Other Ways of Mothering #1
From the UK, living in London
What is your approach to Motherhood?
I cannot talk about motherhood from personal experience, yet I often find myself musing over it. I witness many women courageously traversing this unknown territory into the role of mother, and what strikes me is how beautifully individual the story of motherhood is to each Mother - Baby relationship. My belief is that this relationship is shaped by the mother's life experiences, even before conception. Once pregnant, the channels of communication between a mother and her unborn child – hormonal, sensory and intuitive – together create a fine pulse within her body. And, as the poet John O’Donohue expresses in his Blessing for a Mother To Be,
“Once it began, you were no longer your own.
A new, more courageous you, offering itself
In a new way to a presence you can sense
But you have not seen or known.”
This sense of losing her former identity and the surrender to a new, unfamiliar self can be a contractive experience for many new mothers, the mother’s energy moving inward as she processes the reality of motherhood from moment to moment. The expansion that follows is that of reconnecting with her new self, to others, to her surroundings and, importantly, to her primal wisdom. This requires self-compassion and a sense of community, to feel held as she emerges from her cocoon, changed.
I often reflect on this excerpt from Sheila Heti’s book Motherhood:
“Slowing down is important, said the dream. Repetition important. Be in the same place, differently. Change the self, not the place.”
Each mother is invited to articulate this change for herself as an individual, independent from and yet forever bonded to this emerging spirit within her child. So, whilst I believe that motherhood is instinctive, I also believe that it is a learnt experience. Above all, I approach motherhood as the most primal expression of creation and transformation, summoning exquisite care.
What was your motivation to become a doula?
I first read the word "doula" in an article in Vogue in my mid-20s when I was working in the fashion industry as a creative events producer. At the heart of the interactions that I was experiencing at that time – both at work and in my social life – was an underlying desire for humanity, community and ritual, so I was instantly captivated by the notion of walking alongside pregnant and birthing people towards the power, confidence, sacredness and deep respect that this rite of passage has always, and will always, merit.
In 2017 I began training as a doula. Several months later I was diagnosed with a rare cancer that threatened my own fertility. I immersed myself in studying and gathered invaluable insights from my experience which ultimately shaped my own approach as a birth keeper. As I navigated my path to recovery, I set the intention to awaken every cell in my body through an exploration of sensation. For the first time I felt that I was living in my body. My own healing was a fire walk and taught me about the power of my mind and body. It reinforced my commitment to understanding pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum holistically – as an emotional, social, cultural and spiritual pilgrimage. Today, as I continue to learn from the wisdom of those I support, I inspire mothers-to-be to take ownership of their birth experiences, armed with the truth that their bodies hold the blueprint for childbirth. I guide them towards preparing physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually for the birth of their baby and for the rebirth of themselves as "Mother".
Could you tell us about your diagnosis?
I was 31 years old and my husband and I were hoping to have a baby. Since I'd always had an incredibly irregular menstrual cycle my gynaecologist (who is a unique character and to whom I owe much of my healing) suggested that we monitor my cycle. As the months passed by, there was fluid building in my pelvic cavity. The source was unknown. It was when it began spreading outside of my pelvis that I first heard the suggestion of cancer. The fluid had spread across my pelvis and abdomen. The diagnostic process felt both rapid and excruciatingly slow as I flowed in and out of surgeries, scans and endless investigations. At first, the likely diagnosis was Pancreatic cancer, followed by Ovarian cancer. As I awaited my diagnosis, I immersed myself in the topic of birth as I absorbed the phenomenal wisdom of the obstetrician Michel Odent and his doula partner Liliana – their stories of new life entering the world were the perfect antidote.
It was eventually identified as Pseudomyxoma Peritonei – a rare cancer that had originated in my appendix. I was facing cytoreductive surgery (referred to as MOAS – Mother Of All Surgeries) and chemotherapy, with an overwhelming list of organs likely to be removed, devastatingly including my womb and ovaries. As I calmly reeled off this list to friends who asked about my treatment plan, my heart sank a little as I witnessed their jaws drop in horror. I was entering the unknown – facing a matrix of uncertainties surrounding this surgery, and so I chose to trust. Whilst I felt a quiet sadness as I started to grieve the loss of these physical parts of myself in preparation, many surprising emotions began to rise from this rupture, giving me tendrils of hope that I knew to nurture, a sign that this cancer was my teacher. From the outset, I believed that this unexpected visitor was in my body and spirit for a reason and so, rather than fight the cancer, I moved through it with as much determination and grace as I could summon.
What is your current status?
