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Honoring Difference: Lessons in Embracing & Loving Yourself

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When I was a freshman in high school, I was diagnosed with a disability that’s “traditionally” tied to middle-aged or elderly women: fibromyalgia.

He thought for a few minutes. I imagine it was hard to put aside all his history with me – I’d been ill for much of my time as a child, suffering from other chronic health problems that were linked to my prematurity (I was born three months early and had multiple surgeries thanks to my preemie status). Finally, he sighed and said, “Well, we usually only diagnose middle-aged women with this, but I’d say she has fibromyalgia.”

Finally, all of my symptoms fit into one clear-cut, clean box: the constant-pain, the daily level-ten migraines, the vomiting, the anxiety, the depression, the swelling, the insane amount of absences from school, the sore throats, the arthritic joints…all of it made sense. And it was a relief, but also a life sentence: I had a medical condition that fell under category of disability, and I was only a freshly-minted teenager.

The symptoms didn’t go away – they still haven’t completely, even though I take a cocktail of drugs every night and go see specialists relatively frequently, but to say I’ve learned a lot from my disability is the understatement of my entire life. It’s made me stronger, even in my weakest, most vulnerable moments. And I’m thankful for that, even if I hate my disability’s rotten guts.

After missing more than 200 days of high school, college was a dream. Not to say I haven’t missed a ton of my college classes – I have – but really, it’s been a dream. Especially after having my high school counselor and principals tell me I’d never graduate high school, let alone get accepted into or be able to attend college. So this is for all my HATERS. (Sorry – I just had to. One of the things that gets me through my rough days is laughter, even if it means laughing at my own jokes or…gasp…laughing at myself.)
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This is going to sound crazy, but I’m thankful for my disability. It’s made me learn some huge life lessons, in my opinion, apply to anyone going through a rough patch in life – like we all do, at one point or another. Here are a few of the big things I’ve learned.

It’s OK to ask for help.
Learning this was a big challenge for me. Especially when my parents were sick. I felt guilty asking them for help, but I needed it, and it was OK to need it. We all need help sometimes. Sometimes asking for help is the bravest thing you can do! So just do it! And know that you are strong because you know when and how you need help – and are brave enough to ask for it. It truly never hurts to ask. Knowing yourself and your needs takes strength, so asking for help is strong.

Take time to relax.
We all need relaxation. Taking time to relax is good for you. Sometimes, it is better to be lazy! So take a step back, do something that makes you happy. Read a good book, check your Facebook, call your mom, watch TV, or – by all means – take a nap! I tend to get behind with my schoolwork, studies, or commitments because I need more “me-time” than other people, but I’ve learned to be OK with that. Like I just said, asking for help is a sign of strength and self-love, and letting people know that you may need to extend some deadlines or might need to cancel a meeting because you’re either going through a rough patch or have a disability – well, that’s also a brave and strong thing to do. And, though I know this is most likely a cheesy thing to say, you’re worth it! It’s true!
Saying “no” is a good thing.
I touched on this before, but having different limits and abilities in life has meant learning to say “no.” This has been a hard one for me. I’m a people-pleaser by nature. I want to be able to do it all and I don’t want to let anyone down, but I’ve learned to say “no.” It’s a huge coping mechanism for me and keeps me healthy. I let people know that upfront. Being honest with yourself and others is a huge sign of maturity. It’s also a way to honor and know yourself – something we all need to learn. Saying “no” is a tool I – unfortunately – have to use on a daily basis, but it’s also the simplest way I know to stay healthy and in control of my disability. Sometimes I give people an explanation, but it’s also important to note that you don’t always need to. That’s something else I’ve had to learn. Sometimes, an apology just isn’t warranted! It’s OK to put yourself first – easier said than done, I know, but it’s important to TRY. Especially in those rough patches!

Know your limits, but also know when to push yourself.
This probably sounds totally contradictory to what I just said, but honestly it’s not. For the longest time, I let my disability disable me. I let it run the show for fear of a flare up (AKA my fibromyalgia symptoms rearing their ugly head…AKA pain, insomnia, vomiting and lots of tears). It kept me from seeing friends or trying new things way too much. I said “no” all the time for a long time. Then I got sick of it. I wanted my life back, even if it meant dealing with more pain than usual. So I went to Paris. Literally – I went to Paris. (You can read a post about it here.) And I was scared! But it was also the best thing I ever did in my entire life. I was in a ton of pain from all the walking – I went with a class last Spring, so it was basically like an extremely amped up field trip – and the seven-hour time difference. I had tons of flare ups while I was there. Sometimes I cried. But I also had the best time of my entire life. I made some of my most favorite friends and my breath was constantly taken away from all the joy I experienced in Paris. I loved every second. Even the teary seconds. Even the painful seconds. Every second. I could go on and on. Want to know the biggest thing it taught me? It taught me that I was strong and brave and in-control of my life! My disability didn’t run the show, even when it was making my life more difficult. I was still capable of happiness even when I was in pain. I was still capable of doing amazing, wonderful, adventurous things. It forced me out of my comfort zone, and I am forever grateful to myself for it! (And you know what? Turns out you can say “no” even when you’re in Paris. I did. But I also learned to say “yes” again!) Holly011 Holly024 Holly035 It really will all be all right – eventually.
Ever heard the saying “this too shall pass?” It’s totally true. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by the fact that I will spend the rest of my life with this disability. Sometimes I cry – well, I cry a lot – and tell my mom and boyfriend that I feel like I’m dying. Sometimes I get super-dramatic about it and feel like my life is over. Dramatic, right? Well, it happens. And that’s OK! Because you know what? It will be all right! It all will be all right. The flare ups and freak outs will pass. Though rough patches will, too. Eventually. Sometimes, you just have to give it some time! Patience is a really hard virtue, but it’s necessary. I really do promise it will all be all right. Pinky swear.

