“When You Start as the Photographer and End up as the Doula” Transcript
Ajira: You’re listening to Doula Stories, a podcast where we use storytelling to encourage, inform, and love on doulas.
Keelia: Each episode we’ll hear a story about what happens in the birth room from the doula’s perspective. I’m Keelia, she/they…
Ajira: And I’m Ajira, she/they…
Keelia: And we’re so glad you could join us for today’s story.
Today we’re hearing from Cherie Seah who’s a doula based out of unceded Ohlone territory in what is now known as Oakland. Thanks so much for coming on the show today, Cherie!
Cherie: Thanks so much for having me!
Ajira: We’re so glad you’re here. So, Cherie, tell us about yourself! We’d love it if you would share your name, pronouns, where you’re from and where your people are from, and what you’re up to these days.
Cherie: My name is Cherie, my pronouns are she/they. I’m originally from Singapore, I grew up there and then I moved to Australia for a little while as well, so that is kind of my second home.
Keelia: So all three of us are TCKs!
Ajira: For those of you who are not as cool as us, a TCK… if you know us even a little bit that will probably strike you as funny because I’m certainly not cool.
Keelia: I’m definitely not cool. Cherie is cool.
Ajira: Cherie is cool.
Keelia: Cherie is objectively cool.
Ajira: But I’m happy, I’m okay with my lot in life. But a TCK is a third-culture kid, and all that means is that you’ve grown up all over the place, basically.
Ajira: So here’s a question for my fellow TCKers: my sense is that most TCKers wind up falling into one of two groups, either everywhere is home or nowhere is home.
Ajira: Which one are y’all?
Cherie: I feel like nowhere is home. I think I’ve always felt like nowhere is home, being from Singapore, having gone to Australia since I was thirteen, I didn’t really live there but I like went back and forth between Australia and Singapore. But yeah, I never really felt like I fit anywhere. And I’m 35 and I’m finally feeling like maybe? I don’t know, but this is kind of a crazy place too as a person of color and an immigrant, you know.
Keelia: Mmhmm. Yeah my definition of home is more centered around people instead of any particular place. I’d say when I was a teenager — and all of my siblings, you know, they lived all over the place too — as teenagers we each, depending on how moody we were feeling, either we don’t belong anywhere, plus we’re biracial, you know it’s like I belong to nowhere, or you realize you have friends you can visit all over the world and that makes you feel like everywhere’s your home. What about you, Ajira?
Ajira: Definitely everywhere is home. Because home is me, basically. When I was growing up, I definitely had a little bit of like, “Oh, you know, at some point we’ll find a place we fit in,” and definitely related to the, you know, not-fitting-in-anywhere feeling. But I quickly came to realize that life… wherever I was, there I was. So I guess I’m home.
Ajira: So yeah, I don’t know if it was It was a conscious choice or if it was just what my experience was, but yeah. Like the whole planet is my home, so, you know… ask me again after we’ve been to Mars.
Keelia: [laughs] So, Cherie, We are missing hearing about what you’re up to these days.
Cherie: Let’s see, I am a birth and postpartum doula, I’m a birth photographer and a family photographer and a full-time parent to two toddlers who are incredible but take up almost all of my time. But I’m also right now juggling setting up an Asian Birth Collective, which is basically a resource for anyone who identifies as Asian who may be either about to birth a baby or is a birth worker. So kind of just a resource point, and like what you and Ajira are doing, we want to share birth stories, but more specifically Asian birth stories to just talk about the different cultural aspects of it. So I’m focusing on that and at the same time taking on full spectrum doula training and childbirth educator training.
Ajira: Got a little bit going on.
Cherie: Just a little bit. I often tell my partner that I’m like an octopus, like I gotta dip my hand in a little bit of everything.
Keelia: How can folks connect with Asian birth Collective if they want to?
Cherie: So right now we’re still setting up we have our landing page that has a directory of Asian birth workers in the Bay Area at the moment, and we’re also collecting Asian birth stories so whoever wants to share their birth story and identifies as any amount Asian, we would love to hear from you. Our website is just AsianBirthCollective.com, and you can find us there.
Keelia: That is so great, thank you, and we’ll include all that information in the show notes. I remember being so excited when I found out about this because we don’t normally see any form of Asian bodies giving birth or in, you know, the diagrams of “this is what a pregnant person looks like” or “this is what breastfeeding looks like.” Like the first time that I saw a Chinese woman giving birth, the first time I was supporting someone who was East Asian, I remember being taken aback for a moment of like, “Oh, her breasts look like mine!” Like, “her nipples are the same color as mine,” which is so strange that that was, you know, so new to me after having done this for so long. So thank you for sharing those stories with the world. I’m so excited for that resource.
Cherie: Yeah, it definitely, I mean just in setting up the Asian Birth Collective website, you know, you try and use stock photos and stuff — I couldn’t find any Asian pregnant or birthing person in any of the stock photos. So back to what you were saying, it’s just, it’s kind of a culture that also doesn’t really talk about private issues as much.
Cherie: And so there’s not so much information that you can just Google, or there’s not as many books available. And so, you know, sharing voices, normalizing it, and just talking about it shows other people who might want a different way of birth or postpartum care that we’re out here.
Keelia: Yeah. Yeah, right, the culture around how support is provided to new families is different, and obviously there’s a huge range of experiences within that. And yet I feel like I could find any wellness worker in the Bay Area and they probably have some version of TCM, you know, traditional Chinese medicine, in their background. I’m like, “well that seems extremely prevalent, and yet…” you know, there’s some kind of disconnect here.
Cherie: Yeah. The only thing I wanted to add was, you know as I mentioned I’m from Singapore I identify as Singaporean Chinese so my ancestors, I mean they came from everywhere but mainly China, Taiwan, somewhere in Indonesia. But very specifically Singaporean Chinese, we have our own culture within Singapore that has some parts of, like, the traditional Chinese culture that is the same, but isn’t, and I think most Asian people might understand what I’m saying.
