Lately I’ve been thinking about my work as a doula and how important it is to support a woman making the transition to parenthood; it’s a time of unique vulnerability for a new mother who is moving through uncharted territory while also responsible for the needs of an even more vulnerable newborn person, 24/7. A new mother needs mothering herself at this time, a person who can hold a space for all the changes taking place and all the new requirements that being a mother involves. When a woman has an accepting and nurturing relationship with her mother, then she is the best person to provide a container for the alchemical processes that transform a woman into a mother. However, many women don’t have such a relationship with their mothers, and for them a doula can provide that kind of support.
Mothering the Mother – A Book
Just over twenty years ago the book Mothering the Mother was published by three American authors, Marshall and Phyllis Klaus and the late John Kennell, who were instrumental in creating the first doula organization, DONA International (Doulas of North America). After many years of ground-breaking research into the benefits of doula care in various locations and contexts, this book was one of the first to share that knowledge with the general public. It has since been republished as The Doula Book, now in its third edition. These leaders of the doula movement are fundamentally responsible for important changes that have improved the birth experience in hospitals worldwide, especially the work on bonding that Klaus and Kennell started back in the 1970s. When my son was born in 1976 in the first birth center to open in the US, the same year that Maternal Infant Bonding was published, bonding was the buzz word of the day and our time together was blessed by the midwives. I probably shouldn’t have been nursing for an hour and a half, which gave me a bad case of sore nipples, but mother and baby forming an attachment in the first hours after birth was sanctified in that moment.
What is a doula?
Because I move in certain circles I sometimes think that that everyone knows what a doula is, but that’s not the case. A doula (taken from the Greek word for ‘servant’) is an empathetic and caring mother’s companion, knowledgeable and experienced in all aspects of childbirth, breastfeeding, baby care and development, postpartum healthcare, and homemaking. She’s an invaluable asset, supplementing available family resources and supporting mothers whose relatives are unable to be there. In the days before birth, doula support can help to create a positive birth and postnatal experience. A doula encourages mothers and fathers to find their own instincts, buried under layers of conditioning that taught us to mistrust nature and our own intuitive abilities. When mothers are well supported in birth and in the early days of mothering, they are able to bond strongly with their babies. The father or partner can participate more fully, and with less stress, during birth and in the early days of newborn care, when supported by a trained and knowledgeable doula.
The Paradox of New Mothering
There is a powerful paradox in the transition to motherhood: the new mother feels an unexpected level of dependence at the same time she is caring for a newborn with even greater dependency needs. Mothering the mother fortifies the new mother’s resources for coping with the enormous demands of newborn parenting. Whether it’s done by a relative or a doula, support for the intense transformation taking place is essential, especially in cultures where there isn’t a built-in support system that other cultures deliver. We send mothers home prematurely from the birth place, before they’ve had a chance to learn how to take care of their babies and themselves. There is little postpartum care in places like the US, and a mother might not see a birth practitioner for six weeks. Doulas fill the gap in postpartum care, providing non-medical assistance that fosters the strength and empowerment of new mothers.
After supporting my daughter when my grandson was born, we collaborated on the launch of a postnatal app, Digital Doula, which provides six Empowering Chapters of practical and useful information and over 75 Hot Topics of news, articles and videos relevant to new parents. Additional sections are in development to make the app even more user friendly and interactive. This virtual doula is available to new parents at any time of day or night, also filling the void for information about what happens after the baby is born. There are few books on this subject compared to a plethora of books on pregnancy, birth and parenting. Those that tackle the postpartum period are often about what goes wrong, as in birth trauma and postpartum depression and anxiety. There is a great need to focus on what works and the best way to facilitate that. As a virtual and real doula, I am delighted to make my contribution towards positive pregnancy outcomes. By planting seeds of care and support for new mothers during this vulnerable and dependent transition, we will harvest more peaceful and loving families that thrive. That’s what mothering the mother can do.