You are a strong person, even when you feel weak.
Man, oh man! I feel like a total weakling sometimes. And physically, I probably am in a lot of respects. But I’m also strong – even when I’m at my most vulnerable. And so are you! I’ll pinky swear about that, too. It takes a strong person to learn how to be happy in this life! It takes a strong person to say “no.” It also takes a strong person to say “yes.” We’ve all been through the rough patches of life. They make us stronger. I know I’m probably sounding cheesy by now, but I think that it’s so important – and brave – to recognize that. Give yourself a pat on the back. Do it. You deserve it.
You are loved, so love yourself.
Think of all the people who love you. And yes, your mom and dad count, too. So do your dogs and cats. So do your fish. So does your pet…monkey…? It’s truly an epidemic in this country – the whole low self-esteem, low self-worth thing. I mean that. It makes me sick and sad and angry all at the same time. Self-love is low around these parts. So let’s all take a moment – or a bunch of moments – to give ourselves a huge hug for all that we do for others and ourselves on a daily basis. You are so loved – each and every one of you! So love yourself. Easier said than done in our society, I know. But learning to love myself and celebrate my achievements – even the tiniest ones – is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. It’s still a huge learning process and it’s still a struggle, but all kinds of love take devotion, so let’s all become devoted to self-love, too. (If you need some more encouragement, check out my friend Cortnie’s blog. It rocks my socks.)

I asked my readers to share some of what they’ve learned from their disabilities or from their loved ones having disabilities – which I prefer to call different abilities (I learned that from my Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies classes), but for the sake of non-WGSS students out there, I’ll use the traditional D-Word for clarity’s sake. Because trust me – you learn a lot from being a disabled person, or loving a disabled person – especially if you are a young person who is affected by a disability, I’d say. That also goes for young people who love people with disabilities, too. I learned so much about myself taking care of my parents – who are both cancer survivors. Probably more than I learned from my own disability, so for everyone out there who is a caretaker, I think you are the strongest people around. That also goes out to my parents and my boyfriend, who are my caretakers on my rough days. Unconditional love gives me the most strength I could ever have – which also takes form in loving yourself unconditionally – don’t forget that! Learn to do that! PRONTO! Holly027 Holly021 Holly008 Anyway, when I asked my readers and friends to share their stories regarding disability, I received some beautiful, wonderful and amazing responses. They made my heart happy.

Gabrielle Walter, who is also a blogger and UC student, gave a response that took my breath away. I didn’t even know she had an invisible disability like me, so it was a real eye-opener. Her comment was especially beautiful and relatable.

“Many times disabilities aren’t easily seen or noticed by people you work with everyday,” she said. “I was officially diagnosed with narcolepsy, a rare sleeping disorder, about a year and a half ago. I’m unable to regulate my sleeping patterns aka I fall asleep at the most inopportune times. At first the hardest part was coping with the fact I couldn’t live up to society’s expectations. I’d fall asleep before deadlines, classes and while working. In about 6 months I went from very involved, successful student to a part-time struggling-to-stay-in-school student. Once I got past the importance of grades, I had to accept I couldn’t do everything I wanted to be able to do for myself. That was by far the hardest.”

Gabrielle and I both used to be editors at our student newspaper, which takes a lot out of you, so hats off to her – and hats off to me, too. Because I’m a firm believer in exercising self-love.

“While any disability is difficult, you do grow as a person,” Gabrielle said. “Randomly sleeping about 12-14 hours a day makes you make the most of the time you are awake. I focus on doing what I love, and only what I love. I have re-evaluated what I truly consider important in life and have ultimately slowed down to enjoy the simpler things.”

This is evident in Gabrielle’s blog, Profoundly Simple. I check it every day for new posts and information. Gabrielle started the blog in an effort to live more simply since, like she said, making the most of the time you’re awake (or, in my case, not in pain) and enjoying every second of that time becomes so important. Learning to focus my time and effort has been a invaluable skill for me. Holly009 Holly013

Bloggers Ali Stigler and Marisa Whitaker (you can find their blogs here and here) wrote about the life lessons that come with depression and anxiety.

“[Sometimes] you just don’t want to go out and would rather lay in bed trying to figure out who you really are,” said Marisa on her anxiety, depression and ADD.

Marisa brings up a great point. Life with a disability – and rough patches in life in general – really does make you figure out who you are very quickly. Any rough patch tests your emotional and mental strength, but I’ve found that you really find out who you are, what you want and what you stand for when you deal with those rough patches every day, especially at a young age. I really related to Ali’s story; her life has also been touched by disability.

“My mom, like many others, has suffered from depression for about seven years now,” she said. “It isn’t visible all of the time, but sometime you can just tell when she’s upset. She’s on medication to regulate it, but when you can tell she’s having a rough day and not feeling it, it’s hard to figure out what to say to make it better. Because there really isn’t anything I can do to make her feel better. I just try to get her out of the house and take her to lunch or go thrifting (one of our favorite activities). I know those kinds of things make her happy, even if it’s only for a certain amount of time.”

Having a loved one suffer from a chronic illness, disability, or disease while you’re young – or at any age, I’m sure — causes you to grow up fast, as does having a parent or loved one who is ill. Being a caretaker at age 18 and on (I’m an only child) while coping with my own chronic illness made me grow up – or attempt to grow up, whatever “growing up means” – really fast. It made me put my priorities in check. While I didn’t get to party or be a typical reckless teenage girl, I am thankful for the life lessons helping my parents battle cancer taught me. In fact, I’m thankful for all my rough patches thus far in life. They’ve made me who I am and have strengthened my heart.

