Friday, May 1, 2015

Doula Chat with Samantha Hillstrom, CCCE, CD(DONA) - Los Angeles, CA

I am very excited to feature my dear friend and CEA sister, Samantha Hillstrom! Sam is an anchoring and loving doula, gifted childbirth educator, and attuned communicator. Los Angeles area families, if you are interested in working with Sam, check her out at Lavender Labor!

Tell us about yourself, Sam…

I am a certified cooperative childbirth educator and DONA International certified birth doula living in Los Angeles, California. In February of 2013, my company, Lavender Labor and Birth Services, was born in New York City. Inspired by the idea that women used to hold sprigs of lavender in their hands during labor to help keep them calm, I knew that through evidence-based education and continuous emotional and physical support, the fear of birth could lessen.  It is the greatest privilege of my life to be invited into someone’s birth space, whether I am actually attending their birth or we are discussing the birth process. The clich√© line of, “when you do what you love, it doesn’t feel like work” is absolutely true. Any birth worker would tell you that this is a calling. Being a birth worker (midwife, doula, childbirth educator, lactation consultant) isn’t something you see at a career fair. It’s truly a profession of passion.

As a birth doula, I provide informational, emotional and physical support through the prenatal, labor and delivery and postpartum periods. As a childbirth educator, I teach group and private classes on evidence-based birth. I don’t teach a methodology for birth because every birth, like every person, is different and are entitled to know a range of options. In addition to teaching group and private childbirth education classes, I started the only LGBTQ-only childbirth education class series in New York City and now, Los Angeles. All families are deserving of evidence-based, supportive, and respectful education and not all people make a baby or a birth a baby in a heteronormative way.

What is your mission?

I believe (and I know) that birth is a normal, physiological process and every female-bodied person has the innate ability to give birth. I don’t believe that doulas “empower women”. As a doula, I aid women in empowering themselves through education and support. Ultimately, birth is unknowable and you get the birth you were meant to have. I want my clients and students to feel confident in their education and their abilities to give birth.

Not related to clients and students- my other personal mission is to show people that doulas aren’t all “hippies” or “crunchy” women who smell like patchouli, wear Birkenstocks and think you should birth naturally by a tree in the forest. Like in any profession, we are all unique people and while we likely share very similar ideas about birth, we can approach it very differently. 

Tell us about the journey that brought you to doula/childbirth education work.

My journey to birth work is unique, as I didn’t come into this field by being pregnant or giving birth. I left my career as a television producer to pursue birth work in the fall of 2012. From a very young age, I was always incredibly interested in pregnancy and found myself reading my mom’s old pregnancy books and watching movies on pregnancy. Every year on my birthday, my mom would tell me the story of my birth (I also saw it on VHS!) and it was always this really positive and empowering story. My mom portrayed birth as normal and natural and thus, I never grew up fearing the process.

As a kid, I always wanted to be a TV reporter or a baby catcher (midwife). I followed one of those paths and went to school for journalism and communications. After 7 years working at the top cable news channel and on some of the most exciting stories of the 2000s, I always found myself feeling empty, angry, and unfulfilled. Unlike my counterparts, breaking news annoyed me instead of exciting me. I started thinking, “is this it?” And what I always came back to in my mind and heart was birth work. I applied and was accepted to a rigorous childbirth education program in New York City and national doula training program. I quit my job as a producer and one week later took my first childbirth education class; two months later I attended my first birth. I never, ever looked back.

How would you describe your style as a labor support person? What can clients
expect from you?

Along those same lines, I am the type of doula who thinks, “your cervix is a bad-ass”, versus a doula who thinks, “your cervix is a beautiful flower”.  I am a “best friend/sister doula” versus an ”earth mother goddess doula”. I am down-to-earth, open-minded and contemporary. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that most of my clients have turned out to be friends because we share the same personality type and in that, there is a comfortableness between us. I am warm, compassionate, and affirming. Yet, I also make jokes, sometimes swear and have tattoos. Birth is intensely intimate for all parties and it would be impossible for me to remove my personality from my work. As a doula and educator, I want my clients and students to feel comfortable and safe being totally themselves around me. I, in turn, will be myself and thus, an authentic relationship forms. Besides, I’m going to be seeing your vagina, so we might as well get along well!

How does your personal experience influence your doula work today? 

I used to fear that because I had never given birth before, people wouldn’t trust my guidance. However, I quickly learned that just because you’ve given birth does not mean you are an expert. It means you are an expert on your birth. I did my childbirth education training through the Childbirth Education Association of Metropolitan New York (CEA/MNY). CEA/MNY is a nationally-recognized two-year program that is akin to getting an associate’s degree in childbirth education. I chose this program because I feel it is my responsibility to be as educated as possible when working with pregnant couples. Every couple I teach or birth I attend shapes my experience of birth and how I view the process.

I might not have actually given birth myself so I cannot personally relate to how a contraction feels. But you don’t need to have been through it to understand that it is really painful and that people need support and encouragement. Compassion and thoughtfulness are not things that can be taught.

Has there been anyone that has been instrumental in your journey, or in your growth as a birth worker?

