By Victoria Greenly, Oct 2 2017 12:55PM
After I gave birth to my daughter, my life changed more than I ever could have imagined (and I had imagined for quite a while). I had spent most of my adult life in the company of other adults. My career had been cosmopolitan, itinerant and all consuming. Working in television does not leave much time for home life or domesticity. And what’s more, I barely knew what a baby was. I had not been exposed to the joys of large families grouping together to share the load when a baby arrives. ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ was a concept I inherently knew would not be one that would touch my postnatal experience.
When the light of my life came to existence, I had no idea what was in store. And what’s more I had no-one apart from my husband to share that with. Most of my friends were either past the baby stage and lived outside London, had yet to have babies or had no intention of ever having them. My mother lived a distance from me and is my father’s full-time carer. My mother-in-law was more of a hindrance than a help.
I knew I had to go it alone and as I went on my new journey, I discovered many other mothers that were going it alone too. Although in my heart, I knew these mothers would never have been my friends had I not had a baby, we were kind of there for each other. I guess I was quite lucky, as I hear that some groups of new mothers compete with each other, before they support each other.
After birth, the lifeline of health professional support was one I thought I could, at least, rely upon. Although I had no preconceptions about whether I wanted to or even could breastfeed, somehow I managed it in those all consuming first few weeks. But it seemed that the reality of the support I got was a case of ‘the blind leading the blind’. Nobody seemed to have a clue about whether my latch was good (my instinct told me it wasn’t) or where to direct me for support. Once the midwife visits stopped at 10 days, my visits to the health visitor went something like this.
HV: ‘How are you?’
Me: ‘I think I am ok but not sure’. (100 questions I wanted to ask and have answered, particularly about breastfeeding, but my impression was that they weren’t welcome as the HV needed to get on with her appointments).
Baby was weighed.
‘Goodbye and see you next time’.
And so what I had experienced got me thinking. Could there and should there be more to a new mother’s postnatal experience than this? Everything I had discovered and pieced together about the intricate workings of babies, I had done on my own, with the supposed help of a few books (the names of which should be burned on a large pyre never to see the light of day again – but that’s another story…)
The seed of my passion for supporting the postnatal experience of other women had been sown. Now I just had to let it bloom. Because the thing is I decided to become a postnatal doula not because I love babies (which incidentally, I do rather now as I think they are inherently clever and wonderful – that’s another story too – and resulted in the launch of an Understanding Newborns workshop), but because I wanted women to feel it was within their grasp to have a positive postnatal experience. In the fullness of time, I started to realise how that could play out. Before I had even completed my Initial Doula Preparation, I knew that I wanted to focus on postnatal support and that desire continues.
During my postnatal doula journey, I have learned that supporting women after a birth can be a complex and subtle journey – with some challenges but ultimately huge rewards. There is nothing more wonderful than seeing a mother grow in confidence and find satisfaction in her new role. Particularly if that desire to be a mother has been a long time coming. One mother I supported had experienced 5 miscarriages before finally becoming a mother to twins at the age of 46. She had worked hard to save up for a postnatal doula and I felt honoured to walk alongside her as she grasped hold of the thing she had strived so long for – motherhood. She had focused so much on hoping the babies would be born healthy that she hadn’t thought about the after. As a consequence, she was gripped with anxiety and I had to hold firm to be the support she so desperately needed, riding the ups and the downs with her for 3 months. Her twins are now 18 months and I saw her for the first time since we parted ways only recently. She was brimming with pride and a new found confidence.
As postnatal doulas, the reasons we are asked to give support can be varied: we may support the mothers who simply need an extra pair of hands and some moral support, the mothers who want to get off to a good start with their babies, the mothers who have had structured lives before baby came along and want that to continue, the anxious mothers and the ones who really need us. The ones with multiples, premature babies, babies with special needs, no partner, no baby… the list goes on.
So why are postnatal doulas so important?
Postpartum women are being sent home from hospital sooner than ever. A couple may return home less than 24 hours after their baby's birth and have limited or no support waiting for them. With cuts and constant changes in community midwifery services, a mother may find she has little contact with essential support and care or has to venture out of the house to access it. Health professionals don’t have the time and sometimes the knowledge to really support a woman at this delicate time in her life. Extended family may not be close for a variety of reasons and couples can find themselves increasingly alone with a newborn. The hoped for ‘village’ is often simply not there…
One study suggests postnatal doulas help with maintaining breastfeeding rates (more crucial than ever in light of the recent Lancet report): 96.4% women who gave birth supported by a doula initiated breastfeeding, and of those 81.4% were still exclusively feeding at 6 weeks (Sophie Brigstocke, Nurturing Birth) (as compared to the national figures of 73.9% and 47.2% (Department of Health 2013).
In another study, the results showed that postnatal doulas facilitate maternal responsiveness and competence in 11 different areas including: self-care and infant care.
Other studies suggest postnatal depression may be minimized or prevented.
So if postnatal doulas are so important, how can we get more of them out there and give them the confidence to feel that what they are doing is so vital for many mothers?
A group of us thought about this very question and so in April 2015, we (Victoria Greenly, Naomi Kemeny and Sally-Anne Holman) came together to set up Younique Postnatal, a Doula UK accredited course provider with its focus on preparing and developing postnatal doulas. (yes, we registered the name before the mascara brand came over here, before you ask…!) As well as preparing postnatal doulas-to be, we are keen to support mentored and newly recognised doulas in gaining confidence in their postnatal doula skills and thinking about how they can get more work - so we run a Development Course twice a year.
Because ‘babies don’t come with manuals’ and because many of our clients ask us to signpost them to up-to-date and relevant research about baby development and behaviour, we recently launched a workshop called Understanding Newborns to explore, explain and decipher some of that research, so we can guide parents to make informed choices that suit their needs.
Nurturing new mothers with food is a passion we all share at Younique Postnatal so we pooled all our cooking knowledge together and launched a recipe manual with quick, easy and nutritious recipes and snacks. We find ourselves cooking on a regular basis so wanted something quick to hand that we could share with other doulas. Delicious Doula Dishes is for sale at £5. Please contact Sally-Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy.
For more information on our courses and workshops, please take a look at www.youniquepostnatal.co.uk or email email@example.com.
At a recent workshop I attended hosted by the wonderful midwife and inspirational speaker, Sara Wickham, one of our fellow doulas commented that Sara had managed to combine her ‘art’ with science. I am sure that many of you doulas who support births do the same in your practice. My hope is that postnatal doulas also feel they can too…