Monday, October 19, 2020

Birthing in Love with MBC Radical Doulas

"attending a birth is a political act"

Montreal Birth Companions 

radical doula organization



In 2003, I started a doula training program with my then business partner, Lesley Everest. Over the first year, I realized that our volunteer requirement had the potential to change the lives of women, and I founded Montreal Birth Companions. During the summer of 2003, two of our first doula course graduates attended 14 births. These doulas accompanied women to the hospital to give birth throughout that first summer, without any compensation except the experience and the knowledge that they were honoured guests of the families that were bringing a new life into the world. Montreal Birth Companions, or MBC as it affectionately came to be called, was a radical, unique, inspiring organization that survived for 13 years because of the power and love of the women who served there. We never got funding, although occasionally a private client would give us an extra bit of money and one of our hard-working doulas would get a small stipend. Over the years, we served hundreds of families who would never have been able to afford doula care if we had not provided it. We accompanied many women who were completely alone, and others whose partners needed to stay home to care for other children, or who needed to work. As time passed, we started to gain recognition in the non-status communities and we served many, many women who were living without legal immigration status, and hence without health insurance. It was essential for these women to have the support and guidance of a doula, so they could give birth with as little intervention as possible and thus avoid huge charges (our most expensive birth was $30,000, which was the culmination of an induction, several days in labor, an epidural and various other interventions and medications. Of course this money couldn’t be paid up front, and the woman spent months trying to pay it back.) MBC fell apart in 2016, after some internal arguments about political views. It turned out that some of the doulas wanted a traditional organization with a board, meetings and all that. My view was always that the only mandate was to provide free doula service to marginalized families in need. So what was the need for having meetings or creating unnecessary structure? Well, it turned out, the need for structure is so that if a crisis occurs, you have a predesigned way to deal with it. Starhawk talks about this in her book Truth or Dare, where she explores all sorts of things, anarchist organizations being one of the oxymorons she shines a light on. Because when two of our doulas were sexually assaulted by one of our client’s “friends”, we had no structure to deal with the fallout; no one person who was in charge of crises; no list of things to do. And so I took it all on, and decided that I had failed everyone, and I stepped down. But now, looking back, I realize that it was an amazing moment in history! We accompanied women to have their babies in love, with companionship, within a circle of care and held space that they would not have had otherwise. We did this out of pure love, a dedication to women, a desire to give the marginalized folk amongst us the same basic rights (yes, having a circle of caring women around you when you give birth is a right!) that we affluent women do. We did all this without money or financial support from anyone, which gave us the freedom to do what we needed to do. It was a fine time, and I am still getting calls from women without health care who are seeking that support. I spoke recently with Julia Gordon, who was one of our volunteers, about what it meant to be part of such a life-changing, radical group of women. Here is our chat:

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Raise Love Consciousness with Maha Al Musa

When I asked Maha to give me one word to share her message with the world, she gave me three. Raise Love Consciousness.


I was thrilled to have a couple of hours chatting with Maha about childbirth, consciousness, sovereignty, feminism, bellydancing and her work liberating childbirth, women and babies.

You can reach her on Instagram, Facebook, or check out her website

Are you pregnant and looking for a guide to uncover your inner power? Are you a Birth Keeper who wants to learn more? Maha's unique birth preparation program is for pregnant mums who innately know that giving birth is meant to be a sacred, instinctual and an embodied experience and who are seeking an immersive and expansive experience as they flow through their 9 month journey. It is also for birth keepers wanting to reframe birth's purpose, be inspired by a view of birth that will raise human consciousness and understanding the journey from a sacred, wise lens to share with mums-to-be.

I am so honored to have the chance to speak with powerful BirthKeepers, Educators, Mothers, Artiists, Rebels ... Baby Magic is magical!

Saturday, July 25, 2020

A Crack in the System



A couple of years ago, when I was deeply into my work at my cafe, and running longer and longer distances, I told my husband at some point "Yeh, The Man won." I meant that crippling internal conflicts had brought me to a decision to abandon my volunteer doula organization; that the arrest and conviction of unregistered midwives in Canada and around the world meant that women were left with less and less choices; and that my simmering suspicions about the nature of feminism were possibly true. 

So, I took pleasure in my cafe. I ran faster and had a load of fun doing races. I made new friends. I ignored the birth world, and only answered a call if one of "my" students had a question about a birth or a pregnant client of theirs. Occasionally I would check in with midwife friends around the world, just to check in. I was happy giving it all up. I put my doula bag away and forgot about my plans to go back to Greece to attend women in the camps there.

