Erica Chidi Cohen is a doula; author of Nurture: A Modern Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, Early Motherhood - and Trusting Yourself and Your Body; and co-founder of Loom: a community and space in Los Angeles dedicated to education and services around reproduction, parenting and pregnancy. I first met Erica at an OKREAL mentor circle in LA. She was in the trenches of building Loom, working full-time as a Doula, and editing her book. I was struck by Erica’s dedication to her work while maintaining such a calm and comforting demeanor (ideal Doula traits), and now, a year later, I’ve loved seeing all of her dedication flourish. I wanted to hear Erica’s thoughts on pregnancy, motherhood, and her approach to women who are at this time in their lives (being seven months pregnant at the time of our interview may have had something to do with this curiosity!) This is what she shared with me.
“I’ve always had a connection to the world of motherhood and felt a strong pull towards supporting women. After I started working as a doula, I actually found out that my grandmother and great grandmother were both community midwives in Nigeria. My dad’s a doctor. My mom’s a nurse. I grew up in a medical environment and developed positive associations with hospitals, clinicians and healers and they exposed me to the benefits of biomedical and holistic health approaches and that the best care is given when you see the whole person not just what is ailing them—so doula work has always felt like a natural extension of a skill set that I already had.
My approach is to meet the woman I am working with exactly where she is. To not try and sway her towards one direction or the other. One of the central changes I encourage in a pregnant woman is to listen to herself, to look to herself as her primary resource of expertise and direction. There is this idea that a new mom is coming from a knowledge deficit. That she doesn’t really know what’s right for her because it’s a new experience. But I believe it’s the opposite. We’re given this physiological ability to have a child, we have a primal wisdom.
My job is to make that woman believe in herself and trust that she can figure it out. That she has the resources, even if she don’t know it yet.
In addition, I encourage women to balance that intuition with education and evidence. Some women are like, ‘I don’t want to take a class. I just want to wing it and see how it goes.’ But when you’re doing that, you’re creating more space for fear to dominate, as opposed to empowerment and awareness. The dynamic is getting her to trust herself and to get educated, so those two elements can circulate in a closed feedback loop that can’t be penetrated by other people’s opinions that aren’t necessarily right for her. The combination of intuition and education should anchor her, so that she doesn’t need to resource out of herself in a way that’s not helpful. In pregnancy and in motherhood, you do want to ask for help. You do want to have community support. But it has to be support with boundaries.
One of the common fears I see is ‘Am I going to be able to birth this baby?’ Oftentimes, taking a woman through the physiological process of birth can help de-escalate that—this is what your body is going to do, these are the hormones that are going to help it to do that, this is what your cervix actually is. Another common concern is, ‘What’s going to happen to my life? Do I have enough time to give to the baby and to give to myself?’ There is a popular notion that your life goes on as it always has with your baby. Which is not exactly true. I try to let women know that there is going to be an elemental change to who they are and how they exist, but the idea is to surrender to that. To know that it’s not permanent, to know that there is going to be a moment of imbalance and that moment might feel very long, but there will be a time when you’re able to create more equanimity. To tell someone that their life is going to be the same and to just make the baby fit in with your regular routine is a falsehood that sets women up for postpartum anxiety and depression.
The third fear is money—I often hear ‘Can I afford to have this baby?’ The truth is that bringing babies into the world helps you stretch yourself in ways you never knew that you could. If you feel like you couldn’t get to a financial goal before, oftentimes, being pregnant or having a baby makes you work harder to create that environment that you need.
Postpartum, the first thing brought up is usually breastfeeding, should they choose to breastfeed. It’s a learning curve. My grain of salt with that is support, support, and more support. The second concern that comes up is going from being on your own to being with someone all the time. And the third thing in those first few months is bonding. People think bonding is instant—that this baby is everything that you wanted and you’re expecting to have an immediate connection with your baby. But a lot of women don’t initially. It’s very normal for bonding to take a little bit of time. Particularly with first-time moms, I offer a lot of encouragement around doing the things that show your baby love, even if you don’t feel the click—like feeding your baby, holding your baby, changing your baby’s diaper. Those are all signifiers of love and connection even if there isn’t this innate bonding feeling immediately.
In terms of bodily things, a lot of women are worried about tearing during labor. Most women don’t realize that the tearing is rarely on the exterior of the vagina. If you were to put your fingers inside your vagina and stretch them out, like a v—that’s where you typically tear. It’s actually the interior walls of the vagina. And that vaginal tissue is constantly moisturized. Almost immediately as that baby comes out, that tissue starts to heal and the healing in that area is usually pretty swift because it’s moist environment which facilities healing. On that same tip, pooping after delivery is a thing a lot of women wish they knew. Pooping after delivery is wild. The other thing you should know is that right after delivery, they do a ‘fundal massage,’ which is the higher, upper part of the uterus. They do this to make sure that the uterus is firming, contracting and starting to involute after delivery. It can feel really intense, and sometimes pretty painful. Even if you are medicated, the concept of seeing someone massage your belly intensely can feel pretty wild. Another thing: sex postpartum, you might squirt or leak milk out of your boobs when you orgasm (if you’re breastfeeding). That’s because oxytocin, the hormone that facilitates an orgasm, also causes the smooth muscle in your breast to contract and release the milk.
In terms of how motherhood has been more recently represented—I think it’s great in the way that there are more portrayals of how modern women want to be represented. That said, there is definitely this depiction of perfect or stylish motherhood, which negates the struggle of it. In that middle ground, I love how more women are being candid about how hard it is to adjust. Because the reality is that it’s a deep, deep change, and most people don’t like change. To see the change have to look so ideal sets up expectations for most women that can’t be met. There is also a depiction of perfect families. That’s not everyone’s experience. As a provider in the space, where I do go into homes and I see the tears, anxiety, and struggle, I really hope more women will talk more about the mess connected with the experience.
For example—single motherhood is real, and it’s an incredible thing. It needs to be held in high regard, it needs to be discussed, and there needs to be more support around it.
If you haven’t had a child yet and you’re thinking about it, or perhaps you don’t want kids but want to take better care of yourself—get informed about your body. Don’t ignore a really painful period, for example. There’s so much power in having a deeper understanding of how your body works. Also, take the pressure off of yourself when do you want to conceive. Your time is your time. If you don’t want to have children, that’s totally OK. That’s something you can build a muscle around. It can be a hard thing for women to say out loud, but work on owning it. For women who are expecting, the best thing I could say is to be gentle on yourself. Growing a baby, especially in our culture right now, is a lot. Just growing the baby. Nothing more. It’s so important to re-prioritize what is actually important. At the same time, when I say be soft and gentle, also push away people that don’t make you feel good.
Make very little space for people who don’t bring you joy.
For new moms, it is important to re-evaluate what ‘effective’ means. What does it look like to have a good day? For a new mom, a good day in the first month of life after having a baby might be feeding the baby, taking a shower, and eating something. For women who are business owners who are used to getting a a lot of shit done, it can unsettling in the first couple months of having a baby because you don’t feel effective. Success can be different in that new space, it’s important to redefine it and remember that although everything has changed, you are still whole, ask for help whenever you need it and take it moment by moment.”
Erica Chidi Cohen
Doula & Author