It was a doula training course that most effectively challenged my understanding of the relationship between solidarity and love. For reference, a doula is a skilled birth companion who offers support to a laboring mother as she gives birth. A doula is not meant to be a substitute for a medical professional or a midwife; rather, the doula offers the help of being a continuous presence throughout a woman’s birth experience. One practical difference between the services of a doula versus those of a midwife is that a doula is usually expected to stay with the laboring woman throughout most, if not all of the labor process, while a midwife is usually only present for the late stages of labor and the delivery of the baby.
At one point in the course, the instructor had shifted from topics like physical activities and pain relief for a woman in labor, to discussing the dynamics at play between laboring mothers, healthcare providers, and doulas. As she discussed the delicate relationship of someone who is acting as a support to a laboring mother, she noted the problems that arise from time to time in settings where the hospital staff might come in conflict with a doula, particularly in regard to the wishes or needs of the laboring mother.
“There are lots of doctors and nurses who appreciate the role of a doula,” the instructor said, “because they don’t have the time to sit with a laboring woman, and because they know that a birth companion can help bring about a better birth outcome.”
We discussed the ways that conflicts can sometimes arise when a doula is involved in a hospital birth, how on some occasions, the hospital staff will want something that the laboring mother doesn’t want, or a staff member who is having a bad day might interact with the laboring mother in a way that is inappropriate and creates tension (she cited an example of disrespectful behavior is that of a doctor who conducts a vaginal exam of a woman without first asking permission).
“As the doula, you will have previously discussed with the mother what she wants for herself and her baby during labor and birth, but sometimes the reality turns out differently for any number of reasons. And in the moment that something is off and the woman is upset or is being pushed aside somehow, you might feel that you need to speak for the woman, to be her representative for every felt need that she has in the situation,” we all nodded. These potential scenarios felt more relevant than any other topic in the class—every birth or labor experience is ripe with potential for the unexpected, and for complicated power dynamics that run the risk of pushing aside the needs of a woman in labor.
“But let me tell you this: it is not your job to speak for laboring women. This is not what it is to be a good doula. A good doula makes room for a woman to advocate for herself. A good doula spends the time leading up to the labor helping the pregnant woman plan ways to use her own voice and advocate for herself and her baby in unexpected situations. If you go into a birth situation and speak for a woman every time a conflict arises, you are abusing your role.”
“And one more thing along those lines,” she concluded. “Unless there are extenuating circumstances, you absolutely should not hold the baby when it is just born. It is not your baby. It is hers. She did the work, not you. A good doula is someone who gets out of the way.”
I was struck by these exhortations. They revealed my mixed motivations for even taking the training in the first place. I realized that I had more than a touch of the urge to be a superhero in someone else’s birth story. The instructor’s warning jolted me back onto solid ground and reminded me of some things.
First, I knew from my own birth stories that giving birth is a profoundly vulnerable thing, that it is an event filled with possibility for the unexpected, and that it is best done with good help, good companionship.
Second, I knew what it was like to feel speechless, thanks to my own experience moving to a country where I didn’t speak the language. I knew what it was like to have something to say, but no one present who can understand. I know the power a person who acts as a translator has to alter the messages between people.
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I could see an undeniable connection between the ways a language learner feels silenced, and the way a laboring woman—the person who should be at the center—gets set aside and put on silent; the way the central person becomes a prop in the play for which she should be the leading role. I could feel the potential for harm that comes when we assume that those who don’t speak don’t have an opinion, or that those in pain or struggle are simply waiting for us to fill in the silences for them, rather than finding ways to give them more space to speak for themselves.
The instructor’s warning that a doula who insists on speaking for her laboring client reminded me of the ways we abuse people even as we earnestly claim to be doing them a favor. I haven’t thought about that course since without remembering how Christians love to use the line about being a “voice for the voiceless.”
Now, when I hear that line, I think of the ways Christians with an urge to be benevolent—or well intentioned, as we sometimes call it—turn suffering people into promotional objects while they claim center stage. I think of the ways so many Christians who care about advocacy, gospel proclamation, and justice think the process can be fast-forwarded to be more efficient. And in their haste to expedite the birth process, they end up playing not the role of a good birth companion, but of an abuser, an oppressor, of someone who forces a birth too soon. This is the opposite of solidarity.
Now, when I think of someone like me practicing love in companionship with the laboring or the oppressed, I think of silence. I think of staying put together during periods of long pauses and quiet pain. I’m reminded that I’m the one learning their language, the language of struggle and of loss, and that the ones in labor are actually the experts.
Now when I think of being a good spiritual birth companion, when I think about seeking solidarity, I think of open-ended questions that allow others the space to say what they wish. I think of all the years of relational groundwork that are needed first, for people to even know that being honest is an option, for people to know that they will be respected and treated with dignity no matter what.
Viet Thanh Nguyen writes, “True justice will be when we no longer need a voice for the voiceless.” 1
Some folks in all manner of Christian work (be it global outreach, advocacy, or justice/anti-racism work), will describe themselves as midwives, or as a “voice for the voiceless.” They will say they are helping birth the kingdom of God in a new place or context. This sounds earthy and humble, but it is akin to saying that we’d like to be the lead doctor. A midwife is someone with many years of formal training and skill.
When we take the role of midwife in someone else’s spiritual birth story, we are claiming a role of power and authority. When we force our way into birth situations, either literal or figurative, we are exercising power for the benefit of our own egos. This desire to insert ourselves as the lead actor in other people’s stories is not the fruit of meekness. Our haste to see beauty born, our rush to speak for the laboring or to make interventions, is not a hallmark of the slow and patient kin-dom of Christ.
God’s beauty doesn’t come like that; it does not come by our own force of will or persuasion. God’s beauty is born into the world, not unlike a the birth of a baby, and it is born by the midwifery not of humans, but of the Holy Spirit, the Divine Midwife. We Christians are not the midwives. And if we take Jesus seriously when he speaks of such things, we wouldn’t dare to claim such a title.
At best, we are the good companion who sends encouraging texts, who rubs an aching back, who squeezes hands, who offers a drink. Our best help is often silence in our solidarity. At our best, the ones in labor are sure of our friendship, sure we will stay till the end, sure no matter the outcome or complications of this birth, sure that we will still be around long after the birth event has faded into family history.
At our very best, when we have done the work of healthy relationships, we do not rush to fill the space with our own words. If we are doing good work, then we are serving as silent doulas.
At our very best, we’re like my friend Emily, a doula who told me this after attending her first birth, “when the baby finally came, I just stood in the corner and cried. It was so, so beautiful.”
1 The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.
*This essay is part of a larger work in process called, They Look Down on Us, a body of stories addressing
racism and abuse of power in Christian ministry settings. The author would like to thank Ana from Rocky Mountain Doula for challenging her understanding.