Monday, April 16, 2007

Devastating School Shooting

The unthinkable has re-occurred. Another school is the backdrop to a horrific crime scene. Today in Virginia, someone decided take a gun and snuff out the lives of about 31 people attending a local Technical College. Many more are wounded and receiving emergency medical care at nearby hospitals.

Today, there are parents in this world who are crying out loud, groaning under the weight of grief, as they come to learn that it was their child who was shot and killed at school. Today, there are parents in this world who are temporarily left to draw their own conclusions, not knowing if their child is safe or dead, and frantically searching for answers. Others have discovered that by some miracle, their child is safe and sound, and will then wrestle with the conflicting feelings that come when you are intensely grateful that your child is safe, while still grieving over such a horrendous act and the losses that occurred.

There are young adults who narrowly escaped being in the wrong area at the wrong time, and were able to leave the campus without harm. There are others, who, in taking cover from the flying bullets, laid low on the ground beside someone who was not so lucky, and became the last gentle touch the person received before the last breath escaped their lips. There are kids who were meant to bring about positive change in the world and peace to those in need, who can no longer do that. They were shot and killed by a single person who altered the lives of hundreds, with the pull of a finger.

I think one of the saddest parts of this terrible event, besides the immensely terrible event itself, is the fact that, to some degree, many people will read the headlines of this day, pause from sipping their coffee for a few minutes, comment on what a tragedy this is, and then go about their day as they had planned previous to reading the headline. The re-occurring theme of fatal school shootings has, to just a small degree, hardened our hearts. We've stopped aching as deeply. We've found ways to file these kind of events away in our minds so that it doesn't dominate our thoughts as long. Perhaps it's a coping mechanism so that we don't spend all our life in mourning. Perhaps it's because we're allowing ourselves to be dulled by such horrific acts as we see them happening more often. Or perhaps it's an interesting combination of both.

My hope is that we never get to a point where we will casually read over events such as these and find ourselves beyond feeling shock and horror over it. Even when the act is in another country acutely affecting people we will never know, I hope it will always seep into our souls just enough to remind us of how fragile life is, urging us to better appreciate our relationships with friends and family, and extend ourselves to help heal the want in others so there is less pain. I hope we can, as fellow humans, mourn for the lost children, ache for the sorrowed parents, and be vulnerable for the survivors. We're all connected. We are all neighbours.

-Heather McCue

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Understanding Pain

After having five children, four of whom were natural, unmedicated births, I felt I had a fairly respectable pain threshold. I could breathe and tone my way through first stage labour, and with some amount of effort, would finally pop out a wrinkly, pink baby to show for my day's work. It was an ordinary miracle, and one that I had a fairly good idea of how it would unfold, barring some rare emergency.

So it was with quite some dismay that I found myself in a large tangled heap on our local ski mountain, hollering away like I'd just severed a limb.

I had just started my second run down of the morning, but a combination of icy conditions and a lack of experience culminated in me propelling myself down the hill at speeds that were uncharacteristically fast (though the tears streaming out of my eyes from my break-neck speed seemed to blur any real sense of my pace). In the milli-second I had to figure out how to remedy this situation, I decided it was best if I simply bailed on this ski run by heading toward the rough snow, off the beaten path, until I could bring myself to a stop. When the crunching and mashing sounds ended, I felt an exquisitely sharp pain in my right knee and instantly knew I was going to die. If not death, my leg was likely completely broken in many spots and I should just continue punching the snow with my free fist while screaming unintelligible sounds. Nausea overcame me soon and I had to pause from this no doubt helpful verbal exercise so as to try to avoid the stomach activity that can often accompany nauseous feelings. My husband and a ski patrol person (whom I'd just previously sailed by while waving jovially) joined me by now and they were able to help me calm down, breathe slower, and relax my troubled soul.

In the end, neither my knee or my leg were broken. And I did not die. I tore some of the meniscus around my knee that likely won't need surgery, just a lot of physiotherapy, exercises, rest, ice, and a bit more time to heal up. But why did I react to that pain in such an unfamiliar way? Where did my pain threshold disappear to?