What are some things you’ve learned from your rough patches in life? What are some skills you’ve learned along the way? What some big life lessons for you? Let me know! Holly014

Spirit over Body & Mind over Media: A State of Physical Grace

Note: This is a post about body positivity and body image inspired by Cortnie at That Cortnie Girl. So thank you, Cortnie. You are an inspiration to women of all shapes and sizes. I hope this post makes you proud! Because it sure made me proud!

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I want to share something pretty intimate yet incredibly rewarding and meaningful with you. Something happened for the first time…well, maybe ever, today.

Before each and every shower I have ever taken, I peak into the mirror before getting in. I usually can find flaws at first glance. I have four surgical scars my eyes tend to gravitate toward. The most pronounced is the scar that extends from one side to the other, all the way across my stomach, dividing my torso into two. I received it when I was only a few days old: a results of bad intestines due to my three months’ prematurity. I have a smaller incision just below that point where my feeding tube ended. On my neck, I have a scar (most often mistake it for a hickey) from where said feeding tube was inserted. A scar on my right breast from an old central line. 

My eyes go there first. They always have. Most of the time, I find myself daydreaming of having the scars surgically removed or covered up with more tattoos. This time — for the first time — I didn’t. For the first time, I appreciated them. I think I might have even subconsciously thanked them for saving my life this time. For the first time.

The way I view my body has always been an odd, contradictory hurricane of emotions. I feel beautiful — I always feel beautiful — thanks to my hair and eyes and face. But everything below the face I’ve always felt neutral about or negatively toward.

Not today.

As I did my typical glance in the mirror, I found myself smiling. I looked at my scars and smiled. I looked at my tattoos and smiled. I flexed an arm and smiled because I knew the muscles that now grace those once-twig-like arms have been a labor of love: they come from days of hard, manual, laborious work on my feet. I lift and lift and lift bins and baskets and tubs — most weighing in at more than 60 pounds — high over my head: I stack them in the warehouse, I organize them to be reviewed and looked over and bought in. Yes, they’re just full of clothes and shoes, but trust me, you’ve never seen so many clothes and shoes in your life. That’s a women’s resale shop, for you. You have to get on your hands and knees and lift, lift, lift and shove, shove, shove and squat, squat, squat to be able to fill your store — no one delivers the clothes for you; you have to find them yourself by sifting through these women’s lives. It’s rewarding and exhausting.

I never in a million years thought my body was capable of doing a job like this and doing it well. Having fibromyalgia, I thought I’d be able to sit at a desk all day clicking keyboard keys for the rest of my life. Or bed-ridden. Whichever came first…or last.

But no. My body has impressed me beyond explanation. I am proud of my body. For the first time. I am proud of this body — my body — and all that it does for me. It is able to be stronger than I ever could have dreamed, this body of mine. It is capable of more than mind-numbing, mind-blowing chronic pain. It is more than chronic fatigue. It is capable of so much more. My body showed my spirit this before my heart even had the chance to realize it.

So when I looked in that mirror, I was proud. I couldn’t pick any flaw. I couldn’t pick anything I’d want to change. I didn’t pinch my stomach to see how much flab was there or pat my hips thighs in frustration. I didn’t glare at my stretch marks. 

Yes, I have gained more than twenty pounds since my trip to Paris last year. Yes, sometimes this makes my fibromyalgia symptoms worse — more weight to carry typically equals more physical pain — but did I want to change anything because I thought I was less than beautiful? No. For the first time, I saw my whole body as beautiful, and not just from the neck up. For the first time, I acknowledged its strength and knew it had grown stronger than I could’ve predicted. And it wasn’t stronger because of dieting or disordered eating or hours on a treadmill.

It was stronger from working hard at a job I love. Stronger from early afternoon and late night dance parties with my boyfriend. Stronger from more movement and from harder work. How could I not be proud of this fibromyalgia-ridden, chronically-and constantly-in-pain body of mine? It was 20 pounds heavier, but it was functioning and adapting in ways I never thought it would. 

Because my body has been so good to me, I want to love it back. I want to start doing yoga again and meditating. I want to work to eat organically, healthfully and holistically. I want to go for long walks and swim. Because my body has surpassed my expectations, I am so inspired to raise the bar even higher for what this body of mine can do. 

I thought of all these things as I glanced into that mirror. And I smiled, in shock, and hopped into a shower like any other day, but I knew something had changed. I knew I had changed. I was capable of doing whatever I set my mind to, just like my mother had always taught me. And for the first time, I had proof.

When was a time you felt proud of your body? Do you struggle with a negative self image? What has helped you overcome this struggle? What inspires you to feel and know you are beautiful? Please let me know! Let’s inspire each other. I want you to join me in this road toward body love. Leave a comment below!

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Interviews with (SUPER) Women

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Who: Carolyn Peterson
What: Human Sexuality Professor
Where:
Cincinnati, Ohio

Carolyn Peterson credits her ability to teach human sexuality on a college level to her six-year tenure as a phone sex performer as well as her master’s degree in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Before doing graduate work at the University of Cincinnati, Peterson completed her bachelor’s degree in creative writing at Ohio University. According to Peterson, her work in phone sex is the best thing she will ever do with her creative writing degree. After completing her master’s degree and writing a thesis on phone sex work, Peterson took time off to waitress and gain real world experience. She says that her personal experiences with sex, sexuality and sex work prepared her to teach as much as her academic accomplishments. Peterson has been teaching human sexuality for three years. In 2011, she was awarded the McMicken Dean’s Award for Distinguished Adjunct Service. She has since become a fulltime faculty member at the University of Cincinnati.

Q: How did you become a human sexuality professor?

A: The actual job fell in my lap. I didn’t seek it out. I have my master’s degree in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies from the University of Cincinnati — where I teach. I’ve always been interested in sexuality. I’ve always made everything about sex even when it isn’t. It’s kind of a natural extension.

Also, I was a phone sex performer for six years, so I really think that my experiences with that are equal to my degrees and my graduate work. I learned a lot about sexuality from the phone sex performer job that I never learned in school. It felt like natural, good timing for me to get this job.

