“The path isn’t a straight line; it’s a spiral. You continually come back to things you thought you understood and see deeper truths.” ~ Barry H. Gillespie
The past few months of relative gave me lots of time to think about where I’m currently coming from with my birth work. I’ve reflected often over the past four years on what birth keeping means to me personally – sorting through my own births, those I’ve attended and the many different and sometimes conflicting perspectives I’ve encountered during that time. I was recently able to attend a Flock Yeah conference hosted by the fabulous Gena Kirby, insightful Lesley Everest and the visionary Whapio Bartlett where I spent a weekend delving deep into the new paradigm of birth. I found myself surrounded by a council of women, hearing many of the secret sentiments of my heart spoken aloud with conviction, courage and a fierceness backed by a wisdom of years and experience that I have yet to receive.
It’s been three months, and my thoughts churn daily, to really sit with myself and examine where my own philosophies have evolved from and why. I feel that understanding this about myself as well as our current culture of birth needs to become my own top priority because regardless of how far I feel I’ve come, much more can and will be incorporated as I move forward. It’s important to me to enter into midwifery coming from a place of love and compassion, rather than from a place of fear and distrust.
From the doula perspective we are initiated in birth philosophy when we are taught to repeat the mantra “it’s not our birth”. We often go forth with this well meant phrase, without being given much support for addressing and working through our own triggers, fears or personal and professional experiences in the birth room. So many of us enter into birth work from a place of unresolved trauma, though we don’t always realize it. I’ve witnessed this statement used to support efforts of shame and blame in online doula support forums, as a divisive marketing strategy that capitalizes on fear of the near mythical “rogue doula” acting as “birth avenger” to gain clientele and also as a deflection of personal accountability. I’ve also heard these words be spoken in absolute compassion, honest and kind feedback in helping peers address their own judgements, as a call for respecting the client’s personal autonomy and as a part of expressing deep wisdom in regards to letting go of the outcome focused mindset.
We are then taught to recite statistics that prove our essential addition to the childbearing year, and often feel helpless, frustrated and fraudulent if/when our client’s experience happens outside of that expectation. We are subtly taught to do something to influence the outcome during births (as long as it’s within “scope”), rather than focus on facilitating relationship, continuity and an undisturbed environment in which the birthing woman and her partner can undergo their own transformation. We spend hours upon hours and thousands of dollars seeking out workshops, trainings and skill sessions so we can offer our client’s the very best.
We are generous with our time, our hearts, our presence, our physical bodies. We carry stories of wonder as powerful women take back their births, of rage when human rights are neglected or outrightly denied, of grief for the inevitable experience of loss of life or when a birth has been traumatic. We are often fiercely protective of the necessity of our role because we put so much of ourselves into embodying that change we so desperately want to see and we know how quickly and easily things can go by the wayside – physically, emotionally and politically when birth is disturbed and when women.
What if I told you, that I’m not speaking of just doulas here? What if I told you that I believe that most mainstream birth workers are experiencing this disconnect, heartache and conflict?
I believe we are all honestly striving to “fill in the gaps” as we encounter disparity and injustice within our communities. There is no shortage of literature on the importance of addressing our fragmented, reductionist and fear based perinatal culture. We all work hard to strive to be what our clients need us to be, to do right by them, to fulfill the expectations we (and others) set for their upcoming births, whether we set those expectations intentionally or not.
In reality, our role as birth workers in any sense of the word is not black and white, but filled with many convoluted shades of grey as we attempt to navigate our hearts, our ethics, our personal boundaries and the limitations we allow to be placed on us as individuals. I believe that accepting the call to be involved in birth work comes from an intrinsic desire to serve familial wellbeing within a community, while mitigating potential harms through that process. However, the paths and philosophies we are exposed to personally and professionally as we learn to walk with women/birthing persons shape what we believe to be true about the process and lend to a bias – which unfortunately for many birth workers becomes their “one unalienable truth”. The lens in which so many birth workers perceive birth through, often includes negative cultural attitudes towards women as not being capable of making “good” “responsible” or “moral” decisions. This is evident within politics surrounding reproductive health and justice and the all too common maternity care practice of allowing for “lip service” autonomy, also known as manufactured consent, in which information is presented in such a way that counsel is inherently skewed in an effort to gain compliance. Fear is a very powerful motivator for both sides of this exchange.
Unaddressed, normalized cycles of abuse add another complex layer to the current paradigm. This includes micro-aggression, verbal, emotional and physical violence towards birthing persons as well as horizontal violence experienced by professionals within and across professions. When this is how we are brought into birth work, our curiosity in the birth process, in women’s intuition, in physiology, psychology, in being creative with our support and understanding, or just sitting on our hands is lost. The “one truth” of each facet of birth workers is therefore held in a death grip, often engaged with such strong cognitive dissonance that it’s incredibly difficult for differing perspectives to come in, rattle around and inspire productive dialogue, understanding and compassion for each other’s lived experiences.
“I urge you to stand and protect the realms of birth and see it for what it truly is” ~ Whapio
I believe that we as birth workers keep much of this internal conflict secret as it may not be safe for us to really discuss what is on our hearts, without risking social and political persecution. It may seem to imply that we are speaking through one narrow lens of perspective and that in sharing our experience, we are by proxy seeking to damn, vilify or deny anyone who has experienced things differently. There is incredible political and social pressure to “choose sides” with the idea that one way of doing things is the “right” way and all others are in the wrong, a pattern that is really only conducive to maintaining the status quo and preventing collaboration for tangible change. I seems counterproductive that some advocates for humanized maternity care emplore the idea of “following the woman, not the care provider” in one breath, then are quick to want to disallow each other that exact same support in professional autonomy. I feel that it’s important to honour the unique gifts that we as doulas, midwives, physicians, nurses and traditional birth attendants bring to the table. That as we hold space for each other, and encouraging transparency in how we each individually choose to practice that collaboration will take place in service of birthing women, rather than as an affront to them.
I’m speaking in generalization, from what I’ve observed to be our cultural norm. There are certainly perspective, trainings and mentorships being offered that provide excellent support for birth workers, that help doulas/midwives/nurses/physicians approach birth with a non outcome based focus, that address horizontal and vicarious violence and provide support for navigating our respective roles with mutual respect and honouring of each other’s skills. The paternalistic paradigm itself is slowly crumbling and there is a cultural shift towards shared knowledge in mentoring a culture of women to rise above what we have been told, into our own personal ways of knowing, which I will likely write more on as I feel called to do so.
Featured Image – Wikimedia Commons – Noel Feans