I think the answer lies in the fact that when I'm bringing about a new life into this world, it's neither a medical emergency or an unexpected event. Instead, it's something I am preparing for, welcoming, and even excited about. I have a fairly good understanding about the process that is going on inside of me, and I understand the pain. But in the example of my knee injury, the event was all that childbirth wasn't... the injury was a medical emergency; it was unexpected; it was not something I had prepared for, wanted, or considered exciting. I had no idea what was going on inside of me and I did not understand the pain. It just kept reminding me that something was wrong and I was in trouble.

The common denominator here is that both of these events contained pain, but the big difference was my attitude. I had no fear in the birthing process, so that decreased my anxiety, which increased my pain coping skills and allowed the endorphins to course through my veins and fill me with my own natural morphine. But the ski injury event was full of fear. I had no idea what I had just done to my body and the damage I had possibly caused. I didn't know how I was going to get off the ski hill to some help. I felt every sensation ten times more because I was trying to access how wrong things had gone inside me. My stress hormones were overwhelming any endorphins that were trying to provide comfort, and my fight or flight response was on full alert.

And so my goal as a doula and childbirth educator, is to help women remove the fear that can often surround childbirth, and instead, replace it with understanding. Understanding of how their body is amazing and that it knows what to do without us needing to do anything. Understanding that the sensations of birth aren't signals of something going 'wrong', but of so much going right. Understanding that women are powerful and surrendering, loud and quiet, soft and strong.

- Heather McCue

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Introducing the Doula

Pregnant families across the province of BC are slowly joining the rising trend of people who, nationwide, are re-discovering the ancient art of doula support for labour and childbirth. More and more midwives and doctors are seeing their expecting clients walking through hospital doors with more than just their duffel bags in tow. There is a third person walking along side them, usually a woman, who has come to join them in this miraculous, difficult, and intimate moment in time... the birth of their child.

This third person, their doula, is someone who has been trained to provide continuous emotional support to both the mother and the father, who are wading into a huge, life-changing experience and can sometimes use just a little reassurance that what is unfolding is normal. The doula is also there to provide physical support, helping mom feel as comfortable as she can during this most rigorous work. She can often provide suggestions to dad so he can more effectively support his wife, enhancing the experience for the couple, and taking some pressure off dad to 'know it all'.

When this tradition of a triangle birth support team began is impossible to track, as many cultures in the world have never known birth without this component. It is safe to say that women in BC have been using other women for childbirth support since there was a BC. The female supporters have varied from sisters, mothers, friends, etc., to the now specially trained doula.

You can locate a doula near you via an internet search (google “doula + your home town + province”); in the phone book (under 'prenatal education'); or ask your prenatal teacher, a La Leche League Leader, your midwife or doctor, or other pregnant women/new moms.

Interview a few doulas to find the right fit and philosophy for you. And once you have chosen, take the time to build up that relationship of trust and understanding so that all you see during the vulnerable and amazing experience of birth, is familiar faces with a supportive touch.

- Heather McCue, for Island Child Magazine (2006)

The Purpose & Value of Labour Support

When one chooses to work in the labour support field, she chooses to try to make a permanent, positive difference in the lives of childbearing families. The influence she may have can be far reaching, touching the mother as she experiences labour and birth, and forms her personal feelings about how this will mold her self confidence now and in the future, as well as that of the partner as he takes on the role of father. Labour support, or doula support, is available so families can increase their chances of having an empowered birth experience as the doula works within her parameters of offering physical, emotional and informational support.

There are many proven benefits for parents who choose to use doula support. Mothers report, among many other things, a greater satisfaction in their childbirth experience. They feel they have more of a voice in their care as they make informed choices from a variety of options or alternatives available to them during childbirth. This is in part because the doula has the time and training to provide clarifying information to the woman regarding what her options exactly are in different situations. Further more, she can explain what consequences may arise, positively or otherwise, from the variety of each choice. Another benefit for women using doula support is that mothers can often avoid or delay the usage of pain medications, as they have a variety of other comfort measures which often work very effectively, easily available to them through the experience of their doula. This generally results in a more alert baby, a better breastfeeding start, and a deep sense of accomplishment for the mother. A doula doesn't typically work in shifts, which provides another boon for the childbearing family, as she can provide constant companionship while she remains with the family throughout the labour and birth, and even into the immediate postpartum. Having this constant support can play a big role in making the woman feel comfortable in her surroundings, especially in a hospital setting where medical staff usually have many other responsibilities which require them to leave the couple. Fathers report a relief of the burden of having to 'know it all' so they can adequately support their partners. When a doula joins their team, dad can use her as an ongoing resource for ideas on how best to provide comfort for his partner, and to get clarity and reassurance on questions that might arise during the process of birth. Couples choosing a doula that fits well into their support team philosophy may only stand to improve their childbirth experience.

