Thursday, July 13, 2006

Easing Labour's Pains - Catholic Herald 7 July 2006

My husband is better at explaining it: he has had more practice.

“Where’s Sarah?” someone will ask him at a party. “Well, she’s on call,” he will begin. Or, a couple of weeks ago: “She can’t do her Herald column because just as she’d written the first sentence her client rang to say she had started labour – and she knew this lady was a quick birther, so she had to run…” Baffled looks, or rather, baffled editorial noises down the phone.

What’s she on call for, exactly? “Er, she’s something called a doula…”

The name’s useless. A term invented by Californian doctors who thought, wrongly, it was Greek for midwife. “No, not a midwife…a kind of professional birth companion. She gets hired by mums to support them during their labour and birth.”

More bafflement. What, you mean she goes to hospital when the father doesn’t want to? Actually, the father’s usually there too. But surely there are midwives and doctors? Yes - but in hospital, you may be passed from midwife to midwife and may have met none of them before.

Studies have shown that women who are supported by a non-medical woman companion whom they know and trust are more likely to have a good, manageable labour and an uncomplicated birth. I became a doula because I reckoned that to communicate the joy of having children to more people when so many young couples think they are an expensive chore, this was surely the place to start.

Regrettably, midwives are not employed in the numbers needed to provide the personal touch they would love to offer. A typical doula client is seeking continuity. She usually wants as natural a birth as possible and fears that she will be bamboozled into unwelcome interventions.

She might want her back rubbed for hours, or simply to talk to a woman who’s been through it. Or she might “just want someone there to remind me I don’t want an epidural”.

Above all, she wants her baby’s birth to matter. Few people realise that getting the birth environment right is not an optional, New-Age-y bit of frippery: it is an essential. Ask any herd animal.

We are the only mammal who regards birth as a cue to drive through heavy traffic to a huge building full of strangers and machines. We are also the only mammal who does this, and is then amazed that the mum’s labour halts, or becomes more stressful. When a birthing antelope senses danger, her labour halts. We are not so different.

We are the only mammal deliberately to surround birth with fear, horror and obscure technical language. “Fear not,” the angel said to Our Lady: and so she didn’t. Why do we?

There are a few professionals who still don’t get it. The first midwife I encountered was also the worst: discouraging, noisy, smug and newly qualified, therefore she Knew Everything. She treated the birth room as if it were her hairdresser’s. She chatted for three solid hours about herself; her ski-ing holidays, her favourite music (Dido, as I recall) and her determination not to have children: “all those smelly nappies, and childcare’s so expensive”.

This staggeringly tactless monologue was delivered, mind you, to a single woman who had bravely set her face against advice to solve her accidental pregnancy with an abortion. Not surprisingly, the mum lost touch with her labour rhythm and, rendered as helpless as a beached whale by the Midwife From Hell’s enthusiastic topping-up of the epidural fluid, she could not give birth.

“But what would have happened to me a hundred years ago?” asked the bewildered mother as they wheeled her to the emergency C-section. “Ooh, lots of women used to die, all the time,” said the Midwife from Hell with glee.

Thank heaven many midwives have the great gift to be still, be watchful and to create an atmosphere of respect. Midwifery is often the art of doing as little as possible - and the first thing a doula needs to learn is to sit still and shut up.

The greatest surprise to me has been the spiritual beauty of my clients – not only the women but the men, too. It gives me great faith in human nature to see tough, wisecracking City slickers turning into tender, patient companions; to see intellectual women discovering their own physical strength, and being overwhelmed by emotions they never knew before. It is like watching people becoming whole.

The real drawbacks are the tense weeks of being “on call” for someone whose family life becomes virtually as important our own. Everything has to be planned – childcare, family menus, school runs.

What’s more, “on call” means weeks of a fairly puritanical regime – you don’t want to be breathing Sauvignon Blanc into a labouring woman’s face. You cannot nip off for a weekend. As you stuff your doula bag under your seat in the theatre, you realise you have already mentally measured the precise distance between the auditorium and the client’s home.

