When you know, you can't un-know
Question: whether she is still in your life, has left your life, or was never in your life --
Did you need your mother?
Love from our mothers is a basic, human need. When doulas companion women through pregnancy and birth and postpartum, regardless of outcomes, a mother is given the space to love her baby and confidently respond to her baby. Published studies suggest that trained birth companions can influence a mother’s perceptions of her parenting abilities, her responses to her newborn, and her self-worth.
We can talk about all sorts of things that doulas do. Doulas comfort, suggest positions, support, help clients plan, educate, accompany, and advocate. But ultimately, through their work, doulas reflect back to a mother that she’s got this, that she is the best mother for her baby.
In a medical model that typically communicates the opposite to birth givers, e.g. you are not qualified, you are not trained, you do not have the knowledge, our baby warmer can do better, we can take care of your baby better than you can, I know more than you, I know what your baby needs now, and so on, it can be difficult for a new parent to recover from the onslaught of the resulting self-doubt.
As a new mother, I did not feel confident. I did not think I was the best mother for my baby. I definitely didn’t understand that I was what my baby needed most. I thought the people around me knew better than I did. I thought the doctor knew what my daughter needed (a c-section for breech presentation), the nursery nurse knew what she needed (to be taken from my room while sleeping to the nursery to be stripped and weighed and checked for jaundice), the lactation nurse knew what she needed (to nurse with a nipple shield). My transition to motherhood was rocky and filled with postpartum anxiety, depression, a feeling of shame and isolation, and a lot of numbness.
I became a doula five years ago. I became a doula because I had my own doula the second time I gave birth. She gave me the space to discover that I truly was the best mother for my baby, that I could make parenting decisions for my daughter even before she was born, and that no one wanted the best for her more than I did. My experience of power the second time around taught me how little we support new mothers in our society and how we often undermine their confidence. If I could help other mothers through this trying time, I knew I had to. When you know, you can’t un-know.
My fifteenth birth as a doula was an unexpected stillbirth. My client was also a dear friend, and the news that her daughter no longer had a heartbeat at 39 weeks was a dizzying blow. A bereavement doula came to support us. Going through that experience alongside my client and learning about the value of having a trained bereavement doula who knew how to slow things down, validate my client’s feelings, provide options that many would find frightening, and create space around her and her husband so they could explore their preferences for bonding with and making memories with their daughter was an amazing privilege. Afterwards, I knew I had to be trained as a bereavement doula myself. So I hosted a training workshop and took courses and felt ready to provide my new level of support to families going through the unthinkable. When you know, you can’t un-know.
Then, because I lived relatively close, I was invited to Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women to hear about birth doula work being done inside a prison in Minnesota. I walked through several heavy, iron gates, through an unairconditioned hallway attached to dorms on either side of me filled with women in white jumpsuits, and through the prison yard past at least five visibly-pregnant women.
Erica Gerrity, Rae Baker, and Rebecca Shlafer from the Minnesota Prison Doula Project told a room full of corrections staff, prison psychologists, nurses, doulas, social workers, and decision-makers about the impacts of doula support on the incarcerated moms and their infants inside Shakopee Women’s Prison. Their first slide was an illustration of shackled arms holding a swaddled baby, and I could feel the pin pricks behind my eyes.
As I left the prison that day, a thought hit me, and it took my breath away. I was trained to help families leave the hospital with empty arms. And that was exactly what these mothers in Tutwiler were facing. As many as 81 of them in a three-year time span were giving birth unsupported and leaving their babes in the hospital nursery, returning to a prison with a troubled past, though undergoing new reforms.
Women in custody give birth in a room where there is no familial support and where a corrections officer must stay the entire time. She is more than likely being judged and judging herself. Her life’s path has probably been filled with trauma, poor health, poverty, addiction, and mental illness.
She knows that in 24 hours or less, following a vaginal birth, she will be leaving her newborn in the hospital nursery, without knowing if her family or the foster family has been notified, and will be taken back to prison as if nothing had ever happened. As if she hadn’t just given birth.
This incarcerated mother is in the darkest place she has ever known. And she does not likely feel as though she is the best mother for her baby. But in less than one year, she will likely be released, and she will be expected to pick up the pieces and become a mother to her baby.
When you know an injustice, you can’t un-know it.
We incorporated as a non-profit two months after my visit to Tutwiler, and we began a monthly Birthing Care Group in early 2016, open to all pregnant and postpartum people in Tutwiler up to 12 months. In early 2018, we successfully expanded our services to meet with them once per week, and we continue to bring nutritious meals to each visit.
But most importantly, two weeks ago, for the first time in the 76 years Tutwiler has housed women in Alabama, an imprisoned mother gave birth to her healthy newborn while her doula stood beside her, holding her hand. Then one day later, this mother said good-bye to her daughter, as women inside Tutwiler have been doing for decades, and left the hospital with empty arms. But this time, she did not do it alone.
If you visit our website, you’ll see our mission is to improve the health of newborns born to incarcerated women and improve parental attachment.
But really, we are creating space for these mothers to love their babies, feed their babies, and discover that they are the best mothers for their babies. We see that in a broken justice system that rips families apart by incarcerating mothers who instead need effective addiction treatment and mental health care, one answer lies in providing trauma-informed, one-on-one care for these mothers. When a mother is nurtured, encouraged, and companioned, many times for the first time in her life, she is more likely to nurture her baby. When a mother learns that her baby’s need is to simply have mom’s love, powerful things happen, especially when there is a hormonal and physiological force behind it. At what other time in her life might she be able to see it, understand it, feel it, and give it?
We are giving space to these mothers to realize this:
They are the mother their baby needs.