Friday, July 5, 2013

The Doula Diary July 4th

I have been asked to be ‘housemother’ today at the Missionaries of Charity Women’s Shelter. Four nuns live here and make a home for up to 7 homeless pregnant women and their children at a time. This order of sisters was founded by Mother Teresa (now Blessed Mother Teresa as she is being elevated by the Catholic Church to sainthood). Each summer the nuns run a day camp for inner city children several days a week. All of the nuns can go if someone can run the house in their absence, so I got the request from Sister Rosetta last week. I love coming here. It is the most beautiful shelter I have ever seen, and I have been at a few. An old converted 3-storey apartment building, it is kept immaculately clean. There is a chapel, a floor for the nuns’ dormitory and dining room, another floor with classrooms and laundry and two halls for the guests, as the mothers are called. The sisters cook all the meals and make sure the women are helped to find a permanent home and all the resources they will need after their baby is born.

Today there are 4 resident women and three toddlers. I haven’t figured out who belongs to whom yet. The kids are sitting in the living room sharing a carton of Pringles. Two of the women just got back from shopping. They are unloading their some of their favorite snacks and things that might not get donated to the shelter, and I see they also made a trip to the pharmacy to get their prenatal vitamins. One woman in the farthest room down the hall has chosen to leave this morning so she is packing her 2 suitcases. She wants to rather stay with friends and wait there for her baby to come. The nuns expect her back in a few days. Sleeping on someone’s couch gets old pretty fast.

The last lady at the house is resting in her room. I go down to say hi. She miscarried the week before. She is mom to one of the toddlers eating chips. She is doing OK. She tells me she needs to get her life organized better before she has another baby anyway. I tell her I am sorry to hear about the miscarriage. I tell her it is always hard to go through, no matter what your situation is.

Just then the doorbell rings. It is a public health nurse on a home visit. The hospital alerted her office that one of their new moms might needs extra support so she is here to see her. I show her to the living room and let Alex know the nurse is here to see her. The doorbell rings again, so I go back down to answer it. It is a homeless woman, middle age, asking for money. I tell her the sisters won’t be home until after 4 p.m. She says she can wait, but I am not sure about bringing her into the house when they are not home, so I suggest she goes up to the coffee shop on the corner perhaps, and wait there. She says she doesn’t want to walk that far and asks to use the bathroom, so I escort her through the house counting heads to make sure I know where everyone else is. That done, she asks for something to drink. Of course I can’t send her back into this heat without some water, so I get her a glass. I rummage through the pantry and fill a bag with granola bars and fresh fruit and give that to her. I am still not sure what to do, so I suggest she make herself at home in the shade in the garden in the front of the house and get her a blanket to lie on. She is asleep within minutes. The woman with the suitcases leaves as a taxi pulls up to the house.

Back in the house there are chips flying all over the room and getting pounced on by the children. Yes, guys, they crunch when you step on them. I get out the broom and clean it up. The public health nurse continues to fire questions at Alex and type in her answers on the laptop balanced on her knees while I sweep. I go back to the kitchen and meet one of the ladies as she puts away the last of the groceries from their outing. She is expecting her first baby. She is a beautiful girl, barely 18. She asks if I am a nun. No, I tell her. I am a grandma, a midwife and a doula, and I also teach breastfeeding classes. She announces, “Oh! I ain’t gonna do that! It HURTS!” So we get into a pretty interesting conversation. I tell her that it shouldn’t hurt, and if one of her friends is telling her that, then she didn’t get help with her baby’s latch and he was probably chewing on the tip of her nipple, and yes, that hurts! She says she has met a doula – the hospital gave her some numbers to call – but she is afraid she can’t pay her. I snoop a bit and find out that she called a doula who wants to charge her the regular rate even though she is living in a homeless shelter. I tell her that isn’t acceptable. I explain that her medical insurance will pay for a doula, for a car seat and a breast pump and that next time I come I will put together a referral for her to get onto the program. She is delighted. So am I. She asks if I will teach her how to breastfeed her baby. (I have already mentioned that she will save over $1,800 a year in formula and her baby will have 85% less respiratory problems if she nurses. I told her I nursed my twins until they were past 2 years old and never had an ear ache in any of our 5 children.) Later I suggest doing a breastfeeding class right at the shelter the following week for all of the ladies and Sister Rosetta agrees.
My phone signals a text message. Two picture from my Muslim mama who had her baby last week. So cute!!! (See the story at this blog called, “Rethinking Obstetrical Drapes at Birth” under the July stories.) She is still really happy with her birth. When I last visited her, I asked if she knew she was that strong. She laughed and said, no, she never would have believed she could do what she did. Her husband added: “that baby, she is gonna be a strong one, too!” I told him that he will have 2 strong women to contend with now.

