Writings

When you Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock!

Posted by on Aug 9, 2016 in Writings

When you Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock!

Sixty years ago, 20 000 brave South African women marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest the pass laws. The pass laws insisted that all black South African men under the country’s Population Registration Act had to carry these ‘passports’ when outside their designated areas. Up to this point, black women had been excluded from carrying the ‘dompas’ (literally dumb pass), but the change in this law is what triggered this protest march. Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! (When you strike a woman, You strike a rock!) Was the song that the women chanted after standing in silence for thirty minutes and leaving bundles of 100 000 signatures in the doorways for the then Prime Minister. (He apparently never saw the petition, he was away and the papers were very quickly removed before he could see them). Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! (When you strike a woman, You strike a rock!) These words, first chanted in 1956, have come to symbolise women’s resilience and courage in South Africa. This march and these words made a big impression on me when I first heard about them as a girl and these words often float through my mind when attending a labour and birth and seeing a woman ‘s strength and resilience surface. Women will put up with a lot in life. See them go without, for their families, for their children,  for their husbands. But push a woman too far and she will push back with a previously unseen inner strength . There is that point in labour; when a woman has reached that place where she seems to give in and the act of giving birth seems insurmountable. But then it is as if something inside her pushes her to stare Death defiantly in the face with a strength not even she knew she had. And that is why women are scary. Because we all have it. Wathint’Abafazi...

Read More

When did Breastfeeding Become Such a big Deal?

Posted by on Aug 4, 2016 in Writings

When did Breastfeeding Become Such a big Deal?

I know that I was breastfed until I was two and my younger sister Kate was breastfed until she was three. We lived in Switzerland and we went to the creche on the property of the psychiatric hospital our mother worked at. Our mother would pop down every few hours to breastfeed us. I remember her coming down to the creche to do that for my sister. I know that when my sister turned three, our mother had had enough and she left us with our dad while she went with a friend to France and my sister was left to go breastfeeding cold turkey. I remember our mother telling us about how when she woke up with rock hard breasts, she massaged and squeezed them until milk squirted all over the walls. When I was eight, we moved to South Africa and when I was nine, Gypsy was born. Jasmin’s birth followed 16 months later. Gypsy had to stop feeding while our mother was pregnant because the milk had dried up but as soon as the milk flowed again, both babies were back on the breast suckling away. Even whilst driving! That image has got to be one of my most prominent breastfeeding memories; our mother driving the bakkie (pick-up truck) on the bumpy dirt road in the Bokkeveld near Ceres with a baby straddling each leg and suckling away at a breast. Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of this wonderful scene but I do have this one which is the two of them asleep post feed so you get the idea. Growing up, breastfeeding was normal. Like giving birth. If you had a baby, that is what you did to feed it until they were old enough to eat other things. The women who lived and worked on the farm also popped out their breasts to feed their children, most of them until their children were two or three, and one woman until her child was seven. When I was eight I saw a white woman cover her baby while breastfeeding. It’s funny because up to that point I had never stared at anyone while they were feeding their baby but this drew my attention. I thought it was an odd ritual and I wondered if the baby wasn’t hot in there? I got a fright the first time my baby suckled away at my nipple after giving birth – Ouch! I thought the hard part was over, no had told me that breastfeeding could hurt. It took me about three weeks of engorgement, tears, frustration, mastitis, pain, irritation, beauty, bliss and bonding to get the hang of the whole breastfeeding thing. But I have to admit, that for me, breastfeeding was like learning to ride a bicycle – I had to fall off a few times before I got it and I got some scrapes and bruises along the way. And it wasn’t just the first time I struggled with breastfeeding, it was a struggle every time I gave birth. Four times I struggled. That was my reality. Labour and birth were hard but give me pushing out a baby any time over the first three weeks of breastfeeding. I would feel that little jaw working away at my nipple and I would inwardly groan as I thought, “Oh no…not this again!”. I am well aware that there are all sorts of techniques to make all of this much easier. And I tried them. And sometimes they worked. And sometimes they didn’t. There is nothing like exhaustion and engorged breasts in the middle of the night...