Right before they invited me to teach, I kind of had this moment where I kind of told the universe what I wanted – I had been trying to think of what job I would like to do, you know? And I just couldn’t think of a job that I really wanted to do. I kind of have high standards in regard to what I choose to do for work. A couple jobs came my way before this one, and I didn’t really feel passionate about them. And then this just kind of fell in my lap — I didn’t apply for it or anything, but it ended up being want I wanted. It was a huge blessing. It really came as an answer to a question I put out there. I never had even taken a human sexuality class in college – I wasn’t familiar with human sexuality as a class or a big lecture that a lot of students take in undergrad. I wasn’t aware of it. I never would’ve come up with this being what I wanted to do on my own, but when it finally came along, it was definitely the perfect answer. If I won Powerball today, I would still do this job.

Q: How did you become a phone sex performer, and how does that apply your teaching?

A: The short answer of how I started doing phone sex was that I knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody that had started this phone sex company. When I first started, I was graduating with my bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing at the time with a certificate in women’s studies.

At the time, I wasn’t passionate at all about getting a job – the whole process just sounds really boring to me. It was coming time for graduation and I was hanging out with a friend of the woman I was dating at the time, and he was like, “You should do phone sex.” I had always been a flirt – I’m not as much of one as I used to be. The phone sex thing was the best thing I ever did with my creative writing degree, definitely. I was trained by an acting coach, but completely bombed the audition – but my boss saw something in me, I guess, and I got the job. As soon I wasn’t nervous anymore, it was really easy for me to pick it up. Again, it was a really good fit for me. The company was started by a group of radical, Second Wave feminists, so it was just fascinating. I could go on and on and on about the company for forever – I ended up doing my graduate thesis on it. It was really interesting to me because I had identified as a feminist since I was probably like 14.

When you are a sex worker, you run into a lot of really interesting opinions and ideas about sex work. I feel really passionately about sex work, and what was really interesting to me was how much resistance I ran into in the feminist community. I think this is kind of an old idea that doesn’t really apply anymore to feminism at large, but there was this whole kind of Second Wave feminist idea that women who engage in sex work are either exploited and have no choice or they have a kind of false consciousness. That was always really irritating to me, and I always saw feminism and sex work as side by side. It totally made sense to me that feminists would be pro-sex work since it’s all about making your own choices.

In terms of the juxtaposition between the academy and my phone sex experience was like anyone who comes to the academy with experience and sees that experience theorized and oftentimes sees that experience theorized incorrectly by people who are part of the elite and who have never actually experienced it.

I also experienced a lot of support, though, from faculty and from my graduate cohorts. I think that I learned a lot in graduate school about feminist theory and philosophy that I internalized and learned, but doing sex work and doing phone sex has taught me at least as much as my formal education – especially about sexuality.

Phone sex forced me to face a lot of judgments about men – about a lot of things, really…including sex. Doing phone sex is kind of like being a therapist. You can’t be a good therapist if you’re judging your client – even if your client is, like, a rapist. You can’t judge that client and still be helpful to them or be a good counselor. You have to find neutrality and a place of compassion for them where you can connect to them, because if you don’t, you’re just sitting in judgment and can’t help them.

That was really transformative to me – experiencing all of these men and their fantasies, which may be .00001 percent of what I would have “agreed with” as a feminist. All the rest were crazy and would be considered totally unethical and would be at minimum considered exploitative of women or violent towards women. Any fantasy there is – I did it.

I feel like I got to know the depth of these men’s psyches. They would tell me everything – things that they didn’t tell their wives or their therapists or their doctors or priests because they were anonymous. The way I was trained by this company was to have the utmost respect for this client and to give them the best possible experience – not to milk them for money or to try to keep them on the phone longer, you know? None of that capitalist stuff. What ended up happening was that the company was really successful because of that.

I developed a lot of empathy and compassion for people who I would not be able to have empathy or compassion for otherwise. I think in terms of understanding sexuality, there’s nothing like delving into the deep, dark corners of people’s minds, you know? And one of the most interesting things I learned is that you don’t know whom someone is identifying as in a fantasy. You have these weird epiphanies about how complex our psyches are or how completely drenched in judgment and stereotype I am – especially as a feminist.

I think that that job really helped me to teach this class – not only in terms of knowledge of sexuality, but in terms of fantasy and just kind of sexual literacy. And also in terms of coming from a place of compassion – even if they’re into things that society deems to be “problematic.” And you can’t be a good teacher if you’re judging your student, and that has been really helpful because if I had started teaching after coming out of graduate school, then I would have been a very different teacher.

Q: So how is human sexuality class different than a sex ed. class?

A: It’s everything that’s related to sex and sexuality. It’s physical, emotion and psychological. It’s social and sociological. It’s psychology. There’s a sex ed. element to the class because there has to be since students often didn’t get that in high school most likely, so the sex ed. element. Then there are the nuts and bolts like, “Here’s a vagina!” or “Here’s a penis!” It’s the kind of stuff that, in a perfect world, you’d have known since you were five, but in the real world, most people don’t know.

Q: What is the most challenging thing about your job?

A: I would say one is walking the tightrope of recognizing where our culture is in terms of sexuality and including that in my teaching process and figuring out how to figuring out how to teach in a way that resonates with such a diverse group of students who have all experienced sexuality and sex differently by the time they get to the class. I try to see the world through the eyes of so many different people who are on opposing sides of things – that’s really challenging. Being mindful of not judging and coming from a place of compassion can be challenging, too.

