43: Mary Mahoney and Lauren Mitchell
The Doula Project is a volunteer-run, collectively led organization of over fifty full-spectrum doulas. Their doulas have backgrounds as social justice activists, teachers, childbirth educators, birth doulas, social workers, and reproductive health professionals. They partner with Planned Parenthood Brooklyn, Planned Parenthood Bronx, several public hospitals, and other service providers to provide full-spectrum doula support to a diverse body of clients.
Mary Mahoney is a clinical social worker, full-spectrum doula, and cofounder of the Doula Project.
Lauren Mitchell is an author, doctoral candidate in the Vanderbilt English department, and cofounder of the Doula Project. Before coming to Vanderbilt, she got an M.S. in Narrative Medicine at Columbia, and worked at a New York City public hospital, providing patient care and teaching literature to medical students.
Elena Mudd is a Brooklyn-based photographer who explores the relationship between individual and social identity from a feminist (or humanistic) perspective. The intimate portrait, conceived as collaborative process with her subject, is her specialty. Her subjects range from family members to strangers she meets on the street. She works with film media, both 35mm and medium format, and with digital.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on March 23, 2018. Elena Mudd photographed Mary, Lauren, and Anna in Mary's Brooklyn apartment.
SOPHIA: Tell me about your experience of girlhood.
MARY: I grew up in southern Indiana, and I was part of an abstinence-only education program, mostly because I just liked to be part of things. It was a thing that everyone was doing and we got to talk about sex. I try to connect how I got from there to here —to becoming an assistant director of a reproductive rights organization to starting the Doula Project, and now I'm a therapist. I think my parents were just really awesome. They let me do my thing, be myself. They didn't put a lot of pressure on me. My dad always called me a feminist before I really knew what that was, so I thought it was a bad word. [laughs] I lived a pretty privileged, empowered life as a girl growing up in the 90s. But at the same time, I was super oblivious to the world around me. I don't even think I knew what abortion was. What I did learn was from being a huge reader. Like romance novels. Sweet Valley High was like, it for me. So that's maybe where this romantic vision of life comes from for me. Indiana is a fucked up place, but if you’re not aware of how fucked up it is, you can kind of just skate through. I had this really amazing college roommate, Quinn, who really helped shape my feminism. She read amazing books and was an artist and listened to cool music. I was a lit major and she was an art major, so we talked about it more through the lens of art and fashion and music than “feminism.” But I think that's sort of why I ended up here. I guess for me, girlhood was being surrounded by really awesome women and men who are ok.
LAUREN: Men that are tolerable.
LAUREN: When I think of girlhood—I think this is a common battle song—my parents started going through some money troubles. And I'm significantly older than my younger sister, so to save money, they were like, “We basically need you to be her live-in nanny” without quite saying that. I was about 10. So from that point forward, I was like, vice-Mommy. It put me in this caregiver role from an early age, which contextualized my whole life. I was also working a lot as a teenager, so there were a lot to deal with. My teenagerdom was trying to figure out how to pave my own path, as it were.
And like Mary, I, too, came of age with a lot of strong (I know that this is kind of a fraught term at the moment, but) “feminine” friendships. I lived in a communal hippie house in college and about half of the folks in that house did a gender transition within like a year. So it was kind of a joke that I was the femme sponge in the house, and that I was soaking up all the femininity in order to get their clothes —which, I will not lie, was a great side effect. One of them was a vintage dealer. It was great. I made a lot of really important friendships, and living with so many other people helped me understand relationship patterns: how to look toward the whole instead of just the self.
When we started the Doula Project, I was 22. I didn't know shit about shit. I think that was actually good because I was more nerve than brains. I critique it now when people behave like that, but I think that really benefited us, and probably benefits others. I feel like you have to take risks in order to do stuff, but smart risks. As we developed the Doula Project, one thing we saw a lot of is people trying to over-plan and make things perfect, and we were just like, “That's never going to happen. You might as well just do something.”
