They say if you do something that you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.
I would have laughed in Marc Anthony’s face if he had ever said that to me in person ten years ago. As glamorous as my previous jobs sounded, working as a PA in the film industry, I was constantly tired, surrounded by a large lump of ego and spent the best part of my life people pleasing. In my naivety I wandered what wasn’t to love (there were definitely elements that I miss now) but as I have grown (and lets say it) matured, I definitely appreciate how I was working to live, rather than living to work.
However, this appreciation has never been so blindingly obvious as the last few months.
Some of you may follow my @samspaceslifeaftercancer account on Instagram and gathered that I had a ‘bit of a blip’ before Christmas, when a scan came back showing a small suspicious area in my sternum. After what felt like another mini lockdown of my own, of waiting and not knowing, I had surgery in December and the results that came back in January showed that one of the lymph glands was showing early signs of oestrogen receptive breast cancer. It is a secondary from my second diagnosis but it chalks my total up to four breast cancer diagnosis now and, if I am honest, I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about that!
Experiencing this during an ongoing pandemic, I have learnt so much; about myself, about others, and the importance of my work in keeping me sane! I have also noticed the elements that have made it much harder to process and manage, and listening to the dialogue and conversation around new mothers and ‘lockdown babies’, and shining a light on the importance of support during the post natal period is something I feel so passionately about.
During the first pandemic I, like so many others, took the moral high ground and full advantage of the warmer weather; appreciating nature, living in the countryside and basically counting every single blessing I could think of. As we all listened attentively to the news, adjusting to this new way of life, home schooling and navigating our way around Zoom; either hiding our Tesco PJ bottoms in business meetings or delegating quiz rounds while getting slowly tipsy on an ever decreasing supply of gin, we were actively thinking out of the box and determined to make things work.
Fast forward to lockdown three and the novelty has most definitely worn off!
All of the above are now a normal way of life and nearly a year on, society is recognising the mild to the serious symptoms of the fall out.
In a study by The University of Alberta, the rate of maternal depression ‘increased to forty one percent from fifteen percent after the pandemic began and the number of women expediting moderate to high anxiety symptoms has risen from 29 per cent to 72 per cent.’ (The Independent Sunday June 21 2020)
Any woman who had a baby in the last twelve months would have experienced a very different postnatal period than before the pandemic. Limited midwife visits, different antenatal departments in different hospitals or buildings, fewer in person coffee mornings with less mums to chat to and meet, not being able to explore a new social life for her or baby, higher levels of lonlieness and isolation and next to no external support from extended family if they were not in a bubble. It has been hard. Really really hard.
Even during the first lockdown last year I could sense the ever increasing black hole of new mothers falling through the cracks, as well as those needing surgery and medical attention for serious illnesses and diseases. We didn’t want to get checked, or make a fuss, in case it put more pressure on the NHS.
As a post natal doula I watched the conversations on social media and my heart broke for all the new mothers missing out on breast feeding support, postnatal self care and all the game changing conversations they could be having. We turned to the internet and we did what we could. We offered virtual support, zoom Mother Space sessions, over the phone chats and therapy. We invested in special lights and gadgets so we could video demonstrations and run workshops and the community came together, as it always does, to support each other while we juggled working from home with home schooling and, well, lockdown life.
Supporting a client virtually was not my first choice, but being given the opportunity to help a new mother on FaceTime and over the phone was an education. I worked through my case study for my TBR 3 Step Rewind over the phone too. The skills needed to really listen came into force and being able to hold space for a client through a screen may have been very different from face to face, but it still had so many benefits.
Being pro active at a time like this also helped me broaden my skill set and thanks to the postnatal community I started a mindful breastfeeding course. I was determined to feel a little more confident in this area and being able to focus on something that could help me grow as a post natal doula, was wonderful.
Working in an environment where new life is such a focus was also a huge positive. Celebrating a new baby and all the joy that that can bring to a mother, and their families, regardless of whether they can visit straight away, was precious. Once restrictions lifted and I was able to physically be with clients, I was like a puppy. It was so exciting to be able to sit and chat, to make nourishing fresh meals, to guide them in relaxations in person and physically hold the baby so they could rest. It was pure magic.
While the weather stayed dry and warm, Laura and I began hosting The Guildford Mother Space sessions again, giving clients and other new mums the opportunity to socialise with other mums in the same boat, while taking full advantage of all the baking my daughter and I had had so much time for! There were so many mums emailing to get details, Laura and I began offering more sessions just so we could include as many as we could within the rule of six rule and socially distanced walking around my village.