Truly, every couple that has allowed me into their birth space, whether it is in the classroom or birthing room, has been instrumental in my journey and growth as a birth worker. It is such an intense honor to be there and that has never been lost on me.

On a professional level, I have made so many wonderful friends and mentors from the birth communities in New York City and Los Angeles. I have to credit the incomparable Ellen Chuse with helping me on this path. Ellen was my formal mentor through my education program. Ellen not only taught me from an academic perspective but she truly helped shape how I viewed the experience of the pregnant person. Not to mention, she treats me like a daughter with support and encouragement. She is very special to me and I feel lucky to have met her.

I also would be remiss if I didn’t mention my former doula partner, Robyn Lazara. When I was living In NYC, Robyn and I formed a successful doula practice together. She is one of my best friends, my confidantes and biggest supporters. Every doula needs a person that “doulas” them through the process and for me, that is Robyn.

What is doula-life like for you?

Doula life is...intense! When you are on-call for a client, you are attached to your phone 24/7. Every call and text makes your heart jump a little. You don’t sleep quite as well and you are constantly ending sentences with, “...if I’m not at a birth”. Being on-call is this constant state of anxiety but when you get “the call”, all of your endorphins kick in and you’re ready for action. The feeling you get leaving a birth, knowing you supported someone in this incredibly vulnerable time, is completely unmatched. 

After taking care of others, how do you take care of yourself?

After a birth, I usually take a really long shower, order some take-out and park myself in front of some guilty pleasure TV. If a birth was particularly physical, I might treat myself to one of those cheap massages. Most importantly, I turn off my ringer!

Favorite getaway that brings balance to the intensity of labor support work:

Sometimes a “getaway” just feels like putting my phone on “Do Not Disturb”.

Favorite music that gets you into the mood for birth support:

I am a music fanatic and I love when clients have labor playlists. I always listen to music while heading to a birth so I can clear my mind and think about what lies ahead. It could anything from Bon Iver to Kelly Clarkson that gets me in the headspace for a birth. 

Favorite meal/snacks that give  you energy for birth support:

If I have time, I will usually make one or two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Granola bars, dried fruit, and bananas are must-haves. Also, a giant water bottle! 

From what you’ve seen and experienced in birthing locations, what is one positive thing you’ve noticed and one thing that you wish would improve?

I’d say that one of the most important things that can lead to a positive experience is when the patient and care provider are on the same page with their birth views and have an open and respectful dialogue. 

There are many factors I’d like to see improved in different birth settings, specifically hospitals. Aside from the alarming rate at which evidence-based medicine is not practiced in the hospital setting, I’d like to see an understanding and respect of the woman and family’s experience of the birth process. Birth is so much more than, “healthy mom, healthy baby”, and that an acknowledgment of that could greatly improve how people feel about their birth, regardless of the outcome.

What is the longest labor you’ve attended yet? What did you and the birth team do in order to keep her energy and spirits up?

39 hours over the course of 3 days! We constantly reminded her that she was going to meet her baby at the end of this and that everything was in the range of normal.

Favorite labor/birth story to date:

I can’t possibly choose, there are too many! Here are three sweet stories…
  • During labor, mom, dad and I were walking around NYC and in the middle of it, we needed sustenance so we all stopped to eat an egg and cheese sandwich together outside.
  • I had a mom say, “this f**king hurts” over and over again during contractions and once I noticed this was working for her as a coping technique, I told her to keep doing it. She told me during our postpartum visit that encouraging her to repeat those words over and over again got her through the worst of labor.
  • A mom requested we put on a Michael Jackson playlist during her pushing stage. We sang along to the songs and tried to guess which song it would be when the baby came out. It ended up being some Michael Jackson song that was unreleased and no one had ever heard of but it was fun, nonetheless.

What are your top 10 items in your “doula bag?”

The most important item in my doula “bag” are my own hands. You’ll find that new doulas have a doula bag that is stocked like they’re taking a trip to Europe. The more births you do, the more you realize you don’t need as much. I keep toiletries for myself, an extra change of clothes, a rice sock, honey sticks, peppermint oil (for nausea), unscented massage oil, snacks and a phone charger.

If you could give one piece of advice to expecting parents, what would it be?

Do. Your. Research. One of the first parenting decisions you make is who you choose for a care provider. Understand all of your options and find a care provider who provides evidence-based, mother-friendly care. Remember that you are hiring this person and you need to feel comfortable and confident in the services they are providing. I cannot stress this enough. Also, hire a doula. 

If you could give one piece of advice to a pregnant mom, what would it be?

Trust the process and ignore most things people tell you. For some reason, people always feel it necessary to share the worst parts of their birth experience or to tell you “how you absolutely have to do it.” What they are really saying is, “validate my experience.” Your pregnancy and birth are unique to you and only you know what is right for your body and your baby. 

If you could give one piece of advice to a pregnant mom pursuing a VBAC
(Vaginal Birth After Cesarean), what would it be?

Do. Your. Research. Find providers who proudly support VBACs and have high rates of VBAC success. Avoid an induction. Hire a doula. 

Thank you for taking the time to share with us, Sam! And thank you for the amazing person you are, and incredible work that you do in support of women and families!