MARY: I'm really into this idea of not doing things perfectly. It's really good.
LAUREN: Mary’s actually been hugely inspirational, because perfectionism pervades activist and academic communities. I remember talking to her at length after the second semester of the first year of my PhD program and I was just like, “I'm not going to make it.” And Mary was just like, “Ok, think about Winnicott, the child psychologist. Winnicott says you only have to be a good enough mother. You only have to write a good enough paper. That's all you have to do.” And that was advice I hung onto for a really long time. It just has to be good enough. In all of these communities, perfectionism and callout culture—feeling like you have this dominance over another person by pointing out their flaws—is lauded as this awesome thing. And the reality is that perfectionism is a toxic and terrible quality in a lot of ways. So apropos of strong relationships and friendships, I think your chosen family forms and completes you in this ongoing process that swells in late-adolescence.
SOPHIA: In your book [The Doulas: Radical Care for Pregnant People], you wrote: “Pregnant people are not to be trusted. This message is deeply ingrained in our culture. It’s everywhere: in our laws, in our media outlets, in our homes. It’s rooted in the patriarchal fear of female power and sexuality, and its pervasiveness reaches into the psyches of women themselves.”
Having worked with as many women as you have, I'm sure that you’ve seen this mistrust of pregnant people manifest in a lot of different ways —and I imagine in a lot of circumstances, unconsciously. Pregnant people don’t trust themselves or feel like a liability, but they may feel it’s natural, or not even realize it. Could you speak about your encounters with this?
LAUREN: I've just started abortion doula-ing again for the first time in 4 years. And it’s really interesting to do this work in the south. I think a lot of this distrust manifests in false promises. Like, “Have the baby; there are resources.” And there aren’t. Even with the few resources that may be available, if somebody has a knee-jerk reaction and knows they’re not ready to be pregnant at a given particular time, then [pressuring them to carry the pregnancy] just conflicts the decision even more. Even under the best of circumstances, reactions to abortions fall within a bell curve. Some people feel extraordinarily devastated by this decision. Some people feel kind of empowered by it. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, where it's kind of a mix of emotions, completely unhelped by hormones.
Even when it comes to choosing to have a baby, the reality is that we just don't support mothers —using “mothers” as a gender-neutral term for the moment. We don't support folks who are pregnant. Yet we inflict all this emotional-ethical baggage on them. And it manifests in a lot of different ways, especially in terms of what money is available. I've had several friends who are freelancers, who were doing fine for themselves, got pregnant at an off-time. Then all of a sudden their freelance work made it so that they couldn't qualify health insurance. So it was more worth their while to quit their job or reduce their work, which they couldn't really do as well anyway, and in addition clients were less likely to hire them. These are folks who ended up deciding to carry the pregnancies through. But the point is that pregnancy makes you very vulnerable in this society. So it's hard because you want pregnancies to just come down to the question: “How do you feel about this? Are you ready to be a mother?” But there's all this other baggage that makes it so that it’s frankly impossible to plan.
MARY: It goes back to that idea of perfectionism that we were just talking about. Because pregnant people are not trusted to make their own decisions, when they do make these big decisions, it has to be the perfect decision. And then it has to be executed in a perfect way. And then we become anxious. And then we try to hide that anxiety because we want to be seen as put-together and capable. So we just start kind of dying inside.
Like I said, I grew up in southern Indiana. My mom called me the other day, and she is a very liberal person in this very conservative town. And her coworker asked her to go to what I think they called a “battered women’s” event. So my mom was like, “Yeah, I definitely want to go.” She gets there, and there’s 250 people from this small town. It’s a fucking pro-life event. This just happened Tuesday night. It was for a crisis pregnancy center that I didn’t even know existed in our town. They have a really good website, which freaks me out even more. The whole event was testimonials from women coming up and thanking the center for saving them from having abortions, and expressing all this gratitude. And my mom said it was so strange because these women did seem empowered by their decision. “Their decision.” The coerced decision that they made. One woman had run across the country as a pro-life advocate, and this group had paid for it. It makes me think of all the low-income white women who voted for Trump. Is this empowerment? I don't know. It's so confusing to me.