Then that crazy virus hit and I spent two month at home, with my family (husband, two sons, nephew). I made myself a small cocoon, and I crawled into it and meditated, thought, wrote and pondered. And then women started calling me. Women who had planned to give birth at home but whose midwives were forbidden to attend. Women who planned to give birth at the hospital but their doula were forbidden to attend. I gave advice, gave comfort, affirmed choices, made suggestions. 

I met with a few women who were planning to give birth in their own homes, without a midwife in attendance. I spoke to them after their births and got the idea I would interview them for an article or a podcast episode. Then I looked at the footage and I realized - you women are amazing by the way! - that I have some beautiful, inspiring footage. And then I realized, yes well, women experience less-than-optimum births and they're also worth interviewing....

So, now I have interviewed about thirty women, I have so much beauty on my Google drive and so many words of wisdom... so I'm making a documentary to celebrate our strength, tell our stories and let the world know that our care of the birthing woman needs change and needs it NOW!

There is a crack in our maternity care "system" and women are falling in. Luckily, the Covid crisis is a chance for us all to have a little time to check in with our reality and make some changes. Fast. 

Some questions to ponder:
  • Why are women expected to "reach for the top" in their professions and then called "too old" when they decide to bear children?
  • Why are women expected to go to the hospital to give birth? As we now know, hospitals are where sick people go. Pregnancy is not an illness.
  • Why are women threatened with the death or morbidity of their babies, while they are in labour?
  • Why are there so few midwives in Canada?
  • Why are doulas so expensive? Is a birth companion a luxury?
  • Why do women feel ashamed for their birth experiences?
And some mantras to reflect on:
  • Nature is not gentle, it is powerful and untameable.
  • Heal birth, heal earth.
  • Powerful women can change the world.
  • Just a reminder, when a woman gives birth, she is BIRTHING A NEW HUMAN! 
So, I have my work cut out for me, and I am feeling good.

If any one of you wants to participate in any way, let me know: do you want your voice to be heard? Do you want to be involved in production? Do you have an idea you want to tell me about? 

I'm listening!

Monday, July 13, 2020

Safe Birth Take Two

A couple of weeks ago one of my dear friends gave birth, at home, surrounded by her family and small community. She is a paragon of strength, but also a tower of gentleness, and she's funny, athletic, and creative. Her first son was born in the hospital, and from then she knew that she wanted to birth at home, without interference, peacefully.

I do know that the way she gives birth is not for everyone. In fact, the birth reality that I envision is very different from her reality. I see women giving birth in all sorts of ways, attended by all sorts of caregivers. But the most important thing about the birth experience will be that the woman giving birth is at the very centre of the experience. She is giving birth; it's her body, and she makes the decisions.

I've been talking to a lot of women lately, and I'm hearing some shocking stories. Don't misunderstand: I know that there can be mistakes, sometimes tragic and foolish ones, made by women and their caregivers who try to create more caring, gentler paradigms about birth. Believe me, I know that Nature is far from gentle; that babies and mothers can die; and that modern western medicine can and does save lives.

But, and this is the most fundamental and important thing, there exists in our maternity care system a systemic and pervasive misogyny that allows maternity caregivers to debase, abuse, destroy, demean, reduce, insult .... the women who come to them for care ... and this has to be ended! 

This systemic sexism is linked, of course, to the racism that we see around us to create a poisonous brew that is literally killing black women in the US (https://www.nationalpartnership.org/our-work/health/reports/black-womens-maternal-health.html). 

In the past week, I've spoken to women all around the world. I've heard tragic and disgusting stories. Doctors are doing unspeakable things to women. Doulas and midwives are deciding to leave at random times, women are being left alone when they most need attendance. It should be no act of bravery to bear a child. What I mean, is, of course it is a brave and courageous act to make the jump to bear a child, but that act should not be met with conflict and derision on every front.

"They didn't even look at my birth plan."
"My midwife went out of the country."
"They botched the c-section and told me I could have a VBAC, but I couldn't because they had made a hole in my cervix."
"The midwife left when I went into surgery."
"The nurse broke my bone."
"I told them it still hurt but they didn't believe me."
"The doctor jumped on my stomach."
"They wouldn't tell me what was going on."
"They didn't believe me when I told them the baby was coming."
"They didn't believe me when I told them I was in labour."

The are real women with real voices, telling real stories. They suffer immense trauma and feel pain, and grieve their loss of self-esteem. And do you know what they do? They love their babies, and raise their children, with love.

