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The Feministing Five: Mary Mahoney & Lauren Mitchell of The Doula Project

In 2007,  New York City-based reproductive justice activists Mary Mahoney and Lauren Mitchell founded The Doula Project, the first full spectrum doula organization that supports people across the spectrum of pregnancy outcomes. Based upon the idea that everyone deserves nonjudgmental, compassionate physical and emotional support for abortions and beyond, The Doula Project is a volunteer-run, collectively-led organization of over fifty doulas whose backgrounds range from activism, to social work, to health professionals.

Almost ten years later, The Doula Project has changed the way we think about doula work and the links between activism and direct service, as well as inspired doulas across the country to start their own collectives. The Doulas: Radical Care for Pregnant People, a new book co-written by Mary and Lauren recently out from the Feminist Press, details the complexities and joys of doula work and the life and evolution of the organization. It is a vivid and gorgeously written ode to reproductive justice, intersectional feminism, and compassionate advocacy.

For this week’s Feministing Five, I caught up with Mary and Lauren about the process of writing the book, how they’ve grown as caregivers, the meaning of their work post-election, and what makes a great doula. You can order the book here and learn more about The Doula Project on their website.

Senti Sojwal: I absolutely love that The Doulas: Radical Care for Pregnant People is part memoir, part storytelling, and part how-to guide on being an effective full spectrum doula. It makes for compelling, beautiful, and moving writing. How did the idea for this book come about, and what has been the greatest surprise of the process of writing this book?

Lauren Mitchell: First, thanks so much for your kind words.  We always, always appreciate them… It never gets old. Our concept of the book went through several iterations before we landed on the “creative non-fiction”/oral history genre.  We were approached by longtime friend, supporter, and mentor, Jennifer Baumgardener to consider writing a book when she became the director of The Feminist Press at CUNY.  Initially, we were interested, but concerned: how would we do justice to The Doula Project, as a whole?  Yes, we’re founders, but the organization grew because of a communal effort and a lot of compassionate energy from a number of people, not just us.  Beyond that, I was also about to change gears completely, getting ready to leave New York City–which meant leaving behind many important parts of my life–to enter academia.  We had initially planned to do an anthology, but a number of people pointed out to us that… Well.  There are a lot of anthologies out there, and what our publisher was looking for was something that would read as a cohesive whole. We had a really important conversation with Ann Fessler, author of The Girls Who Went Away (an incredible book for those who may not have heard of it), who talked to us about her interview process — which was in the model of “oral history.”

Taking an oral history means making your interview open-ended.  We offered our interviewees a few prompts to help them frame their story, including the question, “tell me about your life before you became a doula,” and a “sensory exercise” to help set the scene.  And then we followed their lead. We created stories from the interviews.  What I love about the ethics of oral history is that the story is a collaborative process — we read the stories back to the people we interviewed, which gave them the opportunity to ask for changes or edits. We followed their lead, scrapped what they were uncomfortable with, changed names, physical descriptions, story details, whatever, until they felt good about it.  It’s something that was, and is, very important to us: if people are willing to be generous with their stories– and, in effect, their open, beating hearts, then yes, we have to do justice to that.  And, having been thrown under the bus by a number of journalists who didn’t treat our stories respectfully — everything from quotes being taken out of context, to irresponsible dramatizing of abortions — we didn’t want to do that to anyone else.

On a personal note, I will also say that the book was surprisingly hard for me to write.  Mary and I divided and conquered, and then we both added and edited to one another’s work.  Blessedly, we have a remarkably similar writing voice — even now, we can’t always remember who wrote or added what, exactly. But I dragged my feet. After leaving full-time full-spectrum doula work more abruptly than I had expected, I also inadvertently stepped away from The Doula Project’s community, and the topic of “abortion” is an acquired taste.  I slowly realized I was carrying around a lot of provider trauma– something that comes out as very common in the book — that I no longer was able to process with anyone, least of all the academic community I entered.  Academia also means you don’t get a lot of positive reinforcement, and after being told that my [academic] writing sucks for a year it was hard to get back on the horse. Mary and Jennifer were very loving and very patient about it. Eventually it happened, and became a coping mechanism.

Mary Mahoney: I pushed back on the idea of this book for a while. “It’s too soon!” I kept saying. “We’re too close!” I was Board Chair at the time, bringing on a brand new Board, feeling kinda burnt out and uninspired and away from the lovely part of the work, which is the client care. I was afraid it would be difficult to be objective enough to write this book, being so mired in the day-to-day.  Then I think we realized what we owed people, and what people wanted to read, was a book from our hearts. Not the story of a group of “perfect doulas,” the story of doulas who struggle with the work and are sad and frustrated sometimes. Writing this book and being kind of scared of it meant we would write with the utmost respect and love and honesty — it’s precious to us.