Read More

There is hope…

Posted by on Jun 20, 2016 in Writings

There is hope…

Two weeks ago I came back home to South Africa after a full and busy tour of teaching and presenting in various countries in Europe. I don’t think I quite realised what I had signed myself up for when I said yes to all the commitments I had made but for three weeks I ended up either teaching or travelling every single day. This was my itinerary: 14-15 May, Additional Skills and Information Session Weekend for Doulas at DO-UM in Istanbul, Turkey 17-18 May, Helping Babies Breathe and other obstetric emergencies for home birth at Da a Luz, in the Alpujarras, Spain 20-24 May, An Introductory Course to Midwifery at Vale dos Homens, Portugal 26-31 May, book launch of Italian translation of my book, The Basic Needs of a Woman in Labour, in Rome and various towns on the island of Sardinia. I flew to Istanbul mid May to teach doulas and student doulas at DO-UM, a space run by Nur (the first ever doula in Turkey) and Sima. These two doulas are pioneering and bearing the torch of birth through education and birth attendance in Turkey. Turkey has a rising caesarian rate which matches our own here in the private sector in South Africa. The majority of births are attended by doctors and most end in caesarans. But DO-UM and other places are trying to shift this by offering doula courses, as well as childbirth classes for expectant couples. Then I went on to Spain where I spent two days teaching the last workshop of Da a Luz Midwifery School’s second year in operation. The school, is the vision and idea of Vanessa Brooks, a British home birth midwife residing in Spain. It is still a work in progress but what I have seen in visiting the place twice  in the last two years, is that it is coming together very nicely, and growing as a course which supports women in choosing the path to true midwifery. Students sign up for a year’s apprenticeship and have the added challenge of having to provide completely for themselves in terms of accommodation (living in tents, vans, yurts, caravans, and one student even building herself a little cob hut), living off the grid and living communally. The school building, is slowly being built and has gone from being a pile of stones to taking on a majestic presence of its own. I look forward to seeing it when it is done but for now, classes still take place mainly outdoors, on rugs, on the grass, under the olive tree. I am very inspired by what Vanessa is doing at Da a Luz because we all know that there is something lacking in midwifery training nowadays, and that is often a lack of trust of the birthing process. Da a Luz aims to instil a sense of confidence and faith in birth. Last year I taught the Helping Babies Breathe course to a group of doulas in Portugal. After that course, there were numerous requests to build on that and for me to provide a longer, more detailed course, exploring some of the skills of midwifery. Hence,An Introductory Course to Midwifery  was born. At the beautiful venue at Vale dos Homens we spent five days discussing, exploring and mostly laughing our way through basic midwifery skills, sharing birth stories and discussing what birth and midwifery meant to us. You can see more pictures from the course on the True Midwifery FaceBook page. After the course in Portugal I had to catch a plane to Rome where the Italian translation of my book, The Basic Needs of a Woman...

Read More

My Father Wasn’t at my Birth

Posted by on Apr 13, 2016 in Writings

My Father Wasn’t at my Birth

My father wasn’t at my birth. My mother had hoped for and planned a home birth for my entrance into the world, but she was a single mother living in a communal house in Switzerland at the time. She was considered to be an older mother (She was 29 when she fell pregnant with me) and was advised against having a home birth by her doctor. The man of the house she was living in was also dead set against having her birth in his home – there was no way that African girl was going to squat down and birth in his house. My mother then found out about a natural birthing centre in the neighbouring canton of Graubünden, and while she drove to take a look at it and loved the pink rooms and the deep birthing pools and the midwives in attendance, there was no one who was willing and able to drive her there once she was in labour (which I have now worked out via Google maps is only 1 hour and 23 minutes away!). So she settled for the very fancy and exclusive private hospital at Stefanshorn. My father wasn’t at my birth. I was a planned pregnancy. Very much so. I was very much hoped for and wanted, but it was an unusual arrangement of sorts. I’ll let you in on a  little secret. You see, my father was married to someone else when he met my mother and he stayed married to his first wife (my parents actually never married) while embarking on a relationship with my mother. My mother was a staunch feminist at the time and had all sorts of theories about different ways of having relationships and so they embarked on an ‘open relationship’ – which my father’s wife was actually rather reluctant about. So the plan was for my father to impregnate my mother and that she would be a single mother and that he would be a long distant parent and visit once a month or when time and travel allowed him. My father lived in England and in South Africa at the time. My father wasn’t at my birth. He was in England at the time, at home with his wife. My mother was admitted a week before her due date to be induced for no medical reason other than that her doctor was going to be away on holiday. She was admitted on my father’s wife’s birthday, which his wife always saw as a personal affront to her and made her resent my presence even more. My father wasn’t at my birth. A friend drove my mother to the hospital, but my mother was alone when she went into labour with me. I know that she laboured for twelve hours and that she had the latest in foetal heart monitoring technology strapped to her while she laboured. I know she laboured on her back. I also know that she held on to a little green Verdite statue. A little bust of an African woman. It had been given to her by a grateful woman my mother had counselled when my mother had volunteered as a rape counsellor in South Africa. I know that this little statue was a lifeline back to South Africa for my mother while she laboured. My father wasn’t at my birth. He was in England at the time, at home with his wife and while she hung out a load of wet laundry he snuck a call to my mother and shouted instructions on how to breathe through the heavy...

