Most people I meet have never heard of a doula, the people who have often don’t know that some doulas, like myself only work postnatally. I did a full doula preparation course and I was excited to work with pregnant and birthing women but I didn’t see how being at a birth was going to sit with my family; I don’t have much support locally and my son is too young to be left alone. This discussion came up during the last day of my preparation course and that is when I realised that I could be a doula but that I could focus solely on postnatal work. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed learning about the physiology of birth and the challenges that women face antenatally too, it is important to know these things when you are supporting new mums, but I was so happy to have found my niche. I love postnatal care of new mums and this has always been the forgotten and undervalued side of maternity work. This was my opportunity to work with and support women in a way that really resonated with me. I have always felt that in times of transition, birth, death etc, people are held for the shortest of time, a few days, maybe a couple of weeks and then people disappear and you are left to “get on with it.” This is never done with any negative intent, simply that everybody has their own life to live and work to do, but this does not comfort the new mamma. During the first 2 weeks, the new mum can be overwhelmed with visitors and well wishers but when they go, she is often on her own and unsure of herself. The more I thought about this, the more I realised that postnatal support was where I was going to place myself in the birth world, so I became the 4th trimester doula.
In conversations with women, I heard so many of them say how they wish they had had more support postnatally. “I felt so isolated” they said, “so tired and anxious.” “I just wanted someone to talk to…” The more I talked, the more I understood the importance of support for new mums and how much it is lacking in our culture. Online, search engines showed articles about getting your pre-pregnancy body back, and getting back to “normal.” But, I asked myself, what is normal? Surely after having a baby, there is only a new normal… In one brilliant conversation I had online, a woman shared her experience of her 4th trimester, and told me what she had wished for… “I wish that I had someone to reassure me that the lack of bond with my new baby, was normal and that it would come. That it is normal to bleed for weeks. That it is normal for babies to cry in the evenings and that it does not mean that you are a rubbish mum. That you can ignore people’s advice. That someone who puts a straw in your glass so that you can have a drink will make a huge difference. That someone who changes your sheets and lets you have a shower will make you feel human. That babies love being carried, all. the. time. And that I am not a failure and I will be ok.” I was moved to tears by her honesty and vulnerability.
The emotional and physiological changes that a woman goes through when she has a baby are immense and she needs support to navigate her new world. Sure, the midwife comes for a couple of weeks and you have a 6 week check up with your GP, but often, this really isn’t enough. Midwives don’t have time to talk with you about your milk stained bed sheets and your less than fragrant armpits. And in the few minutes that you get with your GP, who you may never have met before, are you going to tell her how you really feel when (if) she asks? A survey cited in the National Maternity Review of 2016 shows the reality of the 6 week check; “The survey, which polled over 4,000 women, revealed that 26% of women felt their check was rushed; with a fifth of check-ups (19.4%) lasting less than five minutes… 29% of women said their GP did not ask them about any emotional or mental health issues. And 22% of women admitted they were not truthful during the appointment but put a brave face on to hide how they really felt.” So, 1 in 4 women in this survey, 1000 women, felt rushed and unable to express their reality. None of these figures bodes well for maternal health well-being.
I met my last client over tea and cake, like all good meetings, when she was around 8 months pregnant and we clicked straight away. We kept in touch until her baby was born; she had her parents support for the first 10 days or so but their stay came to an end and they had to go home (they live abroad) so my first visit was arranged. I was a little bit nervous, I always am when I start a new job but I knew we were going to get along so off I went, eager to hear her story. I knocked the door and a very tired looking new mamma in her underwear, answered the door. All good, I thought. If she had answered the door fully dressed with perfect hair and make-up I would have been more surprised. “Hi, how are you doing?” I asked… and so it began. My first visit lasted 4 and a half hours. We sat, we talked, I made tea. I tidied her kitchen and we talked some more. As the visits went on, we became more comfortable with each other, we shared personal stories and joked about the struggles of looking after afro hair with a newborn baby in tow. Washday blues! Baby sleeping, breastfeeding, baby wearing, we discussed it all. I looked after Corrin so that she had the energy to look after her baby. I gave her time to shower and to eat, time to drink a hot cup of tea and to have a sleep in the afternoon. One day she opened the door, looking exhausted, the kind of exhaustion that only a new parent can know, when tears are on the surface but not yet falling. I took off my coat and told her to go to bed. She emerged an hour and a half later, fed her baby and went for a shower. “Thank you!” she said, with total sincerity. We spoke lots over the next few visits about how it was going to be to raise a child on her own and the challenges that she could face but also about the amazing bond she and her daughter would have. There were tears but mostly lots of laughter and memories of growing up in the nineties.
When I thought the time was right, I asked my client if she was ready for me to leave, I could see how much she had grown in confidence, she no longer answered the door in her underwear and she was to cooking again. We agreed an end date and we went out for a goodbye lunch, it was strange thinking that I might not see them again after being so intimately connected for the past few weeks.
I spent almost 50 hours with Corrin and her gorgeous girl (I have to record it for my recognition process) and I enjoyed every minute, I shared a very precious time in her life and I was one of her baby’s very first carers. I miss baby snuggles. It turns out that we have kept in contact and have been for lunch and more cake, I’ve been invited to her baptism too. I feel very privileged to do this work and happy to have found my niche as a birth worker, I look forward to learning from the women and families that I work with and also from my mentors; my abuelas.