I had barely written anything creative in years, and the Feminist Press wanted to see a chapter before they gave us the book deal. I remember sitting down to work on some boring spreadsheet at my job and the beginning of the chapter, Look Away, just came out of me in a rush. And I went to the bathroom and cried and was like, shit, I think this book is gonna be really fucking good. The greatest surprise of the writing process was the beautiful communion it created between us and our doulas and clients and everything and everyone we encountered that summer of writing. It really unlocked something in me that had been shut down for a long time, and I just started to notice and appreciate the beauty in everything — my senses were so heightened and we were all vulnerable in a way we don’t normally allow ourselves to be. An unbreakable bond was created between us and the people in the book. It was a really special time.

Senti Sojwal: You speak in the book about how the mainstream pro-choice agenda seeks to paint the experience of abortion as a singular one as part of the effort to fight for reproductive freedom. Oftentimes the narrative we see about abortion from a mainstream reproductive rights group will speak of the experience as only empowering or right for someone. In reality, the experience of abortion can be so complex, and while it can be the right choice for someone, it can still be painful or shameful. What do you wish was different about how we see abortion portrayed, and how do we illustrate the nuances of the experience of abortion as we continue to advocate for people’s rights to have them?

Lauren Mitchell: It’s a hell of a time for our book to come out, after this recent election.  There are a number of ways in which conversations about abortion have been lending themselves to “gray area” spaces — in other words, nuanced spaces, where people can hold both any anguish or grief or anxiety about the decision they may have in addition to confidence it was the right thing to do, relief that the pregnancy is over, and maybe even some happiness mixed in there, too.  We already know that the anti-choice movement, with Trump and Pence currently at its crest, will cling to any small hint of sadness as proof that people “regret their abortions.”  But we’ve come too far to go back to humoring that bullshit with equally black-and-white thinking.  We have been very influenced by Exhale’s Pro-Voice movement, which centers narratives about abortion on the people who have experienced them. I don’t know if I have any significant strategic answers, except that we have to keep having candid conversations about what abortion is, how people feel about their reproductive experiences, and we have to hold each other close and offer one another the context of some small, unconditional love when they are willing to be vulnerable — in hopes that, at some point, sharing an abortion story won’t feel quite so vulnerable to so many people.  And for those who feel empowered in their abortion stories? That’s great, and we need to keep making room for that.  

Mary Mahoney: We have to always, always start with respecting and trusting women themselves. Being anti-abortion is being anti-woman. I understand the urge to share the story of the woman who got a medically necessary second trimester abortion. I’m from Indiana, I’m here right now on the book tour. We passed the fetal burial law a while back and no one even blinked. There’s a new bill being written to eliminate abortion completely. Mike Pence created an extremely dangerous culture for women of reproductive age, but in many ways, it was at the will of the people. People HATE abortion in Indiana. And so I’m being VERY strategic in how I speak to pro-life audiences about this work. As Loretta Ross says, let’s try calling people in instead of calling people out. I know that I had Trump supporters at my hometown reading. My hometown is super Catholic, and the 3,000 people who voted for Hillary are potentially pro-life, and so I started with talking about my love and care of women themselves. I focused on connecting all pregnancy experiences to each other and placing abortion within that, the basics of what I learned from the RJ movement. But we on the left are terrible at isolating abortion from other pregnancy and healthcare experiences so we keep playing into the right’s hands. There is no quick fix, which is why these big, clever messaging campaigns don’t always reach new and isolated communities. You have to know your audience, and I think there has to be some trust there, or a shared experience. So I think it does need to be about reaching one or two people at a time, and really committing yourself to being that constant, exhaustive messenger in your community. And as some of the more radical initiatives, like the Abortion Diary Podcast or the 1 in 3 Campaign, are proving there is no more powerful way to reach people than through story.

Senti Sojwal: I appreciated that in the book you talk about the fact that being a great activist does not make you a great doula. It’s so important to elucidate the difference between passionate organizing and advocacy versus direct service. Can you think of a moment in your doula work where you felt this important difference really came to light for you, and affected how you supported your patients as doulas?

Lauren Mitchell: Oh god, I was a terrible doula for the first couple of years.  Terrible! Part of that is because doula care demands that you literally and figuratively push into spaces in a way that you might not ever consider doing in any other part of your life. When someone is in discomfort — whether due to a birth, or an abortion, or literally anything else — there is an implicit command that you provide physical support. Touching people is intuitive to me now, but it took a long time.  One of our amazing trainers and former doulas is a massage therapist and an acupuncturist, and she introduced us to the idea of “creepy touch”– that’s when you want to offer physical support but you feel awkward about it so you get all weird and fingertippy and at the risk of sounding like a big hippie, your energy is “off.”   You also have to find a way of framing your physical support in a way that is explicitly client-centered and makes it easy for them to take you up on your offer.  You have to be a little more physically and emotionally forward in your care, and that can feel weird and foreign to many activists who have been — rightfully!! — trained to be conscious of any and all potential boundaries at all times, who are hyper-aware of how trauma and pain can be caused by the act of touching someone inappropriately.  What you also learn is that in the context of doula work not finding a way to offer touch can be equally inappropriate.   