Keelia: Yeah, thank you for clarifying that! And Ajira and I had another question for you before we get into your story which is: what is your post-birth ritual? After you come back from supporting someone, what do you do?
Cherie: My post-birth ritual I have been splashed in the face by amniotic fluid before.
Cherie: That was very memorable. Yeah, so I like to just, like, strip down, step in the shower and then say hi to my kids if they are awake, and then just crash for however long they’ll let me crash. And then when I wake up, I kind of like to go through the notes of a birth that I’ve just been at, check in with the birthing person and while my memory’s fresh I like to write down the birth that just took place because I like to share the story with my clients and like to write it down for them so that they have it for themselves and for their future 18 year old child who wants to know about the birth story.
Cherie: That’s mainly what I do. I don’t do anything Special except to try and sleep because the birth hangover is real.
Keelia: The emotional hangover, yeah. That sounds like a great ritual. Okay, so let’s get into your story, Cherie. What would you like us to know about how you first met this client?
Cherie: So I first met this client actually on a Facebook post. So the client is also a doula and I saw something about them asking for something, and I was also just starting out in my birth work and as a birth photographer, so I reached out to them to ask if they would like for me to take photos at their birth so that I could get the experience, they could get the photos, and I could add to my portfolio. And this was maybe a week or two before their due date, so it was kind of last minute. And so I reached out and she agreed to meet me and we talked about it and she was really open. And we had a meeting talking about what it would look like with a birth photographer in the room because often people are worried about it feeling too invasive or is too distracting.
Keelia: Like being observed.
Cherie: Exactly. Being observed, whether the flash is going to go off, whether it’s going to disrupt the birthing process or the laboring process. So I talked a little bit about that and then talked a little bit about if there were any images or any photos they would rather I not take. Like some people prefer not to have crowning shots because it’s a little too private. So it’s very graphic, right? You know, people worry about poo, about the blood, or about any bodily fluids that come out of there that they don’t really want to remember. But it also can be so transformative to see your body do that! The emergence of your baby’s head!
Ajira: It’s so beautiful! Yeah!
Cherie: It is amazing and and so you know different groups of people feel differently about it.
Cherie: So we talked about that, and they were just from the get-go, they were like, “Go for it! Everything and anything! I don’t care.” And so it was really exciting having a client who was so keen. And they were ready to let me use the photos on my website freely, so I was very excited. I was a new birth worker, I’ve been a photographer but just not at births and so everything was just really exciting.
Keelia: Yeah! And this is the first time you’re meeting this birthing person, too, right? You were complete strangers before this?
Cherie: Yes, complete stranger. I never met her before. The only thing I knew about her was that she trained years ago with my doula training center as well.
Cherie: So yeah, I just reached out and it was just really cool that in the last couple of weeks or so before she was due to give birth, she was like yeah cool, come on board,” you know, “join my birth team.”
Cherie: So that was really exciting for me. So I got prepared. I quickly tried to draw up the papers of, like, the contract and what that looks like. And then two days later she asked me if I wouldn’t mind being the backup of her backup doula.
Keelia: Oh so you must have made a really great impression! She loved you!
Cherie: I mean, I would like to hope so! But yeah, so, I mean, the reason for that as well was that her first doula was going to be away, I think, on her due date.
Ajira: Oh, damn.
Cherie: If I’m remembering correctly and so that was kind of a little, like, red flag for me. Where I was like, “Okay, I mean, you’re the client and if you’re okay with that then I should be okay with that.” And then they had a back up to that first doula but that backup was also on call for another client.
Ajira: Oh, wow.
Cherie: So they wanted a third back up…
Ajira: Makes sense.
Chere: …just in case.
Keelia: I can just hear Ajira’s brain. “Oh, wow.” Well, like, I know people who have entered into that arrangement knowingly, especially if, you know, the birthing person’s a doula then it sounds like she — she uses she/her pronouns, right?
Keelia: It sounds like, you know, maybe she was more along the lines of, “I know doulas want to have lives too, she wants to go to Tahoe for the weekend, that’s fine, like, I’ll probably not give birth while doula’s gone,” or, you know, I don’t know, I know people who are okay with that.
Ajira: No I do too and I’ve also been back up for arrangements similar to that. I think the key piece in that situation is just making sure everyone knows what what means, you know?
Ajira: And also the truth is that for many people the estimated due date is really like a shot in the dark, it’s a guess. Only 5% of people give birth on their due date so it’s a pretty good bet you’re probably won’t give birth on your EDD. And having lots of backups feels good, so yeah.
Cherie: Plus, because I was a new birth worker, I was just excited to do the work, you know? I was like, “oh I just took my training and I want to do this! So I’m already going to be at the birth as a birth photographer, so,let’s try this out!” That was my thought process, at least. But I also didn’t expect that her water would break two days later.
Keelia: Oh my goodness! Wow!
Keelia: So just one more quick question, before we get into that because that sounds like a cliffhanger: had you been to a birth before this?
Cherie: I had been to two births before that, so it was not completely new. It was rather new, but, I don’t know, I’ve had two kids of my own, so I wasn’t nervous and I wasn’t worried. It was just like the way things were put together so quickly was kind of a little bit fast. And I like to jump headfirst into things and so I was fine with doing that, but it was also very headfirst.
Keelia: It just speaks to so much of what this work involves. Just rolling with what comes, like that.
Keelia: So tell us about this water’s opening.
Cherie: Of course I had my bags packed for birth photography, and then, just in case, to be a doula. I had a meeting with the client to finalize birth photography stuff, get the contract to them, and we have a prenatal meeting but from a birth photographers perspective. So it’s very different than a birth doula perspective because it’s mostly about my process trying to be a fly on the wall, trying to be as quiet as possible, but also, like, really being in your space with his giant piece of equipment. And so we talked a lot about that and a little bit about their birth preferences, you know, knowing that she really didn’t want to have an epidural, she didn’t want to have interventions if she didn’t have to, you know, so knowing how to expect the flow of the birth would go would be helpful for me as a photographer just to prepare.
