It was my near breakdown that brought me to this moment, in this room being interviewed for a job that I had no idea would change my life.
I had been working two jobs while also trying to build a coaching business supporting families in the revolutionary way I knew that new families needed to be supported. I was alone, with my 5-year-old daughter, overwhelmed with the reality of being a sole provider, parent, friend, cleaner, cook, creative entrepreneur, and employee. There were dirty dishes all over the kitchen, clutter and toys all over our tiny living room/my office and stuffed animals were littering the floor of our shared basement bedroom. I called my mom in desperation after judging myself harshly for the mess all around. I shouted to her like a wounded animal that clearly, I was not capable of being a good mother, not capable of providing enough for us in order for me to let a little stress go. I wasn’t sure if I could pay my rent and my motivation to promote my business felt like a flame growing smaller and dimmer every day. I wailed that I never got a break, I had been my daughter's sole caregiver her whole life, and I never got any time to myself. She needed me to be grounded for her, why did I repeatedly fail miserably with that seemingly simple task? All the little stressors that had built up in me for months exploded like a volcano as I shouted and cried over the phone to my mom how horrible life was, how I didn’t have enough hours at the hospital teaching childbirth classes, my marketing job hours had been cut, I felt like I couldn’t survive, and worst of all, I shouted, my daughter didn't help me. No matter how hard I tried to encourage my child to help me clean up the toys, she didn’t.
My daughter was in the other room but had heard it all. I was angry, overwhelmed and scared, my feelings about our life at that moment were not permanent. I needed to release them so I could find a way to pick myself up and keep moving. She didn't know that. At the time, neither did I.
Not many days after that, during our bedtime routine, my sweet 5-year-old girl insisted we call an ambulance. Her heart felt funny, she felt like she couldn’t breathe. Her breaths were shaky and rushed. As she peered up at me I still remember the look in her eyes, she was scared, and so was I. After waiting in the emergency room for hours, the EKG was finally back. It turned out she was “fine.” No heart problems, not of the physical kind anyway. But that night was the first of many months of anxiety-ridden bedtimes and my search for something that could cure my baby. Our routine of brushing teeth, reading stories, and singing songs would inevitably be interrupted by her intrusive thoughts. They were so vivid, they were beyond her years, beyond anything she’d been exposed to, and always about death. My heart was breaking. I researched day and night to find ways to combat her anxiety. I knew I was stressed, but I didn’t make the connection from my stress to her fear until we sought out the help of an energy healer whom my sister found and arranged for me. This healer was able to uncover the cause of my daughter’s anxiety in a few well-posed child-friendly questions. To my complete horror, her answers revealed that she had internalized my meltdown that night and now carried the belief and worry that she was useless and unwanted.
I was the cause of my baby’s suffering. My toxic stress. My fear for our own survival. My fear that I would get sick and not be able to take care of her because I couldn’t afford health insurance. My fear that I couldn’t keep paying the rent, that I would have to move our lives, again. My meltdown had left the ground under her unstable and changed the world into a scary place. Worst of all, she felt like it was all her fault and I didn’t love her or want her.
Fast forward to this interview room. I’m on one side of the table in this dimly lit, tight room with two Parent Educators and the Supervisor of the program on the other side. Supportive people in my life like my sister had encouraged me to look for employment and a regular 9-5 so I could relieve the stress that was destroying me and my family. While I felt like a warrior retreating from her most heartfelt cause, I looked for full-time employment and started to share with my friends what I was dreaming of. A place where I could still feel like I was somehow working towards my dreams, a place that was family-friendly and understanding of single parents, and my desire to be there for my child when she needed me. Like a little miracle, my friend Joy told me about an organization she thought I’d love to work for. At first, they did not have a position I was qualified for, but months later I went back to their website and saw a job posting that gave my soul a glimmer of hope. When I read the description and looked up the curriculum that the Parent Educators used, I couldn’t believe it. It was so similar to what I was trying to create in my struggling coaching business. And it was a guaranteed paycheck, with benefits. I was thrilled to make it to the second interview. There was a benefit listed on the posting that I wanted to know more about, so in that interview, I mustered the courage to ask: “What does the benefit, “self-care” mean?” To which my future supervisor answered, “Unlimited, unaccrued, paid time off.” My eyes must have opened wider with a confused look on my face because she went on to explain, “Basically, we believe that people who work for this organization do so because they care about what they do. We know that everyone wants to do their best to serve our community and so we respect the needs of the employee to take time off when they need it, whether that is to prevent burn-out or to support your family, it doesn’t matter.” She went on to explain that the ‘unaccrued’ part meant that the benefit started right away.
