Leaning into Affection

I have the privilege of attending births as a doula. A doula is an educated perinatal professional who specializes in comfort measures and labor techniques. I don't deliver babies or assist in deliveries like a nurse or midwife does. I do try my best to be a cheerful, calming, encouraging, creative presence before, during, and after a woman's labor and delivery while staying focused on protecting and considering the mother's (and partner's) psychological experience of the process. I am not at a birth to promote any kind of agenda or revolutionize the way birth is handled in this country (though I support those efforts by doulas and other birth professionals and advocates when they are not serving the needs of a client). That means: if you want an epidural, I want an epidural for you. If you want a homebirth in the water, I want a homebirth in the water for you; but, if at any time I begin to see that choices need to change to protect your heart, body, or mind, then I am gently encouraging you to make decisions that make you feel most safe and in charge. I love being in this role for women and their growing families. It is a job that requires a lot of my favorite parts of myself, and when I say it is a privilege, I mean it! I get to see babies being born! I get to see women and their partners being the most amazing, vulnerable, selfless they may ever be. I watch people turn into mothers and fathers. I have a store of precious images in my mind, little snapshots of what true love, true grit, true trust, true power look like, and I indulge in recalling them when I need them for myself or for the encouragement of others (though identities are protected!). Because I don't have to be focused on charting or medical details, I really can be fully engaged in the emotions of the whole thing.

Through watching these emotional experiences so closely and somewhat regularly this year, surprise, surprise, I've learned something- or at least, I'm sensing a pattern. Better, much more experienced professionals than I have observed the same thing, but I love that my own experience is adding to the body of evidence in this concept's support. Love and affection are powerful, powerful tools. Before I get into this, I should first share a word for those who haven't, or maybe can't, experience what I will describe. Some people hate being touched, and there are probably reasons for that. Some people have been trained by experience to only rely on themselves. Others are easily overstimulated (especially during times of intense stress) and can really only feel at peace by going to a deep, quiet place inside. So, as I discuss this, know that I do not think you are doing things "wrong" if you don't agree or jive with what I propose. My proposal is this: If you let people hug you and show you affection, you will feel your burdens lighten. I see this in L&D situations, and I definitely saw it in my own births. The harder the contraction, the more I would tightly cling to my husband (he may argue that it was a little TOO tight at times...). The more discouraged I got, the more I would force myself to ask for some encouragement. "Am I going to be ok? Is this going ok?" "Yes! Yes!" they cry. "You're doing so well!" It's amazing what a simple pat on the back, foot rub between contractions, eye contact, stroke of the forehead with a cool rag, or hug (oh! the power of hugs!) can do. I've used all these and more for myself and my clients. Because of the usefulness of these "tools," I do all I can to establish trust before the labor. I've seen some nurses very quickly establish themselves as safe people to receive touch and intimate encouragement from, and I have done my best to learn and steal their tricks. I went to a birth very last minute as a backup doula for clients whom I had never met. It was a challenge to do my very intimate job well without any history, but I find that just doing what I know is right usually works (as long as I'm watching very closely and am sure to back off when I get "Back-off!" cues).

The context of birth has been a great lab in which I have worked with this theory. Birth is SO hard and SO challenging emotionally, mentally, and physically that people are easy to observe. Their real feelings are much easier to suss out because there isn't a lot of time or mental space for concern over social norms (like not hugging strangers and not saying directly what you want or need). It is incredible, though, how strong those norms are! Women still worry about things like their house being pretty enough, or their (MY) very strong desire to not inconvenience anyone. Thankfully, I have not been to a single birth in which there wasn't at least one moment in which I saw all those fears fall away. That is usually the moment that ends up on my shelf of memories worth keeping. I feel strongly that most of us are at our best when we are inviting others into our struggles. It may feel like a huge risk, and it can certainly BE a huge risk! That is a lot of why I'm a doula! Too many birth professionals pay no attention to any of these emotional nuances and railroad over moments that could be formative for a new mom. Am I right? Isn't it nice, or at least, wouldn't it be nice to be able to look up for love, help, support and get it? Doesn't that help you look up for help the next time? Instead, sadly, many people are left looking for help, finding nothing and concluding that either they don't deserve it or it's not worth asking for. This is tragic.

