Sunday, May 31, 2015

Guest Post: Hire a Damn Doula

In the world of parenthood blogging (and it is, in fact, a world — a comforting, sloppy, emotionally chaotic world) most posts are skewed toward mamas. Moms have been, after all, the primary caretakers for eons. But the parenting landscape is rapidly changing. I know just as many stay-at-home dads and baby-wearing dads and attachment-parenting dads as I do the more traditional 9-to-5 dads or baseball-coaching dads. In many cases, those baby wearers are one in the same with the office workers. 

Thus, I am very excited to feature a guest post from a wonderful writer and brand-spankin'-new dad. Isaac James Baker is the proud new father of a beautiful baby girl. He’s the author of Broken Bones, a novel, and he blogs about “Reading, Writing & Wine.” His essay about doulas and the beauty and chaos of the birthing process (told from his new papa perspective) is funny, tender, and spot on.

Hire a Damn Doula
by Isaac James Baker

So, your partner is expecting a baby. That’s amazing. You’re surely getting unsolicited advice from all angles. Well, here’s another piece for the pile: Hire a damn doula.

When my pregnant wife first proposed hiring a doula, I issued my standard response when asked about paying someone to perform a service: Nope, I can do that shit on my own. Oh, how ignorant I was.

The more I researched what doulas do, and the more my attorney wife presented me with rock-solid arguments in their favor, the more I came around. Looking back now, I have no idea how I would’ve made it without our doula.

The dominant American cultural approach to pregnancy, labor, and post-partum care is off-kilter in plenty of ways. We’re the only industrialized nation without mandated maternity leave; and paternity leave is seen as a joke, something for lazy-ass sissies. Also, we don’t take doulas as seriously as we should. If you, as a birth partner, have heard of doulas at all, you may think they’re granola-crunching life-coaches. I’ve noticed some OBs seem to have a chip on their shoulder when it comes to doulas, as if not being able to perform a C-section means you have an unimportant place in the birthing process.

But doulas are awesome. They are highly trained, they are highly experienced, and, perhaps most importantly, they have your back.

Do you know the quickest way to remove a hospital gown from a woman in the middle of an intense contraction? Can you coach her through the hardcore transition phase and hours of exhausting pushing? Do you have any clue what occiput posterior position is and how problematic it can be for the mother? When blood comes — and there will be blood — will you have any idea how much is normal scary and how much is legit terrifying?

No. Because you’re not a fucking doula.

So much about the birthing process was out of our control, but hiring a doula was the best thing we did in preparation for the birth. I read a half-dozen books about pregnancy, labor, and delivery while my wife was cooking our Little Biscuit, and this information was a huge help. (“The Birth Partner” by Penny Simkin is a must read for all partners of pregnant women.) But even though my head was full of information, I had no practical experience. When push came to push, I had no clue what to do.

As I pondered the approach of a doula, I developed a metaphor that has stuck with me. I’m a die-hard surfer, and I chase waves in all sorts of places. I love to put myself in intense and sketchy situations where the risk can be quite high, but the payoff can be ethereal.

As a birth partner, I thought of the birth process as a heavy wave breaking at a remote and unforgiving spot. I was the stoked, wide-eyed traveler, full of enthusiasm but ignorant of the complexities and pitfalls inherent in this particular experience. When you find yourself paddling out into a sketchy situation, the best thing you can do is have an experienced local by your side. Your ignorant ass doesn’t know where the submerged rocks are hiding, where the reef is the sharpest and shallowest, where the biggest sets break and catch you unaware, which nooks are frequented by those large predatory fish.

Having a veteran local around may seem like a luxury, and, sure, plenty of people can do just fine on their own, both in surfing and birth. But when the unexpected happens, that experienced person by your side becomes crucial.

My wife was a week overdue when we arrived at the hospital early on a Thursday morning. We spent five hours attempting to get labor going on our own, until the nurse kicked on the Pitocin drip, which took about 5 hours to get things started.

I was spread out on a recliner chair beside my wife, watching a Brazilian surf competition, when, all of the sudden, shit got real. I got up to give my wife a kiss and make sure she was alright, then I called the doula. She picked up right away, and I told her it was time. “Just what I’ve been waiting to hear,” she said. “I’ve got my bag ready to go.”

Amy arrived quickly with a birth ball, massage equipment, a big bag of gummy bears, and a ton of determination and compassion. As my wife progressed in labor, Amy comforted her, helped her power through contractions, advised her in different positions, walked her into the shower when the pain was too much to bear. As a birth partner, Amy helped me by breaking down what was happening and answering my many questions. During the chaos, Amy stayed by my wife’s side the entire time, allowing me a few minutes to pound a Red Bull, inhale a protein bar, and hit the bathroom.

The labor and delivery wing had been quiet all morning and, from what I could tell, all evening. But by the time my wife was in active labor, lazy Sunday traffic had turned into Monday morning mayhem. Babies were being born all over the place. “Code D!” (which meant a baby was coming) lasted from the intercom, so our midwife had to bail several times. While my wife was pushing, and I was trying to look like I had my shit together, the midwife left for 40 minutes to deliver a baby next door. The on-duty nurses (amazing, all of them) were stretched thin as well, and they were jumping around from room to room, doing anything and everything to help the various women in labor.

I don’t want to take anything away from the midwifery practice with which my wife and I worked; we had an excellent experience and I could write an equally effusive piece about midwifery practices. But when I initially told my wife I didn’t need a doula to help me, I had no idea I would be sans nurse and sans midwife while my wife was pushing out a baby. At one point, as Amy and I were each holding one of my wife’s legs during a contraction, I told her, “I never thought it would be just the two of us.” Amy just smiled as if to say, “Shit happens. Just labor on.”