LAUREN: It's so fascinating to me how people narrativize their experiences and their lives. And to move it back around to doula care, that's a big part of the emotional labor you’re doing as a doula. And I have an interesting relationship with that term [emotional labor]. Because I think people resent doing emotional labor, and I don't really mind it. But we're doulas and therapists, so…
MARY: I like to do emotional labor on my terms.
LAUREN: A part of doula care is listening to how people are making sense of their lives. And in the kinds of cases that Mary was just talking about, in a lot of ways it’s positive coping that these people have figured out a way of telling themselves and others a story about how they feel empowered by the baby that they didn't abort, because it's not like they can change their minds now. But it’s disturbing. Not that people are are trying to make sense of their situations, but…we say this in our training. Just because you’ve had a certain motherhood experience doesn't mean that you can necessarily speak about anyone else’s. There is a certain humility there. So when somebody with a baby that they decided not to abort says to somebody who’s still in that vulnerable decision-making process says, “Well, it worked for me”—
MARY: —And we don't even know if it did, because again, this woman, even though she maybe is pro-life and conservative, is still trying to present as if she’s got it together. Because that’s what all women, no matter their political stance, are forced to do right now.
LAUREN: As a final note to this question, this also extends to the “good sex” conversation. The sex-ed I received, which was better than a lot [of other curricula] was: “This is how to not get pregnant. This is how to not get STDs.” It's this hermeneutics of punishment, that basically everything is going to kill you or make you infertile and also you’re a slut.
LAUREN: And if you get pregnant, it’s your fault, because here are all these things that you kind-of-maybe-sort-of have available to do.
SOPHIA: Pursuing this topic a little further, I was really struck by the account in your book of the National Summit to Ensure Health and Humanity of Pregnant and Birthing Women. You write that it “engaged with reproductive justice activists as well as with staunchly anti-abortion birth activists. It was trying to build alliances across political dominions in a way we hadn’t seen before—for example, it created contact between abortion providers and birth activists who feared that they would go to hell for sharing space with them.”
Could you talk about trying to find commonality between similar groups of women? Because you were just expressing a sense of hostility that I completely understand, but it seems like you found some merit in the attempt to communicate, as well.
MARY: There’s hostility around crisis pregnancy centers and large groups with a lot of men who give money for these sorts of things. I have very little hostility for an individual person, an individual woman who’s pro-life for her own really good reasons, which is a lot of the women I know where I grew up, and who are very religious. In fact, we went on a book tour in Indiana and Ohio, and had pro-life people come. My former priest came and asked my favorite question of the whole tour, which is, “Who takes care of the doulas?” And I was like, “No one.”
MARY: I don't have hostility in that way, and I think the Doula Project in general doesn't take that stance when it comes to the direct care. When we’re writing a book or on a podium, we’re gonna come off as a little more political. But so many of our clients don’t feel the way we do.
LAUREN: Can I share a story that speaks to this? I was working in a clinic that does a pretty wide range of procedures. In abortion clinics, what tends to happen is that everybody gets corralled into one place while they’re waiting for procedures. There’s a weird unspokenness where everybody knows why other people are there, and some people address it head-on. I’m always heartened to see how much support happens in waiting rooms. But I ended up spending a whole morning with this client who was having a really rough time with her fairly early abortion. She was telling me about a lot of different aspects of her life. She crossed the border not too long ago, and I think she just wanted somebody to talk to. And she had looked at some pictures [of abortions] online and was freaking out.
Later in the day, she was leaving, and there was another woman that came in whom she recognized from an earlier waiting room. They were talking for a second, and it came out that the second woman was a little bit further along. The first client had just had this huge meltdown, and I was concerned about where it was going to go. She started saying some cagey stuff that was hostile to the other patient, who handled it with an aplomb she owed no one. And I was just sort of like, “Ok, everybody’s here on their own path.” The second client, very patient with her, just said, “I’m just having a different procedure than you are.” Then the first client asked her some fraught questions that would have shamed or otherwise made the second client tell more details than most people would be willing to share. That was when I jumped in and said, “Ok, anyway…!” because there were a lot of other people in the room, too.
