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Crowning

When a woman’s eyes

roll wild in their sockets

like those of a frightened foal

when you look into her face

and see nothing

but raw animal instinct

stripped bare of all culture and pretense

look between her legs

and you will find her labia bulging

with the mound of new life

you will see the baby’s head crowning

a glistening, pulsing moon

fragile as a soft-boiled egg

wrinkled as a walnut.

But alas

while you are distracted

by the dramatic birth

of the baby

you will miss

time and again

the more subtle secret birth

that happens simultaneously.

You will miss

the birth of the mother

the death of the ego

and

the resurrection

of humanity.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2012 in Birth Poems

 

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Beginner’s Mind

“But I’ve never done this before”

Says a dad in the second row

From the back.

The big one with the brown beard

who secretly reminds me

of a friendly bear

with thick reading glasses.

“How will I know what she needs?

How will know how to support her?”

That’s why you need a doula,

I want to say.

Someone who has been there before.

But I don’t

Because I sense

That a dad brave enough to ask these questions

In front of the whole antenatal class

Is probably a dad

Who will understand

the secrets

of supporting

a woman in labour.

So I sway a little

On the big yellow birth ball

I like to sit on

When I teach

I think a little

About what it takes

To be with a woman

During birth.

“You will know what to do”

I tell him

“If you are really there

truly present

Each moment

In that room.

Do not think about

The breakfast you never had

Do not think about

That meeting you’re gonna miss

Above all

Do not think about

The rugby

The cricket

Or anything involving balls.

Take off your shoes

For the ground on which you’re standing

Is women’s holy turf.

Switch off your cell phone

and let that room

let that woman

become your entire universe.

Watch her closely

And you will know what to do

Listen to her

With more than your ears

And you won’t say

Stupid things

That’ll get you in trouble.

No, don’t write it down!

Just listen

Practice with me

Practice being present

In this moment.

Do not think

That your lack of experience

Is a handicap.

I am not a better doula

Hundred births down the line.

In fact, I might be worse.

For beginner’s mind

Is a shimmering pearl

Of magnificent value.

Not knowing

Being open

To things as they unfold

Are way more precious

Than tools

Tricks

And techniques.

You cannot go wrong

If you love her

You cannot go wrong

If your intentions are pure.

Leave your expectations

At the door of the labour ward

And enter the birth room

With your cup empty as a beggar’s.

When it is all over

And your back and shoulders ache

As if you’ve carried her

Belly and all

The entire way

Across the desert

She will turn to you and say

‘I couldn’t have done it without you’

And you will answer

‘But I did nothing

My love

You did it all.’

Trust me,

Nothing

Will be more than enough.”

The dad looks at me

Bemused

Befuddled

His mouth opens and closes

Like a goldfish

Flapping his fins

On the dry threadbare carpet.

He never finds his voice.

But Thabo

From the front row

who is not shy

his hand goes up.

“That was some speech

That was inspiring

Now I was just wondering:

Would all of that

Be in the notes?”

 

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What is Normal Birth?

Here is one of my favourite quotes about birth:

The question is disarmingly simple, like asking: ‘What is love?’ I open my mouth to answer quickly, then close it again, suddenly humbled by the realization that the answer is complex, emotional, elusive, rich, deep and varied.

Images flash in my mind – I see beautiful, wet babies in their mothers’ arms, I smell the birth smell and feel the holiness that hangs in the air; and I feel the wonder that rises in the presence of the wise and ancient process that is beyond human design or control.

Normal birth is the mother who stands up beside her bed where she has just given birth, faces me with her baby in her arms, her eyes flashing fire and triumphantly shouts: ‘I did it!’

Normal birth is the woman who dances the slow birth dance and sings the low birth song. It is the woman who is naked and not ashamed.

Normal birth is the woman who, though she has never been there before and did not know she knew the way, finds her path to the deep and quiet place within herself where her intuition and faith lie hidden and ready to feed her soul.

Normal birth is the woman who births in her own power, dignity, beauty, grace and strength. It is this mother and this never-seen-before baby working it out together for the first time.

