What is Social Support?

Social support. It get a lot of press these days. Pregnant people are often told how important it is to have support, particularly in the days after baby comes. Support can be your mother or mother-in-law who teels you stories of their pregnancies or comes to stay after the baby is born. It can be your best friends, your partner, a mothers' group from your neighborhood or place of worship, a post-partum doula or lactation educator who comes to help you when you ask them to. Most people know of all these options. 

What's not often discussed is what true support looks like. 

True support is not, "My cousin tried to have a natural birth and she said it was the most painful thing she'd ever felt!" It is not, "Oh, you haven't experienced labor/breastfeeding/parenthood yet, you'll see what it's like." It is not sitting on your sofa talking for three hours while you care for your baby (unless this is what you want). It is not even, "Give me that baby and you go take a nap" (again, unless this is what you're asking for).

True support looks more like this: 

"Do you feel ready for labor/birth/parenting?"

"You can do this."

"Is there anything you need?"

"What can I do to help?"

"Do what you need to do."

"I'm here if you need me."

Do you see the common thread here? Can you give it a name? 

Support is respect. It listens, acknowledges, and makes space for YOUR thoughts, hopes, fears, needs, and wishes, rather than imposing those of the speaker on you. It gives you the power to determine your own experience and their role in it. It makes you the subject rather than the object of the interaction. Support provides information rather than advice and trusts your instincts and decisions.

Support does not seek to influence or judge; it arrives with open arms and listening ears, willing to do whatever you need in the moment. It does not expect a reward (even to hold the baby), it gives freely and on your timetable. 

This kind of support is hard to find, but it does exist. Look for it from other parents of young children; from friends and family who have shown themselves willing to ask questions and listen more than talk; from professionals who acknowledge that no one approach or solution works for everyone; from one or two parents you've met at a class, the grocery store, or through a friend.

Above all, look for TRUST--trust in every person's right and ability to make the best decisions for them. Don't be surprised to find it in the most unexpected places. And once you find it, nurture it. It will grow into the rope that pulls you through when you need it the most. 

Listen to Melissa on "toRaise Questions" today!

Melissa Yeager, a birth doula and one of the owners of Open Arms, was recently interviewed for the internationally-known podcast "toRaise Questions," on the subject of setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries as a doula. Melissa has had an interesting journey with this question. Having grown up and been educated in England before moving to the U.S. as an adult, she brings to the birthing room a distinctly dry and often bawdy sense of humor, a different comfort level with expressions of interpersonal familiarity, and a different understanding of some issues that many Americans take for granted.

"In England, fewer than ten percent of boys are circumcised at birth. When I got here, it was shocking to me how widespread this practice is." She adds that, "As a doula, I had a really hard time working with women who wanted to be autonomous and maintain their bodily integrity during birth (meaning not to receive an episiotomy), and then one day later they were making the decision to circumcise their infants, and in the process breaching their sons' autonomy and bodily integrity. About a year and a half ago, I decided that I would no longer be able to work with couples who were planning to circumcise. While I realize that this is a sensitive subject and that we all make the decisions we do out of love, drawing this boundary allowed me to continue to practice as a doula."

Yet deciding not to work with circumcising couples also meant that Melissa had no way of reaching out to those couples with the full scope of evidence on circumcision. The lack of knowledge about the foreskin that boys are born with, and even about exactly what circumcision is and why we practice it, led Melissa to create her class, "The Foreskin and Circumcision." In 2015 she was honored with the invitation to present the class to the medical staff at Children's Urology of Virginia, who pronounced it extraordinarily well-researched and highly accurate. 

Hear Melissa's interview on the "toRaise Questions" podcast site.

An Open Arms Birth Story

by Hannah Koca

My birth story starts on Labor day with a positive pregnancy test. My husband and I high fived. “We did it!” At 30, I wasn’t too worried about fertility, but an ectopic pregnancy in 2011 meant I had one fallopian tube removed in emergency surgery. At post-op, the surgeon assured me that I would still be able to get pregnant. She was a smart lady, giving me a positive belief to hang onto.

 Science and statistics are important to me, but I believe a positive outlook has a huge impact on the body, especially when it comes to fertility, pregnancy and a healthy birth. Which is why, when I mention my great pregnancy and birth experience, I give 90% of the credit to my doula. 

I had a doula from day one. I was lucky enough to be friends with several around Richmond, and had always enjoyed my rapport with Heather. A mother of three, she’s relaxed, intelligent, and her approach to birth is both evidence-based and intuitive. I mean, the woman reads medical research articles for fun.

So from September to May, whenever I had a question or concern, I’d text Heather. Can I eat sushi? How can I handle insomnia? Leg cramps? Nausea? Instead of ending up in scary internet chat rooms or horrible websites that seem to only want to scare or sell something, I lived in a very happy baby bubble, with the knowledge that I was making great choices for the little life inside of me. Heather could cite the scientific studies at will, if I wanted.

