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The doula who saved my life

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I was pregnant, in my third trimester after several years of trying. And while I was ecstatic at my good fortune, my body was less than pleased. I fought nausea 12 hours a day and it only stopped when the heartburn kicked in.

Then the night terrors started. In between crying jags, anxiety, sadness and a feeling of impending doom, nobody — including me — realized that I was dealing with antepartum depression. Actually, according to the American Congress of Obsetricians and Gynecologists, between 14 and 23 percent of women cope with depression during pregnancy. I started feeling it in my 32nd week.

With screening, it’s likely that I would have been diagnosed. Recently, in fact, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommended that all women receive mental health screenings during pregnancy, not just after giving birth. But seven years ago I didn’t have a prayer — even though I was spending hours on my knees worshiping at the throne of the porcelain goddess.

Help came from the most unlikely of sources. I bumped into a former colleague, someone with whom I had never seen eye to eye, and she recommended that I consult a doula. She handed me a piece of scrap paper with a name (perhaps as a peace offering).

Until then I had no idea what a doula was. According to the world’s oldest and largest organization of doulas, Dona International: “The word “doula” comes from the ancient Greek meaning “a woman who serves” and is now used to refer to a trained and experienced professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to the mother before, during and just after birth; or who provides emotional and practical support during the postpartum period.”

“Oh, I get it,” I thought to myself. A doula is like a boot camp for feminine energy. I was down for the course. My only concern was how much it would cost. It came out to around $800 dollars for four sessions (three before birth and one after), plus her attendance during the delivery. My stoic husband agreed to the expense, knowing I needed more emotional nurturing (or, as he put it, Kumbaya support) than he could provide.

Like a holistic Mary Poppins without the umbrella, the doula appeared at my door. She carried a huge satchel filled with patchouli-scented pillows, essential oils, healthy foods, a copy of “The Vaccine Book,” prenatal calming tapes and DVDs featuring whale songs. I told her all my fears about giving birth and how I was scared about taking on this new role. She took charge like a boss.

During our first session she made me throw out my TV dinners, and challenged me to replace the nutrient-free food (bad for me and my growing baby’s brain) with whole foods such as salads, quinoa and organic, cage-free eggs. She also suggested I enroll in a prenatal yoga class to relax me and get me comfortable with my body and its recently acquired 70 pounds of baby weight.

During our second session, she played meditation tapes, taught me how to breathe during labor and helped me visualize a calmer future, where I could be someone’s mother. As I echoed her chants and affirmations, my fears began to dissipate, along with my distrust of the birth process.

Then a standard ultrasound brought scary news: My baby was in a breech position, instead of head-down, which could be dangerous for the birth.

My doula’s recommended solution was unorthodox, but I was desperate. During our third session, she asked me to mentally ask my ancestors for help. She also told me to call five women I was close to and have them pray at 8 p.m. daily for one week, asking that the baby turn around. My mother, mother-in-law, two best friends and my sister obliged. If anyone was skeptical, they didn’t dare tell me.

The ultrasound two weeks later confirmed that my daughter had switched her position and was head-down.

When I went into labor, my doula met us at the hospital with a portable DVD player in that trusty satchel. I listened to soothing whale sounds, and she massaged my temples, neck and lower back while my husband fed me strawberry ices. My daughter refused to move down the birth canal, and my cervix didn’t dilate, so the baby arrived via c-section. She came with 10 perfect fingers and 10 precious toes, weighing 8 pounds, 12 ounces.

My doula came back for a final visit after I went home from the hospital. She brought gifts: a rattle, poems about motherhood and a plastic container full of home-cooked quinoa.

Though the leftovers lasted for days, the lessons I learned from her about self-care have lasted well beyond our contract.

Would I hire her again? In a baby’s heartbeat.

Estelle Erasmus is a journalist, author,  writing coach and frequent contributor. She has been published on Salon, Newsweek, Redbook and more. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and on her blog.

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