The main purpose behind providing labour support is to help the family feel empowered about their childbirth experience. Because all families have different wishes and desires regarding what is important to experience during the childbirth process, a doula can help hear what their priorities are, and try to set the stage early for those desires to be brought to pass. Birth, however, doesn't always go as planned, so the doula can also try to help couples who face situations they had hoped to avoid, to see what is still in their control in their given situation and what is not, to give them time to let go of their original birth plans and grief whatever wishes my be lost, then to embrace where this new path is taking them, and to make new choices in their new circumstances. Women giving birth, no matter how close or far from their original birth wishes, will report a higher degree of satisfaction if they've been able to get clarity on what choices they have along their birth journey, and then respected enough to have their choices heard. Doulas can provide that opportunity for women to feel that support and empowerment.

The doula has three main responsibilities as she works to support the labouring family. One of her roles is to provide emotional support. By trying to interpret the language of labour for them, by sharing reassurance of what normal birth looks and sounds like, and by letting the couple know that they are not alone in their experience, can all help to reduce and sometime even eliminate the feelings of fear and anxiety that can occur in labour. This will result in a more effective labour pattern, as fear can often times slow a labour down while making it feel much more painful. Another of the doula's role is to provide physical comfort. Through training and experience, a doula will be able to see and hear the sensations of the labouring mother and either know what ideas or positions to suggest to help create more comfort, or by giving mom the encouragement necessary to try to follow her own instincts to see what her body is asking her to do. The third responsibility of the doula is to provide informational support. When she provides any information surrounding the childbirth experience, it must always be factually based without any personal opinions. This helps the family see clearly what is the best option for them in their particularly unique situation. All other tasks that a doula can and does perform for labouring couples, will usually fall under one of those three categories.

Doula work is a service meant to be provided by those women who are truly committed to supporting empowered childbirth, with all its many faces. Couples wanting an opportunity to better enjoy their childbirth experience would likely benefit from the multifaceted support of a doula. Through the various roles a doula plays, she can help facilitate a type of birth satisfaction necessary for both the mother and the father to be able to look back on the birth of their child favourably, even if it wasn't the birth experience the couple had initially intended to have. The effects of having that empowered experience will quietly ripple it's effects into many aspects of the new family's life, creating a wake of improved self esteem for all involved.

-Heather McCue, for her DONA certification essay

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Back to Basics

We live in a fairly well-off, suburban, single family home, neighbourhood that has it's fair share of white picket fences and manicured gardens. We're not really close to anything commercial or industrial, so people roaming our nearby streets either live here, or are visiting someone else who lives here. So it was with much surprise that I saw a homeless man walking down one of the busier streets in this said neighbourhood. I had a few seconds to take note of him as drove by in my vehicle. He was pushing a metal shopping cart filled most of the way with a bulging green garbage bag. He had a well worn but appropriately warm hat on his head that allowed trails of long, matted grey hair to hang from it. His face was dark and weathered from no doubt many years in the sun and other elements. He had several layers of clothes on his body, none of which had seen a washing machine for extended periods of time. His black trousers appeared torn and split towards the bottom cuffs, perhaps from being over-worn, or from the work of a misguided dog. Over his feet he wore black boots that must have walked many, many miles.

I believe I have seen this gentleman previously in other neighbourhoods, pushing the same cart, walking with a purpose that only he knows of. He has never asked passing strangers for money, or caused any disturbances. He simply appears to have some place he's planning to get to, and no apparent agenda on when to arrive.

As I pondered this man and his first-glance circumstances, my first reaction was to feel sorry for him. He likely has no home, no possessions of material worth, no means to keep his body clean and tidy, etc. How must it feel to be looked upon as 'dirty' and 'caste-away' by the observer.