I have a great list of “Hannah’s pregnancy hacks”, which include tips like “keep a jar of emergency peanut butter in your car” and what type of magnesium supplement helped my aching calves without giving me the runs…but I will sum it all up with Hack #1: Hire a doula. Make sure you find one that gives you a good “vibe.” You want to be comfortable and at ease with them.  

The best thing about our doula was that she came with a tribe of support. When we found out we were having a son and had questions about circumcision, she sent us to her Open Arms partner Melissa’s class so we could make an informed decision. 

We also attended Heather’s natural birth class to learn about our birthing options. I was leaning towards a low-intervention, unmedicated birth with midwives, and Heather’s class taught us about all the different interventions and how or when they are appropriate or unnecessary. After the class, my husband and I had a meeting with Heather to go over our birth plan. As my doula, she’d be in the labor room to support and help me advocate for my intended outcome. When the contractions came on (naturally--I didn’t plan on going to the doctor to be induced), I planned to labor at home as long as possible, then my husband would call Heather to come help out when the contractions got a lot stronger and he felt I could use more support. Then we’d go to the hospital and labor with the midwives.

We hit a snag at at week 38, when I went to a pre-natal and found out the midwives at my first choice hospital didn’t have room for me in their program.  I was upset, but not as frantic as I would’ve been if I hadn’t had Heather on speed dial. After a few minutes she had several numbers for me to call, and I ended up transferring smoothly to Henrico Doctor’s Hospital where the best pair of midwives on the planet, Meghan Batten and Amber Price, took over my care as a late term transfer.  

Two days later, I went into pre-labor… a long night of contractions that never got closer together. My body was practicing for the big day. That was Friday (Tuesday the first set of midwives kicked me out of their practice). 

Sunday, Heather hosted my BlessingWay, and I met Nicole, the number one placenta encapsulation specialist in Richmond, and part of the Open Arms Birth Collective. I’d already planned to turn my placenta into medicine so I could ease the “hormone drop” after birth. Everyone pampered me and I got a happy send-off into motherhood.

With a house filled with flowers from the BlessingWay, a few full nights' sleep and a new hospital with supportive midwives waiting, my body decided it was time. Monday afternoon I had very subtle, light contractions and by midnight they were 10-20 minutes apart. Heather supported me by text and I settled in for a long night of resting for a few minutes, then rousing to breath through a sharp cramp that tightened for a few seconds, then released slowly over 30 seconds to a minute. I didn’t get much sleep, but with insomnia as my biggest symptom over 9 months, I was used to it. Hubby got 2 hours.

Tuesday at 8 am I had a midwife appointment at Virginia Women’s Center, my new primary care provider. I met Wendy, a midwife who would provide pre- and post-natal support. “Congratulations,” she told me. “You’re 4 centimeters dilated. You’ve been working.” Another celebratory high five.

At her advice I went to my chiropractor to get adjusted then returned home to labor and rest. The contractions were manageable, still 10-20 minutes apart, sometimes as close as 5, and the hardest thing to deal with was my exhaustion. 

Hubby and I got Pho soup, then went for a walk in Bryan Park. If you were wondering about the couple wandering down a trail at 3 pm on May 3rd, 2016, stopping every few minutes for the woman to lean on her husband…yeah, that was us.

We went home and I got 10 minutes of sleep around 5 pm, and woke up in an exhausted panic. “I can’t do this any more,” I told Justin, and he called the doula.

Heather was in a meeting, so Melissa, my back-up doula, showed up (Heather would later meet us at the hospital)…and within a few minutes we were headed to the hospital. The walk from the front door to labor and delivery was the longest of my life. I wore a plush purple bathrobe. Meghan Batten was waiting. I laid my head down on the delivery table and cried.

A natural birth is just that—natural, but it’s not easy. The contractions were manageable, even though they got painful towards the end. For me the worst was that I was so tired..and I had to push. I was in a state of mental exhaustion where my mind was just along for the ride and there was nothing I could do but hang on.

After a minor breakdown, my team got me on the table. Squatting, I heard something splat and looked down at a pile of clear gel-ish liquid and a little bit of dark blood at my feet. My water broke! My cervix was at 9 centimeters and we were ready to go.

Pushing was the WORST for me. There was a damn clock right in front of me on the opposite wall. It took three hours until my son was born at 9:03 pm. My husband stood at my left side. And, lucky me, I had Melissa AND Meghan AND Amber AND Heather all there for me.

The contraction would come and they’d tell me to bear down and push. “Use your poop muscles” is the best advice I got…because pushing out a baby feels EXACTLY like taking a dump. I know, so glamorous. But ladies…remember that. I coached myself mentally: “take a dump, take a dump.” Heather and Melissa wondered why I kept smiling between contractions.

