What Does It Mean to Empower? Words from a Doula-in-the-Making

by Laura Pilati

A little over a year ago, my best friend (who just graduated from nursing school on Saturday–yay!) told me that I should check out a documentary film she’d seen called The Business of Being Born. Now practically a cult classic among many home birth Moms, midwives, and birth advocates everywhere, the film takes a long look at the medicalization of birthing in a hospital and thoughts on how we got to where we are now. I rented it from my library, convinced my awesome boyfriend to watch the film with me (wish I could remember what I said…), and spent an evening on the couch, hoping our roommate-at-the-time didn’t walk in the door to see Ricki Lake giving birth in a tub.

I should perhaps preface what came next by saying that I’ve always been fascinated by birth and pregnancy. Many of you know by now that I do not have any children of my own yet, but I do have two younger brothers who got me very excited and intrigued by pregnant bellies, the hospital, and putting a blanket on the baby, as my Mom will tell you of my 4 year-old self.

Exhibit A: Applying blanket to baby.

The Business of Being Born was an awakening for me, but it was also an outrage. There was so much that I felt that I hadn’t previously understood or even considered about birth, hospitals, and medicine. There was also so much that I felt was connected to my interests in environmental and social injustice that I felt ashamed for not recognizing before. It made me feel angry and powerless against a system that impacted so many men, women, and babies–in essence, our entire society–every day.

This feeling snowballed. A few months later, after researching more about “alternative” (aka “natural”) birth, I learned about birth assistant, or doula certification programs and eventually narrowed my search down to one specific Richmond-based organization, toLabor (previously ALACE). I started the reading list, kept an eye on the training calendar, and gave the decision some serious thought before I bit the bullet and put in my deposit for the Richmond 26-hour training over Mother’s Day weekend.

The Friday of the training arrived, and I felt as prepared as I could be. I’d finished reading two of the major required texts and had been watching birth videos, talking to doulas, and listening to anyone who would tell me her birth story (special thanks to my co-workers here). But I wasn’t really prepared for the training. Not at all.

(from the toLabor facebook page)

As one of the twenty-four other women in the training said during our final reflection activity (sorry for any slight alternation of wording): “I came in here ready to fight for what I thought was a perfect birth experience. And I am leaving ready to support every woman have her perfect birth experience, no matter what that may be.” This training was a lesson in what it means to be an unconditional, nonjudgmental, peaceful support not only to women giving birth, but to humanity. It was an opportunity to learn how to listen and how to truly empower.

I am a passionate person. This personality feature has pros and cons: I can speak for myself and I deeply care, but to some, this can be aggressive or intimidating. As you can probably imagine, self-empowerment is a concept that is near to my heart, but something that I have always struggled with. How can you empower without wrangling in your own opinions and emotions first, or without projecting them on others? And as someone who spends most of my waking hours connecting others to resources (through my job, this blog, and my personal interests), I couldn’t believe that the answer to this dilemma was right in front of my face.

Alli listening to one of those perfect models’ bellies with a fetoscope (thanks Alli!).

Therese demonstrating supportive poses for the woman in labor (in this case, newly invented!).

So, what did I come away with? Well, people make good decisions. They do the best they can with what they have and the desire to feel safe. How can anyone say to a pregnant woman–“you made a bad decision”? They can’t. Because that’s her baby, and when she chose the course of action that she did, that was the best course of action for her. And who’s to say the same to the rest of us about whatever it is that we’re doing?

But what does need to be changed is awareness of options. And responsibility. When we are given access to all of the options, all of the information, and we take responsibility for our decisions, we really can’t go wrong for ourselves. How do we get there? By finding our voices and holding on to that voice even when things are really, really tough and it’s so easy to forget. That’s when we surround ourselves with those who will help us remember–those who love us, care about us, respect and believe in us.

That is what it means to support and empower…to be a doula. And when I realized that, the “system” of it all, the powerlessness…it disappeared. It didn’t even matter anymore, because I had the tools. I was at peace.

Happy Mothers’ Day.

P.s.-Interested in learning more about birth, doulas, or support and resources for Moms? Check out my “birth resources” pinterest board and let me know if you have a resource that I should include!


5 responses to “What Does It Mean to Empower? Words from a Doula-in-the-Making

  1. Pingback: What Does It Mean to Empower? Words from a Doula-in-the-Making « Get Clean, Girls | Caring Doula·

  2. Very heartfelt, Laura. I look forward to hearing about your first Doula experience. I think you’ll be great!

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