I guess I’m pretty much past judgment of people about sexuality – I mean, I still judge my boyfriend, for example. I’m not the Buddha. But I used to get pissed off at people who hold certain ideological positions. I don’t do that anymore. Because I believe that every one’s sexuality is sacred, and it’s easy to see, like, women’s sexuality as sacred, you know what I’m saying? It’s more of a challenge to see, like, a frat guy and know very clearly what he’s interested in and what his perceptions of gender, sexuality and consent are, and still see his sexuality as sacred.

If I’m practicing what I preach, then I see even the frat guy’s sexuality as sacred, in all of its “ugliness,” and that, to me, is what is really beautiful about my job because it gives me endless opportunities to grow as a person and to embrace things that I haven’t always embraced.

I think being able to love all my students is really challenging, too. My perspective is really sex positive and really different than our mainstream structures of paradigms of understanding of bodies and sexualities and things. It’s interesting trying to fit what I believe is true and valuable about these subjects and what I would like to communicate about all these subjects into a format that is understandable for students. But I like the process. I just have to be real.

The topic is so personal and intimate. If I really think about the impact that this kind of impact this kind of class can have on students – not because of me, but because of the subject. A lot of students have experienced a lot of trauma, and subjects in the class will trigger things for them, and then they’ll want to come to me about it. I’m not a trained counselor, but I do my best. A lot of times, this is the only space that they’ve experienced thus far in life where they can talk about the things that have happened to them – it makes me really nervous that I’m going to do something wrong, and that’s the part that I try to really handle with care and compassion and take very seriously.

Students constantly surprise me. It’s a really transformative process for me because they share the amazing parts of who they are – this job changes my life on a regular basis.

Q: What does it mean to be “sex positive?”

A: It’s the belief that sex is fundamentally good and that it’s a force that can be used for good in the world. It doesn’t mean that every sexual experience is good, but that’s not sex’s fault. It’s the idea that sex is inherently good and is sometimes abused. Sex positivity is the belief that sex is positive.

Q: What is the most surprising thing about teaching human sexuality?

A: It’s surprising how easy it is. It’s so enjoyable. Maybe to someone who doesn’t enjoy it naturally, it would be really hard. Mostly, anything that has to with the class, I really enjoy doing.

Also, I didn’t realize how involved in the community I was going to be able to get. I’ve been able to network and create a web of connecting students with people in the community. I guess it’s surprised me how much energy and passion students have. They’re so progressive, even if they’re not like me – they’re so passionate about what they believe in and they’re so insightful. It’s just cool to be around young people who are blooming. It’s really cool to watch and I feel really blessed to be a part of that. It’s not always easy, of course, but I love it.

Q: What’s the most rewarding aspect?

A: Having mutually beneficial relationships with students. Some people, I think, feel like teaching is a top-down thing, but that’s not me. I don’t do the banking system of knowledge. Students have a lot of influence on me – I don’t know if they know that, but they do. Every semester that I teach, something life changing happens to me thanks to the class. I feel like I continually grow and learn through teaching. I hear about so many personal journeys in regard to topics that really personal. I see students come out of the closet in all sorts of ways – like they might be gay or republican or kinky or slutty or a virgin. I see students evolve and have realizations about so many sorts of things.

And it’s not because of me; it’s because of them and what they choose to take away from the class or how they view the information. Being able to witness that is really rewarding and uplifting. It’s really reassuring – it only takes one or two experiences with students to be like, “Oh, things are OK. The world is OK. Everything will work out.”

Q: What has teaching this class on a college level made you think of pre-college sex education for students?

A: There are totally exceptions to this rule, but overwhelmingly, sex education is nonexistent in America. Often, even when it is existent, it is purely negative. Abstinence-only education is not education; it’s a lack of education. It’s all fear-based. I’m sure there are schools out there that are really amazing, but we have such a taboo in our culture about age and sexuality. I’m really in touch with that taboo because I’m really aware of it thanks to all the stuff I talk about. I have these panic moments where I’m like, “Oh, my god. Am I going to jail just for saying this?”

It’s ridiculous how our culture is collectively terrorized by the idea of sexuality and youth being combined, even though young people are the most sexual people and it’s their bodies. I’ve always found it to be offensive that children aren’t educated about their own bodies. It breaks my heart that we have taught our children that the most powerful parts of their bodies aside from their hearts and brains are less than beautiful and amazing. Then they spend the rest of their lives trying to figure out how to enjoy that part of their body. I think children should be taught about their bodies immediately – they have knowledge of them anyway, so trying to combat that knowledge with negativity is just absurd.

One of the most rewarding parts of this job is being in a position where I might be the first contact that they having coming right out of that kind of environment and I feel really honored to be in that position. I take it really seriously. I see it almost as a decompression of sorts – I try to be as positive as I possibly can. I try to be as unconditionally loving as possible. I don’t know how to translate that into teaching exactly, but I do my best.

Q: What are some misconceptions you run into?

A: I don’t run into a lot of misconceptions, but probably that I teach just sex ed. where you just learn about STDs and contraception. Maybe another one would be that I’m a therapist or that I can solve their sex problems. Like I’m a medical doctor or something. It doesn’t bother me; it’s just a misconception that they have. I don’t think there are as much misconceptions as there are…well, people just don’t know what it’s about. They just have a lack of conception.

Q: Since you have a Women’s Studies background and teach the class from a feminist perspective, what does feminism mean to you? How do you define it?

A: It’s really changed for me over the years. When I think of feminism now, I think of something that’s radically challenging problematic systems – or subverting cultural norms that are exploitative and hierarchical and messed up. It used to be challenging systems of domination, but now, it’s the challenging of those systems and then the replacing of them with love and joy and freedom. For me, the solution to the problems that feminists battle is love and compassion. It took real world experience for me to be able to define feminism as something that isn’t just about seeing the negative, but about replacing that negativity with positivity. And that’s what I try to do now. Instead of just focusing on the problems, I look to actually focus on what the world wants or needs instead of what they don’t need. Teaching the class is how I move the world more in the positive direction that I envision, and I do that through being compassionate and loving toward my students.

