The night was pitch black, not a star showing as I drove along the lonely New Mexico highway. The 17 year old girl next to me moaned quietly through the contractions that rolled over her every 5 minutes or so. In the back of my tiny little car her grandmother sat, resplendent in her velvet skirts and turquoise bracelets, a faint odor of sheep and hay drifting off her clothing. A traditional Navajo woman, she spoke no English and we communicated only in made up sign language and smiles. I was whisking my passengers to the hospital with confidence on the outside while inside I was a jellified mess of nerves and doubts. Who was I to think I could help this young lady through her birth? I had no qualifications, no training and no experience and I’d only attended one birth, my own son’s, just 18 months earlier! Little did I know that supporting that young lady and witnessing the birth of her son would be the beginning of molding me into the doula and childbirth educator.
My first birth took place in winter of 1989. I was young, with a fairly new college degree and I was still full of the things I thought I knew. I had a desire to help others, to make a difference and this unexpected opportunity had fallen into my lap. My husband and I were teaching on the Navajo Indian reservation in northern New Mexico, him at the high school and me in the special education pre-school. His students were young adults beginning to find their way in a world that, for the most part, did not understand their culture. My students were tiny and struggling, primarily victims of fetal alcohol syndrome, poor health care and poverty. We were new parents ourselves and our love affair with our son had made us acutely aware that not all children were able to start out with advantages we had been able to give our son; a cozy home, plenty of food, a good doctor and childbirth preparation classes. One day my husband came home very concerned about one of his students, Marie*. Only 17 years old, she was 7 months pregnant, had little support and zero knowledge of birth. Her family did not speak English well, there were no classes for her to take locally and on top of that they did not have a vehicle. He asked me if I could help her, after all I had taken one 6 week child birth class and I was mother now! (He has always had great confidence in me !) Marie and I began to meet after school and I endeavored to teach her all I had learned in my classes and a friend from another town, a childbirth educator, sent me an old battered 1970’s birth video to show her. When Marie went into labor that dark cold night I drove down dirt roads to her hogan and picked up her and her grandmother and we headed out on the 40 mile drive to the hospital. I had no training in counter pressure, rebozos or pain theory. I didn’t know what LOP, GBS or AROM** stood for. But I was there for her. I held her hand, told her she could do it, smiled with her grandmother as we first glimpsed the top of the baby’s head and cried with them both when Marie’s little son was born. In those moments Marie felt loved, cared for and supported and I felt great contentment combined with awe that I had been the one who helped her feel that way. Right then I was hooked.
That was the night a future doula was born. That is the night when I learned, at the most basic level, what it means to simply just be there for someone, to hold space for them, to witness their pain and their joy and to reflect their strength back to them. A fire was ignited in me that has ebbed and flowed over the years but never burned out. Sometimes I had to put my desire to help other moms on the back burner because I was busy having my own babies and nursing them. Sometimes my children’s adventures and projects made it hard for me to be available at a moment’s notice to expectant mothers. But I always had at least one hand in the birth world, always a class going or a friend to help. My daughters grew up with knitted uteruses tossed on the couch, birth movies and absolutely no doubt as to how babies come out of women. Now in my 50’s, with my children self-sufficient, (some of them have their own babies now!) I have the freedom to give my time to supporting Moms as they prepare for to walk the path of motherhood. I do have the trainings, letters behind my name and experience to fall back on and refer to. I have mentored younger new doulas and trained childbirth educators. I have attended births in hospitals, birth centers and in homes. I have worked privately and as a hospital employee. But nothing trumps the lessons I learned at that first birth so long ago. I learned that even without tricks or skills, loads of information in your head, a hundred births behind you or one, you can be an effective doula. For the most important element of what I do is to be there, be present, show a women her own strength and sometimes simply hold her hand. Tracy
* Name changed to protect her privacy ** LOP = Left Occiput Posterior, a possible pre birth positon of baby, GBS = Group B Strep, a common condition requiring moms to have antibiotic as the birth, AROM = Artificial Rupture of Membranes