But then I had a second thought. This man had something I was particularly envious of. All he owned was in that medium sized bag being pushed around in his cart. He had no ties to trivial trinkets, nor was he in need of de-cluttering his overstuffed closets and drawers. He had liberated himself from weighty and often burdonsome possessions and had whittled down what was important to him in one plastic bag. How freeing it would feel to not have to look after, upkeep, or worry about the condition of some of my possessions that I neither need nor properly appreciate, and to keep only the basics that really mean something to me. How many bags could I trim my treasures to? Twelve? Six? Surely not one.

Though he lacked a squeaky clean complexion, I saw no evidence of fear in his eyes about making mortgage payments, deciding which vehicle would suit him best, or if he would be late for some appointment across town. I took a moment to considered how it would feel to be that free; to have simplified life to that extent, and I began to feel a desire to look at my own life in different eyes. Without going to the extreme, I surely could liberate aspects of my life by eliminating some of the physical and emotional clutter that takes a much too dominant role in my day. And in so doing, I might actually be freer to explore the more meaningful things in life that I'm being kept back from currently.

I really don't know anything about the life of this gentleman, nor how he came to be at the place he is in life. But the fact that he keeps walking, keeps pushing his cart, has left an indelible impression in my mind. What first appeared as sad circumstances to me, now feels more like a gentle whisper from the background of my life, ushering me to make things simpler and thus, more meaningful. We never know how long we have here on earth... we may as well cast off the shackles of bondage and really get down to living.

-Heather McCue

Friday, March 23, 2007

Birth Guilt

More often than not, when you congregate a group of young mothers together at any social gathering, conversations seem to eventually lend themselves towards the topic of childbirth. Perhaps this phenomena is due in part because childbirth is typically one of the more emotional events you can experience in life. Whether the moments surrounding your child's birth were positive or frightening, breath-taking or fearful, the emotions stay with you, forever etched in your memory, changing you in some way from who you were, to who you now are. Later, by sharing your story, you are in essence sharing why you are who you are, now. And this personal debriefing, of sorts, will often be met with words of support and validation, or occasionally signs of disapproval and judgement. And this is where 'birth guilt' can grow from.

"Did you have any pain medications?"; "Did you have your baby vaginally?"; "Did you make a lot of noise?"... all are common questions that quietly allude to the idea that one answer is the 'right' way and the other answer is the 'wrong' way. If their experience fits into the 'right' way to birth, women are generally more confident to share their story knowing they will be met with those words of admiration that yes, they did it right and they must have just wanted it bad enough to have achieve it. Conversely, the woman who's experience doesn't fit into this real or imagined 'right' way to birth, may hesitate to share her story in the same company. She may question some of her experience or second-guess her choices to wonder if only she had (fill in the blank), would things had turned out differently? Turned out 'right'? To share a story that personal is to bear yourself completely, leaving yourself open to the judgement of others who may or may not understand the experience. And to many women, the risk of disapproval is just too great. Instead of sharing, they fold up their story and file it away in the safety of their heart, only to be pulled out when it's in safe company.

Can one person's birth be more miraculous than another? The short answer is obviously no. Though the circumstances surrounding every birth will vary, each experience has some of the same amazing firsts: the first sights as mom sees her child face to face after nine months of waiting, the first sounds as baby draws air into his lungs for the first time, the first smells as baby imprints in his soul the unique 'fingerprint' smell of his mother's skin, and the first touches as mom eventually gets to hold her new little one and stroke his cheek. It is an awesome time when a woman becomes a mother (or a mother again), and a man becomes a father (or father again). It is the shift of relationships and the assuming of new responsibilities. These are all miracles and moments worthy of joyful sharing.

'Birth guilt' is an unnecessary and heavy burden to pull around. To carry it is assume that you had the power to change the birth experience, when in reality, there is so much you cannot control in childbirth. It is a force of nature that you can only set the stage for, and then stand back and let it unfold as it sees fit. To think you can change how it unfolds is like trying to hold back the sea as it starts to roll in. When you are able to let go of the things you really never had control over in the first place, and to allow yourself to just ride the experience nature has provided you, it can be a liberating experience. Instead of trying to make things be 'right', you end up empowering yourself to experience what is pure and simply, yours.

All mother's are to be celebrated no matter how their birth stories tell. All birth experiences are to be validated no matter what happened along the journey. And all baby's are to be snuggled no matter how they emerged into this world. Those are the true miracles of life.

-Heather McCue