Holly Barhamand is a mother, doula and childbirth educator in Chicago and is also one of my real life, everyday heroines. Holly was one of the doulas at my labor with my second baby and has since become a wonderful mentor and friend.
Whenever I need to work something out about teaching childbirth classes or have a complicated labor to get pointers on, she is eager to listen and help – and always seems to have the right thing to say.
This week Holly gave birth! Oh and did I mention that she is a fantastic writer? I love a good birth story and am delighted to pass this one on.
Congratulations on welcoming your newest baby, Franklin Darius, into the world, Holly! And thank you for sharing your incredible story. Much love and light to you.
When we are pregnant, most women “know” on some more or less abstract level that this will eventually end with a birth. Chances are good that around 30 weeks or so, the thought that you will actually have to go through this birth yourself and that you will have to open and push this baby out of your body becomes clear in a much less abstract way. This is when many expectant parents begin to more seriously prepare and gather their resources and support people around them, including making a plan for how they would like birth to go, who will be there and what their roles will be.
In my first pregnancy, this part of my preparation included taking a Birthing From Within class, chatting with my midwives about when they would be there and asking my best friend if she would come as well. I never considered hiring a doula because, in addition to my partner and my best friend, I had not one or two, but three midwives. I figured I’d be set for support. I learned through first hand experience why, even with five loving, supportive people in the room, that a doula to offer continuous labor support might have been a good idea.
A doula is someone who is knowledgeable about normal birth and familiar with possible medical interventions in a way that most family and friends are not. She gets to know you and your desires before birth so that she can better help you when you are in the thick of it. In labor she can be a buffer or bridge depending on the need. She can translate from “obstetric” language to everyday language in the event that parents misinterpret doctors, nurses or midwives.
On the day of your baby’s birth your doula is someone who will remain with you continuously and whose role is unique. She is someone who will not be having a baby that day (or grandchild, niece or nephew). She won’t be watching a loved one in pain and isn’t likely to be overwhelmed by the resulting combination of high running emotions and exhaustion common for laboring parents. She is someone who will be on-call for you, get to know you, who will accompany you through the whole process and who will not be attending dozens of other births that week or that month.
Even if your midwife or doctor can be on call for you, your doula will be there to attend to your emotional and spiritual well being in a way that your midwife or doctor simply will not.
The beauty of continuous labor support from a doula is that it can look however a laboring mother needs it to look. For one woman this might mean a constant companion there to hold her hand and speak words of encouragement and reassurance through each contraction, then wipe the sweat from her brow, and stroke her hair in between… and for another it might mean a trusted presence knitting in the next room, holding the space, listening and keeping watch, at the ready if needed, but out of sight and earshot in order for this woman to have the privacy she needs to birth in her own body. Both are forms of continuous support. For many mothers, the support they instinctively want and need shifts through the course of labor depending on where they are and what else is happening around them and, ultimately, may include a combination of a little bit of both of these ends of the spectrum.
For yet another woman, the term continuous labor support could mean having a person there solely for the purpose of backing up her husband or partner – offering reassurance, water, and suggestions to her partner as he or she stays physically and emotionally in contact with the mother. Sometimes a team approach works best and a partner can remain in front of a laboring mother maintaining eye contact, while a doula provides massage and counter pressure on her back or hips from behind her. It’s the mother’s facial expressions, body language or directly spoken requests that tell her doula what support she needs in any given moment.
On the day your baby is born, your doula will most likely be the one and only person in the room in that in between space who can understand what is happening from multiple perspectives. She will work to get to know you to get a sense of who you are emotionally and spiritually as well as what fears and hopes you have for your labor, birth and postpartum period.
A doula is also familiar with terms of midwifery and obstetrics. She knows her way around a labor and delivery room and can be trusted to explain medical terms or proposed procedures. Yet she isn’t a part of the medical staff and influenced by the powerful force of a hospital’s or particular practice’s work routines and day-to-day rhythms and expectations for birth. Most importantly, she is someone who is comfortable with and knows birth and knows the value and benefits of the unique kind of continuous labor support she offers.
Midwives and doctors must focus on fetal and maternal health and safety and may not be able or inclined to consistently attend to a mother’s emotional needs – especially if she wants more support early on before “active labor” has begun.
Friends who offer loving support but are unfamiliar with or at all wary of birth, can miss how important it is that support begin early in labor and be continuous. They can also be unprepared to help parents make difficult decisions along the way – during active labor and pushing as well as in the immediate postpartum period.
And partners who remain present throughout with no one else to back them up can get exhausted or emotionally overwhelmed.
Each of these possibilities were in fact realities in my first labor and birth. It seemed fitting then, that at my second birth, in addition to loving family and friends, I had not one, but two doulas (and just one midwife). My doulas offered me what I now understand was the invaluable benefit of continuous labor support.
I have been a reader of the extremely popular dooce.com since I was pregnant for the first time six years ago. A coworker suggested the site to me during my first trimester because of my ever-so-regular complaining and sharing of entirely too much information. She thought I would like the blog not just because the author, Heather B. Armstrong, was also pregnant for the first time, about 3 months ahead of me, but because she had a delightfully candid and deeply funny take on the joys of pregnancy. And I do use “joys” loosely.
While I approached so many aspects of birth and first time parenthood very differently than dooce (I had a home birth, she had a hospital birth. I used Pantley, she used Ferber…), I never let that stop me from reading. So much of what she was going through in pregnancy and postpartum reflected my own reality – and as it turned out, that of thousands of other women. In fact, speaking of tmi, when I was working full time and away from my baby during the day, I reserved my breastmilk pumping time for reading dooce. Her touching stories of her own postpartum struggles – and plentiful, gorgeous pictures of her baby girl – increased my let down!
I checked in on her daily and was grateful for her willingness to share her life with millions of strangers. When she was hospitalized with Postpartum Depression I remember telling a good friend how shaken I was because I saw so much of myself in her writing.
Fast forward several years, I had a second child, was working on becoming a doula and birth mentor, and was still reading dooce as she got pregnant again, suffered a miscarriage, and then happily carried her next pregnancy to term.
In her first labor story five years earlier, she’d had several “standard” medical interventions beginning with Pitocin to augment her labor, an eventual epidural and an episiotomy as her baby was crowning. I wondered and looked forward to seeing how her story would unfold the second time around.
So when she finally wrote it- in three installments – I was absolutely delighted that attending another mama’s birth, hiring a doula and reading Birthing From Within were part of her story! It was dooce at her best: hysterically funny, heartfelt, grounded – and open to an amazing transformation. Labor and birth stories can have so much power and I am thrilled that I can share this one with you:
I spent quite a bit of time attending birth last week – spanning 3 days at home and at hospital. And I learned a lot. Here are some gems I collected for myself as a doula, in no particular order:
* It is important to take care of myself: take breaks, rest, drink water, eat and pee – definitely pee! Even if the mama is laboring at home in the only bathroom and I have to have to kick the dad out for a minute to do it.
* Remember to remind mamas to pee too! And remind dads to remind mamas.
* After labor goes into day 2, resist the urge to say “It’s normal” until I ask myself if I really know.
* Look for large puddles and wet washcloths before sitting down on the edge of the tub to give support
* Bring a spare set of lightweight pants (or keep wearing lightweight ones to begin with) in case of forgetting the gem above.
* Keep cultivating connections with other birth professionals. It is great to already have met the other folks attending ahead of time!
* Love and appreciate my mentors, backup and childcare providers.
* Keep absolutely loving mamas and dads – helping them stay present moment by moment – knowing that when they are lost in laborland: they rock, they are doing their best and they are capable of more than they or I realize.