“When my 60 year old mother insisted she was middle aged and I wasn’t, I replied, “Mom, how many 120 year old women do you know?” -paraphrased from Postcards From The Edge by Carrie Fisher
I went to my first birth when I was 20 and my first birth as a professional at 24. Most of my clients were older than I was, some by more than a decade. As I aged it seemed that my clientele youthed. At first I was their hip, knowledgeable young friend. Then a sister, then a companion, and now their mother. My experience is respected and my perspective has changed. Overall, I am more patient and more understanding of the stresses on medical care providers. Obstetrical trends have come and gone and returned again.
Doulaing at midlife is precious and different than at any other age. Among my research participants and friends there seem to be a few common markers. Rather than seeing ourselves giving birth, we see our children or nieces and nephews reflected in our clients. This shift in perspective is subtle but one day you realize it’s not your generation in the bed anymore.
For those of us in female bodies, once menopause is assured, the passing of our fertility comes home to us neon loud at a birth. There was a time when each of us decided that our family was complete and that we would have no (or no more) babies. But there’s a difference between the inner feeling of “I’m not going to do that (again)” and “I will never in my lifetime be able to have that experience (again)”. It is a bittersweet moment, like losing an appendage you didn’t know you had. The surprise is almost as challenging as the grief – haven’t we traversed that terrain already?
It’s a moment unique to perinatal professionals, but more poignant to doulas. We’ve got nothing to distract us when we’re at the bedside. We’re there to feel, to relate, to be sensitive to everyone else’s needs. So the surge of grief, of personal realization may catch us by surprise. This moment may be harder if our menopause arrived early or was the result of a medical condition. If we have lived in service of women’s reproductive bodies, why didn’t our own work perfectly?
Another common experience is acknowledging our physical limitations. Our bodies are not quite as cooperative adopting odd labor positions. We don’t recover as quickly from a long birth. Some of us develop health issues that have to be accommodated. This means our practices have to change, taking on partners and mentee doulas to help share the load. But first we have to sit with the emotions that come with those realizations. We are aging in a culture that spotlights only the drawbacks of growing older.
We have a huge store of knowledge to draw upon – having seen generations of children come into the world. We’ve seen doctors come and go, inductions rates plummet and surge, and believe in the power of VBACing women. The third marker is recognizing our own value. If our majority culture does not see our wisdom, we must see it in each other and in ourselves. The doctors, nurses, and midwives may be much younger and eager to dismiss us. We have perspective and history – the lines on our face garner respect if we know how to use them. This challenge is in acknowledging what we know – and what we don’t. While young women are the future of birth culture, we have already learned many lessons the hard way and can spare them much pain.
With our clients we know that this time is unique and scary and full of growth. We can say, “Yes, its not what you expected. But you know, it never really is.” From a midlife maternal perspective, many firsts have come and gone: first baby, first child in kindergarten, first night your child doesn’t call, and the first one leaving home. It never really feels how we expect it to – the fulfillment or the angst. We can join our kin doulas without children in appreciating our clients as pseudo-daughters, dispersing wisdom and reassurance while not replacing their own mothers.
This is also a time of introspection and reorganization. If they haven’t already, many doulas at this life stage become leaders in their communities. They may move to parallel careers that are less demanding. We need growth but we also need rest. Rest does not mean stagnation. Indeed periods of rest and introspection are often followed by frenzied creativity. We give birth to books, to workshops, to programs, to businesses, and to new doulas.
So midlife doula kin, there are similar signposts on our individual journeys. Look in the mirror and see your value. I do.
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