All across the Hudson Valley, swollen-bellied women are treading the ancient path from labor to birth—some with animal intensity, others with focused calm, and many with Mary Riley at their side. Through touch, emotional connection, and an uncanny knack for saying exactly the right thing that a laboring mother needs to hear, Riley has established herself as a diva among doulas, or birth assistants. Over 25 years, Glenford-based Riley has attended some 1,600 births, bringing wisdom, respect, and nurturance to families at a time when traditional doctors and midwives are hardpressed to offer more than catch-the-baby services in a medical world saddled with liability issues, paperwork, and brimming maternity wards.
Like an adventure guide in the Himalayas, Riley has escorted parents through the varied terrain of childbirth: three-day marathon labors, two-hour delivery-room sprints, serene water births, emergency C-sections, fireside home births. Watching Riley in action, steadying the effects of a ripping contraction through voice or touch, it’s not hard to see how the presence of a labor-support doula has been shown to reduce the rate of unnecessary cesareans, the use of pain medications, and other interventions. Everyone from doe-eyed teens to late-nesting 40-somethings and squeamish dads-to-be has benefited from her skill to create a safe and sacred space in the birth room, no matter how loud, messy, and frenzied that it gets. For Riley, it’s about empowering families, and restoring intimacy and meaning to an experience that’s as old as humankind—yet more momentous and life-affirming than anything else on Earth.
What is a doula?
It’s said to be someone who offers emotional and physical support for a mom or partner, but it varies so much. With some people I do more emotional support and with some I do more physical support. I’m an advocate for the mom and a liaison between the family and the medical world. I also educate people in their choices and help them see what their responsibility is in those choices—whether they’re going to have a hospital birth, a home birth, or a birth-center birth. These days you don’t want people walking away from a birth feeling like, “Oh, look what they did to me, look at what happened.” If people are going to go into hospitals they have to know what is going to happen when they get there, so they can make the choice to do that or take an alternative route.
Have you seen the medical world change in response to childbirth?
Hospital births are definitely more medical. There is more fetal monitoring, and everything for doctors is about liability and covering themselves. The nurses, they’re constantly doing paperwork; they need to have everything documented. And obstetricians—it’s really hard for them. But in response, home birth is growing more to balance that. So with that [countertrend] I think we’ll pull it back a little bit in other places, too. We need hospitals and we need home births.
How can we make birth a more positive and empowering experience for women?
First we have to acknowledge that it’s a woman’s right to give birth. Some moms are like, “I can’t do this,” and I say, “I know, honey, but you get to do this.” However we choose to do it is very personal, and some women will just go and have a cesarean section. As hard as that is for me sometimes, I have to honor that. And some women have to have C-sections when they don’t want them.
Someone once said to me, “Women all over the world always are just going off into the woods and squatting and having babies and throwing them on their backs and getting back to work. What’s the big deal?” I’m like, “Okay, first of all, that doesn’t really happen very much. Second, those women are dead by the time they’re 35, because who could do that?” We shouldn’t put that kind of pressure on ourselves. It’s a hard thing we do, bringing life into this world. We have to respect it and keep fighting for that respect, and for the ability to make choices.
What changes would you make to our birth culture?
I would have a place where people could go after they had their baby, like [Anita Diamant’s] The Red Tent, with women there to feed them, massage them, help with the breast feeding, and take some pressure off the dads and partners too. It all falls on them, and they have to work and keep things going in life and take care of our nursing moms and babies. That’s too much; we need help. There are aftercare doulas who offer those services, but we have to pay for them just like we have to pay for me, which is another amazing thing—that people will actually pay to have you there, and it’s usually out of pocket.
What’s in it for you, besides a living?
Here’s what I love about it: You step out the door and you don’t know what the heck is going to happen. Where am I going at three in the morning? Is the baby going to come out? People ask, “Why don’t you go be a midwife?” That’s not the piece for me. The piece for me is the emotional part, getting through that. I love—love—the journey of labor; I just think it’s incredible. For everybody—the mom, dad or partner, their families, friends. We do really funny, crazy things. So I tell my moms and partners to give each other a lot of room, because you’re going to do silly things and it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be awesome, all of those things. I love people, and I love the craziness of us and the greatness of us, and it all comes out in that kind of experience.