Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Mothers, Babies, Chaos

Fifteen years ago, I created a ground breaking, unique, stellar doula course with my colleague Lesley Everest. We wrote and taught a ten-month long program that fully prepared doulas to do their important work, with confidence, respect and knowledge.

Part of that course required the students to do some volunteer work with mothers and babies. Two of our students spent a summer accompanying 14 marginalized women through their late pregnancies, labour and birth, and immediate postpartum period. I was away for the summer, as I always am, and I got back to their stories of difficulties and birth, and new families… and so a seed was planted.

That was the summer of 2004. Over the next couple of years, our students continued to volunteer to accompany marginalized families through the childbearing year, and we became recognized by nurses, social workers, dieticians, physicians, midwives, and families as an important resource for those who had, in some cases, literally nothing.

In 2006 Montreal Birth Companions was “officially” born: it was registered as a charity and we were able to apply for funding (even though we never actually received any!). For the next ten years, until 2016, I matched needy mothers with willing doulas. Over the course of its history, MBC served almost 1000 families. Some of them needed a doula to attend the birth of their child. Some needed resources that we couldn’t provide, so we referred them elsewhere. Some needed prenatal education, postpartum assistance, or caring for older children.

I know that now there is a movement amongst the doula community that says loud and clear that for the work to be “valued” it should not be given away for free (that is, for no money). My answer to that is twofold: the first echoes Chance the Rapper “I sing for freedom, not for free”. The second asks who exactly would accompany these mothers if we didn’t? These were people who did not have an extra dollar to their name. They had no money, little clothing, sparse food and crowded shelter.

We served refugees, refugee claimants, women with no status, domestic workers who had been illegally sent away from their employees homes, young women, women from every different country, religion, background, color … the only things they had in common were that they were pregnant and they were poor. We served mothers who had fled war and destruction; mothers who had fled rape and forced prostitution; mothers who were hiding from their violent partners. We served families who just needed help navigating the foreign medical system. We served women who didn’t know how to call emergency services (no, birth is not an emergency, but a haemorrhage is … and do you know how to dial emergency services in Benin?).

And now you may ask, why? Why did we bother? Surely these families were fortunate enough to be able to attend a modern hospital with dedicated professionals to assist them? Yes, absolutely. The women we served were very fortunate to be able to birth in a safe environment. But for women in an already precarious situation, it is so important for them to give birth with as few interventions as possible. For two reasons: first, the less interventions a mother has, the easier it is to recover after childbirth. If life is already challenging, why not give the new mother the best start possible? Secondly, many of the families we were serving, especially after about 2010, did not have access to our provincial health care coverage. This meant that they would have to pay per treatment. The very cheapest hospital birth cost a new family from five to seven thousand dollars. This would be a birth where they only spent 24 hours in the hospital, and the attending physician didn’t charge too much. The most any of our clients owed when she left the hospital was $39,000. We tried our very best to prevent a new family from having to pay for unnecessary treatments. Once we explained to the medical staff what the situation was, we were usually met with understanding and patience.

In 2016, I experienced the consequences of creating an organization with no structure. My joke was always that MBC (Montreal Birth Companions) stood for Mothers, Babies and Chaos. Basically, my mandate was to provide free doula services for mothers in need. That’s what we did, successfully, for many years. But Star Hawk, in one of her books, describes the frailty and danger of an organization that does not have a clear structure: what can happen is that the members of the organization can start to feel threatened, if not by the leader, then by the lack of structure itself.

Two of my doulas were attending the birth of a refugee woman. Only one doula was allowed in the room at one time (the hospital had a rule that only two support people were allowed, and the preacher from the woman’s church decided to attend the birth). The doulas had not previously met the woman; this was an urgent request from the midwives who were following her, and they had not told me that this person would be there.

Over the course of the labour, the preacher harassed the two doulas with sexually intimidating comments, and finally in the morning he physically assaulted one of them. When the doulas told me, I told the midwives and the clinic, and I was met with a strangely layered response: the man had also harassed a nurse at the clinic, and we should be tolerant because he is from another culture where it is common to act like that. 