Normal birth is what I trust this mother can do. It is what I believe in, cherish and humbly protect. It is the gift we give the mothers we serve and the gift they give their precious babies. It is the real life miracle I witness again and again with an ever-growing sense of privilege and joy.

Lois Wilson, American midwife (in Midwifery Today)

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2012 in labour and birth, midwives, Natural Birth

 

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When the Flame Flickers

Burnout. Those dark days when the flame of your passion is assaulted so repeatedly by opposing winds that you doubt whether you’ll be able to keep it burning any longer. Those days when The System seems omnipotent – omnipresent – when you feel like an insect crushed beneath its ever-rolling wheel. Does anything I do make a difference, you wonder. Am I a fool to even try helping moms and babies achieve better births? An idiot to keep advocating breastfeeding when artificial feeding has become the norm worldwide? When that practice is driven by multinational companies who have billions of dollars at their disposal to find new ways to bombard parents with their products, new ways to evade the Code for the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes?

Anyone who works in some kind of activism will know what I’m talking about. Some days you wonder why you keep trying. Why you keep getting up in morning with the idea that you might make a difference. Why you don’t just throw in the towel and let things take their course …

This week I reached an all time low. I felt like I just didn’t have the energy to be a doula and a lactation consultant and an antenatal educator who advocates choice and informed consent anymore. I felt like I kept banging my head against a brick wall. Sometimes it seems like all I get for my passion and hard work is trouble. Criticism and anger from those who’d like to preserve the status quo. Why should it bother me that two-thirds of women are giving birth with major abdominal surgery in South Africa? Why should I care that many of the rest are having routine episiotomies – a practice that is painful and just not evidence-based? Why should I lie awake at night because most women initiate breastfeeding but then wean their babies in the first six weeks? It’s not like one doula can do anything about these sad facts, is it?

I was ready to fling myself 100 percent into my writing. I actually offered to resign as antenatal teacher. (Luckily, my boss refused to accept that resignation). When I went to bed last night, I was planning to attend only those births I’d committed to and then gently ease out of the birth world. I honestly didn’t have the heart for it anymore.

I know, I know, I was feeling really sorry for myself. But cut me some slack. You have to be on fire in order to burn out, remember? It’s those of us who care deeply who end up hurting really deeply, too.

This morning I woke up and read the comment from thebirthmuse. She described natural birth as ‘magical’. Yip, I thought, that word rings a bell. It is magical to witness empowered birth. It is magical to see a mom put her newborn to the breast the first time – the way her eyes grow wide the moment he starts sucking. “Wow,” she’ll say, “he’s drinking! He knows what to do!”

Magic is certainly part of why I do it. The memory of magic gives me the energy to get up after each knock and keep trying to assist women who want a choice in birth and in how they feed their babies. But I also do it because of the moms. And I especially do it because of the babies. Because I believe they have the right to the gentlest, safest, most loving births possible. I believe they have a right to the incredible emotional and physical benefits of breastfeeding. I believe they are the ones who will make this world a better place if only we empower them to do so. I do it for Annabelle and Nathan and Sadie and Sanmarie and all the babies that have come before them and will come after them. I do it for them, because deep down, beneath the burnt-out part of me, the embers of passion are still glowing. Deep down, I still believe we can make a difference … one tiny little baby at a time.

 
 

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The Beauty of Labour

It never ceases to amaze me how different women look from their everyday selves when they are in strong labour. If they are able to surrender themselves to the process, that is. If a woman is really into her labour, her face might take on an angelic – if exhausted – glow. Her features become softer and more natural. She starts to look, I think, more like herself. As she drops her pretences and masks, the loveliness of the creation process itself shines through her. Life itself flows through her, unhindered.

You might ask me if her appearance really alters or if she only looks different to me. This I cannot tell you, for I possess only my own eyes with which to see. And, of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Love for something or someone will radically change its appearance. I would not be exaggerating if I told you that I fall in love with the labouring mothers that I attend. Not in a romantic or sentimental or weird way, but in the way you fall in love with a tree or with a poem if you are truly present to it. So present that all else drops away. One can call it a mystical or spiritual experience, I suppose. The strict borders between sacred and profane definitely soften during birth, and the everyday dissolves into the otherworldly to such an extent that it becomes impossible to separate the two. And when the baby is finally born, and fed, and when I have listened to the new mommy telling her story as she experienced it, when I step out of the room to go home, the spell is broken. Almost broken. A faint afterglow remains with me, yes, and the best way to prolong this afterglow – the best way to preserve the memory – is to write it down as soon as I can. Through writing, I can almost – almost – relive an once-in-a-lifetime experience.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2012 in labour and birth

 

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Happy Valentine’s Day, Dear Midwives!

