In the autumn of 2011, six months after completing the initial doula training course, and with insurance and website and doula bag at the ready, I had to put my birth doula work on hold. Everything was in place for me to start working with women, and the enquiries were coming in, but something wasn't right. Something very deep, from a wordless place inside my heart was seeking expression and needed to be heard. I was beginning work in the job that suited me down to the ground, and yet I couldn't have been more unsettled, anxious and depressed. Finally, I had to become ill with shingles and still. I had to go through the sorrow, the feelings and the healing, before I could move on.
Part of doula training, ongoing professional input from doula mentors, and colleague support of each other, involves debriefing experiences and exploring our own reactions and feelings around birth. This debriefing begins in the initial doula training, with exploring our own experiences of and reactions to giving birth to our own children. This is a vitally important beginning to the doula’s career, especially as its not unusual for women to be drawn to doulaing out of a wish to help other women to have better experiences of birthing than they did. This is an area that needs close examination by the would-be doula, before she enters the birth room.
.Accompanying women during labour and birth is a job for someone who can connect and support without bringing their own emotional baggage into the labour room, and that autumn I was not 100% sure that I was able to do that. I started to feel that I had some more debriefing to do. I was drawn to rebirthing. The work of people like Binnie Dansby shows us that the fear that surrounded many of us at our own births, (due to lack of understanding of the needs of mothers and babies, and other difficult circumstances), can still be affecting us as adults. We begin our lives with a certain pattern, literally with our first breath, inspiring every feeling in that room, and carrying them forward with us in our lives, as our truth about life, and how welcome we are in the world, how safe it is to be here.
We doulas have to be clear about our feelings when it comes to situations that mirror unpleasant things that we have encountered personally. We have to be sure that we can be a strong support without letting these feelings influence us and the situation. A client's labour is a fresh story, and it belongs to her and her baby. Each incoming soul has his or her own destiny to fulfil, and what's right for one person may not be right for another. As doulas we are not there to try and achieve the birth outcome for another woman that we may have desired for ourselves and didn’t get. This would be an ultimately fruitless and actually selfish attempt to make yourself feel whole, not a valuable emotional support for a birthing mother. Some situations may even cause doulas to flash back to their own labours or births if these have been left unresolved. Doulas hold the birthing space, ensuring that adrenaline levels in everyone are at a minimum…she can’t do this if her own are escalating due to unresolved or buried memories.
Ill and at home alone that September, I dug around, following the scent of fear and unease pervading my psyche, praying for a revelation, for direction, and for some peace. I questioned the previously unacknowledged fear which had me turning down enquiries and referring potential clients away to my colleagues. I realised that I was afraid that I would contaminate the birthing room and the baby's first inspiration with the seemingly bottomless pit of fear and abandonment which I was associating with birth.
I debriefed a little during my training but it was a part of my beliefs about myself and my place in the world that I should take up as little space or time as possible. I made my descriptions to my trainer and the group as short and simple as I could. I'd always felt able to express only gratitude for having healthy babies, just like the obligation I had felt in childhood to be constantly grateful to my adoptive parents for rescuing the painful situation. I knew in my very bones that I was the cause of my birth mum's pain, and behind this lay the guilt I felt for daring to be born. Nobody ever mentioned the unresolved deep sorrow and terror I might have felt at our parting, so I didn't recognise it even though it wrapped around me like a second skin. No one mentioned the ghosts who followed me around. The sense of a woman so close to me, but invisible, without even a face or a voice. She was as close to me as my breath, but as absent as one who had died before my birth. And I never even knew her. But I grew inside her. The ghosts of the children my dear parents might have had if they could have had their own. The need to find my own people, which could never be expressed as it would underline my parents' inability to birth their own little people. Perhaps I was the ghost, the one who wasn't supposed to be here, and everyone else was real. These were the nameless feelings I didn't even know I was feeling, whilst I was so busy being happy and grateful, like the fish who doesn't know what water is.
