Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Custom-tailored Support System

The majority of us no longer have a whole village to help us raise our children. Many westernized countries recognize the need to take good care of their mothers and provide numerous services to make sure that happens. In Europe many employers not only grant months-long maternity leave but also provide fathers or partners with maternity leave, too. Countries like Holland further supply every mother often up to a year with daily mothers’ helpers who come into the home and do the laundry, cook, watch the baby or entertain siblings so that mom can rest. In Vietnam a mother is strictly required to stay in bed for 40 days, being waited on by her sisters, aunts, grandmothers and mother in order that she has time to recover and build up a good milk supply.

The Amish have a similar requirement that enables new mothers plenty of support and rest. In Hutterite colonies new mothers have been served in bed with the same chicken soup and homemade sweet rusk bread for centuries! Hmong mothers are required to avoid anything cold, including water and must start the prescribed broth and chicken and herb diet even weeks before their baby is born. Sometimes her grandmother will move in to do the cooking before the baby arrives. It is only in the last several decades with our mobile lifestyle that many families end up settling miles or even countries or continents away from what would have been a built-in support system.
      
History evolves, and so do our definitions and perceptions of the helping professions. Extended families in the past assumed the roles of helpers throughout the life of any given family from birth until
ultimately, death. Outsiders were brought into the family as society dictated the need for more ‘educated’ or ‘skilled helpers.’ Nurses and midwives learned from each other, from books of the period, or from physicians, though they were often less knowledgeable and frequently assumed the roles surrounding birth and death anyway. As families became more mobile and the parameters of the New World expanded, families often found themselves without the grandmother, aunt or mother who had helped before with all the ordinary and also extraordinary events in the family’s life. Doctors, midwives, undertakers, maids, cooks, dressmakers, and teachers -- all of these assumed roles for needs once met within the family structure.

Our 21st Century finds us bereft of even close neighbors, friends, or church members willing or able to help each other in times of need. But our needs have not vanished or evolved with time. We will always need others to help us in ways where we cannot cope alone. With the advent of the feminist movement, around the 1960s and ‘70s, most women assumed they could become Super Mom, managing alone to care for themselves, their families and their households without outside help. Some succeeded, though I can assure you they were exhausted far more than need be in the process. Others did not fare so well and viewed themselves as failures. The fact is we were not meant to have to cope alone. And we don’t have to prove to the world that we are Super Moms either. As the feminist movement simmered on the back burner toward the end of the 1980s, men began to come forward. No longer would they refuse to diaper baby or run the bath, but they even volunteered as stay-home dads.
In the 21st Century many people have at last found a middle-of- the-road, more sane approach. We don’t always have the extended family we would wish for, but we do have more options than ever to tap into and get the level of help we need, without feeling ashamed or appearing pampered. Doulas are one of these options. No longer solely unique to the elite class, they fill a much-needed gap in the care of ordinary families. In other countries, where there is socialized medicine, governments actually pay for doulas so that all mothers, regardless of income, will have the help they need before, during and after the birth of a baby. It is in the governments’ best interest to take good care of their mothers. Seven studies done in the U.S. since 1988, among many others, overwhelmingly prove that labor support versus usual care significantly reduces the use of epidurals, narcotics, instruments, and Cesarean rates alone, while at the same time increasing the Apgar rates of newborns (“The Birth Doula’s Contribution to Modern Maternity Care,” DONA Int’l).

There are many unforeseen turns in our lives, in our health, and in our families. The unexpected birth of twins in my own family is a perfect example. Though my husband worked for a large parish, no one offered to help when we came home, not with one but two babies, plus a toddler. I put an ad in our church bulletin seeking a part-time helper with no results. A doula would have been an answer to prayer. I was so run down by 5 weeks postpartum that I contracted pneumonia.
   
But now, close to thirty years later we are blessed with Doulas. Recently a couple hired me as a pre-partum doula when their midwife suggested support for a stalled labor. She was a first-time mom who had labored for more than 30 hours already and was overtired. Her body needed rest and she needed encouragement. So I agreed to meet them at their home. That night she slept soundly and ate well (I made her stacks of whole grain pancakes with yogurt and maple syrup). She was totally revitalized by the next day and began experiencing regular contractions again. Just having someone tell her that this was all very normal reassured her. Without this care, she might well have become completely discouraged and opted for unnecessary interventions which carry with them their own innumerable complications and risks. We returned to the birth center once labor was well established and she delivered a 10 lb. 10 oz. boy with good Apgar scores a few hours later.  
   