This bizarre attitude threw me completely, and left me and “my” doulas with no resources except one person outside the organization who tried to facilitate. I felt guilty; the doulas felt angry and shamed, and none of us knew what to do. Why? Simply, because I had not built an organization that contained within it the structures to be able to deal with unforeseen events. Even if you’re an anarchist, even if you don’t believe in Boards, Presidents, and Secretaries, you have to create some kind of structure that can deal with attack.

So what did I do? I stepped down as director and a collective took over the work and the organization. I was so shaken by what had happened I had to leave the work to others. I withdrew, ran my café, and did a lot of running. In December 2016 I was sitting on the bus and I read a tweet by a Syrian journalist about what was happening in Aleppo. I learned that many families had made the dangerous crossing from Turkey to Greece, where they were being housed in camps.

By January 2017 I had packed my bags and headed to Greece to provide midwifery care to the young families in the camps and elsewhere in Greece. It was one of the coldest winters on record. People were housed in UN tents inside abandoned factories. Some of the more vulnerable were moved to apartments and hotels that were vacant and made available. I met with one family from Syria who were being housed in a small room with water literally dripping down the walls, intermittent electricity, and a shared bathroom. She was almost at term, and her baby was breech, and when I suggested some exercise she said it was too painful because of some bomb shrapnel she still had in her hip.

While the larger NGOs argued over bureaucratic details, such as which organization could visit which hotel, I quietly gathered needed resources (clothes, diapers, soap…) from the over-filled basement of the NGO I was working with, and drove to visit pregnant women all over the north of Greece who were in need. I worked with some amazing, brave people and I will never forget that experience.

But then I got back to Montreal and I was met with a deep weariness. I felt that the tiny drop in the huge ocean of need was never going to be enough. I stopped practising as a doula, knowing that there were younger, better, more enthusiastic doulas out there (many of them trained by myself or my colleague). My extensive knowledge of undisturbed, woman-centered childbirth made it difficult for me to witness many of the hospital births I was called to, and my discomfort spread to others around me. I no longer attended home births, as the definition of “practising midwifery without a license” was at the same time clarified and obfuscated by two different legal battles in Canada.

So, where am I? Well, of course, life goes on, so I have a large family to attend to, a successful café to run with middle son, all sorts of projects in the air … and yet … I was made to serve, and I’m looking for another project, so if anyone needs a CPM without papers (let them expire), doula teacher, or a Jill-of-all-trades to work for freedom, I’m in!

Friday, July 5, 2019

Takes a Village

 takes a village

to get a lady and her dog onto a flight

It was a very busy time in my life. I had just run a marathon. Lots of fun but tiring! I flew home and straight back to work. 

My BFF let me know her son had died.
My other BFF got a cancer diagnosis.
Then a lady drove her car straight into my café!

I am so grateful for all the good in my life, and I always try to do my best to send love and caring, and actually DO stuff for people… but honestly I felt like pieces of heavy things were falling all around me. 

Could I keep everyone safe from harm? Where are all my five chickadees? (um, well they’re all over the world: little chickadees tend to grow up and fly…) Is my true love gonna be ok up on the mountain without me? What the hell if this crusty thing on the dog’s nose? Am I actually losing my mind? How can I be a better friend? Are my sons doing ok with their partners? Also, how are my sisters? Can I keep the world turning just by thinking good thoughts?

By the time it was the weekend before I was due to travel to Italy – me and our dog on a Transat flight – I was spinning in tiny circles.

And do you know what happened? A giant net of loving hands appeared and moved me along, carefully and with a great sense of humour, to destinations planned and half planned. Two friends took care of the dog so I could visit son #2 in Ontario. Said son and lovely fiancée showed me a wonderful time in their beautiful space. 

Son #3 and his partner organized packing the car and food… and actually packed the car… and were ready with jokes when needed… 

Son #5 played the ukulele accompaniment to our road music while we were driving… he is the calmest person I know and his waves of coolness kept me afloat…

All and sundry cooked dinner before my flight, drove us to the airport, helped me stuff the dog in her crate, touched my back gently when I was about to yell at the Transat gal who was ordering me around …

All I know is, sometimes it takes a village to live a life. Just take a moment to be grateful for your friends, and your family. If you know anyone who doesn’t have either of those, go out and find them! We were all born alone, and we will die alone, but in between it’s worth it to reach out and make a friend. 

Thanks guys!