The energy we had to reframe the frustration was in huge supply. We had had time to rest and reflect on our goals and intentions and we were ready to put this all into action.
So, when my scan results came through and I was plunged into no mans land of waiting for a plan of action, I was reminded again of how so many new families and mums would have been feeling. The image of a giant pause button floated in my head and the irony was, I didn’t feel so isolated after all.
When my current client gave birth to her baby four weeks ago, I had had my own recovery time. I had been nourished and nurtured, I had rested and reflected and I had taken time to heal and build my strength again. I had been looking forward to this job for a few months, especially since the family live five doors down from my home and are the most gorgeous family. It has been a total tonic.
As doula’s our own personal experiences shape so much of the type of support we offer our clients. My experience as a new mother, my health experiences, even down to the way I was mothered, have all become the building blocks of my role as a care giver and support worker.
And so has cancer. This fourth diagnosis has been a light of its own. It has given me more patience, more focus and a deeper appreciation for the little things. It has also made it possible for me to have the first Covid vaccine, which was a very momentous occasion. It has given me a bigger light to shine.
It is a beautiful thing, to be able to shine a torch into the darkness, not just for others but for ourselves. We all have a light, every single one of us and at times like these, it is so important to shine it into every far corner. My work as a post natal doula is my brightest light. It has fulled my energy to recover, it has given me a purpose, it has given me the tools to reflect on my own healing journey and nourish myself to keep me strong, and it has made me a more sensitive parent and more understanding supporter.
I never imagined I would consider this work, my little light, but the image of Florence Nightingale, the ‘Lady of the lamp’ flashes into my mind and reminds me every day that what each of us bring to this role, is unique and special and can make such a huge difference to a new family and a new mother, as we pass the baton of motherhood and solidarity.
Entry 1 - Baby Steps
It is still staring at me. That purple folder, its shiny cover glistening in the morning sun, sitting on my kitchen table beside my laptop. It is as if it is the geeky sidekick to the evil laptop monster and the pile of books to the left of them, a towering building block, needing to be obliterated by this unlikely pair.
I was doing so well! I had nailed the first four questions but now the fifth and final essay beckoned and I could not focus. Was this what writers block felt like? The two year deadline was ticking, so unlike me. At school I would have had this done months ago!
If it wasn’t for my sister none of this would have happened (I love her really!) When my little sister announced she was pregnant with her third child. and her husband was working abroad, in a vague attempt to cling onto any scrap of oxytocin and be the supportive big sister, I offered to be her birthing partner. After having a doula for her two previous births, I am sure I can offer her that more familiar support alongside the doula and lets face it, she needs me!
On that July day, she calls to say the labour pains have started. After leaving a local barbie and flinging some necessary things into a bag (is a book necessary or just wishful thinking?!) I arrive at her house and we travel to the hospital. Upon arrival it is clear she is further along than she thought and as we settle into her labour room, the most calm, smiley angel breezes in and suddenly all is right in the world.
I am immediately relaxed (I will admit I was feeling slightly powerless before this point!) Zara tends to my sister and I can see her body soften and her breathing ease, before the next contraction. She is begging us to get her the doctor to administer an aneasthetic. As the aneasetis arrives behind her, her face tells me another strong contraction is on the way and the only male in the room makes a hasty retreat. She leans forward on me and I simply hold her weight while Zara rubs the bottom of her back slowly.
I have never truly looked into my sisters eyes the way I did during those couple of hours. As she and I knelt, facing each other, on opposite sides of the bed and she griped my hands in pain, there were no words, just a look. A meaningful, loving and supportive look (she had already told me to shut up a few moments earlier, in a not so tender loving way but thats totally normal, right?!) I let her dig her nails in and I saw a woman surrendering to such a natural and instinctive process that was so much bigger than me, than anything, and I had no choice but to surrender with her.
A few moments later and the power and might of women holds us all; my sister, her baby daughter, Zara, the midwife and me, all sitting on the floor together catching our breath and gazing at this little creature. Wow. I was not expecting that. After being asked to cut her cord, I call her daddy in China and tell him the news. The emotion is palpable and I feel honoured to have had these moments with my sister. I am given my new niece to hold while Zara supports my sister as she is examined by the nurses and in that moment, having had a child myself (but a c section - its a longer story than this!) I am lost in thoughts of who this little girl will become, what adventures await her and what a privilege it will be to watch her grow.