And then when she asked me to be her backup of her backup doula I was like, “Yeah, cool, whatever, it’s probably not going to happen.” ‘Cos, you know, you don’t think it’s going to happen. And then two days later she texts me and tells me her water is broken. And I was like, “Oh! Okay!” And she’s like, “Oh and by the way, the back up doula has a client who she’s on call for who also just had a membrane sweep.”
Cherie: And I was like, “Okay, so I got to just get ready.” And then they were GBS positive as well, which meant they would have to go into the hospital most likely to get antibiotics. So, you know, it wasn’t going to be one of those laboring moments of like, “Let’s labor for as long as we can at home before… right before we’re ready to push and we’ll go.”
Cherie: So I was just like, “I don’t know what to do.” I’m excited, I’m nervous…
Cherie: …and I’m, like, just ready to go, ready to go. I’m like, “My phone is on. The ringer’s on. Is the ringer on? The ringer’s on. Is it loud enough?”
Keelia: The doula anxiety.
Cherie: The doula anxiety! I was, I mean, this is, like, one of my first clients, too, so I was like, “It’s on. It’s on. Will I hear it? Can I hear it?”
Keelia: Yep! Yep.
Cherie: It’s just like, “I’m gonna call myself. No, call my partner to call me.”
Keelia: I’m gonna take this shower in like two minutes flat and the whole time I’m gonna stick my head out of the curtain and watch my phone to make sure I’m not missing anything. I’ve totally had moments like that.
Cherie: Yeah! And then, like, don’t go to bed too late. So I was ready. Yeah so two days later she texted me, she was like, “Oh just so you know, my water broke and we might go in and we’re going to take our time,” and I was like, “Cool. Let me know.” And so I just tried to not be too excited and not be too nervous and just wait for her to say, “Come in.”
Cherie: I was waiting for my kids to finish school, and then she was like, “We’re here, we’re in our room, we’re settled.”
Cherie: And I was like, “Okay, cool.” And she tells me that her contractions have been two to three minutes…
Keelia: Oh, so she was having contractions!
Cherie: Yeah, so she was having contractions.
Keelia: Well that’s great news.
Cherie: Right! And so she was having contractions every 2 to 3 minutes for the last 2 hours and I was like, “Oh, shit!” So it’s happening, right? It’s closer than I thought, and it’s not, like, at the very, very beginning stages. And this was her first birth, as well. So I was like, “Oh, it’s going faster than we all thought.”
And so I pull my kids out of school, I’m like, “Come on, kids! We got to go!” Get in the car, home is twenty minutes away and I’m just in Go mode at this point and my kids are looking at me like, “What the fuck?”
Keelia: “Why is Mommy running all the red lights?”
Cherie: I mean, my energy was so big because her contractions were 2 to 3 minutes apart for the last two hours! I was like, “I gotta get there, right?” And so I do everything, I park the car, I’m sweating, I get to the hospital room and I’m like, “Hi! I’m here!” And she’s just lying in bed, laughing.
Cherie: And I’m like, “Oh. Did it stall? Where did it go?”
Cherie: I was like, “Okay,” and they were so chill and they were so calm, even though they’d been up all morning. And she was just a champ about her contractions, you know? But it was clear that it was still early enough. ‘Cos they were laughing..
Keelia: You’re like, your heart is pounding, you’re like finding the best parking spot that’s right next to the entrance, and… oh I’ve done that so many times.
Cherie: I know, it’s like, get my ID ready so that I can just give it to them and I can sign in and I can go, and I know which level I have to go to because I went for the tour, and…
Cherie: You know, I made sure I was prepared for it, and I’m glad I did it, but it was just like so anti-climactic to walk into the room.
Cherie: You know, you expect to walk into the room and the client’s maybe, like, groaning, or sleeping. But no, she was just sitting there like, “Oh, hey!” I’m like, “Hi? Oh. My energy is, like, higher than everybody else.” And so I had to take a minute for myself.
Keelia: Cherie’s in labor.
Cherie: I’m the new doula being born.
Keelia: Oh but it gets so, I think that energy that you’re bringing I would so much rather have a doula who’s bringing that then somebody who’s writing off the experience, you know? Who’s like, “Eh, we’ve got forever,” even if it is true.
Keelia: I still… I think that’s lovely, the energy but new doulas bring to the space. And, yeah, also a reminder in that the timing of the contractions isn’t everything.
Keelia: That’s rough.
Cherie: Right, exactly. I mean I definitely learned a lot. But also remembering that when I entered the room I was going in as birth photographer, not birth doula.
Keelia: Mm, mmhmm.
Cherie: So my head was not in doula mode.
Keelia: Oh, that, I forgot about that!
Cherie: My head was in, “I don’t want to miss the birth.”
Cherie: I was like, “I don’t want to miss the crowning shot!”
Cherie: “I don’t want to miss the baby coming out!” That’s where my head was and so when I stepped in and they were still pretty chill, I was like, “Oh. Okay I got to chill out for a minute.” Well, I had to switch gears pretty quickly, though, so when I arrived and I asked, I was like, “Oh, okay, so is your doula coming?” And they said, “Oh she’s just waiting for her partner to come home,” because they have a child. I was like, “Oh cool, so maybe they’ll be here in the next hour or so.”
So we chill out, we relax. She wants a hot chocolate and I, you know, tell her husband to just go take a break for a minute, you know, step out of the room, go get her a hot chocolate. And we just kind of get to know each other a little bit more in the space. I take a few early shots and then the contractions start to intensify, and the doula was still not there. And I was like, “Okay, she’s starting to, you know, really go into labor land a little bit.” And so I was taking photos and I was like, “Hey, where’s your doula?” and they were like, “I don’t know.” “Okay, cool.” And she’s, you know, she’s starting to really have to focus. She had her hot chocolate, she was so happy. But it was kind of, like, right after her hot chocolate was when it started to intensify.
