I thought I would never have to see the doula again.
I have been boycotting the San Francisco neighborhood known as "the mission" for almost a year now, vowing never to venture south of 14th street and east of Noe. The Mission is the gentrified hipster neighborhood full of artist chicks with carrie-donovan glasses and yoga mats, panhandling Mexican troubadours, and "dive bars" crammed with Judds on the prowl every Friday and Saturday night. The Mission is the juddliest neighborhood because, just as most San Franciscans can't fathom living anywhere else in the country, most Mission-dwellers cannot imagine living anywhere else in the city. It's just like the Marina in that way. Instead of Marina chicks you have Judds and artists. I haven't made up my mind about which is worse.
The woman who was our doula for a few weeks lives there, so I figured I would never have to see her. I was wrong.
Let me back up. Back before Juniper was born, Wood was sure she wanted a doula to assist during the birth. All the books said doulas were such a great help. I think she just like the sound of the word. Doula. Doula. Sounds so peaceful, right? Helpful. Knowledgeable. A little hippie-dippy maybe. Knowing my predilection for all things ancient and Greek, Wood told me that it was an ancient Greek word for "female assistant." I was like, no, sorry, it means slave. Doula is the ancient Greek word for slave.
So Wood really wanted one of these slaves. I didn't. I pictured the doula as an annoyance, an interloper, wafting aromatherapy bottles in Wood's face and talking about chakras and chanting over the placenta. The birth slaves in the videos we watched in our birthing classes certainly did not shake this idea from my head. They were all fifty-year old lesbians with gray marine-corps hair and wood-beaded necklaces and flowery muumuus. One of them was wearing one of those little stiff caps with an African print on it. I looked at my wife as if she was nuts. "You want one of those in the birthing room with us?" Sure, if we were Ina May Gaskin types having Tantric sex and reading books by Deepak Chopra and listening to "world music" I could picture inviting someone like that into our home for a home birth in the sacred porcelain claw-foot bathtub, and I wouldn't have blinked when she showed up on our doorstep with a boombox blasting Enya and a selection of vegan snacks. But that's not who we are. It's chicks like that that drove us away from the Rainbow Grocery co-op forever by rudely elbowing us to get at the last carob-coconut squares. Having already been driven away from Whole Foods by the Judds and yuppies, where could we shop? What choice was there for two reasonable people who wanted to have a natural hospital birth? Wood was convinced she had to have a slave in the hospital room to hold back the anesthesiologists and clogged-foot nurses clutching hypodermics and IV bags and stop her OB from slicing into her and pulling the baby out so she could make a dinner appointment on time. At first I indulged her.
Wood smartly kept me out of the process of interviewing slaves. I didn't want to have anything to do with them, and I let her know I wasn't happy about it. I wasn't just my new-agey hippie prejudice that made me feel this way, it was my honest feeling that we didn't need a stranger in the room with us. That this was something we could do, just the two of us. I told Wood there wasn't anything a doula could do that I couldn't do. I bought and read "The Birth Partner" and declared myself the doula. Still, Wood searched on.
Wood conspired with the doula for several weeks over the telephone before I was allowed to meet her. "I really, really like her," Wood said. They had met for coffee. She had shown Wood her bag of tricks, full of patchouli-smelling gewgaws and oils. Wood said she was going to hire her. I braced myself for the inevitable. We were hiring a slave. Wood nervously scheduled a time for the doula to meet me. I came home from work that day wearing a suit, and slumped into a chair across our living room from her after weakly shaking her hand.
She was cute. Young, at least. A hipster. No muumuu. No wood-beaded necklace. No African print stiff cap. Maybe this won't be that bad, I thought. I looked at her business card M____ C_______, "mother, doula, knitter, artist," it said. Oh crap.
It was the most awkward conversation ever. As Wood and I tried to articulate what we wanted from the birth experience, she just sat there, nodding. But nothing we said seemed to be having an impact. "You should try to change from the hospital to the Sage Femme Birth Center in the mission," she said. "It's run by midwives. It's much more supportive." I tried to tell her my insurance might not cover that, and she said many insurance plans cover it. We told her we wanted to have the birth in the safety of a hospital, and she told us that Sage Femme has a relationship with San Francisco General in case of an emergency. San Francisco General? That's where junkies go to die! Does she consider that a selling point? I'm sure Sage Femme is a great place to squeeze out a kid but at the time Wood and I weren't ready for that. We were nervous first-time parents. Maybe next time, we said. She looked peeved. I realized she was judging us. Worse, she was condemning our choices. Fucking Mission hipster. The conversation only got worse. I was trying to be honest, and it was my understanding that a doula's first responsibility was to be understanding and tolerant of the choices of the family she would be working with. Not this one. Her $700 fee did not include tolerance or understanding, but damn did she have some aromatherapy bottles and a tennis ball in a sock that felt great when rubbed across a pregnant woman's spine! Well, I already had a sock and I could find a tennis ball in the bushes outside the courts in Golden Gate park.
What good is a slave if she doesn't listen to you?
Wood was uneasy about the meeting. She didn't like the way it had gone down. She didn't like how judgmental and awkward the doula had been. The next day, the doula called her. "I really don't think I should work with you and your husband," she said. What a relief.
If there is a fundamental difference between Wood and I, it is tolerance. Wood is open to things, like astrology, that I have no patience for. I got kicked out of the psychic fair that they have in the county fair building in golden gate park once for making nasty faces at the tarot card readers while Wood and the Leggy Swede had their auras cleansed. I hate that fakey new-agey spiritualist tripe. I mean, I despise it equally with all those other wacky religions out there (you know: Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, Judaism, Scientology). I think the doula knew I would call her out on all her bullshit and like any snake-oil salesman, she turned tail and ran once suspicion was aroused. Wood knew it was all bullshit too, but Wood is a much better person than I am. She is far more tolerant of bullshit, even entertained by it. But Wood was also scared. She wanted a voice in the room that had gone through birth before. She wanted somebody in the room who could be strong, and she didn't know yet if she could trust me to be that person. The 20th century has been such a dark age of obstetric philosophy. I wholeheartedly believe that Ina May Gaskin and others in the midwifery/natural childbirth movement have the right idea, 100 percent. But I am troubled at the overall stranglehold these new-agey archfeminist muumuu types have over the movement. I think all the Enya and aromatherapy and meditation are a barrier to changing birthing policy across the social spectrum. If this shit is continued to be viewed as "wacky" or "weird" it is going to be much harder to convince the medical establishment to change, let alone convince your average Southern Belle scheduling her epidural. So peace to all midwifes and doulas who handle their shit with the professionalism their job deserves. Safe, natural birth shouldn't just be the province of nutbuckets.
Wood and I were alone for 95 percent of the birthing process. We left home for the hospital almost eight hours after the contractions started. My hands never left her. I helped her fight the urge to succumb to a nurse's offer of narcotics. She didn't have an epidural. She didn't use any pain relieving drugs. It was painful as hell for her. Juniper came out in two pushes. I did my best to fill the role she saw a doula filling, but even more I filled the role I myself wanted to fill. I was her birth partner. We had relied on each other for nine years at that point, and I was not going to let her down. I was going to do everything that she needed from me, and more. I do not think I could have been that person if a doula had been in the room, acting assured and relevant, pushing me to the sidelines, a stranger there in our way during the most poignant moment of our lives.
So when I saw the doula the other day, eating in a cafe outside her blessed Mission District with her kids and husband, I looked at her and kissed Juniper's head and thought: "We didn't need you after all."
I thought I would never have to see the doula again.