I’ve debated sharing my birth stories. I walk into each and every single client’s birth with an open mind, because they have no obligation to birth like I do. My story doesn’t matter there, their story does. But I’ve noticed something, when attending others’ births. Sometimes, they’ll be frightened. Sometimes I spout statistics and hold hands and they’re still frightened. In those moments I relate to them not as a doula, but as a mother. “This happened to me too, and it was hard, but I survived.”. And then, in a moment, they don’t feel alone anymore.
It’s not the textbook thing to do. Most of the time, I don’t share. But if someone were to ask me why I became a doula, I would tell them the truth. The truth is, I believe in leaving birth better than I found it. I believe birth is a human rights issue. I believe no one needs to walk through their reproductive health journey alone. And I know all of these to be true, because of my daughter’s birth.
I was 18, and I had met a boy. He noticed it first. I said something about feeling a little off, a little tired. I just couldn’t shake it. “You aren’t pregnant, are you?” I thought he was insane. Of course I wasn’t pregnant. We used protection. I’d had scares before, all false alarms. My health has never been good, and part of me assumed I wouldn’t be able to conceive. He suggested we buy a test just to be safe.
I didn’t even head home. It was going to be negative, I’d just pop into a bathroom stall and put his fears to rest. I took the test, popped the cap back on, gave it a quick glance and decided the one line would remain one line. I stood up and started gathering my things, and gave the test one more quick glance. Two. Two lines. Two big, bold, unquestionably positive lines. I just couldn’t believe it. My mind couldn’t make the connection between a positive test and an actual pregnancy. I left the washroom and saw my partner standing about twenty feet away. I remember focusing all my energy on keeping a neutral facial expression. I didn’t want him to know before I could say the words. Walking over to him felt more like performing puppetry. First foot goes here, second foot goes here. He smiled, “Oh! It’s negative?”. I shook my head, I couldn’t find any words. He hugged me. The story of how we made tough decisions in the weeks that followed could fill its own post.
We got to work. Two useless clinic visits later, Planned Parenthood found an Obstetrician willing to take me. My partner and I began meeting in internet cafes and searching for apartments. He called his parents, a world away, and dropped the bomb that he’d met a girl and by the way, she’s pregnant and we’re keeping it. It was my turn. I wouldn’t find the courage to tell my father for another 6 months, but I did sit my mother down. I was so frightened I was shaking. I somehow blurted it out. She cried. She asked hard questions. And we made it through.
At 9 weeks, we walked in to the lab for an ultrasound. I half expected the tech to find nothing at all. That this all would have been for nothing. I lay down nervously, telling myself to expect nothing. That there may be no baby, and even if there were, I wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of the ultrasound footage. The tech placed the probe on my lower abdomen and in a split second, she found it. “There it is!”. There, on the screen, was a little kidney bean. I could make out it’s head, it’s tiny leg buds, even a tiny umbilical cord. It moved, and a tiny dot in it’s chest flickered rapidly. It was alive and growing.
We were having a baby. It was set in stone now. So we moved on. We moved into our tiny 1 bedroom apartment. At first it was completely empty, we owned one futon and an old tube TV with a cheap DVD player. Nothing else. Not even dishes. But slowly, we managed to fill our home. I made my first ever purchase for the baby, a pair of tiny yellow and green flannel PJs.
At 20 weeks, we went in for the big anatomy scan. He thought it would be a girl, but I was positive it would be a boy. We watched them make measurements and assessments on the screen. The baby looked like Cindy Lou Who, with this tiny button nose. Delicate and perfect. Seemingly out of nowhere the tech blurted out “That’s definitely a girl.”. I cried. It all became so much more real. A daughter. We filled in her nursery bit by bit. We decided we wanted her to grow up around animals, and adopted an adult stray cat from the SPCA. It felt more like a family, when our cat came home. She’d sleep on top of the baby, on my abdomen, and christen all the new baby gear by snoozing on top of them too.