Keelia: I wonder if the hot chocolate was related to that!
Keelia: Because I’m a hot chocolate fiend — I have seven different types in my house and no coffee in sight — but just chocolate having, or promoting, oxytocin? Maybe this is the next labor induction tool.
Ajira: No it definitely is! In Mexican traditional medicine they use a special recipe with cacao.
Ajira: Yeah. So not hot chocolate exactly and there are other spices in there, like ginger. Anyway, yeah, that recipe is used to Can be used in at various points in labor I’ve seen midwives use it to help the contractions settle into a steady rhythm.
Ajira: I’ve seen it used to stimulate, like when things seem to be spacing out they’ve given the birthing person, like, a really strong version of it. And I’ve also seen it given immediately after the birth to help the uterus contract as well. So yeah, definitely, I wouldn’t be surprised at all
Keelia: That is so cool.
Cherie: Wow, I love that! I had never, I mean, this hot chocolate, I don’t know, for some reason, stuck in my mind about this birth but then hearing this makes it even more cool. ‘Cos she really wanted that hot chocolate too. Like, I have a photo of her sitting really contentedly on the birthing ball, sipping on her hot chocolate. And then I have a photo of her afterward, just kind of like really focused and, you know, just trying to, like, breathe through the contractions, so that’s really interesting to know.
Yeah so she had her hot chocolate and things intensified. I think because of the position of the baby it made the contractions feel a certain way. The baby was sunny side up.
Cherie: And so, you know, it was very intense. And she had back labor as well. And so as the contractions intensified and then the back labor became more and more uncomfortable and very painful, and the birth doula was still not there, I was like, “Okay, I have to chuck my camera aside now and just jump into birth doula mode,” which I did because the husband was doing it the whole time before that and I could tell he was tired. You know, just doing just counter pressure for back labor, it’s really exhausting for any support person.
Cherie: And so we would just take turns. We would just swap out between each contraction to press down on her back because, like, we were using our entire body weight and it was still not enough. She would, like, scream at us to, like, lean in some more, like, push some more.
Cherie: And then the time just passed really quickly after that because every single contraction required counter-pressure, like it was the only thing that would help. And we did walk around the hospital a little bit, you know, we moved here and there and it seemed like things were progressing well.
Keelia: And did it, did it feel at this point like you had kind of accepted, “Okay, my new role in this room is just going to be doula going forward”?
Cherie: Yes. I put my camera side and I don’t think I picked it up for a long time because she was just really into it, you know? And she really didn’t want a c-section, like that was the only thing. She was like, “Everything else is fine, but I really don’t want an epidural and I really don’t want a c-section.”
And so yeah, I just went full-on into doula mode. And in-between contractions I would just quickly grab my camera and just try and get a few shots, but honestly, like, my recollection of everything is just before I knew it it was dark, like, I started taking out my twinkle lights and the tea lights. And it just got dark really quick, and the time passed so fast, and I forgot that another doula was supposed to arrive.
Cherie: I don’t know what happened to this other doula.
Cherie: I just know that I was there for a total of 26 hours
Keelia: Oh my word.
Keelia: Oh my goodness. Alright, tell us about those 26 hours.
Cherie: Oof, it was intense for my client. The baby was sunny side up, so…
Keelia: Yeah, do you mind explaining what that means for people who aren’t familiar?
Cherie: So when a baby is sunny side up they’re facing up toward your belly instead of toward your bottom, and so toward the bottom it’s just a little bit more ideal to help the baby come out of the birthing canal.
Cherie: And sunny side up and facing upward, it’s not really that bad, it just can really cause a lot of pressure in the back.
Keelia: Right, like you can still give birth with a baby who’s occiput posterior, or sunny side up, or OP — all those things mean the same thing — but usually it has much longer, more difficult labors. It’s just so much easier for the baby to navigate the pelvis if they’re facing your bottom, like Cherie said.
Ajira: Yeah because of the circumference of the head. If you think about where’s… how can your head be narrowest coming out? That’s ideal. But if they’re facing the other way, it’s not ideal but it still works.
Ajira: ‘Cos the vagina is a magical beast that will stretch.
Ajira: In both directions. I don’t know why that “yay” was so lackluster, Keelia!
Keelia: YAY! WOOHOO!
Ajira: Yay! Let me not call vaginas “beasts.” The opening is stretchy so it will Expand and contract so it will expand to whatever size head your baby has. And your baby’s head is also not static it adjusts as it comes out.
Cherie: Yeah and so I think that was what was happening with this client was, you know, either the baby’s nose or something, or a cervical lip of some kind, was just preventing the baby from really descending further. And I think her body was doing a lot of work to just stretch. And so even though the contractions were really intense and it was for a very long time, there was not as much progress. ‘Cos she did consent to vaginal exams to see where she was and it was taking some time. But I think the back labor just made everything so much more intense.
Cherie: She never once mentioned any kind of intervention. Oh and I guess I should add that at some point they gave her pitocin because her water had broken 12 hours before that, and they wanted to help the labor progress. And so once the pitocin was administered I remember her husband was napping on the sofa, and he was exhausted. But after they administered the pitocin I went to him and I was like, “I just want you to know that things are going to get maybe a little bit more intense now.”
Cherie: Just to, like, check in with him so he was aware of what was going to come next, because I saw that she was not giving up, that she wanted so badly to do it the way that she desired. And so then it was kind of our jobs to help her with that. And sure enough, you know, the pitocin just amped things up so much more. And she roared through every one of those contractions, and so because she was so determined I just had to also give it my all for her. And I don’t know I think my brain just shut off a little bit by that point into, like, autopilot mode.
Keelia: Or your own labor land!
Cherie: Yeah! Yeah, honestly, and it got dark, you know, so you’re just kind of in this zone, it’s like the Twilight Zone.