Amy worked from about 8 pm to 6 am, but she seemed to love every minute of it. She was attentive, caring and all-around on top of shit the entire time. Amy isn’t an anomaly — the other doulas I have met are, without exception, caring, strong and deeply trustworthy.

Listen to him, people. Hire a damn doula!

After the birth, Amy helped coach my wife through the process of nursing our newborn baby girl, showing her how to coax the baby into a solid latch and keep her there while she nursed. As I was holding my angelic new daughter, sipping a coffee Amy had brought me, I turned to her and fumbled with words in an attempt to thank her for help, her presence, for the richness she added to the experience. The exhausted “Thank you” sounded almost crass after all we’d been through. But she just smiled and said, “It was an honor.” 

I could’ve said the same thing about having her with me.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Charm City

My childhood home in Baltimore didn't have a chimney. And come Christmastime, that was a problem.

“How,” I asked my dad, “is Santa going to get inside if we don’t have a chimney?”

With a straight face, my dad responded, “Through the dryer vent.”

A clothes dryer vent seemed an undignified way to welcome the most important man on Earth into our home. Chimneys, though, like brand-name jeans and cable TV, were for rich people. My Gardenville neighborhood was solidly blue collar. Fancy folks had above-ground pools or aluminum siding maybe, but not chimneys. Yet, every December 25th, the toys got where they needed to go. The lint trap never produced a wayward beard hair or tuft of white fur, but I believed.

That there were kids who didn't have dryers, never occurred to me. Just a 15-minute walk from my block of modest single-family homes, the neighborhoods got shabbier. Liquor stores sprouted up. An x-rated movie theater hunkered between a tattoo parlor and a ballet studio. Alleys served as backyards. It never occurred to me that, to some kid a half-mile away, we were the rich people, or that Baltimore Gas and Electric didn't care whether you wanted a new bike or one pair of decent shoes, that you’d been good all year.

Folks call my hometown “Charm City,” which seems an equally fitting nickname for childhood. As a kid, I assumed that life was, more often than not, great, and above all else, fair. Magic wasn't just possible, it was expected.

Of course Santa was real. Of course I could grow up to be Donna Summer, Queen of Disco. Really, nothing came on TV after 8. And, yes, calm down, Mom would be okay.

It never occurred to me that my dad might not be telling the whole truth.

I was 8 when my mom died. I was playing with a friend across the street when I heard my dad urgently calling my name. As I loped toward home, I saw people crowding our sidewalk and front porch. Neighbors gathered on their stoops, crying. Before I even stepped foot in my own yard, I knew: She was gone. And with her went Santa Clause and my prim little bubble of fairness.


Thirty years later, I’m a mother. My son is 2, and I sometimes find myself torn between recreating that bubble for him and laying everything bare. For now, Santa lives again. In fact, Santa is a thoroughly modern man: I explained to my son that Mr. Claus uses the webcam to watch over him at night, when the nursery is dark and lonely. This fib sooths my son and imbues his world with a little extra wonder. Admittedly, the ever-present eye of Santa also helps to keep my toddler in line. Fairy tales have always functioned that way: vague threats disguised as enchantment.

My husband, son, and I live in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, having moved for work and more green space and a loft bedroom. Notably, we have a fireplace. Almost everyone in our neighborhood has a fireplace. Chimneys left and right. There are no above-ground pools or security bars on windows. Signs of poverty are a violation of HOA rules. Our schools are “high-performing.” We are engineers and lawyers and stay-at-home moms and military families. We garden and host play dates. It’s a very different kind of Charm City. The bubble practically builds itself.


When I was fresh out of grad school and nearly broke, I lived for a time in Baltimore’s Govans neighborhood. My roommates and I rented a row home near a chicken wing joint that advertised “50 Pieces for Your Wedding or Funeral!” A police camera mounted below a swirling blue light kept a silent, electronic watch over our corner. Someone left needles on the hood of my car. While I was trudging up York Road one day, a man in a neatly detailed Volvo leaned out of his window: “I wouldn’t be walking alone through this neighborhood if I were you.” A handful of Black kids played tag on the corner behind me, laughing, shrieking. “It’s not safe,” the guy called after me as I glanced back at the kids and then went on my way.

Image courtesy of Debi Parker Keating Photography.


As an early spring chill suddenly gave way to sticky heat, storms rolled through Virginia. My son watched from his bedroom window as lightning crackled in the near distance. Thunder rumbled. My husband held a hand to our toddler’s back and whispered in his ear, “Don’t worry. The storm stays outside.” Before his bedtime, I held my son in my lap and read to him. He dug his head into the flesh below my shoulder. As the rain began to pelt the windows, he mumbled to himself, over and again, “Don’t worry. The storm stays outside.” I rocked him and read to him and I held my tongue. “What’s the harm?” I wondered to myself, “This isn't Katrina.”

When do you tell a child that terrible things happen, sometimes for no reason? Or worse, that they happen for reasons we choose to ignore? At what point does a sense of security become a fatal flaw?

Last week, I watched Charm City erupt. For days, my son had awoken each morning convinced that a thunderstorm still raged outside. He could not be persuaded otherwise until I threw back the curtains on a sunny day. “The storm stays outside,” he would announce. And from our 50-mile distance from Baltimore, I did feel very much “outside.” I clicked from news channel to news channel. I trolled Facebook for status updates from friends in the city, from folks on the inside.

So many people asked, “Why would they burn their own neighborhoods?” And all I can say is that it’s hard to break a spell.