I am Catherine, daughter of Sheila, granddaughter of Winifred and Dorothy; niece of Hilary, Gillian, Josephine, Carole, Lois, Anne and April. This is my lineage, my motherline. At their apron strings I learnt about babies and mothering.
I was lucky. The eldest of four siblings and fourth of twenty-five cousins I was surrounded by it. It was common to walk into a room full of buxom aunties breastfeeding their babies. And they took their mothering seriously. Childhood was important. Young parents in the late sixties and early seventies they were influenced by Montessori and Steiner; it was a time of natural materials, and gender neutral toys. Meeting children’s needs was not just feeding and changing, but giving them a childhood full of wonder and adventure. From this beginning I enjoyed being with babies and children. I often volunteered to change nappies, recognising even then the rich reward of connection, eye contact, fun and cuddles.
I also leant about birth. The stories were told and gave me strength and understanding. My mother’s birth was full of strength. She was born in London in October 1940, during the Blitz. The night she was born a bomb landed, unexploded, in a tree at the end of their road. Everyone was evacuated from their houses. Everyone except the midwife and my grandmother. Birth waits for no one, not even Hitler.
I was born in 1968 at home, as almost everyone was at that time, on a snowy February day. The GP, who attended the births, was unable to get into the village. The midwife was already in the village and sat through the night knitting, much to my dad’s chagrin, who thought she should be doing something. (Run forward a few decades and midwives are encouraging this approach again, calling it ‘intelligent tea drinking’.) My mum largely laboured on her bed and the midwife gave her pethadine as standard, without asking permission. The doctor had missed the birth but helped with the placenta - not with a medical intervention but effective. The placenta was taking it’s time and so he went to the window and started to describe what he could see out of the window. That was enough to let my mum relax and ‘pop’ out it came.
My aunts gave birth without fuss. One aunt gave birth to all four children at 42 weeks. Not late, I was told; the right time for her. A neighbour, advised by my mum to stay at home as long as possible, gave birth within minutes of arriving in hospital. Stay home. Listen to your body. Stand up for your rights.
My dad had been at the births of me and my brother. My next brother was born in 1972 after the Peel report that lead to the big move to every birth taking place in hospital. Dads were not allowed. My mum wrote to the head of the hospital, spoke to the matron, and got it agreed. However, on the day the midwives wouldn’t let my dad through the door. He went off to sort it out and my mum went off for the routines of admittance: a shave and an enema! However my brother was not hanging around and this was barely over when my mum felt the baby move down. The midwife shouted at her to stop pushing, but my mum said she wasn’t pushing, it was the baby doing it. ‘But I haven’t got my sterile gown on!’, exclaimed the midwife. She caught my brother with the one arm that was in the gown. The whole experience seemed ridiculous to my mum. She’d joined AIMS (Association for the Improvement in Maternity Services) and campaigned locally, not just for dads to be at the birth but also against weekend and holiday closures of maternity units. Believe it or not, the idea was, to save money, if a woman was likely to give birth during this time, her labour was induced early; if she went into labour over the weekend/holiday, her labour was slowed down or stopped. This actually happened. My mum also volunteered on the national AIMS committee and helped to change doctors’ training to include witnessing a normal birth. Those of you that know me can probably see me too in all this, because this was my heritage, my motherline.
Not everyone has a positive experience, growing up, of babies, birth and breastfeeding. Women are fearful of giving birth, not, as it was in the past, that they may die, but because of the expectation of pain and fear of interventions. Women are surrounded by TV depictions of labour and birth as an emergency, a medical procedure, an ordeal to endure, that you need hospitals and doctors to save the day. On top of that many women giving birth now were born in the the 70s, when all women were brought under the care of obstetricians. Their mothers would have experienced routine episiotomies, shaves, enemas, time constraints, labour speedied up if they weren’t dilating at an arbitrary rate. They would have laboured and given birth on their backs, with instructions to hold their breath and push. Much of this is still prevalent in labour wards today. So the heritage of intervention is passed down.
But if you go back another generation, and another, and another, and on, you will find a whole ancestry of women in your family who gave birth without trouble, because the human race wouldn’t have survived. The same with breastfeeding. It may be that your mum, your aunts, your sisters, all had trouble with breastfeeding and bottle fed their babies, leaving you with the feeling that this problem is inherited, but you can bet your grandmother, your great grandmother, your great great grandmother breastfed their babies. It is only in the last 50-60 years that breastfeeding rates that breastfeeding rates tumbled.
The argument is always that these interventions saved lives, and of course it is wonderful to have safe caesareans and better monitoring for those who need them. However it is now greatly recognised that the reduction in infant mortality came, not as a result of the move to hospital, but as a result of a reduction in poverty and an improvement in standards of living. Even in my motherhood time I have seen intervention rates increase. When I had my daughter in 1995 the caesarean rate was 19%; now in 2016 it is 26%, with no concurrent improvements for babies or women.
Birth is more than a medical event, it is a spiritual journey, an awakening. In the past midwives and the other women who attended a woman in labour not only brought medical knowledge they brought massage oils, poems, shawls to pull on, songs, prayers. Giving birth is a woman’s rite of passage. I use the analogy of the labyrinth, with its twists and turns, that eventually leads you to the centre and returns you to the exit. To navigate their way women need inner strength, they benefit from other women and from the mental and spiritual aids they can bring.
The moment a child is born,
the mother is also born.
She never existed before.
The woman existed, but the mother, never.
A mother is something absolutely new.
In this way you can also create your own new motherline. Gather around you women who have positive experiences, attitudes and stories to share with you. Create your own red tent of sisters-in-birth. To love and nurture you. To walk with you, as much as they can. And women have always done this. In the sixteenth century, when a women went into labour her women folk would come around and look after the house, the children, the animals. They were her siblings-in-God, or God-sibs. For several weeks their chatter would fill the house. And this is where we get the word ‘gossip’ from.
When I had my first I liked the idea of having my mum at the birth but couldn’t imagine being naked in front of my mum and my hubby at the same time. However, half way through the birth I was wishing she was there. She was there for baby number two, but had died before baby number three. When I became pregnant that time I asked my two best friends to be my God-sibs. After the first I never gave birth without another woman with me. This was before doulas became a thing. But this is what a doula does.
A doula brings her motherline, whether long and strong or reinvented, to join with yours. She brings the comfort and the company of another woman. She brings the strength and the courage, the spirituality and the warmth. She is your God-sib, your sister-in-birth. So you can do what women have done for millennia. Passing it on. The motherline.
I am a doula. I was a doula before I began my training. The first baby I was a doula for has turned nine, a friend’s baby. She was amazing. Fierceless and afraid. Strong and vulnerable. Powerful and in need of support. Loving and in love. I was in awe of women. Walking away after, I saw everyone in a new light. Everyone has been born by a woman. That person, and that person, and you, and you.
This is me nine years ago with the first baby I witnessed being born (apart from my own).
I bring to your labour the motherline, mine and those of every woman I have supported. I bring connection, experience, inherited knowledge, a few skills, and lots of love. I use it to wrap you up, or protect your space, or hold you, or give you something to push against. Through the journey of giving birth, through your labyrinth, you weave your own story, your own section of the motherline to pass on.
I am Catherine, mother to Hannah, big sister to Becky, Jenny, Liz and Leigh, aunt to Roanna, Ella, Lillian, and Margot, great aunt to Chloe, godmother to Melissa and Nala. I am God-sib to Helen, Jenny, Sue, Sara, among others, and maybe, one day, you.
(The photo at the top is of me!)