Cherie: And then I still tried to take a few photos. She did nap in between contractions, which is amazing. And the birth team at the hospital, they were mostly amazing too, like, they never once pushed her one way or other to have any other kind of intervention even though they saw how hard it was for her. But no one ever mentioned epidural.
Cherie: Which I was very, very impressed by. And they just kept saying, “Yeah, let’s just see what happens in the next 2 hours.” And then after those two hours it’s like, “Okay, now let’s see what happens in those two hours.” And, you know as a birth worker, you’re sometimes prepared to step in a little bit more with your client to advocate for what they want, or at least I am. And so not knowing how that would go at this hospital I was just ready to, like, for someone to say something that was not following my client’s birth preferences, but it never happened. And in fact she had a nurse midwife come who never left her side for 2 hours…
Cherie: …even though she had other patients. So that was really cool. It just was a really cohesive team between me and the medical staff at the hospital. The CNM used to be a doula, too, so I think I fell in love with her a little bit.
Cherie: Yeah, it was just really nice. And so for me as a new birth worker I felt supported by the medical staff, too. Like we were all in it together. So that was really nice. But then I was also exhausted because I was also still trying to take birth photos.
Cherie: And so going between the two is just a lot of work.
Keelia: Yeah. And I usually find births more taxing when I feel like my rapport with a client isn’t as strong. Not that we don’t have as positive a relationship, but maybe I just don’t know them as well, you know? I’m just thinking of how you’re having to go into this space and feel out what this client is like, you know? You’ve only met once before, right?
Cherie: Yeah, exactly. And we didn’t have a prenatal meeting as, you know, as me being the birth doula.
Cherie: And so there was so much I didn’t know and was unprepared for. So I definitely felt, as the hours went on, I definitely felt a lot of frustration that the backup doula never showed. And you know when 5 hours became 8 and 8 hours became 12, it was like Are you not even going to check in?
Keelia: Mm, right.
Cherie: You know, I was very frustrated. I definitely felt unprepared a little bit, but also, like, “Well I’m here now, and at least she’s not alone.”
Cherie: Or both of them the partner to you know like he was also exhausted, so.
Cherie: It worked out, eventually for all of us.
Keelia: Yes, tell us how, tell us what happened next!
Cherie: So I was there for 26 hours, we barely slept, and she was on pitocin, she was on the highest dose of pitocin and she still did not get an epidural which I could not believe because I saw how intense the contractions were. But she just, I don’t know, man, the inner strength that she had, just… till today, like, I remember the face, I remember the look on her face where it’s just… she never gave up.
Keelia: Yeah and I always, when it comes to this decision of, you know, the challenges that a birthing person is facing, I try not to think about it in terms of, you know, how strong the birthing person is, but more: I just know that most people who would be in that situation, they would decide that the thing that they feel empowered to do is to feel some relief. And to get some rest. And that that choice is just as valid. And so to see somebody who’s, you know, choosing to continue onwards, it doesn’t mean that for anyone who has made a different decision that they are somehow lesser.
Cherie: Oh, absolutely.
Ajira: Agreed. I think the strength is in the choice.
Keelia: Right, right.
Ajira: Not in what you choose. You know, I’ve seen people choose to have an epidural and felt really proud about them choosing that because they felt so grounded and it served them in whatever the objective was in the moment, right? I think there is definitely a narrative that, like, if you do it, or, you know, if you do it this way then it means this about you. And we’re not saying it so much for you, Cherie, ‘cos we know you know. But for the people who are listening just that, like, you know, there is strength in whatever your choice is.
Keelia: I like that line, “the strength is in the choice.” That’s good.
Ajira: Yeah, the strength is in the choice. I like that too.
Keelia: I’m so glad she had you to support her in this choice, Cherie.
Cherie: Yeah, I mean, I absolutely agree with what you both said, the strength is in the choice. And I definitely saw that she stuck to her choice. And so then my job was to just keep her going in that choice.
Cherie: And all I could do was to remind her to nap in between contractions, whatever that looks like. You know, even if you’re closing your eyes for 10 seconds, that’s resting. I think we went through like 20 packets of apple juice ‘cos she was, she couldn’t eat but she was exhausted and just every time she had some juice, you know, you could see there was just a little bit more energy.
Cherie: Plus she was hot. So yeah just really supporting her in that unwavering choice that she decided for herself and really wonderful to see how she could find that inner strength for herself.
Cherie: For her that was really important and so just to stay there and I really felt like I couldn’t leave her even though it was 26 hours I was exhausted my arms were jelly.
Cherie: I couldn’t use my arms anymore, I was, you know, counter pressure for 20-odd hours? It’s a lot.
Keelia: That beats my record. I’m at, like, 15.
Cherie: Yeah. And so, you know, I realized by hour 24, I guess, I was like, “I’m useless to her at this point,” but I didn’t feel like I could leave her. I was due to go for a postpartum doula training that day and so I called my mentor who was doing the training and I was like, “Okay, so just so you know, I am still at this birth and I won’t be able to make the training today.” And she was like, “How long have you been there?” I was like, “I don’t know twenty-something hours.” She was like, “What?! Have you called the backup to come in?” I’m like, “I am the back up to the back up. There’s no more back ups!” And she was like, “You need to call someone to tap you out,” I’m like, “I don’t have anyone to call.”
I was just, like, my mind wasn’t working anymore. I was exhausted. I was frustrated. I was tired. And immediately she was like, “Do you want me to put out a call to our doulas to see if anyone can come and tap you out?” I was like, “Oh my God!” I was, like, I think I was on the brink of tears.
Cherie: I was like, “Oh my God, please!” But I didn’t know that anyone would ‘cos it’s pro bono, it’s pro bono work and who’s going to come and tap me out last minute at a pro bono birth, you know? And so she put the call out…
Ajira: Just about every doula I know.
