Rambling Road Family Wellness and Chiropractic specializes in chiropractic wellness care for all age groups and continued support as patients journey to optimal health and wellness.

Rambling Road Family Wellness and Chiropractic specializes in chiropractic wellness care for all age groups and continued support as patients journey to optimal health and wellness.

Doula as Sacred Witness

** This is an excerpt from a piece that I wrote for Squat Birth Journal. You can read the full article in their Summer 2013 issue, which is available for purchase or free digital download here. **

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.

Image via naturalparentingadvice.com

Image via naturalparentingadvice.com

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.

And these repeated exposures to distress leave a lasting imprint on a doula.

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.

HallucinateBut 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.

These are the moments that seep into the pores of my soul; that create, reshape, and mold who I am. As a woman, as a birth worker, and ultimately, as an activist.

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. **

This entry was posted in Activism, Birth, Birth trauma, Doula by Kathi Valeii. Bookmark the permalink.

5 thoughts on “Doula as Sacred Witness

  1. I hear you, I feel you, I’ve also been there, and will be in the future. It’s a painful part of being a ‘independent’ birth worker. I so feel with you in the part where you tell about the experiences weaving into your own system and life. How much can a person take ? Especially because we are in between, we don’t belong to the hospital staff. We know the other side, what’s needed and the other possibilities. For me it helps when -after a birth- I let go of everything I have a opinion, or a (negative) feeling about. I remind myself that things happen for a reason, although that isn’t always as soothing as I want it to be.

  2. actually I don’t think it only the independent birth workers, it is also the nurses who believe in the same values as you do about birth that feel this pain over and over each time there is a strongly managed birth over which the parents have very little control. The saddest part is probably that some parents wont be advocates for themselves or their babies because they really don’t know what to expect and just believe everything their caregiver is doing as gospel truth and than things go wrong….

  3. Hospitals do not seem to like doulas because you are doing the job that we used to do before we stopped supporting the human rights of women. They see you as a reminder of happy days when litigation was never heard of. Now we have to get that baby out alive whatever it takes or the family will sue us and we simply cannot afford for that to happen, not any more. We need to take a step back and re think our attutude as the women abused are beginning to speak up. There must be another way. Please do not give up coming to the hospital to support your women, without you as a witness it could get a lot worse. When women learn how to birth as nature intended then the medics will take a step back and hopefully let us get on with it. Teach your women how to labour pain free, use relaxation and staying upright as taught in my blog. Help us to fight the last fight.

    • I agree Ann that doulas need to keep coming back but we not only can be sued for the baby not coming out alive, but we can also be sued for the possible lack of quality of a baby’s life. We need to be just as vigilant to prevent complications from happening because we might be rushing birth for any reason

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