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
I have a vision of a world where all people who hope to one day be parents will be given the tools needed to lay the foundation for success in early parenting.
I see a world where parents honor themselves for their journeys, love themselves completely and give their children the example of doing the work they need to do to be a healthy and thriving mother, sister, father, daughter, brother and global citizen.
I see a world where pregnancy is cherished and friends and community support a woman's metamorphosis into motherhood by rallying around her.
I see a world where every mother has access to the same quality of care and each woman's care is unique to her needs.
I see a world where new parents can celebrate the birth of their baby AND their own birth as a parent.
I see a world where the 4th Trimester, or the first 12 weeks postpartum is described as the most amazing time of parents lives.
I see a world where parents feel supported long after pregnancy and birth by their care providers, their community and their friends.
I see a world where no one is afraid to ask for help, parents commonly help each other out and communities are so strong that no one has to stay in the scary, dark place we may arrive at in difficult parenting moments.
I see a world where mothers and fathers are honored by all for the important role they play in the health of this world.
Join me in making the world a better place. Share this vision with your friends.