I've been thinking about this whole thing a lot. In labor, I am at my best because that is one context in which I have, thankfully, seen and believed that other people are truly THERE for me. So, I am able to let go, be vulnerable, and enjoy the strength of the people I've invited to be around me. (Another great reason to hire a doula, by the way, is that she was invited by YOU and is there for YOU). I now am able to return that strength and affection to others when I am at their births. At least that's when I do it as a doula. I hope, though, that I'm trying to do it all the time. Even more difficult for me, though, than giving strength and love, is receiving it. I want to be enough for myself all the time. When I feel vulnerable, I don't want to lean into the hugs that are offered. I get spiny and hard instead. Those ideas in my head about how I want to be or should be perceived are too strong. I think I'm afraid to lean into the affection and support that is offered because that would imply that I needed it! But, boy, do we ALL need it.

There is a scientific explanation for affection and it's efficacy in labor. The hormone that dilates the cervix, oxytocin, is found in higher levels in people who are feeling loved and supported. So, the more love and support that a woman is experiencing, the more relaxed she will be, and the more oxytocin is available and effective for getting the job done. This is not a perfect explanation, but I'm confident that the core point is accurate. Stress hormones, like adrenaline, slow down labor and keep us feeling uptight- tight is no good in labor. Oxytocin makes you feel good. Adrenaline makes you feel bad. So, like I said, I've been thinking about this. When I'm "in labor" in my regular life, when I'm struggling to overcome a challenge or fear, isn't it best to lean into the affection? Wouldn't that help in the same way it does in labor? That oxytocin is in all of us, not just laboring women. You know the feeling, that feeling of relief that comes from letting yourself hang in a good hug. The release of letting out the tears. I've got to work on this. It's so obvious to me when I see a laboring woman mentally or emotionally running away from relief, and I think it's just as obvious when I'm doing it in my day to day life.

Sadly, there are reasons why we run away from the hug, just like there are reasons some laboring women don't want to be touched. There have been times for all of us when we let ourselves be vulnerable and looked up for some support and found none- or, worse, got some kind of smack-down for even looking. I'm so, so sorry those things have happened, and I will offer no trite phrases for the pain. I just think we have to make ourselves try to learn that sometimes we will get the help we're looking for. This brings me back to the idea of who we invite to be around us in our stress. I know that the people I invite to my births are there for good reason and have proven themselves to be my loving friends and supporters. I don't expect people to willy-nilly cast about for love and affection. I think we all know that can have some disastrous results. But, I do think we, or at least I, need to be quicker to seek love and affection from the people we have purposely included in our lives and have invited into our stresses. Maybe it starts with just "hiring the doula," with making sure someone is around who cares to watch over the heart. I, for one, think I've made progress in sharing the struggle and letting people "be there" to see it. But, sometimes I'm like a writhing person in labor who just won't let anyone come in to help!

I may be pushing the analogy too far, but bear with me. When these women, when I, lean into the available support and affection at birth, a baby is born. A good, good thing results. And in addition to a new life, a new story is added to the volumes of that family's life- a birth story. Maybe we are having such a moment of cultural obsession with birth stories because it's one of the few situations left in which we allow ourselves such high hopes and become vulnerable. This is why couples go into their births clutching a birth plan! We know that we want a good birth story, and we know that we don't want to walk out of there with a story filled with regret and painful memories of mistreatment. The specifics of the struggle, the method of delivery, the hours of labor, do matter in the story, but no matter how rough the details are, the story can be, WILL be, a good one if the owners of that story felt loved and empowered on their way through it all. They will walk away with some stats ("oh, my babies are big; my labors are long/fast/stop-start/etc.; I had x number of stitches; I pushed for x hours"), but those aren't the parts of the story that will visit them for the rest of their days when they least expect it. They will remember things like this: "my husband loved me so well; my doula could tell that I was afraid, and I was able to talk about why; when I looked at my baby, the product of all my struggle, I knew that the struggle was worth it."

So, that's what I'm going to start going for the next time I'm "in labor." I'm going to try to sink into my husband's hugs. I'm going to call that friend for some encouragement because maybe on the other side of the struggle, I'll have more to my story than just the facts, and maybe I won't come out feeling quite so battered.

The Beginning

The Sleeping Beauty