Q: Does teaching the class ever make you uncomfortable?

A: Sometimes. Students very rarely cross my own personal boundaries. Sometimes students will talk about things that I have my own personal hang ups about. It challenges my openness, but I still don’t judge. Someone’s sexual orientation is who a person is and who they’ve always been. I just try to think about all the things that come naturally to me, and how I’d if they were considered illegal or taboo in our society. That’s what I try to do whenever I’m uncomfortable with something. Students are usually good about respecting boundaries, though. I’m very open to changing my perception and evolving.

There’s a constant evolution and I try to stay very neutral. At the same time, I try to be real and relatively transparent. If something takes me aback, it’s usually criticism of me as a teacher or being biased instead of something a student actually does or says. The thing about there teaching so many different types of students with different kinds of intelligence and experiences, you get so many different types of responses and questions. Every perspective and point of view is valid to me. All perspectives are equal to me.

Q: What do you feel are the most important things you can teach your students? What do you hope students take away from the class?

A: A respect for diversity, self love, to honor their own desire and to honor other people’s desires without judgment – even if they don’t understand it or “get it.” I think another big thing is that being selfish – or that fulfilling their own wants or caring about their own wants more than someone else’s – is a good thing. There’s so much self-sacrifice that goes on, especially in sexuality, but I think that if people respect and honor themselves more, they will be more prone to honoring someone else.

Teaching students about consent is another important aspect of the class for me. Students need to understand that all parties need to be enthusiastic about each and every sexual experience for it to be contentious experience. Consent should be “yes means yes” instead of “no means no.” “Yes means yes” is consent where a lack of a “no” is not consent. I want to communicate to students the power to say, “yes” to what their own desires are – no coercion or persuasion.

I just want to help students get over the shame and negativity that comes with sex and sexuality in our culture. I want students to realize that norms don’t really need to be norms – that they can be deconstructed and torn down. I want to promote acceptance and actually respect our differences and varieties. One way to explain the beauty of difference is that we are all parts of an ecosystem and we all serve a function and benefit the whole and form the whole. We are all part of biodiversity and because of that, our differences are beautiful.

Nature doesn’t waste anything and it doesn’t waste differences among people. We all are here for a purpose. If you realize that sex is so much more and so much deeper than what we see in porn. If I can just help anyone be responsible and compassionate and more loving – little things like that are what mean the most to me about this class. If I can communicate any of those things and just promote self-love and love of others, then I am doing my job.

This article was originally submitted to The Verge Magazine.

Closeted Taylor Swift Fan Confessional: Feminist Guilt Alert

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So let me start off with the disclaimer that a) I am a Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies minor at the moment, so my head is constantly being filled with the feminine and the feminist. I know these topics probably aren’t on everybody’s list of daily thoughts and to-do’s, but they are most definitely on mine, whether they are always welcome or not. and b) my personal definition of feminism is that it is a movement toward liberty, justice and equality for all. I know that’s not everyone’s definition of feminism, but it is mine. Other definitions are welcome, of course, but this is the one that I’ve adopted — I know people often fear the “F word” (in this case, “feminism”), but…you know…hater’s gonna hate…and the haters also tend to be misinformed/uninformed, but that’s a whole other conversation.

Which brings me to an explanation regarding why on earth I am writing a blog post about Taylor Swift and feminism: in my Feminism and Pop Culture class, we were asked to write about a music video with a “feminist lens.” So here’s the confession: I LOVE TAYLOR SWIFT. Like a lot. It’s pretty embarrassing. But whatever. Back to the discussion. I picked a Taylor Swift song. “Fifteen” to be exact.

If any of this strikes your fancy, continue reading by clicking the link below!

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The “F” Word: Fans of Femininity Define, Un-define and Redefine It

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The Question: How do you define “femininity”? What does “feminine” mean to you?

Maybe it’s all the “feministing” I’ve been participating in within the classroom lately as a Women’s, Gender and Sexuality minor and all, but I seem to always have gender, sexes, femininity and masculinity on the brain. Seriously. This is becoming increasingly evident to me as I continue my studies. I’m constantly asking myself, “What does feminine even mean? And why do I enjoy representing my own version of “feminine” on a day-to-day basis.

I know in my heart of hearts that gender is a learned experience; that we all participate in and “do” gender every day, but for me, femininity is always something that’s come as naturally as anything else in my personality. When I was a little girl, I insisted upon wearing dresses even to soccer practice while my mom tried and tried to get me into pants and shorts. I even had to have skirted bathing suits. It’s always been that way, for me. I recently read an essay in one of my Feminist Theory books that talked about how nothing about gender is black and white. It’s not something that’s as clearly defined as we often try to make it even in feminist settings.

With all of this (often subconscious) thought about femininity and my own “gender participation,” I wanted to find out more about other women-identifying females’ experiences in their efforts to “do” feminine. Since gender is such a grey area, I knew there would be a lot of differing opinions, especially among my feminist peers and classmates.

Thus, I took to Facebook and asked my burning question: “How do you define ‘femininity?’ What does ‘feminine’ mean to you?”

Click “Read More” to find out how real women (and men) responded!

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Interviews with (Super) Women

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Who: Elizabeth Dolma
What:  
Zen Buddhist Tarot Card Reader
Where: Cincinnati, Ohio

At the age of 70, Elizabeth Dolma believes her life’s journey – along with its very diverse paths – has led her to become a Zen Buddhist Tarot Card reader. After failing out of the philosophy program at Indiana University, Dolma’s professional life took an array of twists and turns. She worked as a Montessori schoolteacher, a counselor at the YMCA, a Reiki master and a waitress. She wasn’t introduced to the art of reading cards until she began waitressing. Dolma says she became a card reader on a whim after her boss no longer had time to read coffee grounds for customers – an act similar to reading tea leaves With her boss’s encouragement, Dolma learned to combine an energy healing school of thought called Reiki with card reading. Ever since, Dolma has devoted her life’s work to studying Buddhism and reading cards for a living. According to Dolma, the general public misinterprets card reading – something she works to correct by giving her clients compassionate, positive experiences with each of her card readings. She currently resides in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she continues to offer card readings out of her home. She feels each of her life experiences have made her a more intuitive and compassionate card reader. This article was originally submitted to The Verge Magazine.