I have recently celebrated four years since my treatment began and four years since I have been NED (No Evidence of Disease). Each year is a milestone and is the only time I relive this experience with all of my senses – remembering the smell of the pink hospital bathroom, the unfamiliar sight of my torso with metal staples extending the full length, the sleepless nights when I would pace up and down the hospital corridors, the metallic taste in my mouth from the chemo, and the touch of my sisters brushing my hair. I have been back to that hospital since for more surgery, and I anticipate my yearly MRI scan with a little trepidation but mostly with trust that my body is healthy. I am grateful every single day that I was trying to conceive a baby at that time since this story could have ended very differently. In terms of my fertility, I am on a journey that is complex (in fact, these photographs were taken whilst I was mid-IVF, injecting hormones into my tender body multiple times a day), but I believe that life is reflective of birth and, as we ebb and flow, our contractions lead to expansions. I hope to become a mother one day, but it is indeed a fire walk – let’s see where it takes me. What I do feel is that there has been a little soul watching over me.
Could you explain to us a little bit about what the figure that a doula plays during pregnancy, birth and post-partum?
The role of a birthkeeper is not a new phenomenon. It’s a great honour each time I begin a new relationship with a woman, knowing that I am stepping into the role of female caregivers before me, creating a calm, deeply nurturing, and undisturbed space for the mother-to-be as she journeys towards motherhood. Women have gathered to hold space for women in birth from the beginning of time. Traditionally, this role was assumed by a female member of the community.
The birthkeeper's role during pregnancy, the birth and into the early days of motherhood is to surround the mother with exquisite care, comfort, and to help her to feel a sense of safety so that she may walk in her power. It is a relationship based on trust. At the foundation, the mother’s trust in the power of her own body and in herself needs to be identified and, in many cases, rebuilt. The birthkeeper provides in-depth holistic education, helping her to truly understand the physiology of birth. She encourages the mother to embody this knowledge (her mental wisdom), together with her experiential, ancestral and innate wisdom, during her pregnancy, and allow it to guide her towards becoming clear on exactly what it is that she wants for her birth.
How important is it to create a non-judgemental space for the mother-to-be?
Whilst all life passes through the womb, each one of us is an individual and thus approaches pregnancy and birth with our own set of lived experiences that precede even our own conception. The way in which we were birthed, our childhoods, the stories we heard from grandmothers, mothers and friends, our education, the media and our relationships all seep into the subconscious. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed. Navigating a system that often lacks individualised, compassionate care that places the mother at the centre during this tender time has the potential to magnify this sense of overwhelm and can leave her feeling isolated. As doulas and birthkeepers, we encourage the mother-to-be to explore her beliefs around birth, motherhood and self during her pregnancy – an invitation to become curious about her shadows, paving the way for personal expansion. In order for her to share and build trust in her birthkeeper, the environment must feel safe, warm, and inclusive.
Birth and motherhood have the potential to reveal many aspects of ourselves as women – not only our incredible feminine strength but also the parts of ourselves that are wild and messy. The mother-to-be may identify the way in which she is perpetuating old wounds, or holding onto a pain that belongs to someone in her ancestral line, or allowing the controller within her to block her from fully surrendering. But in order to acknowledge and disarm these saboteurs, the birthkeeper must disarm her own inner judge.
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
Being with a woman as she transitions into motherhood and brings forth life is a deeply spiritual and beautiful aspect of my job. Witnessing her make this fire walk whilst standing in her power is a life-enhancing experience. That look on her face once the baby is in her arms that says "I did it. My body did it" and the pride that she feels for her body, her mind and the co-creation – she and her baby working together as a team. I recently heard that the late Jeannine Parvati Baker (midwife and activist), when asked how long her labours were, would answer "nine months" which I think is a wonderful illustration of the fact that labour is a slow unfolding rather than an event that suddenly begins. It is this unfolding of birth and rebirth of the mother and father (if present) and the sacred space that surrounds it that I find so magical.
Why do you think it is that women make this association to pain during giving birth?
My belief is that we are born with the ability to manifest our highest potential, yet throughout our lives we are influenced by other people's and societies' ideas and fears, which limit our true potential. Cultural conditioning is hugely responsible for women's attitudes and beliefs towards birth and parenthood and can have a profound impact on their birth experiences and outcomes. Currently, fear is the driving force. Often, these beliefs and fears around birth have been a part of a woman's culture for several generations, and it takes exploration and deep personal work to restore her courage and to energetically clear negative beliefs. It is not my role to convince anyone that childbirth is not painful. Instead, we explore the difference between pain and suffering, and place greater emphasis on how to manage the sensations of labour so that she may find her own rhythm. On a physical level, if a labouring person's "fight or flight" nervous system is triggered and she is holding onto tension in her body, she is likely to experience greater intensity, hence the cultivation of relaxation and softening techniques during pregnancy. When a woman recognises her power as a mother and understands that she has the authority to be an active participant in her own birth (as opposed to, as my teacher Sheila Kamara Hay puts it, the "birth becoming an experience that she must be monitored through and rescued from"), she ensures that she is held in love and support to birth in sovereignty, rather than relying on interventions to rescue her from the experience.