Ajira: Yeah I’m really proud of that. I’m really proud that the community that has taken me so long to build, but there they are worth their weight in gold because just about all of them would, yes.
Keelia: Yeah. There’s been multiple times where I’ve checked in with Ajira while I’m at a birth like, “Hey, I think I’m reaching my limit,” and Ajira has said, you know, “Yeah, what do you need from me and when?” without asking about fee stuff. And yeah I agree with what you’re saying, Ajira. I’m so grateful to be sharing Community with people like that and also can understand why some people can’t take that on, you know?
Keelia: You know, if they aren’t able to Take the spacer they can’t find a child care whatever it is.
Keelia: So we got you next time, Cherie.
Ajira: Yeah we do. Yeah.
Cherie: Yay! Well someone did respond to my mentor’s call, and I was eternally grateful. She just so happened to also be at the postpartum training that I was going for, so she’s a friend who I met at my birth doula training who was already at the postpartum training which happened to be just down the street from the hospital. So it was just like all the stars aligned.
Cherie: And she reached out to me and she was like, “Hey, I heard that you need someone to tap you out, and I’ve been told that it’s okay for me to just miss this training for today. Do you want me to come?” and I was, like, I was going to cry. I was like, “Yes.”
Ajira: You were like, “Ugh, please come right now!”
Keelia: “Are you here yet?”
Cherie: Yeah,honestly, like, I’m not a person — I don’t know how to say yes to help. Like, I’m often, like, the person that’s like, “No no no, I got it, it’s fine,” you know? So for me to be like, “Yes, oh my God! Come now! It cannot be any sooner!” You know, that was just such a different experience for me.
And she was amazing! She went to Whole Foods before she came, she got some honey sticks for the client, some honey sticks for me, she went to buy some, like, reusable heat packs.
Cherie: I was like, “Oh my God, you’re an angel.” And this was her very first birth.
Cherie: She had never done any other births, she had only had her own birth, and she was nervous about it, you know? Like you kind of get thrown into the deep end of things, and she was so willing to come in to support me which I’m eternally grateful for.
Ajira: Sorry, before you go into that, how did you talk to your client about this?
Cherie: I left the birthing person, I left her to do what she needed to do. I didn’t want to interrupt her flow. But I did speak to her husband and I said, “Listen, you’re exhausted, I’m exhausted, we’re both kind of useless at the moment. I mean not useless, but you know what I mean, like we’re not going to be much help. And I need even just two hours to close my eyes.” And I asked if it was okay if I got someone else to come in to help out and he was like, “Yes, please, call whoever you need,” so he was fine. I think at some point I might have whispered to the client that someone else is coming but I waited till I knew they were coming and it was close to them coming.
Cherie: But at this point they had a lot of people in and out of their room. So the nurse midwife who used to be a doula was constantly there, and so, like, my client had a lot of other people on staff at the hospital who were also supporting her, which was so amazing to see because I could take a break. I could just sit down for like 20 minutes and just try to close my eyes. And then when my friend came I told her to just kind of observe for a little while because the energy was really big in the room. So I told her to observe for a little while, and then updated her outside of the hospital room, and she, you know, stepped up and stepped into it and I just, I fell asleep on the sofa. As soon as she took over I was like, “I’m out.”
I don’t know how long I slept for, maybe like an hour. And then when I woke up it was still the same, it was still a lot of the same. And I think she had a cervical lip that wouldn’t budge.
Cherie: That was really preventing the baby from descending even more. And so by that point, I was like, “I don’t know how long more this is going to go, but it looks like it’s still going.” And I hadn’t seen my kids, I was exhausted, I was emotional. I was like, “I miss my kids! This is not what I signed up for,” like that’s in my head, you know? Of just like, when exhausted hits, everything’s out the door.
Cherie: And so I asked my client if they were okay with me leaving and did assure them that they were in good hands. And, you know, I prepped my friend a little bit for what to expect and I did say this would probably end up in a c-section, just the way things are going, so to just be prepared for that. I didn’t say that to the client, of course.
Cherie: But I just wanted my friend to be prepared because it was her first birth.
Keelia: I mean, yeah, even just based off of the water being open for so long. If you were there for 26 hours and her water had already been broken for a while, most hospitals get antsy at that point.
Cherie: Yeah. And you know, surprisingly, they really weren’t at all.
Keelia: That’s awesome.
Ajira: That’s amazing.
Cherie: Yeah. It was so awesome, I couldn’t believe. By the time I left, no one had even mentioned anything about c-section.
Cherie: I was a little bit dumbfounded by that. But it was really, really cool, and it was really hard for me to leave, you know? Like, I feel like I was really emotionally invested and I was really worried that I was, like, ditching my clients, you know?
Cherie: And so it was really hard for me to leave, but I figured I was of no help anymore, you know?
Cherie: So I chose to leave thinking, “Well, depending on how it goes maybe I might come back, maybe I won’t.” So I went home, took my shower, told my kids “hello and goodbye” and went straight to bed. And I think I slept for like 5 hours. and by midnight my friend texted me that she got an epidural and then eventually she agreed to a c-section, which was a really hard decision. I mean, when you’ve been laboring for, I don’t know, 30-something hours and then to have to say, “Okay, fine, I’ll have a c-section,” that’s devastating.
Ajira & Keelia: Mm.
Cherie: You know? And I felt really, really… I just felt so bad that I wasn’t there with them when they had to make that call.
Ajira & Keelia: Mm.
Cherie: ‘Cos I know it was really hard for them. But I was also really glad that my friend was there.
Cherie: And so that I didn’t leave them completely alone. And so that’s how it ended, you know. I mean not ended, but that’s how the life of this baby started, was they they had to make that call, and it was a good one, and it was long and it involved a huge birth team.
Keelia: Mm. Wow.
Ajira: How do you feel about the birth now when you think about it? And how did you feel about it then? And has anything changed? Like were there thoughts and feelings that you had then that, you know, now, having more experience under your belt, you maybe feel differently about it than you did at that point?