Not too long ago, I finished my third medical romance (in Afrikaans, under my pen name). Like the first two, the story centres around a midwife in private practice. She is asked to deliver the baby of a celebrity couple – at home. I wanted to call this book Vroedvrou vir die Sterre – Midwife to the Stars. My publisher accepted the book, but not the title. According to her, the term ‘vroedvrou’ (in English, ‘midwife’) is not very romantic. I accepted the change with good grace, acknowledging that she knows best about all things publishing and book sales, while I’m just a doula who knows about birth.

Still, if you ask me, being a midwife is a pretty romantic thing to do with your life. Oh sure, there are late nights, missed birthday parties and Christmases, ringing phones in the middle of the night. There’s blood and poop and other bodily fluids. There are (sometimes) screaming women and disrespectful colleagues. But mostly, there is love.

Think about it. What constitutes our very first experience of this world? Our primal experience of love? It is our birth, of course. Whose hands are the first to touch us, the first to convey welcome or abuse? The hands that deliver us. Those hands imprint upon our bodies and our souls what love and tenderness should feel like. Often, the very first voice we hear is that of the midwife or the doctor ‘catching’ us. Lucky is the baby delivered by a midwife’s gentle hands, placed with awe onto his mother’s chest, welcomed with the words: “Here’s your baby, look at what your love created, isn’t he beautiful?” In that moment, the midwife’s love births not just a baby, but a family. A mother. A father. A new soul.

The word ‘midwife’ comes from the old English and means someone who is with woman. Sheila Kitzinger describes the role of the midwife beautifully in her book, Rediscovering Birth:

“In all cultures, the midwife’s place is on the threshold of life, where intense human emotions – fear, hope, longing, triumph and incredible physical power – enable a new human being to emerge. Her vocation is unique. The art of the midwife is understanding the relationship between psychological and physiological processes in childbirth. Rather than being the provider of a technical service to support a doctor, or someone who scuttles around getting ready for an obstetrician and clearing away after him, her skills lie at the point where the emotional and biological touch and interact. She is not a manager of labour and delivery. Rather, she is the opener of doors, the one who releases, the nurturer. She is the strong anchor when there is fear and pain; the skilled friend who is in tune with the rhythms of birth, the mountain tops and chasms, the striving and the triumph.”

Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? French obstetrician Michel Odent reminds us that, until recently, human mothers could not give birth without releasing a “complex cocktail of love hormones”. The most important of these hormones are oxytocin (the hormone of bonding), endorphins (the hormones of transcendence and bliss) and prolactin (the mothering hormone). He warns: Today, in many countries, most women have babies without releasing these specific hormones. The questions must be raised in terms of civilization. This turning point occurs at the very time when several scientific disciplines suggest that the way human beings are born has long-term consequences, particularly in terms of sociability, aggressiveness or, in other words, ‘capacity to love’.” Midwives, in my opinion, are the ones most skilled at creating a space in which love hormones can flow. They are an essential ingredient of the “cocktail of love hormones”. This is why women often have lifelong bonds with their midwives.

Thank you to all the wonderful midwives of the world who embody love. Thank you, in particular, to the midwives who delivered my babies (Sue and Riana) and the babies of my doula clients (especially Heather, Esti, Erna, Margot and Cornel). A special thank you to Robyn Sheldon, the ‘mother’ of The Mama Bamba Way. You have inspired me so deeply that I had to write three stories about your profession. You truly are my heroines. Happy Valentine’s Day! May the love you’ve given away so bountifully come back to you a thousand fold.

To all the midwives, moms and dads viewing this post, please don’t go away without leaving a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in books, midwives, writing

 

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