In your journey so far, what did you find disturbing?
My own healing experience taught me that whilst allopathic medicine is life-saving when needed, connection with the wisdom of the body can uncover infinite truths and powers that are deeply personal and have the potential, when listened to, to guide us during even the most precipitous encounters. I have observed that when pregnant women and new mothers tap into their instinct and take responsibility for their experiences, they are less reliant on authority or influence from others, whether they are in or outside of the birth room. But when faced with difficult decisions, it summons a great amount of courage and also trust to advocate for oneself – to find one's voice. When I witness a woman communicate what she feels is right for her and her baby in that specific moment, in spite of coercion or pressure that she may be receiving, I am struck by overwhelming respect. In such moments I have learnt to stay aligned and grounded, and to hold space for her to birth with the full force of her wisdom.
I am also saddened by the number of mothers who feel isolated once they have crossed the threshold into the postpartum period and who struggle through these tender early weeks. Traditionally, women were not expected to raise a child without the support of family and wise women around them. So often, this time comes as a shock to new parents, and the sense of overwhelm impedes the mother's vital healing which is achieved through rest, nourishing food, loving touch, and companionship. I have recently been reading a beautiful anthology of writings about motherhood – Mother Reader by Moyra Davey – and it struck me that in modern society there is an ingrained belief that mothers give and give until they are empty. Very rarely do we hear of mothers drawing from a full well. Without support from family, friends or a doula, and the sudden drop in hormones after birth, can lead to a heavy feeling of depletion that ripples through a new mother's tender body. Furthermore, whilst some mothers assume their role as mother almost immediately, I have witnessed that for most women this is a time of transition and, as I have already discussed, there can be a sense of mourning for the former life or identity that is lost. Each mother's journey is personal to her, but I like to help new mothers feel seen and heard and, most of all, held during this time. Doulas often pose the question "Everyone wants to hold the baby but who holds the mother?" to emphasise that the mother also deserves to feel comforted and safe as she enters into this vulnerable time.
What could be done in our society to help with postpartum depression?
Sadly, postpartum mood disorders have become normalised in our culture, just as isolation, sadness and physical discomfort in the early days of motherhood are perceived as inevitable. Society is no longer set up to support new mothers to thrive. We all know the saying "it takes a village to raise a child", yet few new mothers find themselves in a community, sharing the responsibility of raising an infant and gaining the wisdom of elders. At best, a new mother has identified a few people to support her during these vulnerable early days.
However, through educating parents-to-be on the postpartum period and the significant shifts that they will be navigating after the birth – both in the early days and beyond – we can bring this conversation into the light (as opposed to it being an afterthought in the midst of overwhelm). We owe it to new mothers to discuss and explore these transitions ahead of the birth: the fact that a huge drop in hormones within the first week can lead to tears and a sense of depletion; physical changes as the womb involutes and the body excretes excess fluids; identity and relationship shifts; the paramount significance of rest, nutrition and community; newborn care for both baby and mother; tips around nursing; and discovering their inherent wisdom as they bond with their baby, among other topics. We need to identify ways in which new parents can feel supported and support themselves and so, in the absence of a "village" in the traditional sense of the word, it is essential to help them to identify their community, however small.
The postpartum period can be a devastating time to experience a severe mental illness and many new parents find it hard to access high quality information about the symptoms, causes and treatment. Courageous survivors of Postpartum Psychosis and Postnatal Depression are sharing their experiences, helping others to identify the signs as early as possible, but little is known about the causes. According to APP – a collaborative project run by women who have experienced Postpartum Psychosis, specialist health professionals and academic experts – research points to biological, probably hormonal, factors related to pregnancy and childbirth, but many other factors are likely to be involved. Whilst a woman’s support network may not prevent the on-set of a postpartum mood disorder, it can help a woman to feel held, safe and less alone.
Before covid-19, how was the pregnancy and birth situation in the UK? Was it common to have a doula?
When I first talked of becoming a doula, people would generally respond with "a what?". But the role of the doula is now much better understood and is increasingly being recognised and respected within our society. Prior to Covid-19, I was witnessing much more interest from those seeking birth and / or postnatal support. The majority of women in the UK birth within the public health system and many mothers-to-be desire greater one-to-one support which is challenging for midwives to accommodate. I recently read the heart-breaking headline "Maternity services at risk as midwives plan to quit over pandemic stress", their dissatisfaction driven not only by understaffing but by midwives feeling they cannot offer the care they were trained to provide and that women want. Furthermore, many pregnant women are now wanting to take responsibility for their births and to feel empowered and emotionally in control. They are thus looking to doulas to provide encouragement and support, but also education so as to make informed (as opposed to fear-based) decisions.