I tried to hide my emotions, I tried to hide that nearly 6 years of stress was ready to start melting off my weary body with this revolutionary concept of unwavering support and trust of an employee to know when they needed to take care of themselves and the golden permission to do so. I am sure I teared up as I said my final word in that interview of just how passionate I was about providing parents support in the way that I could as a Parent Educator with their organization and how much I wanted to be a part of such an incredible place. Internally I was shouting, “Hire me! Please hire me!!”
Fast forward to today. It’s been 2 and a half years. With the help of my colleagues, I’ve made it through my daughter adjusting to a new school and town and slowly but surely kicking anxiety’s butt, and even harder events like my father getting leukemia and dying less than a year later. And of course, wading through the altered realities of a global pandemic, as we all are... While sometimes I feel like I am going crazy working from home while my daughter does school online, barely getting out of the house for nearly the past year, I am unendingly grateful for the heartfelt, revolutionary leadership and support of an organization that has changed my life. When the pandemic hit, our organization’s focus was not only on the communities we serve but equally important, the humans who are behind the service. To ensure that we could continue serving families AND that as few employee lives would be disrupted as possible, leadership decided to sell one of our office buildings and use the money to retain our workforce, no matter how diminished our caseloads might become. Each week when our team gets together via zoom for a weekly meeting, and every other week when I have reflective supervision with my supervisor, I feel supported and held, seen and heard, no matter where I am at or what I am going through. I am always guided to grow and learn while respecting my needs and allowing for the nourishment of my soul. I couldn’t have dreamt up a better place to be a part of and it is my dream to one day share these world-changing concepts and values with other organizations and schools.
Can you imagine what the world would be like if every person was held and supported to grow into the best version of themselves by their employers?
Imagine your organization embodying these values and practices:
Relationship-based: Building relationships is at the core of the organization’s operations and is the lens through which all actions are filtered.
Reflective practice: The ability to reflect on one's actions so as to engage in a process of continuous learning. (Source)
Strengths-Based Coaching: Identifying strengths and the innate knowledge of the employee and helping them build upon those strengths to reach their full potential in their work and in life.
Intent-Based Leadership: Every employee contributing to and taking responsibility for the organization’s success and how the mission is accomplished (through activities such as Continuous Quality Improvement teams and an Annual Empowerment Survey where the vision of all employees for the organization is asked for and valued).
Creative Democracy: Creative Democracy brings people together to build stronger communities by combining artistic vision, effective planning, and broad and inclusive public participation. It clears the way for many viewpoints to be heard and allows the community to build on the best ideas by imagining new solutions that are good for the whole community. When we bring people together like this, they come up with solutions that effective, durable, and build long-lasting connection.
Trauma-Informed: “Trauma-Informed Care is a strengths-based framework that is grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma…that emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety for both providers and survivors…and, that creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.” (Hopper, Bassuk & Olivet, 2010, pg. 82)
Reflective Supervision: The regular collaborative reflection between a service provider (clinical or other) and supervisor that builds on the superviser's use of her thoughts, feelings, and values within a service encounter. (source)
Restorative Practice: a paradigm in which the attention is put on relationships, constructive communication, self-regulation and repairing harm. It is a way of thinking and being focused on creating safe spaces for real conversations that deepen relationships and build stronger more connected communities. The fundamental hypothesis of restorative practice is that human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those positions of authority do things with them, rather than to or for them. (IIRP & Mark Vander Vennen)
Self-Care: An employee benefit that allows for the employee to know when they need to take time off, doing so in a responsible way to ensure program requirements are still met. Also, the ability to take longer periods of time to care for a family member, to grieve a death, or recover from an illness with absolute support to take the time each individual needs.
