Doulas draw from Jewish tradition as birth helpersby emma silvers, j. staff
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On a gorgeous January morning, sunlight streams through the windows into Leora Hahn’s cozy living room in Oakland. Several women are gathered around a coffee table, sitting on well-loved couches. A couple of them are taking notes. They could be planning anything — a PTA fundraiser, a local food drive, a community block party.
Except, in this case, umbilical cords are involved.
After giving birth, doula Wendy Kenin explains, there is a relatively recent practice of waiting before clamping and cutting the cord — it’s thought to allow more blood and nutrients to pass from mother to child.
“How long?” asks Hahn, who is 8 months pregnant.
The Imeinu Doula Collective, based out of Oakland, provides support throughout pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period. Doulas aren’t medical professionals, but they can help with nearly everything else: easing prenatal aches and pains, teaching breathing exercises, arranging babysitting for other children during labor and offering postpartum emotional support.
The 4-year-old Jewish collective — six women, each with different training and specialties — also offers a unique angle on pregnancy and labor: Judaism and a sense of deep spirituality color almost everything they do.
“We serve such a diverse range of clients — Nigerian, Chinese, we had a Muslim couple. Certainly not everyone is Jewish,” says Kenin, who is Orthodox, a founding member and, according to her fellow doulas, the “glue” of the collective. “But we do draw strength and guidance from the Jewish tradition. There’s so much in the Torah about birth and midwifery, so many birth stories, so much wisdom,” she adds.
“Doulas support women informationally, physically and emotionally — we can also add ‘spiritually’ to that list.”
For observant or Orthodox women, the birth process can present a host of additional challenges — challenges for which the Imeinu (“our mothers”) collective is well-equipped.
“As soon as a woman excretes any kind of blood, she’s niddah [ritually impure], so her husband’s not allowed to touch her,” explains doula Hilah Zohar. “I had an Orthodox couple, and I’m shomer Shabbos, so I knew exactly what to do — I was just doing gentle massage when her husband couldn’t. And they were saying, ‘This was one of the smartest things we’ve ever done.’ It can take a lot of pressure off a woman’s body just to have touch.”
At today’s meeting, the first of two prenatal visits in the basic package, Hahn, 40, is planning the birth with three of the six doulas: Kenin, who by day works at the Jewish nonprofit UpStart, Zohar, a certified massage therapist and herbalist who specializes in acupressure and other body work, and Sue Proctor, a certified doula who volunteers in Oakland’s Highland Hospital maternity ward (when she’s not selling real estate or officiating at same-sex marriages).
Though Hahn had her first two children without a doula, she started looking into doulas for this pregnancy for a number of reasons.
“I’m from New York, and I don’t really have any family out here,” she explains. “When I was in labor with my last one, I had a friend there who was really good about reminding me to breathe, and just being there, and I’m not sure if she’s going to be able to come. I wanted some extra support so it wasn’t all on my husband.”
The doulas run through a basic questionnaire to gather information on Hahn’s wishes, concerns and priorities for the pregnancy and birth process.
Hahn is Jewish (she heard about the collective because her daughter and Kenin’s attend preschool together at Oakland Congregation Beth Jacob), so the doulas have brought her a few relevant objects today. A slip of paper contains the Birkat HaGomel, a prayer recited by “one who has survived a dangerous situation.” A red string from Rachel’s Tomb, some believe, offers protection. A laminated card offers Hebrew prayers a husband might say on behalf of his pregnant wife.
Supporting a father can be a significant part of a doula’s work, Proctor notes. “He’s watching a woman that he loves in pain, and that can be very scary, especially if he doesn’t feel like he knows how to support her,” she says. “If we can relieve him of other things — help with other kids, whatever it is — all he has to do is be there for her.”
As someone whose doula training took place mostly with home births, Kenin says she is motivated to help women re-create a natural, home-birth process in a hospital, with as few interventions as possible. Interventions, in this case, can be anything from medication for strengthening contractions (to speed up the process) to epidurals (though the collective stresses that the decision to use pain medication is wholly up to the mother).
“During a birth, supporting a woman can be as simple as massage, helping her walk around to get the baby to descend, reminding her to rest and drink water,” she explains.
“Reminding her it’s not going to last forever,” adds Zohar with a laugh. “Transition times are the toughest. That’s when women start to go ‘I can’t take it anymore!’ And you can be there to say, ‘It’s a transition, and it’s going to be over soon.’ You’re acting as a grounding force.”
Proctor, who maintains her doula certification through Doula Organization of North America International, often notes the difference even an hour of contact with a doula can make when she volunteers at Highland Hospital. The midwives there know her and wave her through to help wherever she can.
“Many of the women there are young, haven’t had any counseling, haven’t taken any prenatal vitamins, a lot of them don’t have partners,” she says. “And it’s an incredibly difficult thing to go through alone. There have been women where we didn’t even speak the same language, but just an hour of being there, breathing with her, can help lessen some of the pain.”
While the concept of a doula is not new — the word comes from ancient Greek, meaning “female caregiver” — more and more women are opting to use them in the U.S. As of 2009, the Doula Organization of North America counted 7,000 members, compared with 750 registered in 1994.
And as more women are choosing to use doulas, medical practitioners have gotten used to the extra presence in the delivery room, according to Kenin, and often are quite happy to have them there. Hahn, due Feb. 19, plans to have her baby at Alta Bates Hospital — and she’s grateful for anything the doulas can tell her about how the maternity ward there tends to run.
“In a sense, it’s only been the last 100 years or so that this process was taken out of homes, out of the hands of the mothers,” says Kenin. “And Judaism is a very woman-centered tradition, which is something many people may not realize. We’re performing a lot of the same rituals our ancestors did. We’re transmitting that knowledge. We’re taking it back.”