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August 18, 2015

Why I write birth stories

A doula reflects on motherhood, healing and trusting the process

Lifestyle Wellness
Raleigh Birth Amanda Ditzel/Raleigh Birth Photography

"Everything is quiet. Stillness. The baby and mother lock eyes -- transfixed by each other’s beauty."

“For each child that’s born, a morning star rises

and sings to the universe who we are.”

– Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell, Sweet Honey in the Rock

I grew up in a culture that celebrated birth, prodigiously.

Hailing from Utah County, UT -- the seat of Brigham Young University and the heart of Mormondom -- my family of nine could fill an entire pew in church. One of our neighbors had 12 children. A family of four was considered very small. 

The mantle of future motherhood was placed squarely upon my young shoulders. Primary music in church celebrated large families. I earnestly sang: “When I grow up, I want to be a mother and have a family. One little, two little, three little babies of my own. Of all the jobs, for me I’ll choose no other. I’ll have a family. Four little, five little, six little babies in my home.”  

I remember my mother being happy in my earliest years. My heart filled with love for the beautiful woman who brought me into this world. Yet, with each birth -- or so it seemed -- she became increasingly withdrawn, confused and paranoid. As my mother’s mental illness progressed, the distance between the ideal, joyful Mormon family and the reality unfolding around me grew. Carrying a great deal of responsibility as the eldest of her seven children, I began to associate motherhood itself with strife. 

I kept a journal as a girl. Writing provided needed private space in a noisy and increasingly stressful home. In my journal, I imagined attending college outside of Utah and traveling the world. “I want to be a mother AND a doctor,” penned my 11-year-old self. It didn’t take long before I dropped the “I want to be a mother” part.

I left Utah at 17, went to Reed College in Oregon, forged my own spiritual path and married “outside the church.” My husband shared a love for adventure. We traveled a great deal -- Iran, India, Australia, Germany, and Turkey -- places I could only dream of visiting as a child. My writing continued. Musings on ethics, love, spirituality and comparative religions filled the pages of my journals. 

For a long time, I kept motherhood at bay. 

Today, I look around my home and smile. There’s a thick pre-Kindergarten activity workbook lying on the floor surrounded by well-used markers with mismatched caps. A wicker cabinet full of dress up clothes is located right next to a charming workbench complete with a child’s set of woodworking tools. My 3 and-a-half-year-old son sleeps as I type these words. I couldn’t be more grateful. 

In my imagination, I visit myself as a young girl in Utah. I see her writing, escaping her troubles through words and fantasies of flight. 

“What you are doing makes sense,” I tell her. “Don't worry. You will travel. You will go to college and study works of meaning.” 

Then I hold her close.

“You will also learn to return to this place and make sense of the pain. You will discover you don’t need to escape motherhood. In fact, you are going to be a really happy mom.” 

She looks at me. 

“Take the time you need. Keep writing. Trust the process.” 

Trust the process. Today, I counsel doula clients with these words. As I hold the hands of women in labor, watch them open to the challenge and wonder of birth, and offer loving encouragement – my heart is full. Somehow that young girl in Utah found her way to this work. Somehow she found the strength to mentor another in crossing a threshold she once feared. 

Aubrey’s story

4 a.m. -- Aubrey’s water breaks. Contractions begin. They are mild at first, spaced about 20 minutes apart. 

6:38 a.m. -- I receive a text message from Aubrey: “Amy, my water broke!  The contractions have started. Very excited! I’ll keep you posted.” 

9:00 a.m. -- I speak with Aubrey. She sounds upbeat and positive. She is out walking with her husband Mark. Contractions are picking up. They haven’t yet called the midwives. While I know they want to labor on their own at home for as long as possible, I suggest they give the midwives a heads up. 

“OK,” she tells me. “I’ll call them.” 

“Do you want me to come over?” I ask.

“Just knowing you are a phone call away is enough right now,” Aubrey answers. “I’ll call you when I need you. I promise.” 

11:20 a.m. -- Mark calls. They are heading to the hospital. Aubrey is ready to settle in for the birth. They want me to meet them there. 

“I’m on my way.”  

Everything is quiet. Stillness. The baby and mother lock eyes -- transfixed by each other’s beauty. 