My interview with Elizabeth marks the third 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.”

Q: How did you become a card reader? How have your life experiences led you here?

A: Well, I feel as though it took all the different steps I took in life to become a card reader. At first, my adult life consisted of studying in a convent thinking I was going to become a nun. Then I became a philosophy major. After that didn’t work out, and then I worked in Montessori school – I learned there that everybody had a different way of learning. I was taught to shut up and be quiet and really listen to other people and honor their way of learning – to pay attention and focus, and that’s the most important part of my life.

I lived in New York and opened my own Montessori school there. And then I moved to Cincinnati, went back to school and got a master’s in counseling and did all the doctoral work, but of course never finished my dissertation. I did counseling for seven years, then I went out to California and stayed in a Tibetan Buddhist healing center, went to DePaul and spent time there in a monetary learning about meditation.

Eventually, I wound up back here in Cincinnati where I taught meditation classes and did a lot of Reiki training and a lot of Reiki teaching. Since then, the readings that I do are about spiritual guidance and about trying to help people. Underneath it all, we are all enlightened and all fabulous, so when people come and they have struggles in their lives or things they want to achieve, I try to help them develop tools and techniques to work on those things.

The cards that I use are very evocative and that’s why I use them – it’s like they really can see what I see and what I’m talking about when I use them. It’s amazing to look back on life and see that things that I wanted but didn’t get wouldn’t have taken me here or taught me what I wanted to learn. It’s almost like something was pulling me down this track to get right to where I am – and that’s probably true for everybody. If we could all just find that thread that makes you think, “Oh, something in me knew what I wanted to know my whole life,” you know? I always wanted to learn how the mind works and how we become happy, so there’s always more to learn.

Q: How did you begin to use the type of cards you use instead of traditional tarot cards?

A: I really don’t remember exactly, but it must have been one of my mentors who used them. When my children were little, we always had different types of cards in the house – you know, fairytale cards or “inner child” cards…just fun kids’ stuff. I never thought I read them, but I guess I did. Somehow, just always looking around, I must have run into the Zen Buddhist deck in my travels or something. Every reader who I’ve ever read for – they usually stop whatever it is they use for their card readings and go out and get these cards instead. They just give you a clear sense of what’s going on with you.

They’re different from tarot cards because – well, with tarot cards, you have to read them intellectually. You have to know those cards on an intellectual level because they don’t actually give you a clear image. They’re very vague and often negative. That’s not who I am. My cards are very visceral. You look at them and they tell you something immediately. The whole thing is about actually helping people help themselves. I can tell them things that I think are true, but there’s no reason they should believe me unless it actually resonates with them. When they look at my cards, though, they get to see what they mean for themselves instead of just taking my word for it. It’s very different.

In regular card readings, the card reader shuffles the cards and lay them out. In these types of card readings, the people can pick which cards they want for themselves – without seeing the front of the card first, obviously. It’s much more of shared experience. I will say something about a card and they will be able to tell me what it reminds them of, too. It’s very different, I think – there’s more of a connection.

If people come to me and say, “Well, you’re a reader. Tell me what you see,” … Well, I’m not a psychic. I’m not in here to prove something to anyone. I’m here to help people if they want help.

Q: How a card reader different from being psychic, then?

A: Like I said, they have to tell me what they need guidance in or what they need help with. They have to send intention out to the universe requesting what they want help with. I want to help, not to prove myself. I’m not a fortuneteller. I don’t make predictions. I turn the cards back on them by saying, “You know, here’s the issue they brought up, and here’s what the universe is saying about that issue through the cards. Here are some options and ideas.”

Nine and a half out of ten people who come to me over the years leave their reading feeling more empowered and like they can have a handle on their life. And that’s what I want – I want them to feel better. I want to make people feel more empowered and have some strategies to deal with their issues or worries. I’m not here to judge. I’m here to help. I feel like that’s different than a regular tarot card reader because I’m not here to scare you or be negative or make predictions. I’m here to use my cards to point you in a good direction or guide you with compassion.

Q: Where do you think that guidance comes from?

A: I think I can do it personally because of my training in meditation and Montessori training – I think it opened up other area of my mind and of my brain that allow me to be more intuitive and in touch with the universe and whatever higher power is out there – I can interpret the guidance. It comes from the universe, not from me. Not from being psychic or anything like that. I’m not psychic, just intuitive. I believe that everybody is connected and that I’m connected to each of my clients.

I feel more from my heart than my mind. I feel like being psychic comes from more of a mental thing instead of a heart thing. I have to connect with somebody on an emotional level before I can help him or her through a reading. It comes from connection rather than from just…you know, just from my head. 

Q:  What are the other things you do besides card readings?

A: I focus just on readings now, pretty much, but before, I did energy healings through Reiki, I taught people about energy and how to use their energy to heal or help. I do a lot of meditation, but I don’t really teach it anymore. I used to, but I’m old, you know? It’s all had phases. And then the counseling has played a part, too. So did the teaching.

Q: What is a misconception you run into about being a reader?

A: That this kind of gift comes from a dark place. Or that it’s of the devil or something. Which it isn’t at all. I was raised Catholic and wanted to become a nun for a long time, but none of my experiences have led me to ever believe that this line of work is from anything other than something positive. It comes from a positive place of compassion. And a lot of people really do think that it’s fortunetelling. I can’t read people’s minds like that. I can only go off of what they come to me with and what I see in them and what the cards bring about. I can’t make predictions about the future, I can only help you with the now. 

