As of June 11, 2017 I have officially exited my twenties to join club thirties (according to the Gregorian calendar, at least). Instead of organizing any celebration, I was invited to participate and present a workshop on ancestral healing at the first ever Long Beach Doulas of Color training organized by my dear sisters Stevie Merino ("Sol & Roots" Doula) and Blanca Estela Diaz (aka "Mama Maiz" Doula).
A doula (/ˈduːlə/), also known as a birth companion or post-birth supporter, is a nonmedical person who assists a person before, during, or after childbirth, as well as their spouse and family, by providing physical assistance and emotional support.
I'm not gonna lie. I was soooo nervous leading up to it, knowing that I'd be presenting alongside others who were actual licensed midwives and doulas with plenty of experience working with pregnant bellies and live births - while my experience had been ZERO. I didn't know much about anatomy or birthing terms, never had seen someone give birth outside of the internet or terrifying high school videos that scare people from ever having babies, and became interested in this work this past year after searching for alternative ways to heal from some physical pain I was experiencing - only to realize much of it was other people's pain I was carrying in my own womb whose energetic cords I was learning to free myself from.
Since I was invited to specifically talk about Thai Traditional Healing after my recent experience studying womblifting in Thailand, I thought it best to invite my mother, Ma, to co-present with me. Now, I must be transparent by saying the relationship with Ma has not always been this close. I was embarrassed about my parents' accents and frugality; we lived in a middle class neighborhood, but shopped at thrift stores before it was hip. I became a rebel in high school to fit in with the cool kids with new clothes, often sneaking out of the house and not coming home until 4:55AM - 5 minutes before my parents' alarm went off for work as I pretended to be asleep. Some days, I just didn't come home at all, seeking connections outside of myself with others as we inebriated ourselves to numb any confrontation with our feelings of isolation. My sister, who is eleven years older than me, had her first child prior to marriage and college graduation, which shattered the American dreams my parents fought so hard for us achieve. While she did eventually graduate and marry her children's father, it was such a rocky start in our household that Ma would repeatedly tell me, "Don't have children. They only bring pain and suffering." She preferred I move to a forest temple and become a celibate nun whose only marital vow was to the triple gem of Buddhism.
Perhaps this message has been burned in my consciousness, to where now at 30 years old I have rebelled against the institution of marriage and avoided motherhood, though have been in a healthy monogamous relationship for 8 years now. (I'm also aware that I'm not alone in this with many women choosing to not have children, especially in our current political climate!)
It wasn't just motherhood or marriage I've averted. After graduating from college with my bachelor's degree, I avoided pursuing higher education at the disappointment of my parents and used every dollar I saved up from odd jobs each year to travel back to Southeast Asia. I built friendships in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam with artists and musicians, thinking that my destiny was to remain there one day to live a romanticized utopian lifestyle of coconuts and rice fields, with a mix of reggae and hip hop to blend in my American ways. My parents never understood why I'd want to go "backwards", and I didn't always either. Something just kept drawing me to return, but as I hit my late twenties I knew this was no longer sustainable as I compared myself to others my age back at home who had settled in singular careers in the corporate or government sector with stable pay. I also saw the lives of my artist friends crumble, including the sudden death of someone who I considered a brother in Thailand. As depression began to settle in as I compared myself to the success and normality of others and wondered what my fate would be, the answer kept speaking, "That is not your path; all is aligned." Last year was the first time where I did not leave California at all as I focused on new ways to reground myself. It was also the year of my Saturn Return where major transformations took place - which inevitably led me to return to Thailand this past year with a different intention to explore traditional healing.
Stevie had been following my travel blog, and asked me to be a presenter for this new doulas of color training. I prayed that a space like this would manifest in Long Beach, because I didn't know where I would turn to for support from others to exchange this knowledge. I was so excited to share all that I had been learning, but as the imposter's syndrome arose I sought out Ma for guidance since I am not a medical/birth expert, nor do I feel "Thai" enough to talk about a culture I wasn't purely raised in. Ma claimed to not know very much about birthing traditions, but when I asked her if she had ever witnessed a baby being born she said that she used to deliver babies all the time in her early career as a nurse in the hospitals over forty years ago in the United States - AND witnessed many live births as a child over sixty years ago when she would attend ceremony with her midwife grandmother inside people's village homes in Southern Thailand.
