What made you become a doula?
I was an unlikely doula. I had no appreciation for birth as anything but a medical experience. My father is a retired anesthesiologist; growing up, if his chair was empty at the dinner table, it’s because he was giving an epidural. Anticipating the birth of my first child, I remember knowing I wanted an epidural, even saying, “There’s nothing natural about that kind of pain!”
Everything was going according to plan in my labor, and because of the epidural I felt the intense, but not quite painful pressure of the contractions. But then something amazing happened in second stage (pushing) – I felt myself giving birth. In my mind, I had never seen myself as anything but passive while laboring, yet with each contraction, I got behind each one and pushed my daughter further and further into the world. Between each contraction I was meditating, exquisitely focused on gathering my breath and my strength. Her birth was glorious, victorious, and I was heroic. I remember being a little sheepish as I told the birth story again and again, because it seemed to me that I was the only person on earth to have ever given birth before.
After her birth, I spent countless hours thinking up ways to get back into the delivery room. I thought about becoming a nurse, but had no interest in nursing outside of labor and delivery. Somewhere in this search, I heard the word “doula” for the first time, and I assumed that I could never be one because I didn’t see myself as an advocate for natural birth.
With my background and previous career as a mental health clinician, I began to work as a post-partum doula, finding clients who really benefited from not just my knowledge of infant care but from the intimate counseling and companionship I provided. The friend of a client asked me to be her birth doula because she “got such a good feeling” from me, and I vehemently declined. But she persisted, and serendipitously there was a birth doula workshop within a few weeks of her due date. I attended, bristling every time there was disparaging subtext about women who chose epidurals, yet I was excited finally to have a reason to be in the birth room. I knew in my heart that my doula practice would not be motivated by helping women have a natural birth, but by helping women find resources within themselves, at depths they never even imagined, in order to give birth in a way that was meaningful to them.
How does your doula work and birth activism fit into your broader political beliefs?
Before I could put the reasons why into words, I have always been keenly aware that women need autonomy. Their bodies belong to them, and no one should tell them how to care for their bodies, how to feel about their bodies – let alone feel shame over their bodies – or how to touch or be touched. Reproductive choices are dependent upon women owning their own selves, mentally and emotionally. Without that, we cannot be advocates for what we need. Early in my counselor training I had an internship at Planned Parenthood, and through my training and up to now, I’ve worked as a counselor in one of the few abortion practices in the state of Massachusetts. The politics of choice are plainly obvious when it comes to abortion, and I have always been vehemently pro-choice, as well as in favor of thorough education regarding contraception. Yet I never knew how critical choices are in childbirth and how quickly those choices are being lost.
This isn’t just about the epidural – these debates often boil down to whether or not a woman “caved” and got an epidural, or whether she was “strong” and gave birth without it. I don’t care about the epidural, really, because the woman’s strength is not in question. Ever. A birthing woman is amazing, every time, no matter how she gives birth.
But I care that women are denied options for the way they labor, for who their preferred caregivers are, and for where they give birth. It’s all packaged as wonderful, life-saving maternity care, but these measures are actually harmful to the physiological process of birth. Women are being funneled more and more into one kind of birth experience, and not enough women realize this. Not enough women know that any other type of birth is even possible.
If you could change one thing about the way women birth in the US, what would it be?
Just one thing? If it could be one thing that led to a cascade of other things…I suppose I would instill faith that all babies come out, to put it plainly. If women in the US had faith in their bodies and in their own power, they’d know that their babies would come out. If medical providers were not sued for malpractice so often, then perhaps they’d be comfortable looking at birth as an act of faith in physiology, that babies come out, and then most routine obstetrical interventions would be used only if the benefits outweigh the risks. But making someone have faith in something is impossible; faith in anything cannot be impressed upon another by another. It has to be a personal journey.
I wish I could change people’s tolerance of other people’s choices. If we work to have choices in our reproductive health, then we have to accept that some people will make choices that we are not happy with. So if it is a woman’s right to have access to a fully legal homebirth with medical back-up in case of emergency, it must also be her right to request a cesarean section if that is what she has deemed appropriate for herself. She also must have the right to terminate that pregnancy safely, should she feel that is the right action. And of course, she must have the support of an adequate social and medical network, and access to research and information so that she can make choices that are indeed appropriate for herself. Choices widen the spectrum of women’s reproductive health; if one choice is taken away, then on principle any choice can be taken away, and then it is no longer a discussion about women’s health, but rather one about power, politics, and privilege.