Q: How do you structure a typical card reading?

A: We start off just talking. I ask them what they came for and what is on their mind. It depends on the person, you know? Sometimes I’ll do a little bit of astrology if a person is hard to read. Something to get us started, but I don’t even need to do that much anymore. I just ask them to tell me whatever is on their mind and to just keep talking until I feel connected. Once we get started, I don’t want a person to talk too much, though, because it will break my connection with them. It takes me to a different mindset or space. That’s how I get the insight.

Then we do fifteen minutes of cards, usually. I talk for about a half an hour and they listen – well, they can talk some, but like I said, I don’t want to lose the connection. It should take 45 minutes, but it always ends up taking longer. It’s about getting to know them. I personally do my Reiki symbols in the beginning of a session and open with a prayer that we both are open to receive guidance from the universe and at the end, I always thank whatever has helped us throughout the session – the universe, our connection, the different energies at work.

To me it’s very sacred. The bookends of prayer are an important ritual to me. They pull ten cards and they always, always, always reflect the topics we were talking about before we even pulled them. People always say, “Oh, you rigged it so those cards would come up!” But I don’t. It’s a conversation between me and the person I’m reading for and the energy that guides me.

The readings aren’t ever negative – that’s another misconception about card readings. Every one of my readings – except for one single woman – have been positive. People come to me scared that a negative card will come up or that they’ll get the death card or something, but that doesn’t happen. For one thing, there is no death card in this deck. I don’t believe in negative readings, which is another reason I don’t use traditional tarot cards.  I feel like tarot card readings are often judgmental – that’s not what the purpose is. It’s why I don’t want to be associated with those types of cards.

Even if I were to see something negative, I would say, “Look, this could possibly happen, but if you solve it this way or do this thing, it won’t.” It’s about creating solutions, not causing problems. People are powerful, and my readings are about showing them that power from a place of compassion, not judgment or negativity.

 

Q: Do you think your ability to do readings or connect with people on that level comes from a higher power?

A: I do. Here’s my metaphor: the world is like a Christmas tree and the string of lights is all of the energy. We all have our own individual energy – each of us is an individual light on the string, but we all are connected through the string. If you go down to the string’s cord, you discover that we all are powered by the same electricity; the same energy. The trick is to be individual and connected at the same time. I don’t know how you do that, but I try, but when you tap into the part that’s all connected, you can use your heart to connect – and that’s where I think I get the power to do readings from – that cord; that connection.

Q: What do you do when you get skeptics who want you to read for them?

A: There have been just a few of real – you know, arrogant people. I just give them their money back and tell them I can’t connect with them on that level if they come to me with that kind of intention. But I can never actually get them to leave. They always want to be good enough to read for or something, after that. If they don’t let me in, I can’t help them. We always end up getting somewhere after I’m honest with them about that, though. It just takes longer to get to that kind of place. It’s very rewarding, though. 

Q: How is it rewarding?

A: Oh, just to see people come in feeling scared or depressed or angry and then to see them leave feeling happy and hopeful. And then to have people come back and just talk about how their life is different and how much better they feel – most of the time, that happens. If somebody doesn’t leave feeling more empowered and better, then I have not done my job. It’s just the best. It’s even way better than therapy. It just reminds me of when I was a teacher – helping people. To see people working on something and see that they’re having trouble and help them learn to help themselves. It’s a sacred experience. Just like teaching or counseling. I just love it.

Q: Is it ever exhausting – making that many connections to people on such a deep level?

A: Absolutely. And the older I get, the less readings I do – well, I just spread them out more, actually. I used to several a day, but now I do one a day and I’m tired. Especially since I’m going through lots of physical changes, anyway, and my energy isn’t what it used to be. It’s tiring. I have to give it my all, though, even if it puts me in bed for a week. I give it my all.

Q: Is it ever hard not to judge or to come from a place of judgment?

A: Sometimes. If people are defensive, it is, but I think one of the best parts of being a teacher and a counselor or a reader is learning patience. You just keep going, and everybody has a soft spot. Sometimes it just takes longer to build a connection. But, even if it’s challenging, I can always find a place to start. That’s where the patience comes in.

Q: What drives people to contact you and have their cards read?

A: It depends on the context, but most people come to me because they have some sort of problem or issue that they want help with. Underneath, there’s always a serious reason. I think most people want guidance and reassurance that they’re OK and that they can handle what’s going on in their lives, even if they feel lost and don’t know what to do. That everything’s going to be OK.

Q: What’s your highest hope with each reading?

A: I hope that when they leave they feel more hopeful and joyful about life. I can see such a weight lift after they leave. People have problems, but problems are life illness in a way – there’s always an antidote for it. There’s always medicine. If you’ve got a problem, you can solve a problem, and that’s what I work to do with each reading.

Q: What has doing the card readings taught you?

A: Gosh, so many things. Well, first of all, the joy of feeling connected to other people on that level. And there probably are exceptions, but in my experience, if you’re open enough and are willing to set your ego aside…everybody’s really wonderful underneath it all. Everybody’s working and doing their best, even if they’re bitter and angry. It’s shown me the beauty of life. I see life starting to flow more through other people, and one of the great things for me is that doing readings takes me out of my own ego and validates that there is more going on than just my little mind.

I can’t tell you what it is exactly, but when I make those connections with other people, it’s just like, “Oh, thank you, God! There is more to this world than just what’s going on. It’s the same energy in all of us. It really affirms life. And it’s taught me to be more accepting and compassionate.

Dolma continues to do card readings out of her home in Cincinnati, Ohio near the University of Cincinnati. She offers a special rate for local students. She can be contacted at (513) 861-0712.

 

 

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!