I go round and round about my ability to continue serving women who choose to birth in hospital. The emotional drain that an institutional birth has on me is intense. When I bring it up to other doulas some nod, but often it isn’t widely acknowledged or discussed. There seems to be a pretty big fear of disclosing this “weakness” to colleagues. A conception that admitting residual trauma will make a birth worker inept; incapable of attending a mom adequately if she carries her own baggage.
Years of witnessing the spectrum of birth has caused me to become hyper-sensitive to certain things. Deviations from the physiological process make me tense. I am especially internally reactive to post-birth interruptions and newborn routines. I noticed recently as I watched a video clip of a newborn about to endure deep suctioning, that the sight of the tube and the frantic newborn caused me to physically recoil; I began to actually turn away from the screen. My heart raced as I looked at the naked baby lying alone on a hard surface, cushioned only by the white receiving blanket under him. His fists balled up, curled-in legs kicked as though running in slow, uncoordinated motion – reminiscent of the way I run while trying to escape the recurring monster in my dreams. His head turned to the side, mouth open, desperately searching in vain for his lifeline, his only source of security.
We have, as a culture, been trained to believe that this, like most other routine birth interruptions, is a normal part of entrance into the world. That this baby is receiving the best care possible. That, in the end, he and mom are “healthy” and that’s all that matters. But in reality, the image I’ve described is of a human being in severe distress.
The process of unpacking a hospital birth is an event. One that plays out in the hours and days following, and ultimately weaves itself into the fabric of my life. Even in the births where there is not overt trauma, the subtle disempowerment routinely doled out to women is burdensome.
Like the doctor who shows up fifteen hours into a woman’s triumphant labor, in time for the last twenty minutes of pushing and offers a pudendal block so that the woman will stop carrying on. Or the midwife who clamps the cord immediately, without warning, and then, when mom calls her out, stops and sets the scissors down – as if waiting for the pulsing to end, as if pretending the clamps aren’t already snapped in place, as if her sudden passiveness will undo the premature squelch. I can’t be certain that I kept my snort inaudible when mom called her out on that, too.
But then there are the moments of serious trauma. The ones I walk away from with my head in a whirl, the experience like a hallucination. The times where a woman yells for her care provider to stop doing a vaginal exam, to no avail. Or worst of all, the woman physically forced onto her back and held there, while she thrashes and squirms, a victim about to succumb to some sort of medieval torture.
These moments are ever present. Not always transparent, not always at the surface; but there. There for me to tap into when I want or need to; there for me to contend with when they flash to mind inconveniently.
I pretty routinely watch a bizarre unfolding of events in the moments following birth. Even in the moments following an abusive birth. I chalk it up to the rush of oxytocin and resultant displaced affection. Whatever the impetus, women and their partners laud their care provider with accolades – praise her for her “help.” They stroke her ego, slap on another lacquered layer to her White Horse trophy, as she smiles, puffs up her chest and gives her pat response of, “Oh, honey, you did it.”
When they turn to me and offer up the same form of indebtedness, I am glued as an accomplice to the perpetrator. My service, though much different from the care provider’s, is now lumped into the same form of “rescue.” My goal of empowered support has been reduced, contorted, muddied.
At what point does a doula cross the line from being a sacred witness to being an enabler – an accomplice even – in The System? Does my ability to connect with and provide consolation with the Inner Feminine across time and space surpass a need for immediate justice for a woman being violated? What messages are we, as birth workers, sending to care providers when we continue to support the women in their abusive care? How can we advocate for respectful, dignified birth while we simultaneously participate in the present System, fraught with and fueled by opposing forces?
** I’ve been wrestling with these questions for some time. I’ve recently found peace with the answers that are right for me. You can find my thoughts on that resolution, here. **