Support is a tricky word when it comes to birth.
Dictionary definitions tie with what people imagine a doula does:
[ suh-pawrt, -pohrt ]
1. bear all or part of the weight of; hold up, bear, carry, prop up, bolster, brace
2. give assistance to, sustain, champion, comfort, give help to, be on the side of, abet, stand behind
Yet Michel Odent, legendary obstetrician and probably the first human being to recognise academically and honour in practice what a woman or birthing person needs to labour, rejects the word ‘support’. ‘One cannot actively help a woman to give birth,’ he says. ‘The goal is to avoid disturbing her unnecessarily.’
This idea unsettles people. The concept of doing nothing confounds, especially given our culture’s hard-held belief that birth is unendurable, that it entails discomfort, distress and danger in varying but inevitable degrees. Support in the form of active reassurance or even rescue then seem like commonsense.
But the fact that thousands upon thousands of babies have been born simply and satisfyingly thanks to the passive presence Odent advises, says it all. The fact that nearly no one achieves an entirely uncomplicated, straightforward birth when it isn’t, says even more.
Being something for a woman in birth as opposed to doing something confers power. Faith-bearing – a doula or experienced companion making their self small while tacitly signalling trust – makes the mother sovereign. Her startpoint is then right within herself and a doula encourages her to feel and safe and comfortable with that.
Doing not very much, letting the mother find HER way, in HER time, helps her to sidestep the static and connect her to her own authority; to know she is right to follow what she is feeling – and to let the force of it lead her. The less a companion does, the more the mother understands that nothing needs doing,
It’s a place of capability – this belief that her body will arrange itself for the best – and from there the mother or birthing person can more easily let go, unfasten from personal consciousness and enter the higher, freer state that leads to the release of the baby.
Modern maternity care cannot easily accommodate this. In this setting, birth is viewed, and therefore ‘felt’ as a process. The plotting, observing and managing of that process is to ensure it completes in good time. In theory, the prescribed pathway makes birth more predictable and safer for all. But by placing the mother’s focus outside of her body, by giving her targets to meet, she becomes an object to herself. Self-awareness makes it hard, if not impossible, for her let go.
Which brings us back to what it really means to support a birthing woman. There are different ways and aspects to caring for a pregnant woman – information, advocacy, even guidance also being part of the picture. But given how hard the simple act of having a baby appears to now be, let’s stick with that. What it means is s to help her hear what her body is explaining to her. To create a sufficiently safe, soothing, undisturbed space for her to forget the sea’s surface and swim down deep to fetch her baby - like a pearl diver.