Cherie: After the birth I really thought long and hard about whether I did enough as a doula…
Ajira & Keelia: Mm.
Cherie: …to support them, to offer ideas of, you know, if I had early enough realized that the back labor was because the baby was posterior, then I might have suggested something different. I think I second-guessed myself a lot after the birth wondering if I could have done something different to change the outcome of the birth itself.
Ajira & Keelia: Mm.
Cherie: And then also because I was kind of new at it you know there was a little bit of second-guessing of like did I do enough? Did I know enough? Was I good enough?
Keelia: Yeah. And at the end of the day, it was kind of a situation where we all just fell into whatever happened, you know? I did what I could in the circumstances that were given to me. And I think that was the only thing that really ate at me, like, wishing that I had maybe suggested a Spinning Babies position or something to try and flip the baby earlier on instead of just letting her do what she felt called to do. So a lot of it wae, like, in my head. Because she was a doula, I didn’t really have a birth doula prenatal with her, I just kind of went with it. And so that’s why the second-guessing of, like, could I have done something else?
Cherie: And it was also a lot of learning where my place was as a doula.
Cherie: How much do you step into something and how much do you not step into it, you know? Balancing that line between the birthing person, their partner, and then also the nurses and the midwives and the doctors that come in.
Cherie: There was just a lot of different balancing acts. Because we were there for so long, we saw so many different medical staff.
Cherie: Because of all the shift changes.
Keelia: Yeah, you know everyone.
Cherie: Yeah! But so every time someone new came on shift I had to re-establish that rapport with them.
Cherie: And, you know, sometimes doulas feel like a threat and sometimes we’re part of the team. And basically it was a really steep learning curve for me, and I am really glad that it happened the way it did. Like, I don’t have any regrets, but I do know so much more now.
Ajira: Yeah. I mean you already had dueling rolls to juggle within yourself, just showing up as the photographer and then needing to make that switch into doula mode. Because they are different, like you were saying. Even the prenatal with a birth photographer is different even though you’re building rapport in the same way that you’d be building rapport for a birth support client, there’s a little more space between a photographer and a birthing person than there is between a birth support person and a birthing person. Because typically the bar support person has to be so much more intimate, you know? They don’t have the space that a camera creates between them. But switching into doula mode is a different thing, right? And switching into doula mode unexpectedly, and also thinking that it’s likely to be temporary, and then coming to terms with the fact that it’s not and you’re it.
Ajira: And then having to shift again, you know, when you’re finally like, “Okay, I’m exhausted and it would be more helpful for me to take care of myself and to find someone else to support this person.” I think that our egos will sometimes stop us from doing that right and not realizing that it can be more harmful for somebody to have someone who’s exhausted…
Ajira: …than it is to have someone new who isn’t exhausted.
Cherie: Yeah. And, you know, I will say selfishly there was a part of me that really wanted to stay because I wanted the payoff of seeing the baby born.
Ajira: Who doesn’t want that?
Cherie: Right, exactly! It’s like, and plus I really wanted to photograph that because it’s such an amazing moment that, you know, as a photographer, seeing it through literally that you are the only person who views that moment right there that gives you that photo. And it’s taken, it’s captured forever, you know? And so I think in my head I was like, I’ve already been here for this many hours and I don’t even get to see the baby born.” And, you know, those first hours where they meet their baby, and all of the good things. I was just like, “Maybe just another hour, and just another hour,” and so of course, “just another hour” turned into 26. So selfishly I definitely had that sense of like, “I just want to see the baby born,” and I didn’t. But I did go to them the very next morning…
Cherie: …to take some, you know, fresh family photos and check in with them and talk a little bit about what happened. It was a whirlwind birth, I think for everyone. But, you know, they’re still my friends right now, so I’m glad for it.
Keelia: And going in the next morning… I don’t think anyone could hear this story and think that you did not do enough.
Ajira: Yeah, absolutely.
Keelia: My goodness.
Ajira: Or that you were Or that you were selfish honestly.
Keelia: Oh, not at all.
Ajira: It sounded like you did what you needed to do to take care of them as well as yourself, and I think that’s something that can sometimes take… it can take a while to learn that lesson, that, you know, it’s okay to take care of yourself. You are doing more than enough by taking care of yourself as well as your clients, you know?
Ajira: You know, using ourselves to the driest husk is not serving our clients.
Keelia: Mmhmm. Well and so many birthing people are so hyper-sensitive to others’ needs around them at different points during labor anyway, so if you’re not taking care of yourself, you could become a distraction to them, you know? As a birthing person myself that was at the top of my worry list was, “Is my midwife okay? Is my partner okay?” which is its own problem in and of itself. But that’s part of your role, is taking care of everyone and taking care of yourself. And I don’t think this is the way to make this decision of whether I should call in backup or not, but one thing that I take into account is: would I want myself as I am right now to show up as my own doula right now? You know? If I knew how tired Keelia was? If I knew how long ago it had been since she’d eaten? And that usually is a pretty clear marker of, like, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure if I were the family I would I want someone else to give that doula a break.”
Cherie: Yeah, I remember when I finally walked out, I remember the faces of all the nurses. They just kind of, like, all looked at me of, like, the silent salute.
Keelia: Yes, yes! And they see you, like, you’re there wearing the same fleece you were wearing two days ago, the shift has changed and then changed back, you know, people have gone home, had a full night sleep, done their whole thing and then come back in and still seeing you.
Cherie: Yes! Yes, she definitely had one one of the nurses who was there when she was admitted and then was there when I left, and she came and she’s like, “You’re still here?” So, yeah.
Keelia: You, like, smile, grimacing.
Ajira: That’s the classic doula greeting right there: “You still here?” “Yep. Still here.”