Women deserve more. Speak out! Let's start to talk about our experiences ... it's time to stop the slaughter of birthing mothers (literally, in the case of Black women). It's time to birth on our own terms. We need to seek out birth attendants who put the birthing woman at the centre of the birth event; who treat women as they are: the bearer of children. The vessels of life. The nurturers of our babies.


Thursday, June 4, 2020

Safe Birth?

These days, we have all become experts at reading articles in medical journals, or studies, and we casually use words like "exponentially" and "virus shedding" and "evidence-based". So, I am not going to go that route again, and quote this or that Cochrane review that will further convince you that I'm right. I don't even want to think in terms of who's right and who's wrong. I want to go deeper than that. Way deeper. I want to explore what makes birth sacred, and what keeps it sacred, and therefore safe.

I have witnessed three newborn deaths in my doula practice. Two in particular stand out for me. One took place in a birthing centre, and the birth was attended by midwives. I was the doula. When it was clear that the baby was in serious trouble, the midwives, in their fear and panic, became insensitive to the mother's emotional needs. They told me, the doula, to leave. Mother felt isolated, abandoned, and traumatized even more than she had to be. These midwives, don't get me wrong, did everything they should have done medically, to try to save baby's life. But they completely ignored the spiritual, emotional, transcendent nature of birth. Conversely, I was present when another baby died soon after birth in the hospital. The medical staff provided a space where the parents could hold their child and say goodbye. The parents wanted me there, so I hovered, as a good doula does. The fact that they even had spiritual needs was fully honoured by the doctor, the nurses, and the orderly. 

Both mamas lost their babies. Both mamas grieved. But both mamas were not traumatized for years. Because one mother felt safe during her birth experience, and the other did not.

So, what can we do to keep birth sacred? I believe if the sacred nature of birth is remembered at all times, then the attendants will be naturally drawn to keeping the mother safe at all times. Sacred. Just play with the letters a little bit. Scared. Being scared during childbirth is something that has a physiologic root. When our bodies release the stress hormones that initiate the "ejection reflex", our busy brains interpret those feelings as "scared". I have attended the most natural, undisturbed, physiologic births where I have seen the mother become afraid at that moment. It passes, it's transient because it's just a reaction to a physiologic event.

But I've also attended too many births where the birthing mother was actually afraid. She was actually made to feel afraid by the words or actions of her attendants. I often found my job as a doula to be one of shielding, holding the sacred space, creating a human sound barrier between the abusive staff and the birthing mama. Scared destroys sacred. It degrades sacred, pulls it down, tears it apart. Scared does not belong anywhere a mother is giving birth. Even if you're the primary attendant, and you are scared because of something that's happening, your priority is to keep that fear from entering the space.

If a birth attendant doesn't believe that birth itself is sacred, then we run into problems. If you think it's just another medical procedure, then it makes it more complicated. But every doctor knows that a happy patient heals quicker and better than an angry or lonely one. So even if we're not talking "sacred" because some people are scared by the word, we can still try to keep the birthing mother happy, right? And a happy mother feels safe.

Our maternity care system is broken. Too many women go into the experience with no understanding, and they trust their medical caregivers of course, because why not? And they are sadly betrayed. They're told all sorts of scary things: your baby is too big, you're too old, you have a something percent of this or that horrible thing happening, you won't be able to stand the pain, your baby is too small, you live too far for a home birth, there are no midwives, you have to pay $10,000 before you can even think of birthing here, and on and on. Many, many women give birth just fine within the medical system, often with the loving attendance of a doula. These women are a testament to the strength of the birthing mother. But too many do not give birth just fine. They leave the hospital or the birthing centre traumatized and confused. Some traumatic birthing experiences literally take years to recover from. Other women live their whole lives with feelings of inferiority and a damaged sense of worth. Still others spend their whole lives to make the birth experience sacred and safe for other women (Yours truly!). 

There is a growing number of women who are taking the situation into their own hands, and their own homes. They are saying "no" to maternity care that is based on fear, and they're giving birth on their own terms, in their own homes, with people around them who they trust. Keeping birth sacred. 

I don't believe a normal pregnancy and birth belongs in a hospital. Hospitals are places where you go when your health is at risk, or you need surgery. Normal birth is sacred and belongs at home. The undisturbed mother feels safe, and everyone around her participates in the sacredness of the event. This has become clear during the current crisis, where the role of the hospital has been clarified by the event. 

But if we bring birth home, where it belongs, then are we sacrificing another kind of safety? If we don't have midwives who are trained in the art and science of attending Sacred Birth, then every home birth will be a "freebirth". Which is fine for those mothers who want that. But many birthing women want to have someone present, who knows about the things that can and do happen during birth, when it is important to have someone attending who knows how to respond.  