How has your work been influenced by the current situation?
My inspiring teacher Sheila Kamara-Hay reminded me that the rhythm of our lives mirrors the rhythm of birth as we ebb and flow – each contraction leading to the next expansion. As Covid-19 became more and more prominent and many around me felt fear rising within them, it helped me to realise that we were in a major global contraction. Like birth, if we allow fear to run the show and try to resist, we will feel more intensity. I quickly came to recognise that this was an opportunity to get back into my own body and to reacquaint myself with feeling (as opposed to thinking) my way through experiences. I began dancing, going for walks and vocalising my breath to free my voice chakra, journaling, etc. As I observed the heightened fear amongst pregnant women and sensed the isolation of new mothers, I gently encouraged my clients to embrace these sensation practices to move through the intensity of this contraction, back into a state of flow.
As Britain entered lockdown in March 2020, I was supporting five mothers, all of whom were due to give birth in March, April and May. Hospitals were quick to limit birthing people to just one support person, making it difficult for doulas to attend births in person. Like many people, I had to become creative about how I worked and began attending births remotely. Whilst each mother laboured at home, I would communicate with her partner via phone, WhatsApp or Zoom. I would occasionally offer suggestions when contractions slowed down, or when the mother seemed to be seeking something outside of herself. On a number of occasions I stayed awake with the labouring woman during the night – on Zoom. I would set up my own sacred space, lowering the lights, using essential oils, lighting candles, and ensuring that I was centred and relaxed. We would breathe together, and flow between action and surrender (often I mirrored her, standing and spiralling my hips, in rhythm with her own rotations). But mostly I was there to be a calming and reassuring presence and to remind her of that trust that she possessed in her body’s ability to give birth. Once in hospital, communication often became more intermittent but I would remain in contact until I knew that she has safely birthed her baby and that she was comfortable, with her baby on her breast. I soon began attending births in person again, and have loved attending many home births.
Could you tell us more about the postnatal care?
Working with mothers and their families postnatally is an intimate experience. My role as a doula is to hold the mother. I step from the outside world into her cocoon in which day and night morph and, though often light in mood, can be overshadowed by a darkness that is hard to shake and which can feel disconcerting. It is a precious but raw, tender time for the mother. She is often for the first time embracing the messiness that newborn life brings and learning to surrender to the endless flow of bodily fluids – mother’s milk, her blood, the baby’s pees, poops and sick. My care can be practical (from cooking to helping with laundry), but more importantly I am there to witness her. I listen to her tell the story of her birth – her memory of this experience that is so prominent in both her mind and in her body, however euphoric or traumatic she perceived it to be. I catch her tears and hold her in my arms. I support her basic needs and offer her opportunities to take moments for herself, to bathe or feel sunshine on her face, or simply to walk down the street for the first time as a mother. I believe food to be one of the most healing components of the postpartum period and pour love into cooking her gentle Ayurvedic meals – often she describes the sensation of eating this food as like someone giving her a hug. Sometimes she wants to feel my hands on her body, and I will massage her hips and entire body, or will hold her in a rebozo to provide comfort during the Closing the Bones ceremony – a tradition that was passed down from indigenous midwives in Mexico and South America and which is performed with sensitivity to historical context. The postpartum period is so much about embodiment. Whatever the mother requires in order to rest, heal and bond with her baby during this time is my priority.
Do you have any particular experience that you could share with us?
I am often asked how I can do this job when my own journey to motherhood is shrouded in so much unknown. Whilst I cannot share expressions of motherhood first-hand, I can express the grief that I felt for two months as I approached surgery and contemplated a life without children. It was through trying to conceive that the cancer was discovered, so I will be forever grateful for my desire to become a mother at that time. I was stoic on the outside, but inside I was heartbroken – only my husband, best friends and sisters saw the pain that it caused me. When I woke up from ten hours of surgery my doctors told me that the cancer on my womb had miraculously disappeared and so this precious part of me remained, along with one of my ovaries. Never before had I felt such a beautiful connection with my womb. Since then I have been navigating my own path to motherhood. It has not been simple but I am full of hope (the certainty that it will make sense, regardless of how it turns out). I recognise that this is my own, personal journey which enables me to love my work as a woman who supports women, rather than perceiving it as a painful reminder of that longing to be a mother.
— Photos: Carlos Gasparotto