But despite the inconvenience, the immense privilege of being in that room - where a woman’s entire being is turned inward, her sense of time and place shrunk to the here and now, her “thinking brain” virtually at rest while her inner self brings forth new life - is something I will never be tired of. There is holiness in a room where a woman is birthing without fear. It’s a privilege I am glad to be hooked on.


Black is the old black

Home Front, Catholic Herald, 14 July 2006

“Mum, you’re dressed like a stagehand again,” said my older daughter reprovingly. She’s right: black teeshirt, black jeans…I look as though I am auditioning at the Black Theatre of Prague.

Despite the fact that modern dye techniques offer us every colour in the rainbow and many that the rainbow hasn’t thought of, such as taupe, moss and Barbie pink, it is terribly easy to end up wearing nothing but black. And there certain kinds of people who wear almost nothing but black as a point of principle.

“When you said there would be lots of unmarried men who look good in black,” a single woman friend said wryly, surveying my last book launch party, “you were being rather economical with the truth.”

For indeed, priests are only one group of people who wear black all the time: others include old Greek and Italian ladies, puppeteers, roadies, Goths and now, I discover, Emos.

I am learning about Emos from my Rock Star nephew, who is 17 and staying with us at the moment, along with three guitars and an amplifier. “Emos have hair down over their eyes and they wear black,” he said.

“Isn’t that what Goths do?”

“Yes, but Goths wear different sorts of black, and different sorts of hair. Most importantly, Emos are more open with their emotions. That’s why they are called Emos.”

I was not aware that teenagers were ever particularly hot on hiding their emotions. On the contrary, living with teenagers is like living on the set of East Enders: every half hour someone is telling someone else that the other someone has ruined the first someone’s life, and a door is slammed. Diddle-diddle-dee-dee-dee…

Now this idea of being defined by the colour you wear, especially when it is a colour so widely available as black, is one not to be undertaken lightly. Do Emos ever worry about being mistaken for elderly Greek ladies? Do Greek widows ever get mistaken for Goths? What if circumstances force you to adopt another colour, temporarily? What do Goths and Emos wear when, for example, playing tennis? Are you still a Goth if you are wearing a school regulation pleated blue skirt?

Which reminds me - the best advice I’ve come across on living with tribalised teens is to make sure they hang onto one part of their life which is ordinary and bourgeois. Don’t ditch the cello lessons. Hang onto that sensible white tennis skirt. Always write thank you letters, even if these days you only write in your own blood.

G. K. Chesterton would have understood what Goths and Emos are saying about clothing. He felt that the meaningless formality of late 19th century clothing was a symptom of society’s alienation and loss of spiritual and national rootedness, and compared his contemporaries unfavourably with a less ironic, medieval attitude.

In The Napoleon of Notting Hill he envisaged London’s boroughs becoming a cluster of warring city states, led by latter-day knights dressed in brilliant liveries. Though absurd, Chesterton’s intention was to show how even this way of carrying on was less absurd than the fashions of his day. Surveying the real London full of men dressed in indistinguishable black frock coats, he reasoned: “What is inherently more absurd – the tailored trousers or the gracefully falling medieval robe?”

The answer, were Chesterton alive today to provide it, would be that something even more absurd than either the tailored trousers or the robe has to be that universal male garment, the three-quarter-length shorts, adorned with guy-ropes and pockets that were originally intended for use by mountain climbers or soldiers on exercise.

The eight year old came home from a “learning about Islam” school trip, clutching that hoary old standby of religious education – a colouring book.

What is it with RE and colouring-in? Colouring-in is the most tedious task of childhood, yet it seems impossible to advance through religious education without it. Why do the catechists of all religions firmly believe that spirituality is inextricably linked with a youth spent in the wrist-aching job of crayoning acres of blue sky? Are religious education teachers all sponsored by Crayola?

