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Becoming two

by Sam Heeremans –

The oldest transformative journey we know is birth. Going from a dark world surrounded by nothing but water and your mother’s warmth, entering the world of the earth due to your mother’s bodily efforts. Gasping for air, shivering from the sudden cold you shed your first cry – life on the other side has started. You might imagine that giving life is quite an impactful experience for the woman in question. Some of the mothers I spoke with told me it felt ‘nearly spiritual’, some had called it mystical, and some said it was ‘the most fucking intense experience I had ever gone through.’ Yet a doula said laughingly: ‘We all tend to forget its power, just because it happens everywhere, all the time – it became invisible!’ I started wondering how this journey that might be mystical but can also be ‘fucking intense’ is given shape in The Netherlands, the context of my fieldwork as well as my motherland.

My fieldwork takes place among Dutch doulas, a relatively new phenomenon in the Dutch birth care system. The etymology of the word doula starts in ancient Greek. The word δούλα translates to female slave, which is nowadays perceived as an incorrect term and is preferably inverted to ‘serving woman’ (inversion derived from an interview I held with a Dutch Doula). Doulas are women who stand aside another woman who is on the verge of conceiving, carrying, and eventually bringing life to this world.

I want to stress here that it is not a given that this is the course of the events. Pregnancies can be ended, planned, or unplanned. However, for the cause of this blog, I limit this thought to a simple sentence – a nullification of the actual possible experience of a miscarriage or an abortion.

Doulas do not carry medical responsibility, nor should they in their perspective. They provide psychological, emotional, relational, social, and possibly spiritual care, and stand alongside the birthing woman, and ‘no other distraction is needed when providing the care needed for such a big life event’, said one of my interlocutors. This, to me, was interesting. Can birth, next to the biological and ‘fucking intense’ experience, also have another sphere to it in this cultural context?

During a weekend among the trees with my closest relatives, I had the time to sink into a couch and read I.M. Lewis’ book ‘Ecstatic Religion’ (2007). He writes that in his time when asserting a mystical experience, it was widely accepted by social academics that every transcendental experience is unique and can only be understood in its totality by the person who experiences the encounter. However, he says, that the fact that a mystical experience is personal does not mean that it is not separate from the social environment in which it is achieved. To him, it bears the stamp of the culture in which it arises.

The experience of seeing a woman working to become a mother is something that had not much to do with the ‘fairy dust mysticism’ as a doula described the ‘romanticized ideas’ of birth that are spread nowadays. A noticeable aspect of this experience I felt my sore muscles the day after I was contracting my muscles in the rhythm of her contractions. The sore muscles were a result of the immense power she spread over the room, with which she even directed my energy. It was a type of power I had never witnessed in my life before, that had nothing to do with elves or fairy dust. The soon-to-be mother laid her head on her neck during contractions, let her partner carry her, and let her body and that of her daughter lead the way through immense bodily shifts. I heard the most earthy sounds I had ever heard coming out of a person. Afterward, she told me that she had never heard of them before either.  

I thought of the famous anthropologist Edith Turner, who had sworn she saw a spirit coming from the patient’s back while witnessing a de-possession ritual in West Africa. Some comparisons can be made – physical discomfort to drive something out, the ritualistic aspects, and possible community care. But during my fieldwork, I did not see a ghost. Whether it was spiritual or not, that was not for me to tell. What I did see, was life happening right in front of me: we could already see the head.

The cultural stamp a doula leaves on both the mystical and the earthly experience of giving birth in the Netherlands is not that of something that possesses the pregnant woman, nor is it the softening of the experience by bringing in stories of fairytales. Rather, the rise of the doula creates a sphere in the Dutch birth care system in which women can take time for their spiritual transformative journey through pregnancy. They have given fruitful ground for women to give shape to their ritual of becoming a mother if wished so.

Sam Heeremans is an anthropology master’s student.

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