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Interviews with (Super) Women

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My interview with Lauren marks the second of (what I hope to be) many interviews with women from whom I find inspiration — or women I think are just plain badass, admirable, or hilarious. Probably a mixture of all those things combined. These women can be anyone — artists, mothers, professors, bloggers, career women — who is awesome in some way, shape or form. I’ve interviewed a number of women in the name of journalism over the span of my time at UC. Each and every one of those interviews has inspired me and validated my own experiences, choices and passions. I hope to inspire readers in that same way with my series: “Interviews with (Super) Women.”

 Who: Lauren Wales
What: Doula
Where: Cincinnati, Ohio

Lauren Wales first began studying to become a doula when she was 16 years old. Since then, birth and birth culture have been a part of her life in numerous ways. She has worked as both a licensed prenatal massage therapist and a childbirth and childcare educator. She is also the mother of a nearly-ten-year-old girl, whom she became pregnant with during her training to become a certified doula. Although Wales chose to become a certified doula in lieu of attending high school, she hopes to become a midwife someday, and is currently studying American birth culture at the University of Cincinnati. Wales identifies as a full spectrum doula, meaning she offers support for women during all stages of their reproductive cycles, with a focus on childbirth, prenatal and postpartum care. This article has been submitted to The Verge Magazine.

Q: Describe your job as a doula to someone who may not even know what it is.

A: So when a woman is pregnant and thinking about how and where she’s going to have her baby, then she may need support for that. She may have questions about places to give birth, about caring for a baby, or about all the possible options she has in regard to birth – options like positions, medications, how she is going to breastfeed her baby, what happens when you go home and have this newborn and you’ve never had one before.

That’s how the role or profession of the doula sprang up, and my job is really to mother the mother because in the US we don’t really have very interconnected extended families, so the kind of support that we might get from our mom or our grandma or sister or aunt, the professional doula provides that kind of support. Really I get to do all the fun stuff that comes with being a birthing coach or a birthing supporter without all the technical piece that the midwife or doctor would do. My role is really comfort measures, support and education, and really helping or coaching the mother through her pregnancy, birth and even postpartum.

Q: What made you decide to become a doula?

A: When I was 16. I met a woman who was going to school to become a nurse midwife. She lent me a book called “Spiritual Midwifery,” which is this really interesting 1970s hippie-style manifesto about giving birth. It got me really excited about this idea that women can empower one another in their birth experiences, so I thought,  ‘Well, that’s what I’m going to do with my life.’ So because I was 16 and didn’t have any kids, I was like, ‘Well, how can I get involved?’ One of the suggestions was to become a doula and learn how to support women like that before you went through all the technical process.

Q: What kind of training did that entail?

A: So this was like 11 or so years ago that I did my training. I was like 20. At that time, there were quite a few certifying organizations. Since then, that’s changed a little bit, but is still pretty much true. So what you would do was go to usually a weekend workshop – two to three days or so with a certain number of contact or fieldwork hours – and then you’d read a bunch of books, then you’d go to a bunch of books as a ‘doula-trainee’ of sorts. Back when I was becoming a doula, there weren’t a lot of doulas, so usually you’d go on your own to these births. Thank goodness, now there are a lot more experienced doulas out there so you can shadow someone, like an apprenticeship. But back then, I didn’t have that, so I’d go on my own even before I got certified. I just started going.

            I would contact people, who were teaching childbirth classes, and my mom does lactation support, so she knew a lot of people – I would just explain that this is what I want to do, and ask if they had anybody who would want me to come to their birth for free or for gas money. I worked for a while for Planned Parenthood in Hamilton because my midwife friend was there. And that was really amazing because I got to deal with a population of women who wouldn’t otherwise be able to hire a doula.

Q: How did your client base grown since you first became a doula? How has it continued to grow?

A: It’s been really cyclical for me – because I’ve always also been running this track to become a midwife. The doula work has been there kind of on a case-by-case basis. There are times when it’s really active in my life, and time when it kind of is on the backburner a bit. I did a lot of doula from when I was in my early twenties, but I got pregnant when I was 21.

            All this doula work was so inspiring, and I was engaged, and I was like, ‘Let’s have a baby!’ So that didn’t take a lot of work and we did. And then I took a break for a couple of years and went to school to become a massage therapist, then at the end of that, I started going to births again.

            It depends on the doula, though. Often times, we do have kids, and it’s a career people choose after they have children, and they’re usually fitting it around the rest of their life. Or maybe it’s the other way around – you know, life fits in around their doula work. For me, it kind of came organically. The more people I knew, and as the idea of doulas got to be something that more people knew about within mainstream culture, the number of births I attended grew.

