The Doula’s Bridge
There was a time in history when community was ubiquitous and strong, when people’s extended family was their ‘tribe’ and when all mothers were Doulas.
Today this way of living still exists in less economically developed countries and in small pockets of the modernised world, but its imprint remaining in us is deep and I believe that at our heart there is a longing for reconnection with this sense of community among all people, whether it is conscious or not. The yearning to ‘belong’ is part of the human condition.
To ‘feel safe’ with others is a fundamental requirement for well-being. In fact, to feel at ease with people around us is the perfect human environment in which to flourish and we can see this particularly with small children, how they gravitate towards a loving person and glow in their company.
Human beings are sensitive instruments who can respond deeply to each other, and seldom is this capacity more pronounced in adulthood than for a woman than in the perinatal period, when hormones are at their height and the body and emotions are going through so much change.
Yet because of the business-like nature of modern life, this is not taken into account. A pregnant woman is blood-checked, scanned and questioned about hereditary illness in the family, but the depth of her story is not generally approached, how she feels about being pregnant, what kind of relationship she has with her partner, with her own mother and whether she has any support for when the baby arrives.
And even so, these questions are essential. In the socially fragmented world we inhabit, these factors will play a huge part in the way she manages to cope with pregnancy, birth and life as a mother, or as a mother with another baby. In many ways a pregnant woman is reliant on her friendships with other mothers or with her own female family members to find a more intimate place of discussion around this area of her life. If a new mother is lacking in these bonds with other mums she will not have the important human connection and direct experience of those around her but will instead be dependent on books and cyber networks to explore the many unfolding aspects of carrying, birthing and raising babies.
And even if she does have a range of mother friends and relations to talk to, the attitudes that are ‘passed on’ to her may be distorted by the issues or difficult experiences of those she hears. The reality is that we cannot fully imagine an experience until we experience it for ourselves, but surrounding ourselves with those whose outlook is positive will only enhance our openness to it all.
This is where the work of the Doula is so fundamental, especially for first-time mothers, as she brings passion and dedication into her experience of the perinatal phases. A woman who trains as a Doula does so out of a love for the birthing process, from seed to fruit, and this cannot help but be present in her communication with women in pregnancy.
The Doula’s ‘bridge’ begins as a point of contact in pregnancy, as a confidant, a third party, a kind and experienced listener who can help to reassure and guide women to trust themselves in their process of gestating new life and preparing to birth. Simply by being present, even on the other end of a telephone, a Doula enriches a woman’s sense of security and confidence during pregnancy.
As a pregnant woman’s world turns inward when labour arrives, the Doula acts as a ‘bridge’ between this woman’s sacred internal-space and the outer world of home, birth clinic or hospital.
She becomes a valued intermediary transiting the realms of both practical and emotional support, flexing from emotional intimacy and listening, to possibly navigating the corridors, routines and policies of an institutional setting.
She stands as a guardian of women, of couples and of birth-plans, protecting a woman’s sense of well-being and safety in labour with a priority of negotiating the most beneficial outcomes for all concerned. And when a mother births her child, it is the doula who has kept this continuity of her care and who has been there to witness and support her journey.
In our modern age of ‘being a stranger amongst strangers’, that I see as a kind of social disassociation between human beings, the prize of the Doula’s work cannot be underestimated. Bringing life into this world is a momentous event and to guard and assist those in childbirth is a job involving great empathy and compassion. It both cultivates and promotes an invaluable sense of Sisterhood among women while at the same time bringing a feeling of sacredness back to Birth.
And these aspects of the Doula’s role play an essential part in supporting maternal well-being during the perinatal period, by addressing and uplifting a woman’s state of mental health. A doula can in some way stand in for the ‘village’ or ‘tribe’ of women who supported our pregnant ancestors, and in doing so the effects of her support can ripple outwards, helping to bring health and happiness to our children, families and our communities.