Can you imagine if these were the philosophies of every American organization when the COVID-19 pandemic hit?
I imagine if they were, we could have more easily focused on helping ensure the safety of vulnerable populations through job security and community support. We could have also ensured that people who felt like they might be getting sick would stay home knowing that they could trust that they would still be supported by their employer and not be penalized. Imagine if most of the collateral damage our whole planet has suffered from widespread shutdowns did not happen (small businesses lost forever, increased youth suicide and increased intimate partner violence, developing countries diving deeper into poverty with the loss of tourism and trade, decades of girls and youth education progress reversed and possibly halted for generations to come)? Imagine instead that our children were able to go to school this whole time with increased safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID like mask-wearing and hand washing, instead of being filled with anxiety and stuck at home for a whole year (and counting) wondering when the life they loved will ever return to them?
I know that my dream may sound like a Utopia. And that what I propose is only one part of a very complex puzzle. I also know that now is the perfect time to fight for systemic change that values all people’s lives and well-being.
I am grateful for my work and that I can be a supportive presence in the lives of the families I serve, who without this support, this year more than ever, would be in a very different place. And I am eager for more people to know and understand how powerful these concepts are. I see the butterfly effect it would have on every aspect of our culture and communities when implemented into our workplaces. Dream with me. The better future we seek is attainable with small courageous actions taken by people just like you. Share this article with your employer to get the conversation started. Let’s make this world a more loving, caring place by adopting values that honor the humanity of each individual, making this world a better place for all.
(Originally published by PALS Doulas in 2018 and republished by ICEA.org in 2019).
As birth doulas, our hearts are full when we can be fully present for a family when they need us, before their babies are born and for every single waking moment during their labor and birth. We work tirelessly: physically and emotionally putting every ounce of ourselves into making sure that birthing parents and their partners feel continuously supported. After all, that’s what the research says: birth outcomes improve with the continuous support of a doula. Let me say that again, “birth outcomes improve with the continuous support of “a” doula.”
I believe that most doulas know that in order for new parents to feel successful, they need to have a tribe. We talk about the importance of having a birth team. We ask them who will be there for them in the postpartum period. We help them plan and give them good resources, knowing that birthing and new parenting should not be done alone. We also remind them of good self care, both in labor and birth and after baby comes, because taking care of themselves is vital to their success. Without good self care, self compassion, and a little help from the community, new parents can easily get overwhelmed, exhausted and burnt out. The magic and joy of birth and parenting can be lost in the fog of overwhelm. And yet, we as doulas in this current paradigm of a sole doula supporting families, have a hard time walking our talk.
My own birth experience was the reason why I wanted to become a doula. I experienced an awakening with my daughter’s birth. My labor didn’t go as planned, as is the way with most labors. I had envisioned a peaceful water birth at my local birth center, with no interventions. But my water broke first, and contractions were taking their sweet time coming. My dreams of a peaceful water birth started to fade as we neared the 24 hour mark and I heard my midwife faintly suggest, “I think we should transfer to the hospital to see if we can get things moving along, but it’s up to you.” I cried. But I felt like we should go.
On the short 20 minute ride to the hospital, I accessed a part of myself I had never fully found before, a deep inner knowing and a complete trust and connection with my body. I asked my baby girl for her help, I visualized my body opening, and I surrendered. After being monitored for a while at the hospital, both the doctor and my midwife decided that my contractions were strong and we could wait and see. I continued to quietly visualize my body doing its job while my midwife’s soothing words helped me ease into contractions and my best friend, mother, and partner took turns physically supporting me. Only a couple of hours later, I wanted to get into the tub to help with the contractions. My midwife checked me first and said I was almost fully dilated!
I used all of my strength to birth my daughter into the world. And then I knew. Birth was powerful. Birth was a rite of passage. Birth was the place we could meet our deepest inner strength. I wanted to be a part of helping women to believe in their own strength, to trust their intuition, and to feel like they were supported and held in their most vulnerable and most powerful transformation.
With this passion building in me, I took birth doula training when my daughter was a little over a year old. I was pumped up to be a doula.