11:45 a.m. -- I arrive at the hospital and find Aubrey breathing calmly through regular and strong contractions. She is on her hands and knees positioned upon her blue yoga mat next to an empty hospital bed. “I don’t want to labor in bed,” she declares. 

“Her cervix is three centimeters dilated, 100 percent effaced and the baby is at zero station,” the nurse kindly gives me the stats. 

Aubrey’s hypnobirthing CD plays in the background. Mark and I offer massage, supportive words and calming touch. 

1:00 p.m. -- Aubrey shifts back and forth between the yoga mat and a birthing ball. The hypnobirthing recordings continue to fill the room with positive mental imagery.

“I see my cervix opening and my baby descending through soft, pink, healthy tissue.”

“I give birth to my baby calmly. I am full of joy and welcome my baby into my arms.”

These positive affirmations enfold Aubrey in a cocoon of familiar comfort. She has listened to this CD countless times since she was 5-months pregnant. 

2:00 p.m. -- Aubrey takes a shower with Mark emerging to announce that she feels an urge to push. Her face is flushed. She is clearly in pain.

“Amy, I don’t know if I can do this!” she turns to me in panic. 

I hold her. “It is hard. Yes. And yes, you can do this.” 

Together we breathe through very challenging contractions. I ask the nurse to page the midwife.

2:10 p.m. -- The midwife arrives to find Aubrey rocking and moaning in my arms. The midwife checks her cervix. She is fully dilated and the baby’s head is low. Together we help position Aubrey for the delivery. 

3:00 p.m. -- In the hospital bed, Aubrey rocks on her hands and knees. She is naked, open and powerful. She is fully primal now. With each contraction, she bears down. Mark coaches her with kisses, caresses and kind words. The midwife places a warm compress on Aubrey’s perineum. 

3:30 p.m. -- Her vagina opens. I see glimpses of the baby’s head. Aubrey instinctively turns from the hand and knee position and uses a squat bar to bear down. With powerful grunts, moans and sounds as she pushes hard. Then she rests between contractions. Mark wipes sweat from her brow.  

3:46 p.m. -- The baby’s head emerges. Aubrey shouts! With one final push, a little girl slips into the midwife’s skilled hands. Mark’s eyes fill with tears as their infant daughter is immediately placed on Aubrey’s chest. 

Everything is quiet. Stillness. The baby and mother lock eyes -- transfixed by each other’s beauty. 

Suddenly, a new track on the hypnobirthing CD begins. “I trust my body to know what to do,” the recorded voice calmly states. 

We all laugh with celebration and awe. 

Trust the process

Just as a physiologically sound female body intuitively responds to the energies of childbirth, a wounded psyche seeks a way to heal. Often, unexpected wisdom dawns from primal places within – accessed through instinct and dreams. 

I walk into a strange, darkened bedroom. My mother is in bed, but she is not asleep. Her restlessness and dark delusions easily could provoke fear. Yet, I am not afraid. 

“Hello mom,” I calmly acknowledge her and find myself drawn to a wastebasket by her bed. 

I sit down on the floor and begin to sort through the various items she has tossed into the garbage. I find photos, bright images of myself playing in the sunlight. I take them and thank her. 

I leave, wishing her well. 

This dream and the long process of dance, yoga, therapy, and meditation leading me to write birth stories -- both my own and others -- accentuate a central point. Healing comes down to the gritty task of learning to acknowledge and hold space for shadows while staying true to the light. 

As a young girl, I crafted positive futures for myself as a way to navigate difficult waters. This healing instinct remains central to my work as a doula. As a laboring woman moves through the trials, confusion and pain of labor, doulas hold space and acknowledge the challenge at hand. At the same time, doulas help laboring women focus on the good, their power, and the child to come. As I told Aubrey: “It is hard. Yes. And yes, you can do this.”

I continue to keep a journal, but no longer need to conjure fantasies for strength. Today, I write birth stories. These stories allow me to more deeply understand my own journey to motherhood. Birth stories express the irrevocably transformative power of opening to healing and new life. 

Trust the process.

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Family photo by Amanda Ditzel of Raleigh Birth Photography.