Mary Mahoney: I think we ALL had to confront creepy touch in the beginning! We became very humble very quickly as we got to really know our clients – the people we served that first year really shaped the organization. We grew up in the advocacy world, and I don’t think we appreciated what a different mindset it would be. With direct care, so much comes from witnessing, just listening and observing. It’s about the simple (yet profoundly difficult!) act of being present with someone. It’s about letting go of the doing doing doing mentality and forgetting a lot of what you think you know. That for me was hard, the being still and clearing my head of the clutter. But it’s a process, a series of hundreds of moments. The learning curve can be sharp because it is so different than how we operate in the real word. I find myself often going back to advocacy and organizing, because I love it and it’s my home, but also because individual client care deserves the highest level of consideration and love, and I can’t always give that. Many of our doulas take breaks from the work, and we honor that as part of the lifelong process of being a caregiver and caring for yourself at the same time.

Senti Sojwal: You both are longtime activists and caregivers. What does reproductive justice mean to you? How has the Doula Project most impacted your understanding of reproductive justice?

Lauren Mitchell: To me, reproductive justice means that people are inherently deserving of the resource they need in order to make the decisions that they feel are best for their lives, and that it is not anyone else’s place to judge.  I believe in an ethical demand, for all of us, to work to our most compassionate and loving capacities, to offer other people a safe and warm place as best as we are able, and to stop poorly defining empathy as an “understanding of another person,” which is usually a false sense of understanding that is actually a projection of ourselves onto another person.  Fuck that.  You don’t need to feel you “understand” someone in order to support them.  You need to believe in her and in her judgement.  She owes you no explanation, and she deserves your compassion anyway. Full spectrum doulas do our work because people deserve to feel the heat of human kindness, period.  Within the movement, we have to be respectful of the mosaic of work we create — not everyone needs to do advocacy or policy, and not everyone needs to do direct care, but we do have to be clear about our commitment to one another. In regard to your second question — how The Doula Project has most impacted my understanding of RJ — I think that speaks to a point of contention between advocacy/policy spheres and direct service spheres.  In direct care, you learn not to put good against perfect.  People are messy and complicated, and no amount of polished rhetoric is going to change that.  Sometimes, you are a part of scenarios that you don’t like, and it hurts. While advocacy and policy do the work of macro-level planning and organizing to keep our movement going, direct service tends to the minutiae, the thousands of face-to-face encounters that always imperfectly fit into the broader political narratives about reproductive rights.

Mary Mahoney:  Ten years into the Doula Project, I have found myself thinking A LOT about diapers (maybe because I’m 7 months pregnant?!). The cost of diapers, who has access to clean diapers, who we can engage in communities to sponsor diaper drives. I’ve recently connected with an amazing group in Indiana, All-Options, who is doing some groundbreaking work on both diapering and abortion, work that I think can and should be replicated in other parts of the country. And I bring this up because I think the genius of the RJ framework is how inclusive it is of all reproductive health experiences, including its extension to the right to become a parent and give meaningful care to your children. Being part of the Doula Project means the learning never ends, and hopefully, my ability to contribute something more to pregnant and formerly pregnant people never ends either.

Senti Sojwal: What are your hopes for the future of the Doula Project and how it can continue to grow?

Lauren Mitchell:  Please fund us.

Jk, jk… kind of. Okay, not joking.  

We’re at a precarious time.  The Doula Project doesn’t need much funding compared to larger organizations, but what we do need is important.  We want to be able to pay people for their work. What doulas primarily offer is the heavy lifting of emotional labor, which, collectively, we don’t always look at as “enough”… And yet, it’s crucial between doulas and their clients, as well as within our movement.  

Mary Mahoney: Haha — yes, everyone — listen to Lauren! I’ll just add that creating more access to doulas is always central to our mission, both locally and nationally. Right now we have 95 active volunteers and half a dozen local partnerships and sites where we see clients. Ten years in, our numbers are impressive (more than 35,000 served) but like any grassroots group, it’s pretty much a constant daily struggle. What we’d love to see in the coming year is our birth work grow and more money for our doula stipends. Lauren and I also have a unique opportunity with our book to travel around the country and raise awareness about the value of doulas. With the new political climate, we believe doula services will be more crucial than ever before, and we look forward to being part of the efforts to bring full spectrum doulas to new communities.

NYC

Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics, and has worked with NARAL, The Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program and its sister program PopDev, and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She currently works at Sakhi for South Asian Women, an advocacy organization that supports immigrant survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through an array of culturally competent services and programs. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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