going on for him? what about his fears and hopes that you know of? lets face it we know he hasn’t had sex for a long time – there must be something going on for him even if he hasn’t shared it with us…..perhaps he worries he’ll be a violent father like his own….maybe he’s looking forward to fishing trips and seeing the reflections of his grandparents in this hoped for baby…..perhaps he really didn’t want another baby….he’s concerned….at a homebirth he has jobs to do…in the hospital he may feel trapped, safe, disappointed, in the right place, in the wrong place, emasculated….maybe he’s wishing the cultural pressure was off so he didn’t have to be right there for the birth – he always thought it seemed better to be with the men folk while the women did the birthing with the support of the women in their family and circle…he’s feeling pride, the need to protect and respect at the strength of this woman thats birthing their baby…what happens to you as a birthkeeper when you wear his life for a minute? ….you understand and you allow
what about the doctor? how is she feeling? whats going on for her? what about her hopes and fears? what about the fact that she’s so far travelled her whole career not understanding the risks of synthetic oxytocin and has only had it ever presented to her as safe and useful….perhaps they’ve never been in a quiet darkened room and witnessed birth as sacred and holy and blessed…maybe last week a mother or baby died….remember her years of study, her trying so hard to be like all her mentors…her status quo ….her feelings of being a lifesaver and sometimes that actually being so….she’s tired….she’s fragile…she believes babies are dangerous and women aren’t often very good at birthing….she’s a few weeks pregnant….she’s thinking of her career…she’s getting bullied by her superior….she spent last year donating her time in a war zone…..what happens to you as a birthkeeper when you wear her life for a minute? you understand and you allow and feel a lot less judgmental ….
what about the midwife? how is she feeling? whats going on for her? she has a constant stream of registration worries…she was just reading about a colleague and her case….she has a divine calling but spends her days in front of a computer screen reading machinery not women….she’s under pressure….she’s hungry and only has coca-cola crap to eat available at night on her shift – she’s putting on weight…she’s tired – she’s on nights but it was her sons school play yesterday and she didn’t want to miss it…she knows the consultant oncall is a sexist creep and is praying he’s not coming into her work space tonight….she still vehemently believes in birth – she’s desperately trying to still believe its safe and trust it….she was just called a bitch by the last woman she was caring for…she’s training for a marathon to raise money for breast cancer…she’s quite keen on doulas….what happens to you as a birthkeeper when you wear her life for a minute? you understand and you allow ….you have compassion
what about the doula? how is she feeling? whats going on for her? what about her hopes and fears? what about the teenage daughter at home that just told her last week she was pregnant…her divorce…her trust in birth and that all will be well…what about her good intention for this family to begin their life as a family together on a healthy, happy and whole note….the fact that last week someone told her a gossipy tale of midwives at the central desk bitching about doulas even though she sacrifices so much and earns so little to do this work….she’s praying….she’s suffering watching many of the obstetric practices she believes should now be defunct….she believes she has a divine purpose…she believes that gentle birth will heal mother earth one new soul at a time…..she’s broke…..she’s delighted to be there….what happens to you as a doctor or a midwife when you wear her life for a minute? you understand and you allow for her ideals, her advocacy, her lavender oil, her prayers and you no longer see her in your way….you understand
all of the above (apart from the baby of course) is based in truth, real life that has been taking place for families over the years i’ve been a birthkeeper…one thing i’ve learnt is that empathy and compassion go a long way to making my job an awful lot easier – give it a try and let me know what happens for you.
here’s two wee films that might take you a little further
RSA animate (remember them – the really clever little animated loveliness) – the empathic civilisation
TED (come on i know you all know them) a radical experiment in empathy (this one really got me thinking)
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
nicola mahdiyyah goodall is a revert muslim who grew up with hip hop based in edinburgh, scotland and london, england. she works with women trying and mainly succeeding to build circles of knowledge and community primarily with birth. she is also the director of wysewomen publishing and facilitates wysewomen workshops and red tent doula courses.