I think I would’ve done better pushing if I hadn’t been so tired, but part of me thinks I needed to be mentally exhausted for my brain to relax and let my body take over. See, birth isn’t supposed to be surgery; it isn’t like working out, it isn’t even like taking a dump (well, pushing is). In my opinion, it’s like intercourse—two people working together. And you have to let go. It’s not as enjoyable though, and given that intercourse is what GOT me to that labor and delivery room in the first place, I wasn’t happy about the comparison when I thought of it at first.

But back to the birth story: My son crowned for over an hour. My husband took a picture to show me progress. It wasn’t comfortable, but the knowledge and anticipation of the contractions hurt more than anything going on in my birth canal. The cramping of contractions was painful, but again the hardest part was the mental game—I was so tired. 

My lowest point came around 8:45 pm (I know because of that damn clock). I kept pushing, but there wasn’t enough energy in me to bear down and really move the baby. The contractions also came on slowly and left very quickly. Ladies, your body definitely gives you the energy to bear down and push—or at least it does if you didn’t get an epidural and paralyze your lower half. When the push comes, go with it. Ride the wave. My midwives coached me to breath and try pushing two or three times, but I could only get out one grunted BM at a time…if B stands for Birth Canal instead of Bowel. 

Melissa, in a stroke of genius, told me a poop story. I would’ve laughed, Melissa, if there hadn’t been a head in my vagina. And then she asked, “Are you afraid of anything?”

I was. I told everybody I was afraid that they’d get sick of supporting me and leave. It was, after all, 10 til 9 on a Tuesday. They assured me they wouldn't leave.

I asked Amber to help me get the baby out. She said it was up to me. No vacuums or forceps here…just some olive oil on my skin to help me stretch. That and an IV bolus of fluid were my only hospital interventions so far.

I pushed…and I’m pretty sure Amber’s fingers hooked my son’s head a little and helped him out. At 9:03 pm, my son was born. He was purple.

I thrashed around on the table, still feeling like the work wasn’t over. I felt like a failure even though I’d done the hardest work of my life. 

My son got hosed off because he was covered in poop. As my husband pointed out, he was born literally full of sh*t.

My placenta came out almost immediately. Turns out my umbilical cord was only 7 inches long and I was pushing both baby and it out at the same time, which could be why it was so hard.  Or maybe not…but that’s the story they told me and it made me feel much better. 

A natural birth meant my son came down the birth canal, getting all the natural hormones that protected his brain, and the lovely protective bacteria, and the fluid naturally squeezed from his lungs…and a host of other benefits. Because I was with a midwife, she let me take the time to push and didn’t rush it—which could’ve caused the cord to snap, spelling disaster for my son who relied on the cord for blood and oxygen.

Everything worked out perfectly. A few minutes after 9 pm, I held my son in my arms.

Looking back, the hardest part of pregnancy and natural birth for me was the mental game. Which is why constant, trusted support is so necessary. My husband and family and friends certainly provided a safe and comforting layer of love and care. But the doulas and midwives were on the front lines of the birth, helping me during the painful final hours. I got more support post-natally, with post-partum visits by Heather and Nicole, and breastfeeding advice from Melissa.

And the happy pills…don’t forget the placenta encapsulation…don’t think about it, just get it done. I can’t believe how fast those little pills work. I went from raw, uncontrollable crying to happy baby land in ten minutes. Not kidding. Nicole is a goddess. 

My birth story has a happy ending—and not just because I had the birth I intended. My low- intervention, non-medicated birth was the best and, unless there’s a dire emergency, the only option for me and my baby.  But there’s no way I could’ve done it with out layers and layers of support—kind, knowledgeable women in the room with me, coaching me every step of the way. 

My son and I are healthy and happy, with layers of love and support from family, friends, and my awesome birth tribe. All the ladies at Open Arms Birth Collective are part of the “village” it takes to bear and birth a baby…and I look forward to using them next time…because even though natural birth is hard, yes, I plan on doing it again. In a few years.

I look forward to it. 

Why a Birth Collective?

You are a mother.

Maybe you're pregnant with your first baby, maybe you have twelve children! Whatever your story, we get it.

We are mothers, too. Every service provider at Open Arms is a mother, and we have stood where you stand now--looking forward to the day we meet our babies, feeling our stomachs drop at the thought of what that day will be like, wondering what we should be doing to prepare. We know how much there is to learn, and how overwhelming it can feel when you research one thing only to find it leads to ten others that you never considered. That's why we started Open Arms Birth Collective.

Here, in one place, you can find and learn about all of the services you may have considered for your birth. And you will be getting them in one place, from a community of people who understand exactly what you are going through. People who are mothers themselves, every day, and who balance motherhood with the work of supporting other mothers on this joyful, messy, exhausting, wonderful path.

Why choose Open Arms Birth Collective?

Because becoming a mother is not simply one day: it is a journey to a place you will live in for the rest of your life. One of our past clients said it best: "It takes a village, right? Open Arms is my village."