Two hours to go until the sisters get back. I wash up a sink full of dishes from breakfast and gather up the trash from all the rooms. I stop by a big bulletin board with pictures of all of the mothers with their babies who have come through this house. Four of the pictures are of ladies I referred to the shelter and was their doula at their births. I often wonder where they are now. Some have kept in touch while others just disappeared. I hope all are OK. I stand at the bulletin board and say a prayer for all of them, wherever they are.

I let the public health nurse out and check on the homeless woman still sleeping in the garden. At least it is shady. I read on the couch in the main sitting room until the nuns return. While I was rummaging around the laundry room for a blanket to give her, I noticed that they have a young woman staying with them in one of the rooms close to the cloister part of the house. When someone is interested in joining the order, they first write to Calcutta, to the mother house inquiring about visiting. Usually they will correspond over the next couple of months getting to know each other and at some point if the sisters feel she is a possible candidate, they will suggest a visit to one of the houses in the U.S. It is an open-ended visit, what Mother Teresa called, ‘Come and See’. Sometimes it becomes clear to the young woman that this is not what she imagined it would be like and she leaves. Other times the nuns might feel that she is not yet mature enough for this kind of a commitment and may counsel that she finishes college first or works for a year and then reapplies. But if both parties feel confident that this is a possible match, they will suggest that she stays on and works with the sisters for a few more months before deciding to join the novitiate. Novitiate is a further time of ‘growing into the life’ which usually lasts about a year which includes classes given by the Novice Mistress to better understand the rules and constitutions of the order and which form the young woman in the life of prayer.
In the early 1970s at one point I wrote to Mother Teresa asking to visit. I had visions of going to Calcutta and dying a martyr from leprosy. She wrote back saying that they were just starting a house in the Bronx in New York City and asked me to go there for a time. I was disappointed, silly 19 year old that I was, that I couldn’t go straight away to India – I had even started taking Bengali lessons – but I took a Greyhound bus the following week and lived and worked with the sisters in Harlem and the Bronx for the next several months. My health didn’t hold up to the rigors of religious life and I wasn’t up to the sacrifices this life demanded so I left, though I loved the time I had there. And now almost 40 years later I am working with the sisters once again. I never would have imagined our paths would again cross like this.

Finally they come home from camp carrying picnic coolers, water jugs, towels, beach balls, a huge pot of leftover hot dogs -- all the stuff of a hard day at the beach. It was a success, I gather, as they tell me about the children and all the fun they had together. I point out the homeless lady under the tree and they assure me they will figure out what to do to help her. I update them on the mom who left earlier in the day, and return the house keys to Sister Davis. I am glad it worked out that they could all go today. The sisters appear to have had as much fun as the kids. I gather up my things and head down the street to the Dairy Queen to visit my friend, Suzanne. She bought the place last year. A single mom, almost 44 years old, trying to raise 3 teenage boys, who just found out she was pregnant before the divorce. I try to see her at least once a week, bringing her flowers (no one else is) and encouraging her in little ways. I will be her doula this fall when baby is born and offered to help her at home for a week or two after she delivers. The funny thing is, she often ends up encouraging me, and drives me all over the Twin Cities whenever I need to do a home visit or when I have to bring a homeless woman to the shelter, and my husband has the car and it is my week to use the buses and trains. On her days off Suzanne and I will check out the thrift stores for baby clothes and stock up at the grocery discount warehouse here in town. She makes me a soy milk smoothie, refusing to let me pay for it. I sip my treat while we visit a bit and then I catch the next bus home and have an hour before David will be here. So I write in my doula diary. I didn’t do much today, but I am grateful that I am still able to help moms in little ways. I feel very blessed.

STAY TUNED... This and other stories will be appearing in one of the books, Call the Doula! a diary© or Stone Age Babies in a Space Age World:§ Babies and Bonding in the 21st Century,© 
pending by Stephanie Sorensen

§This phrase was first coined by Dr. James McKenna, used here with permission and gratitude for his work. A world-renowned expert on infant sleep – in particular the practice of bed sharing, he is studying SIDS and co-sleeping at his mother-infant sleep lab at Notre Dame University. He is the author of “Sleeping With Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Co-sleeping,” 2007, Platypus Media, Washington, D.C.

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