By Steve Ritchie
Sipping homemade chai tea and munching on a homegrown persimmon on a beautiful fall morning, Silverton doula, childbirth educator and author Judy Gabriel reflected on a question about her work of the past two decades.
“Being a doula is hard,” Gabriel said. “I did 400-some births as a volunteer and there were days and even weeks of being on call, being always ready, and then nights without sleep. What would make someone do that? A woman’s heart makes her want to do that.”
Transitioning from assisting women in labor and childbirth, Gabriel is giving women another gift. Her book, Touching Bellies, Touching Lives: Midwives of Southern Mexico Tell Their Stories, is drawing praise for its insight, as well as for giving a voice to the rapidly-disappearing traditional midwife in rural Mexico.
Her story – and the story of her book – requires a little context, as not everyone is familiar with the word doula.
“The doula movement has been alive in the U.S. for over 20 years, but most people have never heard of it,” Gabriel said. “Young women giving birth in the U.S. have heard of doulas by reading books and taking childbirth classes.
“A doula is a woman who gives continuous physical and emotional support to women in labor. She is not responsible for the medical aspects of the birth. Her focus is on the comfort, well-being, and satisfaction of the woman in labor and her partner.”
Gabriel said a doula’s knowledge of positioning and movement can help move labor along and make the woman not only more comfortable, but more able to realize the type of birth experience she desires. As the birth process became more “medicalized,” the use of doulas and midwives has provided a needed dimension in childbirth for many women.
“It is helping to fill the gap, as our birthing process has become more medicalized. Birthing practices today incorporate many things, and the doula is one of the things… that helps humanize the birth process.”
Gabriel went through doula training 20 years ago. At that time she and her husband Jim lived across the street from Silverton Hospital. She began by volunteering to help Spanish-speaking women in labor.
Touching Bellies, Touching Lives
Author Judy Gabriel will be signing
her book Nov. 6 and
Dec. 5. Main Street Bistro & Coffee
201 E. Main St., Silverton
Available on Amazon: $24
First Friday price: $20
Also available at Silver Falls Library.
While the hospital staff may not have been familiar with the work of a doula, Gabriel says they appreciated her fluency in Spanish and were happy to see their patients receive emotional support from someone who spoke their language.
“The nurses, midwives, and doctors I worked with during those early years were my greatest teachers,” Gabriel said.
Most of Gabriel’s work was as an unpaid volunteer, but eventually she created a website and took on paid clients.
During the long hours and sleepless nights Gabriel spent with mostly Mexican women in labor, she began to wonder about what “natural childbirth” was and what we might learn about it from indigenous cultures.
“I have worked with Mexican women, pregnant and birthing women, for the past 19 years. Being with women in labor is hours and hours of killing time between contractions, and talking about life in their villages. I also taught birth classes in Spanish for the hospital for 17 years. The families that I met, I asked them about their mothers’ labors and their own labors (before coming to the States), and that aroused in me real curiosity about the midwives, the women who had attended births for centuries.
“What would be truly natural (in childbirth) to the human species if we did not have books and classes and medical professionals defining it for us? If we were instinctive like other mammals how would we give birth? I thought that these (Mexican midwives) would be much closer to that knowledge than other people are.”
Her curiosity evolved into a passion to tap into the wisdom of traditional midwifery. It was aided by Gabriel’s long affection for Mexico and the Mexican people, which began with her first foray into rural Mexico as a 19-year-old volunteer for the American Friends Service Committee.
“I was kind of imprinted by that trip,” she said. “It was my first trip out of the Midwest. Maybe if I had gone to Paris at that age, instead of rural Mexico, I would have ended up writing a book about French fashion instead of one about childbirth in Mexico.
“We integrated with the village (Santa Cruz Analco in the state of Puebla), and started a breakfast program for children. I fell in love with village life in southern Mexico as it was in the ‘60s.”
In her quest to interview midwives in villages, Judy Gabriel has made countless trips to Mexico. “These women who had no medical training had an incredible wisdom that I wanted to hear about. To me they were bigger than life, mythical people.”
While Gabriel says some of her preconceptions turned out not to be accurate, Touching Bellies, Touching Lives is filled with fascinating stories of the midwives Gabriel met. Descriptions of traditional practices – like the belly massage of the book’s title – are intertwined with incredible tales of life in Mexico and Gabriel’s search to find these women and capture their stories before it is too late. Most of the midwives are old, and they are not being replaced. Mexico is adopting a medicalized approach to childbirth and medical professionals are leaving behind a tradition that is often derided as some sort of witch doctor mumbo-jumbo. Mexico has a 50 percent Caesarian rate.
Touching Bellies, Touching Lives would be valuable even if it were simply anthropological research on a fading way of life. But Gabriel uses the book to explore profound issues related to modern beliefs and practices related to pregnancy and birth. Her extensive experience with childbirth as a doula helps her give context to the stories and traditional wisdom from the midwives, known in Mexico as parteras.
“I personally gave birth lying flat on my back for 12 hours,” Gabriel said, “and then having a Caesarian. I don’t remember some raging thing in me telling me, ‘You need to move honey.’ But I did need to move. I understand that now as a doula. If I’d had a Mexican midwife with me – or a doula – you can be sure I’d have been on my feet!”
Gabriel believes the midwife stories tell us that women seek other women to help them during labor. Many of the Mexican midwives began the work because other women came to their doors and said, “You have to help me.” Gabriel’s theory is that women who are soon to give birth seek out other women to be with them.
“I wrote the book for people like me. People who think that modern medicine provides the only perspective we need may not be curious about how traditional cultures manage birth. But I think a lot of people who are involved in birth are curious – midwives, pregnant women. Women love birth stories. These are stories about birth experiences told by the caregiver, not the birthing women.”