Read More

The First Time I Ever Witnessed a Fetus Ejection Reflex

Posted by on Mar 30, 2016 in Writings

The First Time I Ever Witnessed a Fetus Ejection Reflex

The first time I ever witnessed a fetus ejection reflex was one summer’s night when I was attending a home birth as a doula. The first time mother was ten days past her estimated due date and there had been some pressure to induce. She had declined this intervention and made it clear that she would wait for her baby to come. She was a very petite woman and had already been warned by both her obstetrician and her midwife that more than likely, she would require a caesarean and that she should prepare herself mentally and emotionally for that eventuality. The baby hadn’t dropped into her pelvis at all, let alone engaged, her hips were tiny she was told, and she was already very much past her due date. Instead of these remarks squashing her plans and her confidence, they fueled her instinct to birth at home even more and she made it quite clear that she would prefer to be left alone until she went into labour. So, ten days after her due date, she let me know that her waters had broken but that she wasn’t yet experiencing any labour pains. She would let me know once things were happening but for now, she was just going to stay at home and wait and see. She would be in touch. Even though we only lived ten minutes from one another, we were separated by the Argus Cycle tour taking place that day, so even if I had wanted to get to her, I couldn’t have, and neither could anyone else, so she really could just be left undisturbed at home. At around 3 pm in the afternoon, once the roads were open and clear again, I made my way to her home at her request. She and her partner were sitting on the sofa when I got there and after greeting them I sat down on the sofa opposite them. I felt on the spot, they were looking expectantly at me, as if they were waiting for me to do something. She was experiencing the occasional contraction but it was definitely still very early labour and there was certainly not much that I could do! I excused myself and went to the loo, and once I was done, I ducked into the garden thinking, What do I do with myself now? I spotted a cat lying lazily in a spot of afternoon sun on the grass and I remembered Michel Odent saying something along the lines of: “If you are unsure of what to do with yourself at a birth, find a cat and copy what they do. Cats are the ideal birth attendants.” So yeah, I went and sat with the cat. She didn’t seem to mind too much that I was infringing on her bit of sunlight. At first, I sat a little stiffly, I felt awkward. But soon, her laziness rubbed off on me and eventually, I too was stretched out enjoying the last rays of afternoon sun. The mother came out into the garden and asked my advice on what she should do. I asked her what it was that she felt like doing. She said that she was tired and felt like resting and sleeping, so I said, “Well, why don’t you go and try to do that.” So off she went. And I stayed with the cat until the sun set. I snuck back inside the house (like a cat) and saw out of the corner of my eye the mother sitting cross-legged on the sofa, propped up by pillows, resting in between surges...

Read More

No Matter How Tired You are, Remember to Stay Mindful

Posted by on Mar 2, 2016 in Writings

No Matter How Tired You are, Remember to Stay Mindful

Words echoed over and over again by stressed and exhausted 4th-year medical students yesterday during their Obstetric rotation OSCEs. A good reminder for a midwife who had had 3 hours sleep after a long labour and who had to sit through 4 hours of 50 students being examined on ‘Compassion.’ No Matter How Tired You are, Remember to Stay Mindful… That was the message that echoed over and over again and what kept me going through yesterday.    

Read More