            Also, through my massage therapy work, people would come to me for prenatal massage, who will then ask me to come to their births and be their doula. The idea of having someone there who knows what they’re doing and how to support then is appealing to them. So as I’ve made more choices and grown myself as a person over the years, the more births I’ve attended.

Q: So your main goal is to become a midwife?

A: Yes. So I guess I’m kind of a blend of analytical and interpersonal. I love the problem solving and kind of healthcare aspects of being a midwife, but I’m glad I’ve had all this work as a doula because what it does is give you a lot more time to develop intimacy with women and really understand what’s important about the birthing process with each individual woman. So much of what happens in birth is not about the physical. It’s about the emotional and relational, so if those things are in a good place, then the woman can be undefended and can be present and can rock out in her birth.

            If those things aren’t in place in a very good way – either because she’s got a something very psychological or relational going on in her life that she needs to let go of or work through, then that’s going to impact her physical birth experience as well. So I’m glad that I am able to learn about all aspects of birth – being a doula as I become a midwife has allowed me to do all those things.

            As I learn to become a midwife here in a university setting, still practicing as a doula keeps me in touch with why I wanted to become involved in births in the first place.

Q: If you could think back, what was your first experience as a doula like, how have your methods changed, and how have you grown as a doula?

A: I was so young and so enthusiastic. I don’t think I can give you one first experience because what ended up happening was that I ended up doing a lot more childbirth and prenatal education classes in the very beginning rather than attending a lot of births. And that was really amazing because it confirmed my feeling that this was definitely what I wanted to be doing and the career path that I wanted to go down in terms of working with women and having deep connections with them and helping them to feel empowered in what their choices were.

            So I was working with Planned Parenthood and I was also working with a childbirth education friend of mine at a pregnancy care center here in Cincinnati. So those are these diametric philosophies, but it was all about people having babies.

            The first birth that I was at was a young woman’s through the pregnancy care center and she was actually married, which was kind of unusual. She wasn’t a teen mom. She was actually 21 or 22. She and her husband lived with her family. They were very supportive of her and she wanted a natural birth. She had been to childbirth classes and she was very awesome.

She did great, and she did have a natural birth in the hospital, but she was on Medicaid and she gave birth at University Hospital. I remember how great she did when it was her husband and I in the room, and how disempowering it was when she had medical students – the two medical students did her birth, actually – and their attitude toward her was just so demeaning and awful.

            She knew exactly what she wanted and could feel everything, but they treated her as if she had no idea what was going on and like she just needed to lay back and let them do whatever they wanted.

            So it was glorious in the fact that I actually got to see this baby being born and this woman that was completely in her power, but at the same time there were active efforts to take that power away from her. After the birth, they took the baby to the warmer right away, which she didn’t want, and she had torn a little because they had forced her to push before she was ready.

            The next birth I attended was that of a 15-year-old girl. Her story was both beautiful and sad at the same time. She got pregnant through a date rape when she was 15, didn’t tell her family, and eventually, they realized she was pregnant. Well, her mom happened to be pregnant at the same time, and they gave birth about a week apart. They were both using the Planned Parenthood clinic because they were undocumented, and she came from a culture in Mexico where her mom had her siblings and her at home with a midwife in the mountains.

            So when they moved here, she had all this personal family support to have a natural birth and to breastfeed her baby. She was completely ready for this, and because I was younger, there was this connection between us where she was more comfortable with me, and I was with her through her whole labor, which was a long time, and it was really cool, but I also had another job at the time, and couldn’t get anybody to take my shift, so I had to leave her.

            When I left her, she was still in early labor, but after I left, the doctor came in, did a vaginal exam on her, and she freaked out because she had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the rape. When she became upset, the doctor said, ‘That’ll teach you never to get pregnant again.”

            She asked for an epidural at that point, which was probably the best thing given the circumstances since she was so upset and her mother didn’t speak any English, plus they didn’t have any interpreters in the hospital.

            She ended up having the epidural, and things went really fast. By the time I got back there that night, she had had the baby, but it was just not the kind of birth that she knew she could have, but she also felt powerless to change it. She didn’t want to file any complaints against her doctor because she was undocumented.

            All of those experiences together helped me realize how important this work was, how difficult it was, how much your position in life and your support system impacts your ability to have a great birth – and that’s how it all started for me.

Q: How have birthing laws affected your ability to practice as a doula?

A: There were a few instances where I nearly got into trouble since Ohio laws are so strict and anti-natural or home births, so for a while I made a decision to step back from attending births and focus on massage therapy and raising my daughter. It’s only been recently that I have felt comfortable enough to start going to births again. However, those instances taught me what I can do and not do legally in Ohio and how to protect myself while still enriching the birth experiences of other women and supporting them.

