Sunday, August 4, 2013

Birth, Breath, and Death: A Doula's Memoir

Doulas have written groundbreaking books in recent decades, from The Birth Partner by Penny Simkin, to Debra Pascali-Bonaro's Orgasmic Birth, to my own The Doula Guide to Birth. However, I am not aware of many doulas who have written memoirs, a genre that I love, so I was particularly intrigued to read Amy Wright Glenn's new publication, Birth, Breath, and Death: Meditations on Motherhood, Chaplaincy, and Life as a Doula.  The book is a riveting spiritual autobiography, and an account of Glenn's work both as a doula and a hospital chaplain to the dying.  It is also the story of her complicated relationship with her mother, and becoming a mother herself.  She writes, "I am captivated by the study of life's thresholds. What is more mysterious than the great unknown existing beyond the frontiers of birth and death? Through the bodies of women, we are all born into time and space. Each one of us must also walk through that great, uncharted door of death."  I am grateful to Amy Wright Glenn for her permission to share the opening pages of her book with you below.  To purchase and read her book in its entirety, click here.

I am the eldest of seven children raised in a small town in Utah. We lived on an acre of land on a quiet dead-end street. Horse chestnut, linden, and apple trees surrounded our modest home, providing shade and beauty.  Farming, rodeo, country music, and pick up trucks were prominent fixtures in my Intermountain Region youth. The majestic Mount Timpanogos served as nature’s grand sentinel over our valley. From our front porch, we watched her snow capped status shift through the seasons. I grew up loving the land and clean mountain air.

Every summer, my father planted rows of tomatoes, corn, potatoes, carrots, and the predictable over-abundance of zucchini in our backyard garden. My siblings and I helped in this endeavor. We weeded the large garden and picked out the rocks from the rugged soil. I marveled at nature’s wonder as the corn stretched up to the sky. My mother canned and froze much of this food so it would last throughout the year. We knew all of our neighbors and shared any plethora of produce freely.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), also known as the Mormon Church, provided my family with a comforting cocoon of mythology, ritual, and tradition. We marked the major milestones of life with Mormon rituals: baptism at age eight; a Temple marriage where couples pledge fidelity for this life and beyond; and a mission to spread the Gospel. Abundant or at least adequate procreation was expected.

Everyone agreed on how my life should proceed. All of the adults in my family were committed to helping me win salvation. I felt like a character in a story with predetermined plot lines. For my parents, the mantle of upstanding Mormon womanhood didn’t depend on attaining a college degree or a certain financial status. I simply needed to nurture my inherited testimony and remain steadfastly loyal to the faith of my pioneering past.

We were a working-class family of nine living in a three bedroom, one bath abode. Our house was loud, crowded, and full of life’s vicissitudes. Mornings in the bathroom, as we prepped for school, bordered on chaotic. We didn’t have very much money, so items of use passed down the line. At times, my parents needed outside support. Not everyone wore used clothes and drove old cars, but we did. Not everyone stood in line to get the free government cheese available at a local elementary school, but sometimes my mom did that too.

In later years, upon learning of my Utah roots, friends asked me where I liked to ski. The truth is I never learned the basic snowplow until my senior year of high school. Skiing expenses far exceeded my father’s working-class income. Despite our financial struggles, each additional member of our family was welcomed warmly. Church members brought over homemade meals and visiting relatives added to the festivities. My mother always said her greatest joy in life came with each birth.

In nearly all of my childhood memories, my mother is pregnant or nursing. I only have one vivid, childhood memory of my mother apart from pregnancy. She is pushing me on a swing on a warm summer day at our home in American Fork, Utah. She moves happily in her slender body. The wind tussles her freely flowing hair. She looks beautiful. As we play, she laughs.

I treasure the happy memories I have of my mother, an intense and troubled Mormon woman. At her best, she taught me to bravely stand up for the underdog and to challenge prejudice. “I don’t care if a person is polka-dotted, you treat them with respect,” she often said. She was a stay-at-home mom and breastfed all of us as infants. She devoted hours a day to cooking wholesome and comforting meals for our large family. At the age of eleven, I watched an interview with Geraldine Ferraro, a candidate for the US vice-presidency. “I might be a Democrat,” I told my mother as she stood by the sink washing dishes. To her everlasting credit, she calmly listened as I did my best to summarize Ferraro’s key points. We lived in Utah, a sea of Republican red, but she encouraged me to think such things through for myself. I cherish the positive gifts she provided.

However, great fear and sadness moved through the woman who brought me into this life. Although she solemnly affirmed, “Patriarchy is the will of God,” submitting to such paternal power brought her little peace. My mother struggled deeply with an inner confusion and darkness that color my memories of her with sadness. While I may have been free to question commonly held political assumptions, challenging Mormon doctrine was unthinkable. “If you leave the Church Amy, it would be better if you had never been born.” For many years, these words haunted me. Her worldview consisted of a pitched battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Somehow our home became ground zero. At one point, she was convinced that ants found in a bedroom closet heralded the efforts of Satan who, supposedly, longed to possess members of my family.

Tragically, moments of simple happiness, even in the presence of her children, became increasingly rare. My mother’s privately guarded depression and growing delusional paranoia permeated the daily rhythms of our household. Increasingly drawn to a literal interpretation of the scarier sides of LDS theology, she too often focused on fear rather than love. I don’t blame Mormonism for the way she focused on otherworldly, nightmarish signs regarding the Last Days. Due to her biochemistry, I believe she would have honed in on the darker sides of any religious tradition.

One evening, we stood outside next to the walnut tree in our backyard. A grey full moon orbited calmly in the darkening sky. “Amy, come here,” she said. I walked closer. “Do you see that moon?” she asked. I nodded following the direction of her pointing hand. I shifted uncomfortably in my shoes taking note of the ominous energy in her voice. “One day the moon will turn to blood. When you see this happen, no matter where you are. You must come home immediately. It will turn blood red. Do you hear me?” Her body stiffened with the gravity of this gruesome teaching. She looked into my eyes with a piercing focus. My stomach turned into a knot.

“Sure mom, OK.” I nodded looking away from her. I longed for the conversation to quickly end.

Even then I knew something was wrong with her.

Amy Wright Glenn earned her MA in Religion and Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.  She taught in the Religion and Philosophy department at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey for over a decade.  She is a Kripalu Yoga teacher, a DONA-certified birth doula, and a hospital chaplain.  She lives in Florida with her husband and son.  Her first book, Birth, Breath, and Death, is available at

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