“Would That Gross You Out?”

2 Apr

Not long ago I had the opportunity to take part in a four-day doula training. If you’ve never heard of a doula before, you’re not alone. Most people have never heard of one. It comes from the ancient Greek word for “woman who serves”, and nowadays refers to certified birthing assistants (although they do so much more). While hospital doulas assist the mother-to-be in the birthing process only, doulas can also be hired to support the mother prenatally, at the hospital, and during the postnatal period. This support includes prepping the mother for all aspects of this unique experience, supporting her and others emotionally and physically during the birthing process, and relevant follow-up.

I was the only male in the 16-person, 28-hour training. During the training I was floored by how much there is to know about the hospital (industrial) system, the physiology of pregnancy, birthing, the biochemistry of birth drugs (e.g., pitocin, epidurals, etc.), and how interventions can so effectively and naturally facilitate 8-hour births. I learned so much and am so grateful for the opportunity to participate in the training and learn from our incredible trainer. The training was very interactive, including role plays giving birth, supporting a birthing woman, and practicing pain reduction techniques. I wholeheartedly appreciate the dozens of mothers and families who captured their births on tape, in order that I might be able to see real images of the positions best for easing pain, and the magical process itself (similar pictures are posted after each paragraph, so you can get an idea of the content and frequency). What I did not enjoy, however, was the constant onslaught of attention paid to my maleness during those four days.

As a student of social work, I’m accustomed to being around women in my professional environments, and I’m very in touch with my maleness. When it gets pointed out at school, it’s normally to critically discuss male privilege in an academic or social justice context — its existence or my perpetration of it. Either way, I try to walk away from these discussions as a more aware and critical person. Almost never is it brought up to make a joke. This was the theme that dominates my memory of the training. At so many times during the training, comments were made about my maleness. Otherwise, I felt the stares of my peers, or, during partner role-plays or practices, the discomfort of my partner.

Examples of these comments came mostly from my peers:

  • “Would that gross you out?”, prior to watching a video of a woman giving birth.
  • “TCM, you may not be able to feel the difference,” regarding practicing a lunging position.
  • “Does this make you uncomfortable?”, during a discussion of orgasm during birth.
  • During a role play activity, my partner’s assumption that I would play the role of the doula, not the pregnant woman.
  • Laughter when I asked clarifying questions during the Birthing Physiology unit of the training.
  • Stares while I was paying close attention to the videos, or highly engaged in general.
  • “TCM, you would be great at working with the fathers.”
  • “It’s like catching a football, TCM,” said specifically to me, on delivering a baby.
  • Being ignored.

I haven’t felt this singled out like this, as a male, in a long time. The experience of being actively isolated from the activity and ridiculed for my participation and passion was discouraging. I felt like my input was not worth as much as the other participants’ — “He just doesn’t get it…and he never will.” Adding insult to injury was the fact that the training took place within an overtly feminist organization, where men are so rarely seen, and I’ve been so appreciated in the past. I identify strongly as a feminist, and prior to this training thought that my allyship was understood by those around me. Granted, I still have far to go in undoing my learned sexism. But I’m trying. During the training, I felt like my work and commitment were devalued. Sometimes I felt singled out. Other times, I felt invisible. More of the time, I felt like I didn’t belong in that room.

To commit an ism, one must have institutional power. Because I held more power and privilege than the women with me in the training, their behavior cannot be defined as sexism. It can, however, be categorized as perpetuating male stereotypes. Some of the stereotypes that I saw and felt were: men do not understand or want to be around vaginae (outside of sexual contexts); men cannot identify with women’s emotions; men do best working alongside men; men like sports. Taken a step further, some of these notions reflect homophobic ideas: any man who wants to be near vaginae outside a sexual encounter must not be attracted to them (i.e., be gay); men who empathize with women must not be “real” men (i.e., are gay). During my career as a social worker I’ve felt similar judgments, but never this strongly or in such a short time frame.

I do not plan on becoming a doula. The certification process is long and expensive, and I feel my talents will be better utilized elsewhere. The training definitely informed my practice and understanding of pregnancy and childbirth, and I’m grateful for it. I hope that I can incorporate some kind of supportive services for pregnant and birthing mothers into my future programming and grant writing projects wherever I end up working, because the training opened my eyes to the importance of what doulas do to empower women during such an important time in their lives. My experience during the training also taught me about privilege. The words that I used to describe my own feelings around my experience read like echos of what I’ve heard and read from women, people of color, and LGBT folk about their everyday experiences. Making this connection – while acknowledging that my experiences are not equal to the oppression experienced by people with non-dominant identities – taught me personally about the harm caused by microaggressions and silence.


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