Back to my own twin birth. We found ourselves on The Farm in Tennessee with Ina May Gaskin (below) a few weeks before my due date (See: "Twin Birth on The Farm" at the toolbar at right) Despite the fact that they
were both head down, each over 5 lbs., that my blood pressure was perfect, and this birth wasn’t my first, I could not find a midwife or hospital (there weren’t any birth centers yet in Minnesota or Wisconsin in 1982) that would let me have them naturally i.e., vaginally, outside of an operating room. At The Farm I had 13 midwives/doulas at our birth which took all of 58 minutes. The Farm also has a midwifery school. I felt so supported and trusted the circle of women around me. I was able to have an incredible birth which could have been a Cesarean back in Minnesota and help during the first days and weeks besides. (See: Spiritual Midwifery, by Ina May Gaskin, 2nd ed. pg. 130, also their DVD “Twin Vertex Birth”)
As a doula, it is an honor for me to be able to ‘mother’ mothers. 
We all need other women to help us throughout our lives and the role of the doula is not simply a New Age invention. It is an Old World practice reincarnated to serve mothers today. ~sss

        Most doulas charge for their services though many will adjust their fees on a sliding scale based on your
income. You can also suggest bartering. One family recently overhauled all of our bikes at their bike shop for us as payment. Another family of artists offered to make an Oriental dressing screen for our apartment in exchange for doula services. One family I know told their relatives when asked what their twins would be needing suggested a Doula Fund that paid for real hands-on help for weeks after the babies arrived.

Our doula group recently organized a supper drop off for one of our doulas who had just had her first baby. We could even sign up for a night on the website and then deliver supper to the door. Any dietary restrictions were listed on the site. In this way she had meals delivered for at least 3 weeks after her baby arrived. Church groups have also organized meals for new mothers but might just need an organizer to get something going again.
         
When our babies were small and I felt like I was running a daycare in my home and only saw one adult during most weeks – my husband – I came up with another novel idea. I printed a sweet card that invited other stay-at-home moms in our neighborhood, though I didn’t know most of them, for a weekly pot luck tea party, but they were required to BYOB (bring your own baby). I simply stuck them in all the mailboxes on our street. It worked really well. Once we all knew who was also stranded out in suburbia, we didn’t feel so isolated. Some of us are still friends all these years later. Many libraries now host mothers’ groups also. Start one if yours doesn't.
   
     I have also found over the years a great resource in the grandmothers I’ve known. There was one woman in particular who was really a brick when I needed one. Jesse had 9 children, all older than ours. They ran a dairy farm out in the country. About once a month I would ask David to watch the children so I could visit Jesse. I would take my nursling along, of course but Jesse always knew exactly what I needed. Once her husband asked her why I would ever pick their chaotic house for my ‘white space’ moments. She completely understood and replied, “Because no one else will not ask her, ‘so why did you have so many kids if you are feeling so overwhelmed?’” I loved my big family. I just needed a break every so often.
           
     Another scheme I came up with was my ‘truck stop breakfast’ once a week that I choreographed with David and was able to pull off for a few years. I would nurse the twins around 5 a.m. and tuck them back into our bed on Saturday mornings. David and all of the other kids would be sleeping in. I could then sneak out and drive or walk the 1 mile to the local truck stop by the freeway. I would buy the weekend paper, order breakfast and a pot of coffee and ensconce myself in a booth at the back of the place. I didn’t have to jump up once during the meal and the coffee was actually hot! It was heavenly! I would read Irma Bombeck's column first and laugh out loud. I am sure the truckers and the waitresses thought I had lost a few marbles, but I look back now very fondly to my Saturday mornings at the truck stop.
       
     After my 4th baby, I had some problems with prolapse and ended up having to stay in bed – really stay there – for a couple of weeks. After the first few days of my husband’s cooking I was desperate. So were the kids. All he knew how to make was canned soup and scrambled eggs. I thought about what might improve this picture and came up with another creative fix. I called the little cafĂ© in town and asked to speak to the owner. I knew she was a middle aged woman and rumors in town were circulating that she was quite unwell. I suggested to Pat that when I was better I could bake her pies and flip pancakes and hamburgers during the upcoming hunting season (this was a BIG deal in rural Wisconsin at the time) and until then, if she could fix us a box supper for 6 people – I left the menus up to her -- that David could pick up on his way home from work, she could keep a running bill and I would reciprocate the favor as soon as I was up again. She jumped at the arrangement and that night David ceremoniously placed the big box on the table in the kitchen. When the children were all seated, he lifted out a casserole of fried chicken, bowls of coleslaw and potato salad and a cherry pie! The next night was hamburgers and malts. The day after that was a Caesar salad and homemade bread. Supper had never tasted so good! After 3 weeks of this, we were up to making our own suppers again.

Six weeks later I was ready. I set the clock for 4 a.m., fed baby Hannah and snuck out. The cafe was already surrounded with pickup trucks toting gun racks parked all over the place when I arrived. I flipped platter-sized pancakes till 8 a.m. and then washed dishes for the next hour. I came in every Saturday and Sunday as long as hunting season lasted. After that I came in twice more and painted the pantry for her. Then she announced that I had paid up. I brought the kids down there for ice cream every so often just to visit her after that. It had been rather fun.
         
    The important thing to remember is that you do not have to be Super Mom and it is OK to ask for help. Don’t wait until you feel dangerously out of control. You aren’t the first mom to feel this way.

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© both pending by Stephanie Sorensen

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