I'm asking questions. I don't have practical answers yet. I am grateful for you doulas out there who are still attending births in the hospitals, and I strive to support you as much as I can. I am grateful to the birthing women I attended throughout my practice, who taught and continue to teach me so much about Sacred Birth. 

Let's talk this out! Let's strive for answers! Let's change birth and keep it Sacred!


Wednesday, June 3, 2020

I am Listening for a Heartbeat

When Ahmaud Arbery went for a run in February, he was shot and killed. In the running world, a global campaign went up to run 2.23 miles to remember his birthday, February 23, which was a few days after he died. Later, I noticed the #runwithmaud hashtag on my running feeds, so I checked it out.

On Instagram someone I follow had proudly posted a picture of a 2.23 mile run, with the hashtag. The comments were in the hundreds. Having time on my hands, more time than usual anyway, I scrolled down a little until I got to something interesting, and terrifying. There was actually a conversation going on about whether or not Arbery was a "real" runner, since according to the poster, he was wearing khaki shorts and boots (he wasn't, actually, but anyway). The conversation proceeded about "who is a runner?" and "do you have to wear fancy expensive clothing if you're a runner?" (By the way, the answer is no, you could run naked if you want.) No, but that's not the point, is it? The actual argument was: if he wasn't wearing "runner" clothes, and he was wearing "thief" clothes, then somehow that made it alright to shoot him twice in the chest? Because he was a Black man running?

Most people by now know about the most recently famous racist atrocity to come out of the U.S., and I'm sure there have been more in the interim, and before, and after. The fires are burning, the people are on the move, justice is being called for. Lives are at stake. We know that "I can't breathe" was not something someone said when they were ill with Covid19. We know that George Floyd was murdered by a white man, and that the end of his life he called out to his mother.

As a white person, in fact one of the last colonialists in Africa (I was born in Kampala in 1956, when it was part of a British Protectorate), I am fully aware of my privilege. I am also fully aware that, as a feminist, I am offended and supremely annoyed by the spectacle of a man declaring how much of a feminist he is, and explaining my politics to others. A man cannot understand why I am a feminist down to my core. That's that, end of discussion.

That discussion feeds my understanding of exactly how I should approach the movement, the resistance against racism (institutionalized and personalized), the demonstrations, the anger. I am not going to shout out my support. Neither will I say that racism goes both ways, or that it's us, the people, against them, the racists (and colour doesn't enter into it). No, I don't want to be in the limelight as that amazing white woman who supports Black Lives Matter. I don't need to fill the limelight so that the people who really have something to say are, again, silenced. 

We all posted a black square on Instagram today. With the unfortunate use of the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, we inadvertently covered up important information that is covered by that hashtag. I believe that is a metaphor for what white people are always doing, with our louder voices and our automatic membership in the club of privilege. 

I think we all need to take a good look at ourselves, an honest look with a touch of humour, and figure out what exactly we are doing with our support. Are you giving money? Or are you posting a selfie of yourself at a demonstration and taking up space? Are you providing care for your black friends, or are you proclaiming to everyone about how many black friends you have? Are you clarifying stuff for your white friends, or are you keeping quiet and letting black people speak?

So, here I am, with all my black, brown, yellow and beige friends, patting myself on the back and being oh so PC. But I really only wanted to say one thing: 

I worked as a birth attendant for twenty years. I've listened to hundreds of heartbeats; I have looked into the eyes of hundred of birthing mamas; I've witnessed hundreds of babies being born. Every single baby is a special being; every single birth is a miraculous event. We are born the same: naked, from our mother's wombs. From the moment we are born, we have the potential to love each other or not. Choose love! White mothers, it is up to you to teach your children well. A naked, tiny baby doesn't deserve to be taught how to hate. And a naked, tiny baby doesn't deserve to be hated. 

I'm not prepared to pat myself on the back right now so that I can feel better about how I'm not part of the problem. The problem is such a stinking, complicated mess that OF COURSE I am part of it. For what it's worth, I support the fight for justice, for peace, and against racism. I submit my support with the understanding that no one needs or wants it. That your anger may be greater than my "support". In the meantime, I'm going to continue to work towards a world where every baby can grow up loved, cherished and fulfilled. Where mothers of babies can be loved and honoured and valued. Where people are not measured by the colour of their skin. Let this pain be the final labour pain in the birth of a just world. 

I am dedicating this to the innocent black people killed in the US, and to the innocent babies who want to grow up free, and to the mothers who have lost their children, everywhere.