And then I had my first client.
It was hard for me to leave my daughter with just anyone for long periods of time and so I chose to have my elderly aunt, dearly loved by my daughter, watch her. I supported that first mama with all my strength, body, mind and soul for 18 hours before her baby was born. When I got home, not only was I exhausted, but my aunt was, too. It took me days to recover from losing sleep, which made it harder for me to be my best self for my daughter, and it quickly became clear to me:
I can’t be a doula.
I didn’t have childcare options that wouldn’t leave the caregiver and my daughter feeling burnt out, and I didn’t have the physical strength, or even the right nutrition and self-care practices in place for birth to not take everything out of me.
It’s been a long 4 year journey, and I have gone back and forth with wondering if I should finish my certification. I’ve been on a deep discovery of what it takes for me to feel physically, mentally and spiritually fit enough to withstand the power needed to tirelessly support and be responsible for being that ONE person who research has proven can improve a birthing person’s outcomes.
As doulas, how often do we feel like we can take care of ourselves while supporting parents in labor? How many of you feel like you can take a rest when you feel tired, eat when you feel hungry, meditate when you need to recharge while at a birth? I would say most likely, you don’t feel that way, because you know what the research says: Continuous support… And you feel responsible to live up to that expectation. You know its power. You want to be able to give that and you will make sacrifices to make that happen. At least that’s how I feel.
Something got stirred up in me recently when I read We Were Doulas Before They Were Doulas. The article talks about Danette Jubinville, an indigenous woman from Vancouver, Canada, who after the birth of her daughter was inspired to advocate for indigenous-specific birth care. She had a team of indigenous birth workers by her side during the birth of her daughter, which helped her feel like birth was the happiest moment in her life. In trying to start a birth workers collective and secure grant funding, she came across a road block. The government in Canada needed her birth workers to be “certified.” They required the birth workers to take DONA International Doula Training.
While she found value in taking the DONA training, she didn’t feel it was culturally appropriate and said, “One of the tensions with the DONA approach is that they have a narrowly defined scope of what a doula is. It forces you into this box of being an individualized birth worker.”
Jubinville says that Indigenous Birth Workers often work together and “during her own birth, the women took turns sleeping, eating and supporting her through a long stormy night.”
Let me repeat that: they took turns sleeping, eating, and supporting her through the night.
These thoughts have been stirring in me since I read that article. The way that she described her support team helping her celebrate her labor and her birth was absolutely beautiful, and I keep picturing what that must have looked like: several doulas working together to peacefully and compassionately support the birthing person and be a true part of a birthing team. (Read the full article to really get a picture of what this looked like!)
In our movement to make sure that there is “a doula for everyone,” have we forgotten our roots? Have we forgotten what is sustainable? If we were to take a look at every culture in the world, I bet if they don’t still have more than one woman working together to support a birthing woman before and after the baby comes, they used to. Even in colonial America, more than one woman was there to continuously support the birthing mother before, during, and after birth. Have we made a mistake to train doulas to be “individualized birth workers” if that means they find themselves sacrificing their own health and self-care?
Some doulas have tried to make this work easier by starting collectives or doula partnerships where on-call time is split. Some doulas write their own support into their contracts; for example, “I may call my back-up doula to relieve me if I have been supporting you for more than 18 hours.”
Personally, I tried to start a doula partnership, hoping it would be a model that would allow me to do the work, because I wouldn’t be on call all of the time. But I still would have been putting absolutely everything into the births I was called to for however long it took. Often I was so dedicated to continuous support that I might not have a proper meal or be able to take a break. My partnership never got off the ground. We gave up because it was hard to find clients. We had a feeling that people were uneasy with the thought of not knowing who would come to their birth.
We as doulas have trained the public so well. We have told them that knowing who will be at their birth is important, that continuous support from that one doula will help them feel supported, relaxed, and empowered. And I know this to be true.
But what if they knew there would be a team of doulas there to support them?
That there would never be a moment where their voice was not heard or they didn’t feel held? What if the doulas worked together seamlessly and knew they could meet both the birthing person’s needs and their own needs? How valuable would this work be if it was more sustainable for doulas?