How many six to eight year olds, in any religion, experience their first taste of heresy when it occurs to them that if they got their paints out they could have the whole job done in a couple of minutes, and with a more striking result? Given the choice, any child would always prefer to draw the picture from their own imaginations and add colours as they see fit.

Possibly, colouring-in is seen as a way of forcing a child to remain looking at a particular image for a relatively long time, burning it onto the subconscious. It might equally result in a child becoming so heartily sick of working on a flat, bland image that he or she resolves never to have anything to do with it again.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Home Front 7 July 2006

I never thought a daughter of mine would turn to me after a TV programme and ask, “So Mum, which is your favourite nun?”

As we unwillingly bid goodbye to Big Sister (aka The Convent, BBC 2), the Poor Clares, whose Arundel convent is the star of the show, have a great deal to be proud of. They have destroyed every unpleasant fantasy misconception about nuns and convents. They have, with their wisdom and perceptive guidance of the four “ordinary” (i.e. only mildly bonkers) women granted the opportunity to live their lives for six weeks, shown that you do not have to be a woman “of the world” to understand the world.

It is impossible to choose, but if we had been asked to send text message votes, Sister Aelred might score as one of our “favourite nuns”. It was she who, in answer to the question “What do you wear under your habits?” gracefully hitched hers up to reveal a bright flowery petticoat.

The programme has been a great hit among my teenage daughter’s friends and now the sisters are sensibly making the most of the experience with information leaflets and an enhanced web presence.

Meanwhile, of the four guests, none are untouched by their experience: even Angela, the competitive businesswoman who couldn’t get into prayer, has been inspired to set up a new company called Clothes4Dogs. Yes, you read that right.

Angela is single and childless, and while in the convent decided to “make the commitment to get a dog, which was something she had always wanted to do but couldn't due to the demands of her job.” She obtained a rescue dog called Daisy and gave up her high-pressure job.

She dotes on Daisy and decided to create a fashion label specially for her. She is much happier now: and I’m certainly not going to be the one who tells her that clothes are simply the last thing dogs want.

So far we’ve had The Monastery…The Convent… someone somewhere must be planning a series doubtless to be called The Seminary. Hey, we could vote for the seminarian we think most likely to get through the seven years and be ordained…

Priest Idol, anyone?

Now that my family is allowing me to think about something other than football, I can relax and give a little sympathy to the poor England team It’s so easy to laugh at all those people with their brave little red and white flags sticking up from their car roofs. As for the footballers…there seems to have been a general belief that the World Cup was theirs for the taking for the sole reason that the year ends in a 6… And they say we Christians are superstitious. It is so easy to laugh at footballers - so let us not.

Let us imagine, instead, what we would do if a pair of Posh’n’Becks lookalikes, in age, tastes, income and lifestyle, were to move into our parish and begin attending our church. How would you greet them? Is there not – be honest – a sizeable majority of the congregation who would derive huge pleasure from sniggering at them behind their backs?

For P’n’B’s weddings, parties and the names and toys they give their children, including a playhouse that would safely accommodate several families of Sudanese refugees, are all ridiculous. Interestingly, people do not laugh at them simply because they are rich. Ever since the word “chav” entered our language, it has become socially acceptable to laugh at people because they are poor, ignorant and have bad taste.

Yet where he was once silly, vain and petulant, Becks is now a dignified, statesmanlike chap with a normal haircut. Watching him pacing nobly onto the pitch last Saturday it occurred to me that possibly Posh has got wind of the fact that, were David to acquire a knighthood, she would become Lady Beckham, and has communicated this desire to him in no uncertain terms.

But perhaps that’s unkind: the bottom line is that they are a solid young couple who have grown and matured. They married first and had children afterwards, in that order. They have shown genuine determination not to let their marital troubles split them up. Posh may boast proudly that she has never read a book, but she shows genuine pleasure in her children, and both work hard for their livings in their way. Yet admit it: if they moved into your village or town, you’d have a good snigger, would you not?