For instance, I love going to home births and am friends with a lot of homebirth midwives and know them pretty well, but if I’m at a birth, I’ll only go as a doula since I am not a licensed midwife right now. And I’ll only go with the agreement that I am not doing anything there that could possibly be perceived by anyone as clinical. Even though I know all the stuff, I won’t and can’t without putting myself in danger legally. That’s how strict the laws have become.

            I experienced a situation recently with a midwife who is a massage therapist and is my age and everything, and she was like, ‘So, we’re going to leave, do you mind doing this and that while I’m gone – I think it was like listening to the heart tones or something like that – and I had to say no. I could do that very easily, but I can’t and I won’t.

Q: How do you describe your job to your clients when they first approach you?

A: Well, a lot of people who are pregnant know what a doula is already, so it’s not as big of a question as it used to be. Where it comes up the most would be from someone who knows me in another capacity other than from my work as a doula. So then we talk a lot about comfort measures. The way I like to approach it is by saying, ‘It’s not my birth, it’s your birth, and so what’s important to me about birth culture might not be important to you.’

 I like to hear about someone’s vision and what kinds of qualities or experiences are important to someone, because no two births or birthing experiences are the same. It’s a lot about the qualitative for me. That’s kind of how I explain it to people. It’s about what they’ like their birth to look like, what they’d like for it to feel like, or where they would like to be.

Q: What are some misconceptions about your job?

A: OK this is a huge one: that I do something clinical, like a midwife or a doctor or a nurse, and somehow can do things for you and your labor to actually facilitate the birth. The other major one is that I’m an advocate in that I can speak for you, and that’s absolutely not true. That’s a really good thing to educate people about. Doulas are an amazing support, but at no point can your doula be a cheerleader in the sense that they are going to speak up for you against your care provider.

            It’s important for me to let a woman know what is going on throughout her birth, however, I can’t physically tell a physician what to do or karate chop a scalpel out of his hand. I can’t say to the doctor, ‘She does not consent.’ All I can do is process the birth afterward with the client to see how she’s feeling about it. There’s a lot of supporting and acknowledging what’s not OK within the system, but at the same time you recognize that you directly cannot change the system and aren’t responsible for changing it – women are.

That’s why it’s so important to empower women maybe before they even get pregnant – maybe we need preconception doulas; I think we do. There’s a movement going on right now that’s going toward something like that. It’s happening sort of jointly between the feminist community and the birth community. It’s this idea of a full-spectrum doula, which are doulas that support a woman through any reproductive choice that she makes, whether her choice is to terminate a pregnancy or to use artificial insemination to conceive, or whether or choice is to carry a pregnancy to term and make her own birth choices.

I’ve even done a bit of work with women who are planning on having hysterectomies or who are going through menopause. It’s the movement to support a women’s whole reproductive cycle throughout her lifespan and all the choices that involves. It’s all about empowerment and putting the power back into the hands of women.

Q: What do you personally take away from your work as a doula?

A: There’s this sense of wonderment and joy about being alive that comes from my work. There are very few jobs where you know that this is a pivotal moment in life. I think that there are three really pivotal moments in life that are quintessentially human and transcendent at the same time I would say the first one of those is being born, the second is like sexual experience or intimacy, and then the last one of those would be death. Those three things, throughout human experience everywhere in the world and throughout time, have been vital to who we are as beings but also have been this experience of something more than just daily like – they’re like out of time and space experiences.

            So I get to be in the room with someone who is giving birth, who is fully standing in her power and harnessing every little tiny bit of herself to focus in on this experience, and knowing at the same time that there is a human being coming in to the world that’s also actively choosing to be here in this moment, at this time, in this way, and who is working in this beautiful dance with their mother to come here.

And I watch this happen and I see two people fall in love in this way that will last their entire lifetimes.  It’s not one of those things where it’s like, ‘You’re my boyfriend today, and then I don’t love you tomorrow.’ It’s like a mother and her child and a father and his child have this bond that will never end. So to be present for an experience like that – it’s like, how could you ever not want that to be part of your life, and how could you not be grateful to have that.

I think that’s what it is – it’s that opportunity to be part of something that is, as a midwife that I used to work with says, ‘ It’s an experience that allows you to tremble at the foot of God.’ I’m not a Christian, but this idea of being present of being present for the sacred and special and divine of life…that’s what being a doula is about for me.

So how about you? If you are a mother, what was your birth experience like? If not, would you ever consider a natural childbirth? Why or why not? How does birth and birth choice relate to feminism? Would you ever use a doula if you were to give birth? How does birth choice relate to femininity? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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