Is it time to shift the way we train doulas and how we think about doula work?
Resources: Cochrane Review on continuous support during labor.
Article: We Were Doulas Before They Were Doulas
My dear friends, I owe you an update on how my first Half Marathon went. :)
It's interesting to me that my life experiences seem to happen in cycles. At this same time of year, around the same day as the Half Marathon, 6 years ago, I was starting another kind of Marathon: Labor. It was the first time I experienced with full-force, the power of the Mind-Body connection.
My visions for my birth, a peaceful and calm waterbirth at the birth center in the woods, slowly started to fade when my water broke with a gush as the first sign of labor with no contractions for several hours. I had a clock ticking with only 24 hours to give birth in the undisturbed way I had hoped for without interventions. (Due to risk of infection, most care providers want babies to be born within 24 hours of the bag of waters breaking).
After having worked hard to get my contractions going, I was excited for my daughter's birth and felt I was in hard labor before going back to the birth center with only a few hours left on the clock. And then my midwife gave me the disappointing news, I was only dilated 1 cm. I was devastated.
It was on the ride from the birth center to the hospital, my last chance for no interventions, that I finally went deep within. I stopped "doing" and fully believed. I believed that my body could give birth, I believed that I wouldn't need interventions and I visualized it all happening. I visualized softening, opening, letting go. Over, and over and over. Open, open, open. It was almost like I was in a trance.
My contractions were strong, and the doctor at the hospital decided to wait on pitocin to see how things progressed. I remember feeling relieved, I had more time. I continued to visualize. I asked my daughter for her help. I was completely immersed in the surreal and ethereal feelings of labor. I was in the present moment, in total surrender. 2 short hours later, I wanted to get in the tub for pain relief. My midwife checked me, and to her surprise, I was almost fully dilated. I began to push a few minutes later, and met my daughter not long after that.
The rush of endorphins, the sense of accomplishment, the complete and absolute love I felt for my daughter and absolute empowerment from birth was like nothing I'd ever experienced before. I immediately felt connected to a secret tribe of mothers. I gained an understanding of the quiet strength and resilience that mothers embody all around the world.
On race day, I had similar thoughts and emotions rush through my veins. This time, my daughter was waiting for me at the finish line.
Those last few miles were tough, but I knew I could do it. I believed I could do it. I went within to find my own strength and drew strength from all of the mothers (starting with the one next to me, thanks, Cindy!!) and aunties and grandmothers and sisters (and all the good men too!) around me and around the world.
I thought about all of the Mamas I was running for on Team Every Mother Counts and how far they have to walk to get to a healthcare facility when they are in labor. I ran for their safe pregnancies and their safe births. I thought of my daughter's relatives in Tanzania, her cousins and aunties, and their safety. And I just kept telling myself, "You can do it, you ARE doing it. Your body was made for this. Your muscles know what to do."
And there she was, as I came close to the finish line, my baby girl (my nearly 6 year old baby girl), and her auntie, my best friend and wise sage, Heather, and to my surprise, my brother-in-law Fantin and my mom Judy as well. It felt so good to be supported and cheered on. It felt so good to be acknowledged. There is nothing I would trade in the world for that love.
I have so much more to say about this. This is only the beginning of this story.
I'm looking forward to getting stronger, and stronger. Faster and more resilient. I look forward to joining Team Every Mother Counts again and running in more Half Marathons and one day, a Full Marathon. Kilimanjaro?? We shall see.
THANK YOU for ALL of your support! I have really, really appreciated the encouragement and kind words!
Thank you to all of you who were able to make a donation to my fundraiser for Every Mother Counts. I am only $5 away from reaching my goal of $500! If you feel called to donate to a very worthy cause, the link is still live: https://www.crowdrise.com/seattle-marathon-and-half-marathon/fundraiser/rebeccablankinship
Much, much, much Love.
Live a Little
Last evening, sitting around after dinner, I mentioned to my 5 year old daughter Nunu that we could do something fun for summer solstice, like, write a letter to the sun. She stopped what she was doing and looked up at me, her face full of curiosity and wonder and said, "write to the sun??" I said, "Yes, we can write to the sun about how we love its glow and warmth and think of all the things the sun makes possible that we are thankful for." "Okay," she said, "we can write to the sun."