Keelia: “You’re still here.” Well also with long births like that I often find myself feeling like there’s no way that someone else could come in and absorb everything they need to about the story beforehand. Where I’m like, “Oh but they didn’t see how over the last 10 hours the emotional energy has gone so high and so low and this is where this person is at now,” you know? I doubt the next doula’s ability to pick all that up. And that’s just silly. Like, my backups could do that in a heartbeat. Ajira could walk into any room and know instantly how everyone’s feeling. It’s fine.
Ajira: Yeah. I mean, I think I’ve seen backups that felt very transactional.
Ajira: I think I’ve been lucky in that most of the people I’ve been back up for or who have been backups for me have just been so gracious and so full of love for their clients that it’s been a beautiful thing to step into and it felt like such a gift to get to be a part of it in some small way.
Ajira: But yeah, I mean, backups are so helpful. And also birth goes way it does, you know? Sometimes you can have, what was that, three backups?
Keelia: Yeah! Three doulas.
Cherie: Three doulas.
Ajira: Sometimes you could have… I’ve definitely heard of situations where folks had, you know, multiple backups and still wound up not having someone there with them when they actually went into labor. And I think that the take-away from me is always that, you know, birthing people give birth, and they don’t need anything in order to give birth.
Ajira: It makes it easier if they feel safe and if they’re supported, for sure. And birth workers are an amazing, you know, source of comfort and knowledge, normalizing the situation. And if you’re giving birth in the hospital, they’re especially helpful for engaging with and, you know, navigating the entire system and process of being supported in the way the hospitals support you. But at the end of the day, birth happens.
Keelia: Yeah. They don’t need us. We help a lot, it helps a lot to have us there, but they don’t need us.
Keelia: Cherie, I would love to hear if you have any words of wisdom for other doulas who find themselves in any of these similar situations.
Cherie: There were so many things that happened within that birth that was a steep learning curve for me. There were so many takeaways. I worked my role as a birth photographer and a birth doula, and came out of it realizing, “Hey! I love this work!”
Cherie: “This is incredible this is f*ckin’ amazing! I want to do it again.”
Cherie: You know, despite how tired I was, despite the curves that were thrown here and there, despite all the things put together, I mostly came out of it feeling like, you know, it’s like you go on that roller coaster ride and you’re like, “Oh my God I was going to piss myself. Let’s do it again!”
Keelia: Mm, yeah.
Ajira: So you came out going, “I’ve never felt so alive!”
Cherie: After the three day hangover, yes!
Keelia: I think that says a lot about who you are as a birth worker.
Keelia: It also reminds me of Ali Wong’s book. Have either of you read her book?
Keelia: She’s talking about how, in her early days as a comedian, she was in San Francisco performing at, you know, you have to just be ready to bomb over and over as a stand-up comedian, especially as a person of color. So she would bomb these audiences and I personally can’t imagine anything more horrifying than that. And she said every time that would happen she’d go off stage and be like, “Oh come on,” like, “Let me back out there, let me at it again! I can get ‘em!” And, like, after dozens of failures she would still be like, “Put me in, coach!” you know?
Keelia: And I’m like, that’s what that kind of work takes! And I feel like with doula work it’s the same thing.
Keelia: But just to come off of an experience like that and still be like, “I can’t wait for the next one,” that’s amazing.
Ajira: Mmhmm. I mean that’s how you know, though, isn’t it? It’s like if you come out of that and you’re like, “Uh-uh, that s*** was mm-mm. No thank you,” then that’s also great. Because, you know, you know? And I think that sometimes there’s a bit of, like, a thing, isn’t there? Where we’re supposed to, like, if it’s hard or we don’t like it, we’re not supposed to trust that feeling, we’re supposed to keep going anyway.
Ajira: And I’m like, “Yo, you know, life is giving you feedback all the time. You just choose not to listen to it. And that’s fine, you can choose that. But don’t pretend that you’re not choosing that.”
Keelia: “Life is giving you feedback.” Open your damn T-shirt shop already!
Cherie: How am I gonna give any words of wisdom at this point?
Ajira: Sh**, I’m sorry! I was trying to help you be inspired.
Cherie: No, actually funnily enough, Keelia’s segue into Ali Wong did, sort of, like, “Ah! I know what I’m going to say.”
Keelia: Oh, great!
Ajira: Good, good, awesome.
Keelia: Let’s hear your words of wisdom.
Ajira: Get it.
Cherie: I think what I want to say is, I feel like as a birth worker there are so many things that we are taught, there so many things to learn, and there’s so many things to remember. And at the end of the day, the most important thing is your instinct, your gut, and your connection and relationship to your client.
Ajira & Keelia: Mm.
Cherie: And that’s what this really taught me. Like, in my life I always strive for perfection in everything I do, and if it’s not perfect then I have failed. And in birth work, you know, in birth, you can’t have an expectation of anything.
Cherie: It’s going to turn any which way, and you’re not going to be able to predict it. And that’s really taught me to just let go of that, sort of, organizer head, that setting up expectations, and just, like, “Okay, if this happens, then this is what I’m going to do next.” Like there’s a little small component in that where, like, I put that into my birth bag.
And so I think that’s why I really like this work is that it’s really forced me to go into a different part of myself that I’ve never really accessed before in other parts of my life. And I just listen to myself and, I mean, I believe in, like, ancestral wisdom and whatever is in my DNA and historically passed down to me, and it’s just like calling into that, calling into, like, whatever higher power you believe in, and just being there.
Ajira & Keelia: Mm.
Ajira: If anything from today’s episode resonated with you, leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast listening app, and follow us on Facebook or Instagram @doulastories. If you’re a doula and you have a story to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keelia: This episode was produced by me, Keelia Alder, and our music is by Rick Bassett. Special thanks to Cherie Seah for sharing her story with us, and to the parents who Cherie supported for allowing Cherie to share her story. If you want to connect with Cherie, you can find her on Instagram @earthshinedoula
You can also learn more about the Asian Birth Collective at AsianBirthCollective.com
Thanks also to Cameron Sharpe, and to my dearest and darlingest cohost, Ajira Darch.