It wasn’t all easy. I was horribly sick. I couldn’t get out of bed through most of the pregnancy, and lost weight. I was so small no one noticed I was pregnant until I was eight months in. I cried all the time. Not everyone is kind to a young mother. I found it incredibly difficult to be taken seriously. Each and every one of my concerns was met with a bit of an eyeroll. Implying I was a child, with no idea what I was doing. My own obstetrician regularly reminded me how I was a baby myself, and unprepared. I felt like the world had no faith in me.
Time passed. Life changed. My father found out, and reacted better than I thought. I left work, and my partner got a good job. The baby was stubbornly breech, and we suffered a a terrible family tragedy. I started to feel like I’d be pregnant forever. Like I was trapped in some teen pregnancy hamster wheel and this was just my life now.
39 weeks and 3 days pregnant, I kissed my partner goodbye and sent him off to work. I had a bite to eat, and flopped my very pregnant self on to the couch. I remember I called a friend and asked if he’d be free for lunch later. The second I hung up the phone, a massive cramp hit me like a truck. I doubled over from the intensity. And then it was gone. I thought that was strange, and got up to go about my day. Five minutes later, when another identical cramp hit, I realized this is what labour feels like. I called my partner and told him I thought I might be in labour. He was so excited. He reminded me we had been advised to time them for at least an hour to be sure. I hung up, started timing, and called back not even 15 minutes later. This was labour. We were already at 3 minutes apart. He hopped in a cab, and told me to meet him downstairs.
I slapped my coat on and ran outside. It was January, in Ottawa. The cab hadn’t arrived. I remember standing there in the freezing cold, on a busy downtown street, focusing on remaining completely neutral during contractions so as not to attract the attention of a crowd. It worked, and finally the cab pulled up. Never in my life have I experienced such a tense cab ride. I huffed and puffed through labour, as the cabbie white knuckled the steering wheel and almost audibly mentally repeated the mantra of “Please don’t let her water break in my car. Please don’t let her water break in my car.” He didn’t utter a peep until I leapt out of the car and ran to the ER entrance. “Good luck!” He shouted after me.
I ran to the emergency room desk and yelled “I’m in labour!” They told me to hurry through the back doors. I started running back, and heard a stern voice yell “excuse me, ma’am, stop! Visitors can’t use the emergency entrance!”. A security guard was chasing me. I’d clearly made the mistake of labouring while not looking enough like a mother. I whipped my coat open and gestured at my huge, contracting abdomen, and he backed away red faced and apologetic.
The thing about labouring as a teenager is, you are not a fearless warrior woman. No one cheers you on. No one tells you about your inspiring strength. They scoff at the frightened child. When I arrived in labour and delivery, no one helped me. They sat me on a chair in triage and left. For four hours. For four hours I laboured alone, with only my partner there to support me. He was 23 years old, frightened, and had no idea how to help. I remember he tried to distract me by explaining how baseball works. He did get a few between contraction laughs out of me, but I can’t say I learned much. I frantically called my parents. Over and over on a loop. I’d later find out my mother didnt hear her ringing phone while out running errands. My father had just stepped in to watch the criminally long Avatar in theater. I was frightened, so I called, and screamed for my partner to keep calling when I’d have a contraction. I went into labour at noon. At 5 pm, medical attention finally came. They sent a young, male resident in to assess me. He walked into the room, glanced at his chart, and asked “what makes you think you might be pregnant?”. No jury would have convicted me.
Another resident came to check my cervix. At least 5 cm. I asked for an epidural. They got me up and had me walk to the delivery room. I remember this as the only time anyone touched me, or comforted me. A contraction hit and I doubled over. A sour looking nurse put pressure on my back. It was nice while it lasted. I laboured in bed for a while, flat on my back and crying. I made it to 7cm, and the anaesthesiologist arrived. He never spoke to me. The epidural was placed, and I felt much better. My mother poked her head in. I remember looking at her and saying “wow was that intense!”.