A little while later she called to me, urging me to come outside, that she was ready. She had two broomsticks, one for me and one for her. She was wearing her cowgirl hat and her rubber boots. "C'mon, let's go." I put the broom between my legs, broom side behind me and she laughed, a shocked kind of laugh and shook her head, "No Mama, this way." As she directed the "horse's" "head" to be in front of me. Okay, I see what we are playing I thought. "Now what?" I said.
"Let's go!" She said. "Let's ride to the sun!"
"Oh, you thought I said "ride" to the sun?" I asked, hoping that my correction of her idea would mean that I could take the broomstick out from between my legs.
"Yeah!!" She exclaimed.
"I meant, write to the sun, like write words." I explained. "Shall we go inside and do that?"
"No, let's ride to the sun! Pleeeease."
I looked at the sun, I looked at my baby, I realized she had a romantic idea and I wanted to go there with her. But I stalled. I tried to negotiate with her as I negotiated with my inner child. I then chose to let the boring adult in me not worry about all of the neighbors in the apartment building probably watching us romp around the parking lot on brooms, and let my inner child live a little.
Of course Nunu wanted nothing but the best from me as we started to gallop around the parking lot. And so I galloped, and I galloped my best gallop.
One day, she won't be asking me to play horse. The magical years of living in and playing out her imagination will be gone. Even if she becomes an actor or artist, she may succumb to societies pressures of only letting her imagination soar at "acceptable" times. And so I reveled in the choice to feel the beauty and magic of childhood, right now, right here with her.
The Angel Who Gave Me Strength
Three years ago in May, I met an angel. She was a woman from Rwanda, and we were waiting for the same plane in Arusha, going to Nairobi. She had no idea why I was leaving Tanzania with my 5 month old baby girl and not even a carry on suitcase. She sat beside me in the boarding area at the small airport in Arusha and warmed me to her with her smile and her genuine interest in me. We sat next to each other and on the plane and I learned about her, a lawyer from Rwanda, with two small boys. Her husband was on the same plane, he was off to another country for work and she was headed home. They both worked hard and didn’t see each other very often. But somehow with each breath I felt how she was so thankful for her life, and not sorry about any of her struggles. I told her a little bit about my daughter's family and lied and said that we were just “there for a short visit.” I didn’t say that we had fled in the middle of the night, that the man I loved with all of my heart was so damaged and blind that instead of being the one person who was supposed to protect us he became the person I had to protect myself and our daughter from. I will always remember her words as she looked down at my baby with that knowing look of how incredible this little girl was and said “there must have been love there once, look at this beautiful girl.” I had not told her that we were leaving her father and may never see him again.
She stayed with me for the long 8 hour layover in Nairobi, her layover was 10 hours. She held Nunu for me sometimes, and let me walk around or go to the bathroom. At one point she asked me if I had any sisters or a mother at home. I told her that my sister and mother were waiting for me. That’s when she told me I was lucky, she had lost her three sisters and her mother in the genocide. I will never forget that. I didn’t get her contact information and can’t even remember her first name. I gave her my email address but never heard from her. I know she was my angel that day. She had been through so much and was so strong.
She was not a victim, she was a warrior.
I think about my daughter's father and feel sorry that he has been for many years, lost in victimhood. He is drowning in his own sad stories and never takes the hand outstretched towards him that truly wants to help. I think of his humanness and forgive him for his irresponsible actions. And then I thank him and myself and angels like the woman from Rwanda, my sister who helped me out of the country by calling the US Embassy to ensure our safety and my mother for buying our ticket home. I thank them all and myself because I know the value of this beautiful life and every day I thank God for all of its beauty.
One day, because of my experiences, I may be able to be that listening ear, that voice of reason, and that person who can on some level relate to a woman who has trusted when it wasn’t safe to trust and let her know that it’s not up to her to save another, that she can save herself.
Remembering the Rwandan Genocide today, thankful for all of the strong women and men dedicated to helping the world heal…