When I asked Ma about traditional healing herbs, the wisdom flowed from her like another language as she shared benefits of galangal, ginger, turmeric, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and other plants she had in her childhood that were now growing in her background - only to stop herself with, "But I'm not educated; my English isn't that good." I told her that her lived experience was all the education that needed to be shared, and this is the very reason why our traditions are fading. Her mood shifted as she proudly said, "Ok, I'll come - but I won't talk very much."
Ma and I gathered a week before the training to plan out our workshop. Since I needed a refresher on womblifting and Rasidaton (Thai Yoga), I went to YouTube to look for tutorials. In my initial search, there was not a single Thai person I came across, but it also didn't help that I couldn't read or write in Thai. One video I came across was of a white woman giving another woman an abdominal Thai massage with Chinese music playing in the background. I cringed, showing Ma the lack of representation I had to reclaim these traditions, and how they unintentionally treated different Asian cultures as if we were all the same. Simultaneously, my mother was searching for tutorial videos in Thai, but the disclaimer at the end of her videos had said, "Please don't translate this information into English". As she stared at my video search in comparison to hers, she began to understand why it is we needed spaces specifically for people of color to feel safe when discussing the appropriation of our cultures.
That evening, my mind was rushing as I continued searching for more tutorials and information on Thai traditional healing in English. I felt ashamed for never learning how to read and write Thai since the only results that came up were all written by white people who were experts at my ancestral wisdom. I was also uncomfortable with the feelings coming up for me; jealousy, rage, sadness, these same feelings I experienced while amongst my white classmates in Thailand. While people in Thailand viewed traditional healing as a low-paying job meant for poor villagers who were uneducated (and were confused as to why I would be interested in this), there were plenty of white foreigners traveling to Thailand and returning to their countries in respected professions to practice yoga and womblifting for a profit. I ruminated all night until sunrise, and disturbed my sleep cycle the following days until it manifested into a severe cold that was carried with me until the training.
Our three-day doula training began at the amazing artist loft of Sunny Side Up, and Ma was the eldest woman in the room. I could tell she was surprised to see so many young tattooed brown women in one space who felt called to return to this work. We smudged ourselves with copal and rosemary, releasing any self doubts and limiting beliefs as we invited in curiosity and protection carried through smoke signals to our ancestors. We brought items to the altar that made us feel closer to our roots; I set down a picture of my deceased grandparents, and faced it in the direction of my mother so she could see the love that created her. When it came time to introduce ourselves and what brought us here, Ma proudly said, "My name is Katcharin. The (white) man told me to change it to Kathy when I came here because it's easier for them to say, but that is not my real name. My grandmother was a midwife in my village, and I want to see those days come back again."
My mother used to claim I hated white people and always defended any notion of whiteness that was brought up. Whenever we'd go to the temple, I'd point out how Buddha was so light-skinned and that our people's obsession with Eurocentric standards of beauty made us hate ourselves. I'd watch my cousins and aunties in Thailand slather themselves with bleaching cream as TV commercials advertised these products nonstop, and when I'd ask my mother why they would alter their natural state, she'd defensively say, "Because white is pure and beautiful!" Because of my college education, our arguments were intellectual to cover up the hurt for many years. But last year, in thanks to Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings of mindfulness, I took a deep breath and chose to leave our conversations of race differently. I thanked her for all the struggles she had endured for me to live a more privileged life, one where I wouldn't have to face the same discrimination she did; perhaps this is where our healing began.
The first day of the doula training, we covered birth disparities as a result of racism led by Tanya Smith-Johnson:
- African-American infants have reported higher rates of preterm birth since the CDC began comparing data in 1981.
- Despite efforts to improve racial disparities in birth outcomes, African-American infants are more than twice as likely as White infants to die in their first year of life.
- African-American pregnant women are nearly four times more likely to die from pregnancy related complications than are white women.
- African-American pregnant women are also two to three times more likely to experience preterm birth, and three times more likely to give birth to a low birthweight infant.
Read more here.
Ma was quiet, but after class she shared memories with me of working in the operating room and witnessing many deaths due to medical negligence. One particular experience was of an eleven year old African American child who died while giving birth. She didn't know the details of how this precious young girl became pregnant, and kept it business as instructed.
We also covered gender inclusive language, being mindful to not make the assumption that a birthing person may not identify as a woman, or could be in a same-sex relationship.