Then the first client got a little weepy, and she said, “No, no. That must be so hard for her.” And I thought that that was very sweet. As she was leaving, she wiped her eyes and turned to the second client and said, “You're going to be ok. It's not so bad.” She was trying to extend her support. So that was what was really lovely. I was anticipating it to be a moment of hostility and then it wasn’t.
SOPHIA: Circling back to the “Who takes care of the doulas” question, in an interview with Feministing, Lauren talked about the realization that she was carrying around a lot of provider-trauma and that she didn’t have anywhere to process it. And if this is too personal, please feel free not to answer. But I was wondering if you would be willing to talk about searching for those places to process [provider-trauma]. Where did you find them, or did you never find them? And what did that teach you about creating those spaces?
MARY: I feel like that's what the book is about.
LAUREN: If it’s the interview that I'm remembering, I think I spoke about how there was something about writing this book that was really really uncomfortable and hard for me. It’s difficult because at first, you’re doing this work because of the power of the work. Then at some point or another, you start to run an organization, and it becomes less about the one-on-one interactions and more about figuring out programs and systems and being a bureaucrat and dealing with people who have their own ideas about how they want stuff to work. So it’s interesting because we’ve often said that you need to develop your safe space with other doulas. But when you’re running an organization and you’re an authority figure in some way or another, it troubles that dynamic. It certainly makes things a lot less comfortable. I think we’ve both been through that.
MARY: I always found the birth work to be the hardest. We did a lot of adoption work, which a lot of people don’t know about us. Lauren and I were like, the adoption doulas. And I had some really hard experiences with that. At a book reading, I read from one of those chapters, and I cried in front of 80 people. Some of that stuff you just don’t ever heal from. One thing that has really helped me and Lauren and a lot of the doulas is being able to take breaks from the work. That’s been really important. You’d think that as you get more and more into it, you get used to it, and in some ways you do. In some ways you get really tired of the grind, and that affects the work itself. But there are some clients you have that are just always gonna rock you.
LAUREN: To reiterate something that we said on our tour and that we say in the book, when we wrote this book, we had an outline of what we thought it would be. Then when we started working on it, we realized that people kept bringing in these whole lives that come after being a doula and are transformed by that experience. You do this work and it kind of rips you open a little bit. Not necessarily in a bad way, but—
MARY: In a great way.
LAUREN: —it makes you encounter your own traumas in a way that maybe you weren't really conscious of.
MARY: It's work where you have to lose your ego. In order to lose your ego, you have to confront it and figure out where it came from. And that is not pretty.
LAUREN: Part of the book that always makes me cry is…I attended a couple of the abortions in the book, and one of them was with my friend Whitney, who is the most insightful person. I’m like, “Stop being so perfect!”
LAUREN: And I remember that during her own abortion, she would tell herself, “It's ok.” And I remember being there for that, and realizing that, like she says in the book, “You say that because it's not ok.” It’s your kind of Hail Mary pass. I think that sums up a lot.
SOPHIA: What do you believe that women need or can do for each other presently?
MARY: We need to stop being quiet when things are hard. We need to share. I think that's really happening a lot now. One of the only good outcomes of the presidential election is that we’re becoming unafraid to be vulnerable with each other.
LAUREN: One of the chapters that I’m working on next for my dissertation is on radical vulnerability. I think we need that. Also I would say not being quiet, but also being abundantly patient. And managing expectations downwards as people are trying to figure out what their path looks like. Making sure that fury is directed toward the right places, and not just at each other.
If you enjoyed this interview and think the work we do is important, please consider donating to Mythos, and most importantly, share the magazine with the women in your life. That’s why we do what we do, and it’s 100% free.