Recently I attended a doula meeting at Willow Books here in Toronto. The meeting was held to discuss postpartum mood disorders and Jessica Cherniak of Fourth Trimester was there to share her wisdom and stories from her thirteen-plus years as a birth and postpartum doula.
I learned a lot of valuable things at the meeting, like how peer support can make all the difference before you’re ready for group support or that most women who experience postpartum mood disorders are first diagnosed by their partners before they themselves even realize that something isn’t right.
The main thing that I came away thinking about though, was The Village. As in, “it takes a village to raise a child.” At first blush, it seems as though that classic phrase is telling us that children need many people – they need fathers and mothers, teachers and clerics, brothers and sisters, clowns and poets, aunts and uncles. This is true. The more diverse the array of positive influences in a child’s life, the more wise and tolerant and confident she will grow to be. No doubt.
After listening to what Jessica had to say, and sharing with the other doulas in the room though, I began to think about the other meaning of that phrase, that women are not meant to raise their babies in isolation, they need the village to shoulder some of the burden. Just as those babies can thrive when they are cared for and taught and played with and hugged by a variety of caring folk, so too do mothers need those folk in order to thrive. To thrive as mothers and as women.
Once upon a time, or so the story goes, we all birthed and raised our babies in a village. Communities were small, people were surrounded by other people and those people knew them and cared for them from birth to death. Life happened in closer proximity: there were no isolated places where women went to give birth, where children went to learn, where babies were taken to nurse, where people went to die. They grew up witnessing birth, in close connection to the sources of their food (whether it was grown nearby, slaughtered in the yard or expressed from a breast) and seeing life pass from bodies, both animal and human.
There is a popular book I read a couple of years ago called Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. In it, the author, Dan Gardner, talks about the fact that although we are safer than ever before – we live longer, eat more, suffer fewer physical ailments and experience less crime than any other culture in human history – we somehow seem to be more afraid than ever before. He talks about a wide variety of reasons for this that I won’t go into here (read the book, it’s a good one) but in this context I think that it’s our loss of The Village that, at least in part, exacerbates these fears. How can we expect women not to fear childbirth when most have never seen a normal birth, even on television where things are sensationalized, dramatized and usually depict a medicalized context populated by bright lights, beeping machines, sharp instruments and women on their backs being shouted at? How can we expect people not to fear death when all they know of it is loss at best and televised violence or agony at worst? How can we expect women to want to breastfeed for more than a few weeks or months when they have never seen it done in a public setting and have been taught to know their own breasts as sexual objects first and foremost by falsified pictures of people thousands of miles away? How can women cope with being mothers to newborns when their partners are far away day in and day out earning money for them to survive, their parents and siblings live hours away and everyone else has been told not to talk about the sadness, the anxiety, the pain and the downright difficulty of postpartum life? We can’t. We are social beings. We need each other. In joy and sadness, in ecstasy and pain, in peace and chaos, in every part of life we need each other to feel normal, to know that we are safe, to see the way through the darkness to the light of our own abilities.
We may not be able to go back to the village. We need the jobs in distant buildings that our partners work so hard at to be able to afford our modern lives, we can’t ask our families and friends to relocate to our postal code for six months or a year while we learn how to care for our babies and ourselves as mothers, and the stigma of postpartum hardship will take time to erode and may never be completely destroyed. We can, however, consider The Village when we make our plans. We spend the nine and a half months of pregnancy shopping and planning for our little ones’ entries into this modern world, talking about what to name him or her, what sort of diapers to use and figuring out how to pay for the shiniest stroller; I don’t wish to suggest that those things aren’t important. They are, but I believe that we need to take a little of that time and energy and put it towards ourselves. To plan for ourselves as people, not just pregnant bodies and parents-to-be. As mothers and fathers, as women and men. What do I need to feel good about myself as a person and a parent? Who can I turn to to give me strength when I feel uncertain of my abilities? Who will support me and help me to trust in my body when I need to the most? How can I shut out the negative, fear-mongering voices and only allow in those that carry knowledge and hope and light? These questions must be asked if we are to be the best parents and people we can be; the strong, confident and capable individuals that are inside of us, ready to be.
This is where it becomes a doula thing. If you don’t have those supports, if your village is a little thin, you can do yourself, your partner and your baby a favour and hire a doula to support you prenatally, during childbirth and/or postpartum, wherever you need the extra care.
Remember, you don’t have to do it by yourself and more than that, you shouldn’t do it by yourself. We weren’t made for that. Jessica said something that really stuck with me at that meeting – she said that some women feel they need to do it “all on their own” so that they can be a role model to their baby, to show their child that they can be strong and independent and self-sufficient, but really would you want your baby to make herself sick doing for others and never asking for the help that she needs and deserves? Be as good to yourself as you would want your babies to be to themselves. Find your village. If you aren’t afraid to reach out, you might just find that you wind up less afraid of everything else in the bargain.
Note: This post was recently republished in the doulaC.A.R.E. newsletter – check it, and the rest of the newsletter out here.
Related: (new, as of Jan. 25, 2014) Ayurvedic Postpartum