The other day I taught my first birthing class since Sweet Baby’s death and birth. It went fine–just me, two couples, a plastic pelvis, and a few baby dolls. As usual, the swaggery dad in the class ended up wide-eyed and worried; the moms who were terrified about what labor would be like relaxed into understanding. And I left energized and upbeat and pleased that I had figured out how to navigate the tricky questions of how many children I have (“four”), and how many of those births were unmedicated (“all but the first one”).
This is only the newest challenge for me in an area that birth workers deal with all the time: how do we share what is appropriate about our private lives with our clients and students, without making our own families or struggles into something they will worry about during their pregnancy or labor? Doulas and childbirth educators are helpers; we want to make challenging experiences better for people. And injecting your own worries or challenges into someone else’s experience is not helpful.
Different people hold different schools of thought on how to handle this. One CBE I know tells her own birth stories at the start of every class, and her students learn tremendously from this. Others I respect answer questions only when asked directly (and most CBEs and doulas get those questions). My mentor, a doula and midwife’s assistant who has been providing labor support since before most people thought of it, speaks of walking the line between telling her clients she had six children at home and assuring them they didn’t need to worry about how she would find childcare for all of them during the client’s birth. My midwife, who also raised four children while running a busy home birth practice, says, “Your births are your pearls–don’t give your pearls away to people who might not value them.” She is a figure of such legend and mystery in our community that most people don’t even know what genders her (now-grown) children are.
I have generally been on the side of openness. When people ask, I tell them about my children, my births, my labors and post-partum experiences. I see no reason to hide, and plenty of reasons to share–and I know that, cognitively, most people respond better to hearing personal experiences than only facts and statistics. In my classes, I share anecdotes as appropriate–like the one about my husband working with me through the “I can’t do this” phase of transition like a prize-winning doula while inside his head thinking, “Oh CRAP! You CAN’T do this! We’re SCREWED!” It’s comforting to partners, it demonstrates how they can help despite their own misgivings, and it’s funny.
But when it comes to Sweet Baby, I have been at a loss. I can’t in good conscience tell his story outright in a room full of pregnant people and their partners–how terrifying would that be for couples who are already nervous about giving birth and are looking to me for reassurance? I also can’t ignore his existence or exclude the beautiful and relevant pieces of my labor with him. It is the ultimate conundrum for a doula and CBE: how do we honor the difficult experiences that we and our clients/students may carry, and still respect the vulnerability of those we serve?
I went into this latest class with no idea how I would do that. And I came out of it with an answer: I can give the bare minimum of information. I can even share that my fourth baby had a complicated medical condition that required an induction and hospital birth. But I don’t have to say he died.
Talking about him this way feels good. It gives meaning and purpose to his short life. This way, he can still help people who need it, even though his body is gone from this earth.
And if someday a student or client calls me in tears after discovering their baby no longer has a heartbeat, I can tell them in all honesty, “I have been there too. Now how can I help you?”