Shortly after the epidural was placed, I started feeling pressure. Not just pressure, but pain. A tremendous amount of sudden, unexpected pain. I kept crying and telling them it was worse than before, and they kept telling me epidurals don’t kill the feeling of pressure and everyone just has to deal with it. They later discovered the catheter had literally fallen out of my back. My pillows were soaked from where I had been hammering on the epidural top up button. They would have known, had someone believed me. But they didn’t see a strong woman, they saw a scared girl, and they chose not to believe me. So I pushed, flat on my back and frightened. I pushed for an hour with no progress. They gave me pitocin to help. Instead it caused hyperstimulation and the contractions became nearly continuous. I cried a lot during this time. No other pain management tools were made available to me, as they believed my pain was managed, I was just weak. I pushed for another half hour. My eyes were shut tight, and I suddenly felt the pain and pressure stop. My eyes opened to see a tiny naked bottom being carried away from me. Immediately the cries of a newborn filled the air. I had a daughter. She was here.
She had passed a small amount of meconium, and they felt this required assessments before I could see her. Why they elected to also weigh, clean, and swaddle her before I’d even looked at her, I don’t know. She was not in distress and didn’t aspirate. She was perfect. 7 pounds, 3 ounces. I was not perfect. I was alone in the bed, my partner had run to be with the baby. I had torn horribly, and bled quite a bit. The nurses at my bedside were whispering about the unconnected epidural catheter, and pulled loose tape on my back. A resident was stitching me with no anaesthetic. “It’ll be faster without it”. I heard my partner say “Don’t you think it would be easier on her if you gave her the baby?” Good idea, they said, and my daughter was finally placed into my arms.
When suturing was completed I was told to get up for a shower. I stood up and saw a large amount of blood and clots drop before me. I stepped into the bath and the nurse announced the hot water was out. She hosed the blood off my legs with ice cold water, and placed me into a wheelchair. We were sent to the “poor kids” recovery wing. Rooms shared by three or more women at a time. The woman across from me had just delivered a micro preemie by emergency c-section. He wasn’t going to make it. When my baby would wake and cry I’d hear her sobbing from across the curtain. She would drag herself and her fresh stitches outside to smoke cigarettes, just to escape the room full of healthy babies. I don’t blame her.
No one had told me about aftercare for stitches. I had a urethral tear and was not given a Peri Bottle. I screamed and fell to the ground the first time I used the washroom after delivery. An angry nurse broke down the door. I got a Peri Bottle after that. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t sleep. Everything hurt. I wasn’t offered any pain management. When I did finally fall asleep, they gave my baby formula without permission. We were never able to breastfeed again.
We were discharged on day four and found our apartment’s slumlord had removed all our bathroom fixtures, toilet included, and instead left a key for a vacant unit 5 floors down. My early postpartum recovery consisted of climbing stairs with a newborn strapped to my chest, to care for my stitches in a dirty, vacant apartment. The thing is, at the time, I didn’t believe any of this was unusual. The fact that I never saw my obstetrician in the hospital was just standard. The cold strangers being rude to me. Labouring on my back, alone, with no choices or comfort care. That’s just what having a baby is, right?
Looking back now, I know I suffered a lot of trauma from that birth. I was terrified, and depressed, and believed I wasn’t good enough for my child. I believe I had postpartum depression. It took me a long time to find my footing, but I did. My daughter grew. We adopted more pets, and moved to a real family home. I learned how to be a mother. I loved her fiercely. And when we made the decision to try for a little sibling, I made different choices. I adopted a midwifery model of care, owned my choices, and I healed. It’s why I’m a doula now. Because I’ve felt the impact of a birth where the mother is a passive recipient and not an active participant. I’ve seen the aftermath of unnecessary and unwanted interventions and mother/baby seperations. I’ve seen how marginalized mothers are treated.
My daughter will be seven years old in two weeks. She’s a gifted student, tremendously kind, a wonderful daughter and sister and friend. I would not go back and undo a single second of her life. But I teach her about her autonomy. I teach her that no matter how young or inexperienced she may be, no one has the right to talk down to her. How she has sole ownership of her body, and will always call the shots. About how someday, she reproductive choices will be hers. Because she deserves better.