On day two, we practiced pre-natal yoga, massage, and care with Raquel and Malaya Midwifery, followed by how to be an abortion companion facilitated by La Loba Loca. I would stare across the room at my mother to see her reaction to issues I wasn't sure if she was aligned with due to her spiritual beliefs, but she intently listened and took notes.
Day three was the heaviest. We covered how to support someone through a miscarriage/loss, which is a topic not often discussed in doula trainings; Crimson Fig midwifery held space for us as we wrote letters of affirmation to our future selves if we were ever to come across this tragedy as doulas. It was followed by a lighter topic of post-partum care - and finally came our workshop on Traditional Thai Healing. I was so uncertain that anything in our workshop would be relevant to the training, and I actually allowed the presentation on post-partum care before mine to go on longer.
In a moment of vulnerability, I released my intended curricula and instead chose to share the story of what launched me onto this path of (re)discovery. I then invited Ma to tell her personal story, but wasn't expecting the painful birth experience in detail she never had shared with anybody. She didn't have a doula or midwife like her mother and grandmother, but the lack of assistance and violence imposed on her by doctors and nurses in this country was enough to make the whole room of doulas-in-training cry. Ma was an immigrant woman without family support who only knew survival, and was confused as to why people were even shocked by the story of how my sister and I entered this world. To her, it was just life. My father wasn't present for either of our births; she shared falling out of the hospital bed as she crawled to the bathroom, uncontrollably relieving herself along the way. My sister and I were both born through C-section, which I learned is supposed to be a life saving procedure that has become abused by our medical industrial complex. With my father missing and my mother's belly sliced open without consent, it's no wonder why I've felt as if I've been trying to crawl back into the womb to retie the umbilical cord that carries a sacred matriarchal lineage; our ancestors would have never wished this upon their descendants. In this moment, I also realized I was carrying the pain my mother never had the chance to heal from.
While I have been on this journey to heal myself, I have unknowingly been doing the work for her. At times our relationship has been painful, since the path of healing forces us to confront our deepest wounds. The challenge is how we will transform those wounds, of if we will continue picking at them without seeking the right medicine. Many of us have self-medicated ourselves with alcohol, substance abuse, sex, mindless consumption, self-sabotage, and other unconscious modalities that has inevitably led this nation, built on the back of immigrants, to have the highest rate of anxiety, depression, violence, and incarceration of mostly black and brown bodies as the solution to hide the real problem: Disconnection.
Many of us, with respect to First Nation (Native American) people whose land we currently inhabit, are also called to name the root cause of our suffering as colonization.
We are now in a spiritual warfare, with more people embracing "New Age" wisdom or feeling a call to return to their ancestral ways of being. The challenge is the responsibility we have as culture keepers: Who are the ones passing down traditions? What are the intentions of people practicing these traditions, especially if they are not of that lineage? In many indigenous traditions, particularly in Native American cultures, there is a belief that trauma can be passed down for up to seven generations. It is my intention to break those chains of intergenerational trauma even sooner.
"As you step to the front of the line in your ancestry, the energy they embodied has been passed on and is now expressing as you and those of your current generation in the lineage. As you transform, the energy of the entire lineage preceding you is transformed, for it is all happening now through you, as you. You are the one who can heal old wounds for your entire lineage, forgive old enemies, shift conditioning and beliefs, release pain that has held preceding generations captive for centuries." -Excerpt from Healing the Wounds of Your Ancestors by Dr. Judith Rich
I emerged from my mother's womb exactly thirty years ago, unplanned yet not unwanted. The pain of my sister being born was too much, and my mother was afraid to repeat that cycle with me or my future children since she had been cut from her lineage; never would I have imagined being in circle with her to share these stories and to heal from unspoken harms.
On the final day of our training, which was also my 30th birthday, my mother turned to me and said, "You know, I can be your doula."
While people were wishing me a happy birthday, I requested that they thank the woman who put up with the intense labor that brought me here. The only gift I wanted was an acknowledgement of her existence; to let her know she mattered and none of her struggles were in vain. The fear of motherhood dissipated for the both of us, and while I don't intend on having children anytime soon, I know I won't have to experience birth in isolation - because I'll have an amazing healer and doula by my side, a doula who remembers the ways of those who came before us.
(Disclosure: my mother's experience is not a reflection of all doctors and nurses, but is an invitation for everyone to question and advocate for a safe birthing experience, especially for loved ones, in hospital settings.)