So in my initial debrief during training, I told a happy tale of a mixture of home and hospital births, all with live and more or less healthy outcomes. I certainly glossed over the physical terror of my first son’s high forceps delivery and the aftermath for both him and myself, and how it was all mixed in with the utter shock at my father’s death, which had occurred suddenly a matter of weeks before. I mentioned my second son’s prematurity, but not the appalling way the ward sister treated me as he was rushed by ambulance to another hospital, nor the agony and fear of separation from him or the wordless storm of feelings which that re-awoke and stirred up, nor the guilt that a fall had been the cause.
There is more, but this is not the place.
In telling my birth stories, just like telling my adoption story, I was still looking after other people. Looking for ways to make the story entertaining, short, and above all, not uncomfortable for the listener. It was the same story about how everything was fine, that I'd been telling myself for years, I just didn't connect emotionally with it. The true story was fighting its way to the surface, needing to be told.
A book came into my hands. 'The secret life of the unborn child' by Thomas Verny.
I read it on a sultry September afternoon when I felt well enough to sit outside in my garden chair. The air was warm and still, and I read and dozed in the heat. Thomas Verny's book suggested that of course babies in the womb were sentient, and that as adults we would have a memory of this time somewhere in our bodies. Why wouldn't we? The same with birth...you might block it out, but somewhere in your body, your self, your cells, you carry the imprint of the feelings and circumstances of that time.
The book rested on my belly as I closed my eyes in the warmth under the trees. I didn't want to think too hard, but I knew that if I wished I could drift backwards...wombwards. Could I remember being curled inside my mother's womb? What were my impressions? My feelings?
I knew that this was a delicate, self-induced state of light hypnosis, and I made the very most of it, like a pearl-diver getting what treasure he can before the breath runs out. I went with it, I don't know how long I lay there. When I gently resurfaced, I did what I do with dreams so as not to lose them, and I replayed it all over in my mind without moving a muscle, to lay down a memory trace of it. Here are the pearls I gathered:
I'm in a slightly toxic environment, troubled and sick with the hormones of fear, and a feeling of worry and dread. Sounds are loud and unpleasant.
There is the knowledge that this is temporary. I am to be parted from my mum, for the good of us both. The uselessness of connecting with her because soon our life-lines will separate.
Birth is frightening and I feel alone and unacknowledged. I feel her fear and sorrow and pain. I crave her warmth and don't know how I will live without her.
This was a most remarkable experience and it bought me a sense of understanding, and peace. I also realised why I felt 'at home' with the sick anxiety of nicotine coursing through my veins even though it made me feel ghastly. I was finally able to let smoking go shortly after this.
It took 18 months or more to do the work of learning to connect with these feelings, express them and be held and to accept the love and compassion my loved ones feel for me. I came to realise that of course I'm meant to be here. Because here I am. Deal with it!! I saw that I had drawn caring souls around me, among them dear Lily, my birth mum who carried me and gave birth to me and gave me up for a better life to my mum Celia and dad Al who gave me the love I needed, even though it has taken me this long to learn to trust it. My daughter Lily Celia is named for them both.
My body had told me that it wasn't time to doula for other women, it was time to be my own doula, at my own rebirthing.
When I felt ready to doula again, I was sent the very scenarios that would have triggered me before, but I was able to connect deeply with the birthing mother and incoming soul, supporting their journey, in the birth room free of my story from the past. Its absolutely vital for doulas to be comfortable with and understanding of their own birth stories, before becoming involved in someone else's.
I want to thank the ladies of the Sussex doulas, who heard my birth story, and held me during the telling of it, enabling me to stop running from it and start living.
‘There is a dear Lily out there
With a Jil-shaped hole in her jigsaw
Like the hole that mine has, shaped like her.
I have her piece
And she has mine.
I keep it safe, and loved, until I can return it to her, with all my love, and my thanks, for my life.’~Jil W.M
‘Pray for us now, and at the hour of our birth’ ~T.S Eliot