There were a million physical and emotional connections made that evening in that hospital room. It was like an electrical thunderstorm. The bond between my sister and I was deepened and the bond between myself and baby Ava was born, but the click I had with Zara was amazing. Between contractions, she and I had chatted and worked seamlessly as a team. Having never met her before, this seemed totally alien to me but I was blown away by the ease and the love that we both brought to the table.
As we snuck away from the ward towards the car park in the wee small hours, leaving my sister and baby resting, Zara told me I was a natural and that I was everything a doula should be. Surely, that was just because it was my sister (and a text book birth, I mean!) but no, I had definitely stumbled on something akin to oxytocin and it was cruising around my body at 1am making me feel more alive than ever.
A year later, I was sitting in Zara’s lounge with five other amazing ladies, on the Developing Doula course. This is a weeks course, in the hosts home, where we work through role plays, group discussions, worksheets and literature, all about what being a doula really involves. I loved every minute.
One year and nine months later, I am sitting in that same lounge, with Zara, handing her my coursework. I have sweated blood and tears and written to my hearts content, even including drawings from my seven year old, of what she thinks a doula is (she had been prepped before you imagine hairdressers and princesses!) I thought that would be a nice touch, to include a child’s point of view since this is what we are helping to bring into the world!
A week or two later, I am lying in my own hospital bed after having a full hysterectomy and my ovaries removed. Yup, this was indeed the beginning of a new chapter!
It was a breakthrough on so many levels. Five months beforehand, I had been staring at that purple folder feeling like I was under the blackest cloud. The side effects of one of my maintenance drugs was disrupting my hormone levels to such an extent that I found myself falling down another mild hole of depression. After meeting with my consultant and then a hormone specialist, the decision that I had been putting off for, well, about six years, was made. Making it has been the biggest relief but my fertility has been the biggest fall out, for me, of my cancer journey.
While on the doula course, we were asked to explain why we wanted to do the course. My reason was simple. I wanted to turn a negative into a positive, I knew it wouldn't be my sister and it wouldn't be my niece and it would be a very different experience helping someone I didn't know so well, but I felt it was something I had to do.
For the last question of my coursework I had chosen to focus on the topic of post natal depression. This is an area I feel passionately about and I wanted to learn more. I had found it easy enough talking to friends and contacts for research but putting it altogether and reading, felt like the most monumental effort. Well Duh! Of course it would be, since so much of my situation was contributing to the hole I was falling down!
As soon as the decision was made, the writing block crumbled and the words flowed again like the longest exhale and release of breath. Knowing that I only had a few weeks before the op was the perfect deadline and I wanted to get it finished before I went in. It's funny how once you set a goal like that and every fibre of your being knows it is the right thing, things just fall into place.
After my op, the relief was immense. There were no more loose ends anymore (Metaphorically of course!) and I felt like I could truly move on. Starting my mentored doula work was the new focus I needed and I feel so much stronger now, emotionally and mentally.
There is a time for everything and everything is part of a process. MummaBaby Space is my new chapter. A space to compliment my Samspaces work and another safe space for any new mother and especially those affected pre, during or post baby, with cancer or chronic illness.
Finding and meeting my mentor has been a wonderful way of learning more about this new role. It was important for me to have a local mentor, and not being able to have Zara as she had run my course, meant I needed to chose carefully! Plus, Zara practically laid on my own personal networking event when she organised a Bumps, Babies and Births fair at our local village hall.
It is daunting. I will admit walking into that fair itself, only knowing one person, was scary. Surprise surprise though, everyone was so kind and friendly (what else would you expect from a gaggle of doulas Sam?!) and as I chatted and browsed, it felt as if a light had been switched on. It felt like such a natural progression for me and one that I can add to as and when my own daughter becomes more independent.
So here I am. Starting slowly, with baby steps, as a mentored post natal doula . As I gaze along this wide, open road, there are acres of space. Space for learning, growing and building. Developing a mummy and baby space for bonding, nurturing and nourishing and an opportunity to offer a service that some may consider the first step to motherhood.
If I can create half the atmosphere that was pumping through my sisters birthing room, that day, I will be happy. Zara is an incredible role model, the network is amazing and my mentor is supportive and kind. The road before this point, has certainly been bumpy, but the space I am in now is exciting and just waiting to be filled with mummas and babies!